Notes from the TOC conference

I just returned late Thursday night from the O’Reilly Media Tools of Change conference in New York City. This was my third year at the conference. The first year I attended as a reporter for VentureBeat, and then these past two times as a speaker. For the benefit of those of you who didn’t attend, I’ll share some of my personal highlights, in no particular order:

Twitter Forever Changes the Conference Experience – Thanks to Twitter, conferences will never be the same. For every session of the three day conference, hundreds of TOC attendees were Twittering real time quotes, analysis and conversation. I found myself monitoring the Twitterstream (check it out here) as I listened to the speakers, and it added another interesting (though distracting!) perspective on the conference.

Twitterers held nothing back. If the speaker started giving a sales pitch, or made questionable statements, the Twitterers were merciless. If the speaker said something interesting (or not), Twitterers would tweet it and then that would cause a cascade of retweets. For three days straight, TOC was in the top five most discussed subjects on Twitter. Thousands, if not millions, of people who weren’t at the conference were getting a taste of the not only what was happening but what people thought about what was happening. Many of the Twitterstream participants weren’t even at the conference.

One of the most profuse and entertaining Twitterers on the TOC Twitterstream – and he wasn’t at the conference – was Mike Cane (@mikecane for you Twitterers), a self-described "ebook militant" and writer who lives near Staten Island. Twitterers from around the world tweeted their friends at the conference and had them convey questions to the presenters. At one great panel on social media in publishing, moderated by Ron Hogan (@ronhogan for you Twitterers) of MediaBistro/GalleyCat, Ron actually introduced his panelists by their Twitter handles.

Is Twitter going to become a secondary form of identity? I think yes. I think it’ll also forever change the dynamic between conference presenters, attendees and wannabee attendees. At some points, the Twitter echo-chamber reached heretofore unknown limits of, well, echo-chamberness. During the Blogging and Social Media Workshop led by social media guru Chris Brogan (@chrisbrogan) who told attendees he considers Twitter the new phone, session attendee Chad Capellman (@chadrem) uploaded a YouTube video of Chris speaking. When Chad told Chris about it, Chris logged on to YouTube and the audience watched Chris watch a big screen projection of the Chris video taken minutes earlier, and then Chad or some other attendee joked they could take and upload a new video of this special moment as Chris watched a video of himself that we could all then watch.

Several times during his three hour workshop, Chris checked the Twitterstream to gauge audience impressions of his live performance. At one point after he walked on stage drinking from what looked like a beer bottle, Susan Danzinger (@susandanziger) of DailyLit tweeted she thought Chris was drinking a beer onstage, then yours truly (@markcoker) retweeted it because I was wondering the same, then Kat Meyer (@katmeyer) set the record straight, as did Chris when he saw the tweetstream on the big stage monitor. Twittering while watching Twitter while listening to and participating in a conference while the presenter talks about Twitter and is the subject of a Twitterstream while he himself Twitters makes for a very surreal experience.

Peter Brantley on Literature as a Driver for Services – Peter Brantley directs the Digital Library Federation, and he’s one of my favorite thinkers about the future of the books, and about the sacred place books occupy in culture. In a keynote address, Peter challenged the audience of publishers to consider how moving books from print to digital can change the nature of reading, and how the move to digital can open up new business opportunities for publishers. "What’s published will be less about the book and more about the people who read them," he said. He talked about how books will become networked and empower more participatory methods of reading.

Cory Doctorow Eviscerates DRM – In a keynote, author Cory Doctorow (@coreydoctorow) had the audience in rapt attention as he proceeded to disembowel Amazon and all those who would seek to perpetuate the short-sighted practice of DRM. He challenged publishers to step up to the plate and demand Amazon accept their ebook files DRM-free. If anyone knows where I can find a transcript of his talk, let me know so I can link to it here.

Chris Baty of Nanowrimo Says Authorship has Bright Future – One of my favorite presentations came from Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month, which just completed its tenth year of operation. Although Steve Jobs says people don’t read books anymore, Chris made clear that you can’t stop writers from writing, and for this reason alone books face a bright future because the process of writing helps writers appreciate books. "Novels are not written by novelists," he said, "novels are written by everyday people who give themselves permission to write novels."

