O'Reilly Tools of Change (#TOC) Trip Report, Pt. 2

Now that a couple of weeks have passed since the TOC conference, the main thing that has stuck with me is the fact that many—perhaps most—of the mainstream publishing staffers present at the Tools Of Change conference aren’t truly ready to change.

Even now, with mainstream publishing in crisis and Web 2.0 rapidly becoming a dated term, I met a surprising number of publishing industry professionals who are far more interested in discovering ways to further fortify their strongholds than they are in exploring the opportunities created by branching out into new media and fostering community among their customers.

At lunch one day, a gentleman at the table asserted it’s unreasonable for readers to expect ebooks to cost significantly less than their bound-paper counterparts.  Casting myself in the role of "ignorant consumer," I asked him to explain why ebooks shouldn’t cost less on the basis of savings in paper, printing, hard copy distribution and shipping costs alone.  He explained that those expenses don’t just go away, but are replaced with equal or even greater expenses introduced by the need to preserve "branding" in the ebook through the use of specialized layout, design and typography experts and technologies.

He took as his example the ‘Dummies’ series of books, which utilize proprietary fonts and graphics and are all laid out for print in a manner consistent with one another (i.e., sidebars with tips and gotchas, highlighted through the use of specific graphic icons).  He went on to explain the incredibly difficult and expensive process of trying to faithfully recreate the Dummies ‘experience’ in an ebook, particularly since there are so many different ebook file formats to deal with, each with its own limitations and technological specfications.

When I raised the possibility that it might not be necessary to perfectly reproduce every aspect of the paper book when releasing it in e form, because people who read ebooks don’t necessarily expect electronic books to look identical to their paper counterparts, he flatly disagreed.  Preserving the ‘look and feel’ of the paper book was critical, he felt, not only to meet customer expectations but to keep the sanctity of the ‘Dummies’ brand intact.

Like so many others I met at the conference, this gentleman has not yet altered his definition of the word "book".  Numerous speakers at TOC exhorted attendees to stop thinking of books as those paper things bound between two covers, and recognize that when people buy books, most of them are paying for the content—not the delivery system.  And with some notable exceptions (i.e., books containing physically interactive elements like letters to be pulled out of envelopes bound into the book, pop-ups, etc.) paper bound between covers is nothing more than one of many possible delivery systems for content. 

There was much agreement with this gentleman’s point of view at the table, however.  So when you see an ebook from a mainstream publisher that’s priced at or above the price of the paper version, it’s probably because the publisher is spending lots of money and effort to faithfully recreate the ‘look and feel’ of the paper book for you—something they’re very certain is critical to you, even though they’ve never actually asked your opinion on the matter.  In other words, they’re trying to force new media into an old media mold; they don’t get it.

Community-building is another area where there seems to be a great dearth of insight among mainstream publishing professionals where their customers are concerned.

Many of those to whom I spoke still view online communities they might build primarily as sales channels, failing to take into the account the fact that nobody enjoys a sales pitch, much less is willing to go out of their way to seek one out online. 

Others see market research as the main benefit of community-building: get a captive audience, get them to give you as much information about themselves as possible, and then data-mine to your heart’s content. They plan to keep large chunks of their site’s content and functionality locked up from the general public, forcing visitors to register for an account before spilling the goods.  When someone does elect to sign up, they’ll be presented with an exhaustive registration form in which nearly all fields must be filled out in order to submit the form.

All of this stuff can be boiled down to a single, pervasive problem I observed among most of the mainstream publishing industry pros I met at TOC: they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be an "ordinary" reader, and it’s been so long since they were ordinary readers, they can’t even imagine what it might be like to think like one once again. Their perspective is so mired in publisher-speak and publisher-think that it’s nearly impossible for them to come up with truly groundbreaking ideas, and when truly groundbreaking ideas are put before them, those ideas are either rejected out of hand or forced back into the box of their current ways of thinking and doing.

I’m not saying the situation is hopeless. The fact that so many big publishers sent their staffers to a conference about change is a good sign. Nevertheless, in the coming year we can probably expect to see quite a few ebook and community initiatives come barrelling out of big publishers’ gates, only to falter and fade away once the initial blitzkrieg of publicity is over.  Hopefully, lessons will be learned and improvements will be made, and the next generation of ebooks and publishers’ online communities will be more reader-centric.