Months of anticipation. Weeks of preparing. Days of thinking. Hours of wondering. And that’s before the annual Tools of Change for Publishing Conference begins. Once the action starts, the mental rush is indescribable. It takes me days just to organize my thoughts, an entire year to wonder at how what I heard is playing out in the real world.*
The container limits our imagination.
TOC 2011, like the previous iterations of the conference (oh, can we return to San Jose, where the weather is delightfully mild?), was jam-packed with people, enthusiasm, and ideas**. You gotta love an event where the hallway and lunch table conversations are as stimulating, creative, and informative as the planned sessions and workshops.
As with many conferences — intentional or not — themes emerged. The largest, and I’d posit most important, was best articulated by Brian O’Leary in his Context First keynote (link includes text and link to video, which cannot be missed). Brian (full disclosure and all that) posits that publishing is “…unduly governed by the physical containers we have used for centuries to transmit information.”
Or, the container limits our imagination.
This two-dimensional limitation is what led keynoter Theodore Gray to take advantage of the multi-media functionality of the iPad to produce his bestselling The Elements: A Visual Exploration. Gray had already displayed the elements in true periodic table (and by table, I mean a wooden thing with legs), and had already published a print book featuring his collection of objects demonstrating the various elements.
Had he limited his vision to a container — a table with cubbies for items, or a book — his life would be okay. But Gray’s vision exceeded the container. And, let me tell you, if this app had been around when I was a kid, my relationship with chemistry would be very different. Already, I am looking forward to Gray’s book on the solar system, not to mention his version of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, featuring a dramatic reading by Fiona Shaw (among others).
Ignoring containers and considering context was an underlying theme of the presentation given by Hugh McGuire, John Maxwell, and Kirk Biglione (double triple full disclosure). Each speaker introduced approaches that allow publishers to determine containers as context requires. It’s all about managing content in a way that allows it to be exploited (not a bad word) in the proper way.
As Kirk noted, current publisher processes resemble the duckbill platypus (duckbeaver, if you’re Canadian) — something that looks unwieldy but works. It makes sense: to accommodate digital media, publishers have grafted new tasks onto their current workflow. These workarounds allow staff to keep on keeping on while taking advantage of new markets. We’ll talk more about workflow in a moment.
At the end of the presentation, Hugh introduced PressBooks, an open source digital workflow/publishing tool (still in alpha or beta or one of those Greek situations). PressBooks allows a publisher to take a manuscript from author’s submission to file ready for output to EPUB, print-ready PDF, or InDesign. Your choice.
Awe. Some. Sauce.
This panel cemented the idea of the Sunday Afternoon Project — projects that move from “Hey, what if?” to “That’s done” (or done-esque) in the space of a few weekend hours. Imagine what you could accomplish if ideas could be executed without meetings and meetings about meetings and status reports and, oh yes, budgets. Imagine what you could accomplish if a passionate person or three sat down and hacked out a prototype? Or a working application?
Another theme bubbling under the surface was the importance of a true digital workflow (I told you I’d get back to this). It’s happening in various ways, and I was both thrilled and “c’mon guys” about Simon & Schuster’s digital workflow. The thrilled part was excited to hear that S&S had developed a workflow around their cover art process. Very impressive. The c’mon guys me wanted to hear that they’d implemented an end-to-end digital workflow.
Oh, I get that it’s hard. I get that it’s pricey. I get that day-to-day work needs to be accomplished. Let’s be honest: making the switch will not be easier next year. Or the year after. Or, frankly, five years from now. This is not something that is tied to the rise of ebook sales; it’s truly about making processes more cost-efficient.
To tie this back to containers (and platypuses), current workflow assumes a print book. As Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks noted this week, her house’s ebook dollars equal 35% of total dollars sold. For O’Reilly Media, they’re 79% of dollar sales via their website (Note: corrected sentence to say “via their website”, this number does not include all sales channels. While I do not have intimate knowledge of her workflow — and assume it is similar to most publishers — I presume this means she is spending quite a bit to get what should be higher margin content into that higher margin format.
(Dominique — I am not singling you out, I swear! I know you’ll slap me upside the head if I’m getting this wrong.)
Or, assuming Sourcebooks has the traditional workflow that leads to an InDesign output (I don’t know for sure, but we can substitute just about any publisher here, and I love Sourcebooks because they are so clearly focused on the future of their company. Dominique has posted her slides from her Building the Future from Within: A Practical Approach to the Day-by-Day Process of Reinventing Your Book Publishing Company presentation, and she hits on so many of the points I find critical for today’s publisher thinking.), a lot of time and energy is spent on creating the EPUB and other files. At what point do publishers realize how much of that higher margin is being lost to inefficient processes? At what point do publishers realize change is an essential budget buster?
