If it can be argued that the value of a conference can be measured by the length and breadth of the discussion that it generates, the recent Tools of Change for Publishing conference in February 2008 exceeded expectations. The many debates among attendees and panelists, copious blog descriptions and analyses, and plenty of glowing reviews and conference reports have produced their own set of discussions on line, a valuable “social currency,” according to Douglas Rushkoff, who spoke at the conference.

Rushkoff, author of Get Back in the Box, said that contact has replaced content and context as king of the publishing value chain. “Connecting people to people is more important than connecting people to products.” He said that the Internet has evolved from a technical innovation to a social medium and has reinvigorated the art of the conversation (albeit online) and in the process has increased the population of writers.

The conversation that continues even three months after the conference may inspire more writers in the future. For those who want background, here is a guided tour of some of the most important presentations and links to some original source material. Links to download the presentations are below.

Exploring Collaboration and Social Media

In his opening keynote, Stephen Abram of SirsiDynix made a compelling argument concerning the role of user-generated content and social media and its impact on the more traditional published forms of content. His presentation “Information 3.0: Will Publishers Matter?” has some good examples of trends and indicators for new and different types of reading activity. This presentation set the tone for one of the conference’s major themes, the use of collaboration and social media in publishing ventures.

Gavin Bell of Nature brought the idea of an online community into a more practical focus for publishers. His presentation, “From Buyers of Books to a Community of Readers,” described the current community behaviors of frequent book buyers and how publishers can create their own communities to help build their brand and sell more books.

During their panel “Blogs as Books, Books as Blogs,” Scott Karp of Publish2, Inc., Amy Cohen of Hyperion Books, Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine.com, and Michelle Leder from footnoted.org gave examples of well-crafted author blogs and demonstrated how those blogs could enrich the overall product offering to create more value for readers.

Alison Norrington, author of Class Act, gave a presentation entitled “Fictional Blogging: Can Web 2.0 Translate to Publishing 2.0?” suggesting that content does not need to be defined by book pages. She demonstrated how Web sites and blogs could produce exciting new forms of romance fiction in new formats that are being widely embraced by readers.

Going Mobile

The number of mobile phones with Web access continues to grow rapidly, as do the number of Internet sessions initiated from mobile phones. To tap this market’s potential, publishers need to develop a strategy for creating new publishing activities and products designed for mobile devices, and integrating them into their traditional planning and production processes. New mobile devices let publishers present information in new formats for their customers. The key lesson to be learned is to avoid converting traditional book content into a digital format and offering it on mobile devices rendered in pages with little or no additional functionality.

In their panel, “Making Mobile Work,” Bob Kasher, MPS Mobile NA; Howard Campbell and Jon White, Macmillan; Richard Pasewark, Mindspring; and Adeena Karasick, poet and author of “The House That Hijack Built” demonstrated how to plan and execute a strategy that leads to products and services that appeal to digital readers.

Hearst’s Sophia Stuart, in her presentation, “I Had No Idea My Phone Could Do That!”, gave concrete examples of engaging content derived from Hearst’s print magazines that could be presented on mobile phones. Suggestions on the best bars and restaurants, clever jokes, dating tips, bedroom blogs, recipes of the day, and stain removal tips work well on mobile phones, she said. Services such as wake-up calls with clever content-based messages and fake calls to help extract subscribers from bad dates are also popular with their readers. These offerings help keep their brands visible and give their readers an array of media options. Moreover, they are generating revenue through advertising and subscriptions.

Planning Business Models That Work in the Digital Era

For many years, book publishers have developed and marketed a single type of product: printed and bound books. Those publishers have used advances in content management and printing technology to improve the formats of their products while reducing production costs. Many of them still take a very print-centric approach to developing their products. Only after the PDF for the print product has been produced are digital versions created.

This approach is both costly and limiting. Print designs are optimized for a specific dimension. Content is lovingly tweaked to be displayed with all important elements in appropriate locations. This makes a professional-looking book, but the approach constrains creativity and imposes costs on the process of transitioning to a digital version. Because it is better to create once and then publish multiple versions for selected media platforms, it makes more sense to have a clear plan for what products will eventually be produced and to develop content in ways that make it easy to generate each product type. This approach is called cross-media publishing, and is being employed by today’s most innovative publishers.

Brent Lewis of Harlequin spoke about his company’s cross-media publishing strategy. Harlequin had seen how leading brands could erode during technology paradigm shifts; it was seeking opportunities to recruit the next generation of readers. With those issues in mind, Brent and his team developed a digital publishing program that supports almost every possible publishing platform, from Kindles to iPods. The Harlequin online community is popular and vibrant. It helped Harlequin develop new types of content and service offerings that are already yielding new revenue streams. In his presentation, “Digital Strategy and Action,” Lewis gave an example of how to consider and build a leading edge cross-media publishing strategy.

