TOC 2009 (Tools of Change, or Twitter-Optimized Conversation)

Last week my head was stretched and generally messed with as speakers at the bleeding edge of digital publishing held up grand futuristic vistas of possibility: this week it’s been bashed and generally beaten to a pulp by the challenges of getting the last wrinkles in our beautiful new ebook platform resolved (‘what do you mean it’s the wrong type of .exe file?’ ‘why is Coleridge’s Writings series suddenly appearing under Economics?’). Which is a useful reminder of the gap we navigate between what we dream of and how we get there. James has already spoken eloquently about many of the key themes of the conference, and the all-pervasiveness of Twitter, so here’s a brief personal set of TOC takeaways from the slightly different perspective of an academic publisher (although one with significant non-fiction trade and business lists) and one which doesn’t mention Twitter at all* as I’m all tweeted out:

Vision

  • We used to imagine that the power of the internet was its ability to make information available. Turns out its real magic lies in the connections between people that it enables.
  • What does this mean for authors? Instead of engaging with the subject for the benefit of readers, they are now charged with engaging with readers for the benefit of a subject, they are leaders of a community of enquiry.
  • What does this mean for publishers? We have no automatic right of involvement in that reader–reader engagement, but if we’re smart we can create a new role for ourselves of curation and support, directing attention to voices of interest, enabling ever more useful conversations.
  • Nick Bilton sees us as ‘online nomads seeking shelter from the info blizzard’: people are using their social networks to navigate the flood that would otherwise overwhelm them (apparently it would take the average reader 5 years to read the average scientific output of 24 hours), and if we’re to prove our worth in this new world we need to exploit and enable these horizontal connections. NB Tim O’Reilly pointed out that in this context what we do is potentially more valuable than ever: we nurture and direct attention to great content, and facilitate the discussion around that content.
  • Only connect: a single book is no longer an isolated entity, but a window into all the thoughts expressed in that book through associations between books, even between words – how can we facilitate this?
  • In higher education, the conversation that starts in the lecture hall goes with the student wherever they are: in the margin of the book, in the bar, at home. How can we support this?

How we get there

  • Technical development is now core to what we do and it’s never complete: it needs to be core to our operations, agile and ongoing.
  • ePub has finally achieved the holy grail: a generally accepted XML standard for reflowable ebooks. Hurrah and pass the operations manual.
  • We can stop talking about the possibilities of mobile content delivery and accept that it’s here to stay (again, hurrah) and we need a story that makes sense for each step on the scale: iPhone screen, computer screen, maybe even widescreen TV.
  • Rather than focusing on our business goals and subject classifications, we need to start our digital strategy with our readers and more specifically the activities they participate in that involve our books.
  • Systems. Systems. Systems systems systems. The biggest, ugliest and yet indispensable fly in this sweet-smelling ointment. We (i.e. publishers) need to understand what they currently do and how they constrain us, and invest in them to facilitate our future. This, unfortunately, means lifting the hood and looking hard at how the bits hook up, not just complaining when the engine stalls.

Random thoughts

  • (courtesy of Jason Fried): there is always a side-product of creation, and this is potentially valuable in its own right: sawdust and chips, originally by-products of the timber industry, are now worth billions of dollars – what are the by-products of our activities? (rejected drafts, brainstorming sessions, ‘behind the scenes’ views, proposal, knowledge, relationships….)
  • In all activities, we need to reduce the friction. If we want readers to read our stuff we have to make it as easy to find as possible (hello Google); if we want them to pay we have to make paying easy and painless (PayPal, anyone?)

Enough already.

Alison Jones Director of Digital Development, Palgrave Macmillan

*although if Twitter does float your boat, see interesting post from Scholarly Kitchen’s Ann Michael…