I have just spent the last couple of days in New York at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing conference. This is a fairly large gathering of publishers, authors and technology providers for them. I was a little out of place there as an economist academic but did have a healthy audience for my talk on Information Wants to be Shared. One blogger did a short write-up here. Anyhow, there were a few interesting things going on at this conference so I thought I’d mention them all briefly here.
- Evan Williams (who co-founded Blogger and Twitter) was there to talk about his new venture, Medium. At one point, it was put to him that Twitter, that used to not allow you to search your archive of tweets had done so intentionally to make it an experience of the ‘here and now.’ As it turned out, a somewhat embarrassed, Williams admitted that it was not intentional and likely a random programming choice. Anyhow, out of all this I managed to secure an invite to contribute to Medium and have dipped my toe in this morning here.
- Alongside Williams was an author, Douglas Rushkoff who spent his entire time lamenting the demise of the book. In particular, he was against — I am not making this up — making it easy to get books to read via a “Netflix for Books” type model. Why? Because he thinks that readers will just pick up a book looking for an excuse not to read it properly and won’t finish them. Better apparently to have them pay each time so they put in more effort. Suffice it to say, it didn’t make much sense to me nor to a lot of other people at the conference.
- Cory Doctorow was there talking the good talk on DRM-free content. He has a good way with words but wasn’t exactly wading into controversy with this crowd.
- There was an interesting talk by graphic comic artist, Mark Wait, who had some interesting ways of rethinking comics for the digital medium. You can see the results here.
- The showcase of start-ups was interesting. Catodb has found a way of taking large datasets and making them into really interesting maps. Borne-Digital are trying to write books for kids that evolve as kids learn to read better (including providing analytics). Paperight is changing the way books are distributed in developing countries using outsourced printing and adherence to copyright laws. Finally, one of my favourites was Valobox. They are trying to make books widely available but more interestingly are trying to encourage sharing. Basically, if you read a book and refer a friend to the book you can receive 25% of the proceeds. It is kind of a peer-to-peer affiliate model. I suggested that giving your friend a 25% discount may be a better way to go and provide more solid incentives. But I like that they are thinking of books as a shared commodity. Finally, I ran into the folks from Grin Solutions who have been in the game a decade and have a self-publishing model that already nets them 200,000 books on Amazon.com. Students are literally publishing their fourth year theses on this platform and getting some money for it.
- Finally, Maria Popova from BrainPickings gave a keynote lecture. This came on the same day as Felix Salmon took her to task for earning Amazon affiliate fees in addition to donations from her blog followers. She did not discuss that but did give some interesting facts on her work. In particular, monthly costs for her blog run in excess of $3,000 (most of which is hosting). She also did an opportunity cost calculation. Popova claimed she worked 14-18 hours per day on the blog. At the NY minimum wage this would add another $3,500 per month. So that is what she had to cover to stay in business. That may put the donations versus Amazon fees issue in a bit more context. Suffice it to say, I think she does more than alright by her current set of arrangements.
Other than all that there was an underlying set of controversies. The most notable was the arguments over whether the industry should adopt an ePub or HTML5 standard or both or something else. That covered many sessions.
But the undercurrent was that there is still a basic tension in publishing. The conflict is between those who want to see written works more easily available and those whose job it is to worry about where the money is coming from. It was there, time and time again. And it is not going away.