The notion that all content should be free is more popular with readers than with authors and publishers. Rushkoff’s idea of social currency notwithstanding, traditional currency is still Number 1 in popularity with merchants, bankers, and investors. Thus much consideration is being devoted to methods by which free content can help publishers generate traditional revenue streams by cross-promoting products for sale. In his presentation, “How Open Does ‘Open’ Need to Be, in the Universe of Free?”, Michael Jensen described how the National Academies make over 3,700 of their print books available free on their Internet site and still generate one third of their revenue from the sale of printed and digital versions to Web customers. Their browsing metaphor, the ways that they use different formats for free and for sale copies, and their sampling techniques are detailed on the National Academies Web site (http://www.nap.edu/).

Scott Gray of the O’Reilly School of Technology took attendees on a whirlwind tour of different business models and their mathematical underpinnings in his presentation, “Adding Enough Value to Digital Content to Actually Make Money.” He covered revenue opportunities from advertising, sponsorship, subscriptions, and sale of books, as well as high-ticket items such as conferences and courses. The presentation is based upon examples drawn from O’Reilly Media.

Jim Lichtenberg of Lightspeed looked at the monetization of content, asking “what if publishers offered their content as a service rather than a product?”. He described the blurring between products and services, citing Wikipedia, Amazon/Kindle, and Second Life as good examples of hybrid product-service offerings. In his presentation, “Service Innovation: The Path to Book Publishing Success in the Digital Age,” he proposed a model that offers publishers both flexibility for developing products that meet customers’ changing preferences and the potential for lucrative recurring revenue streams.

“Business Models that Guarantee Profitability in Publishing” by Bob Pritchett of Logos Bible Software demonstrated that certain groups of readers place high value on the content that they consider important. He provided a model for the “community pricing” of books that, he said, guarantees profitability for publishers. While probably not pertinent to mass market books, it is a clever approach to niche publishing and a different way to consider long-tail opportunities.

The key lesson to be learned from these presentations is that online and digital publishing opportunities can be lucrative if they are thoroughly planned and considered at the beginning of the publishing cycle. Forging new business models requires publishers to communicate well with their customers and be willing to experiment with new offerings until they are perfected.

The topics and presentations led to many excellent conversations both in print and in person, and generated significant amounts of social currency. Some of the blogs discussing the conference are listed on the O’Reilly site http://toc.oreilly.com/2008/02/blog-coverage-of-toc-from-arou.html. These blogs, in turn, feature links of their own to many of the topics covered at TOC.

O’Reilly plans its next annual conference, again in New York City, for February 9–11, 2009.

Steve Paxhia is the President of Beacon Hill Strategic Solutions in Boston, Massachusetts. He has recently written two research reports—Enterprise Collaboration and Social Computing: A Report on Industry Trends and Best Practices and Digital Magazine and Newspaper Editions: Growth, Trends, and Best Practices—for the Gilbane Group. A third report, Digital Platforms and Technologies for Book Publishers: Implementations Beyond “eBooks”, will be published this summer. He is an active consultant for publishing companies and publishing technology companies that are re-defining their digital product strategies. He may be reached at 617-686-0586 or via e-mail at spaxhia90@comcast.net.

Links to Presentations

All presentations from the conference are listed at http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/schedule/proceedings. Links to the selected presentations described above are as follows:

Stephen Abram, “Information 3.0: Will Publishers Matter?”: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/schedule/detail/932; PowerPoint file: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/asset/attachment/1426

Gavin Bell, “From Buyers of Books to a Community of Readers”: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/schedule/detail/223; PDF file: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/asset/attachment/1444

Scott Karp, Amy Cohen, Jeff Jarvis, and Michelle Leder, “Blogs as Books, Books as Blogs”: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/schedule/detail/935; PDF file: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/asset/attachment/1422

Alison Norrington, “Fictional Blogging: Can Web 2.0 Translate to Publishing 2.0?”: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/schedule/detail/53; PowerPoint file: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/asset/attachment/1420

Bob Kasher, Howard Campbell, Jon White, Richard Pasewark, and Adeena Karasick, “Making Mobile Work”: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/schedule/detail/552; PowerPoint files: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/asset/attachment/1428 and http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/asset/attachment/1429

Sophia Stuart, “I Had No Idea My Phone Could Do That!”: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/schedule/detail/54; PowerPoint file: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/asset/attachment/1421

Brent Lewis, “Digital Strategy and Action”: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/schedule/detail/1075; PowerPoint file: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/asset/attachment/1410

Scott Gray, “Adding Enough Value to Digital Content to Actually Make Money”: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/schedule/detail/350; PowerPoint file: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/asset/attachment/1411

Jim Lichtenberg, “Service Innovation: The Path to Book Publishing Success in the Digital Age”: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/schedule/detail/67; PowerPoint file: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/asset/attachment/1344

Bob Pritchett, “Business Models that Guarantee Profitability in Publishing”: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/schedule/detail/28; PowerPoint file: http://en.oreilly.com/toc2008/public/asset/attachment/1415