At least one Nanowrimo participant has landed on the New York Times Bestseller lists, and several have earned book deals. The international Nanowrimo challenge has grown from only 21 participants in its first year, 1998, to 119,000 participants in 2008. Chris spoke at length about how the success of Nanowrimo has been driven by the powerful community that develops between writers as they share the deeply emotional experience of "meeting the book inside them."

The Rise of Ebooks – Ebooks were a big theme of the conference. The first year of the conference in 2007, there were maybe one or two ebook-themed sessions. Last year there were maybe three or four. This year, ebooks reigned supreme with at least ten sessions squarely focused on ebooks and with most of the other sessions touching on related themes. I moderated the "Rise of Ebooks" session. I admit, I’m biased, because I think my panelists (Joe Wikert of O’Reilly Media; indie author advocate and Publetariat founder April Hamilton; David Rothman of Teleread; and Russ Wilcox of E-Ink) did a kick *ss job of surfacing and debating some of the most interesting trends facing ebooks today. We covered a lot of ground in just 45 minutes, including:

  1. What’s driving the rapid sales growth of ebooks? (Answers: better screen display technology; availability of more titles; Oprah; lower prices; e-reading becoming as, or more, pleasurable than print; DRM starting to slip away)
  2. How long until ebooks go mainstream? (Russ predicted 2-3 percent of American households will own a dedicated e-reading device in the next 18 months [this is huge, and even if he’s off by half, it’s still huge], and most of the panelists agreed the ebook market will be dramatically larger in the next couple years.
  3. Screen technologies, present and future (screens will get faster, cheaper, better color, different sizes)
  4. Print vs. ebook, complementary or competitive? (most concluded they’re complementary, though I don’t think we’ll know if they’re a net positive or net negative for a few years – I suspect the latter)
  5. Supply chain implications for ebook intermediaries (new supply chain models forming, may not look exactly like print model; publishers and authors likely to get closer to consumers)
  6. Rich media ebooks, integrating video, audio, sensory feedback such as vibrations (lots of interesting stuff happening; a worthwhile opportunity to leverage traditional "book" content to offer readers a more engaging experience)

Artist Nina Paley Argues, "Give Away the Content, Sell the Containers." – Artist Nina Paley closed out the conference with a thought provoking talk in which she argued that artists and writers should give their content away for free but sell the packages that add value to their content. For example, she argued, water is free from the tap or filter, yet people will pay for water in a bottle for the benefit of the packaging, the brand, and the perceived benefits of that bottle or brand. Customers will pay for free content that is packaged in such as way that it adds value to the consumption of the content.

She showed a trailer for her new animated feature film, "Sita Sings the Blues," which she plans to make available online for free. She plans to make money (and pay off the debts incurred to make the movie) by selling the film to theaters, and by allowing publishers to publish coffee table books of the movie and its art. She also plans to sell value-added packaged versions of the movie, such as the limited edition DVDs she sold at the conference (Corey Doctorow was the first buyer).

Amazon Announces the Kindle 2 – Amazon tried to steal some of the thunder of the conference by choosing to announce the Kindle 2 a few blocks away on the first day of the conference. Amazon, however, was conspicuously absent from the conference. While attendees generally praised the new device for it’s faster screen refreshes (enabled by new E-Ink technology) and improved user interface design, as mentioned above in Cory Doctorow’s keynote and repeated by other keynoters, presenters and conference-goers,

Amazon was ridiculed throughout the conference for its adherence to DRM on the Kindle. Download O’Reilly’s Free "Best of TOC" Ebook – There was a ton more of interesting opinions and news from the conference, and I couldn’t possibly capture it all here. O’Reilly put together a good ebook (it’s free) that captures the best of the show (its only big omission is it doesn’t mention the Rise of Ebooks panel!) you can download it as long as you don’t mind jumping through all the convoluted hoops necessary to register for, and "purchase" the free ebook. Check it out here: Watch TOC Videos – O’Reilly has created an online archieve of some of the videos from TOC 2009 and prior years you can access here.