Mike Shatzkin picked up on this as well (as I’d expect). I’ve been, ahem, beating the drum about reevaluating financial models for years now. I realize I’ve bored a lot of you. After all, why change everything for a line of business that constitutes a single-digit percentage of your market?
But what happens when that line of business accelerates to 35% of all dollars? When it’s 25%, 45% of total unit sales? When you are spending more to create the print product first, then the (hopefully-if-you’re-doing-it-right higher margin) digital product? At what point do you change your workflow?
I’d say two, maybe three, years ago.
I am not joking. For some publishers, maintaining the print-output workflow, with a digital-maybe approach, makes sense. Those publishers are the exception. Again, it’s not going to get cheaper to convert your workflow. It’s not going to get easier. And it’s not going to be cost effective to outsource this process.
Trust me. Cheap conversion leads to cheap ebooks, and if you are serious about quality, you need to take control of your product. Yeah, Houghton Mifflin, sending you a stink-eye. And an email that details why I am pissed off about the quality of one of your books. There is no excuse.
Which leads to my final theme: metadata. Metadata is the sexy of publishing conferences. This would embarrass metadata, metadata being the type who prefers to remain in the background. It also reveals too much about publishing conferences. Metadata is useful, efficient, precise. Metadata doesn’t grace the cover of Vogue. It’s the girl next door. The really smart girl next door. The really smart, really successful girl next door.
Metadata is data that describes data. That’s meta, I know. It is the information that feeds search. Enables discovery. The better your metadata, the better your chances of discovery. Consider your book’s metadata: title, ISBN, author, editor, year of publication, format, index, table of contents, keywords, tags, reviews, so much more. The more you can describe your (collective your) book, the greater the chances of discovery.
Because, as we all know, there is no BISAC for “Steampunk”.
And, oh my, ask anyone who uses your metadata, and they’ll say it’s bad. Ask me, and I’ll be a bit more eloquent. My solution? Hire a librarian for your digital (and print — metadata matters there) team. Use this librarian’s knowledge. Speaking of which, these awesome experts were out in force at TOC.
Which leads me to my final theme (and, Kat Meyer, goddess of TOC programming, you know what I mean when I say this): the conversations between conference attendees may be more important than the sessions. I know John Maxwell and Kirk Biglione started down the path to their presentation after discovering their common interests when they did back-to-back presentations at the PubWest Conference. All it takes is the right conversation with the right person.
Those conversations happen because we come together in person. Email is awesome. Twitter, many of us cannot imagine how we lived without it. Facebook is our necessary evil. But face-to-face? Essential for that weird serendipity. Oh yes, it happens online, but we are human, and that conversation in the hallway is part of our creative DNA. Go with it.
I am now imagining a conference that consists entirely of hallway conversations. I am also trying to differentiate this conference from a cocktail party. I’ll get back to y’all.
A final note. I am thrilled that TOC included a session and a keynote focused on accessibility. Jim Fruchterman of Benetech spoke on making the book truly accessible (swallowing my guilt for missing this, but I saw Jim speak at Books in Browsers, and cheered loudly). Dave Gunn of the Royal National Institute of Blind People lead a session on Can You Afford Not to Consider Accessible Publishing Practices?.
If you answer anything other than “No” to that question, then you do not understand the importance of accessibility to your business. You do not understand the importance to readers. You do not begin to understand how critical accessibility is to your future success. At the risk of being crass (hey, we’re all friends here!), the benefits of accessible content extend far beyond the obvious.
No, I’m not going to test you by asking who the most influential blind user of the Internet is. The brilliant among you already know the answer to this question, and have implemented practices that ensure this user is very happy. The, oh, I must say it, clueless among you are losing customers and readers.
I cannot overstate the importance of accessibility in ebooks. Have I ever lead you astray? Learn about this. You will thank yourself.
It’s that simple.
* – Conference world is not real. All conferences create a magic bubble that bursts painfully, especially if airports are involved.
** – Prior to TOC’s official start, a bunch of us got together at Book2Camp, which, disconcertingly, is pronounced Booksquared Camp. All day long, I thought people were yelling at me. Thank you Ami Greko, Chris Kubica, and Kat Meyer (two mentions in one post) for bringing together some seriously awesome minds.