There is certainly more than one way to build a conference program. I have been putting them together since long before I learned about the concept of “crowd-sourcing”. I’m a bit of a plowhorse about some things so the Digital Book World conference program comes together pretty much the same way as the first digital book conference aimed at trade publishers I organized, Electronic Publishing & Rights, back in 1993. I put together a list of topics for panels or presentations and a roster of people who could either speak or lead me to speakers. Then I engender a lot of conversations between the conference-creation team and the potential speakers and audience to craft the topics, the framing, and the ultimate presentation.
Two other important conferences which appeal to an audience that overlaps Digital Book World, O’Reilly’s Tools of Change in February and SXSW in Austin in March — seem to take a different approach. As near as I can tell, they do crowd-source a lot of their programming. It appears to me that Tools of Change throws out suggested topics and requests that panels and speakers put themselves forward as components of the show. Then, presumably, the people in charge at O’Reilly (the heads of the conference are Andrew Savikas and Kat Meyer, and both of them are smart, knowledgeable, and discerning) choose what will comprise the show. At SXSW it appears that the candidates are selected by an online vote. It seems to me that you therefore guarantee that you’ll get the panels sponsored by the best campaigners, but not necessarily what would give your ultimate audience the best show. But I guess it works for them.
I should declare myself here. I am a fan of Tools of Change. I participated in a day-long brainstorming session several years ago which O’Reilly Media organized to plan the first conference. I missed that one, which was in California in the summer of 2007, but I’ve attended the three annual February conferences in New York, 2008-2010. It’s a great show and a great rendezvous for people thinking about technology and publishing. As this piece makes clear, we can’t handle every worthy subject in two full days of conference programming at Digital Book World; there’s room for lots of other conversation and TOC is a useful one. On the other hand, I have never attended SXSW. The program didn’t look like it had much relevance to commercial trade publishing (although it covered a lot of other things that neither TOC nor DBW does.) Plus it comes in the same month that has a chunk taken out of if for me by baseball spring training. There are things in life besides digital change…
As I think through what we do and how it all works, it is hard for me to see how we could produce nearly as good a show without the conversations. We are helped considerably in our work by a Conference Council of more than 30 top players in the industry from across houses large and small, agents, members of industry bodies like BISG, Association of Booksellers for Children, and the Frankfurt Book Fair, and some other consultants. We talk to literally dozens of other people as we put the show together, getting advice about whom to contact to speak and shaping and re-shaping our formulation of the panels and presentations.
This does, indeed, start in my head. I wrote a post in May outlining what I thought might be the major topics. We got comments on the blog and then we pushed the list out to the Conference Council in formation to get more input.
Once the Council was formed, we put the topic list up on Survey Monkey for them to give us feedback. What we were mainly looking for is “of what we postulated might be on the program, what’s essential and what’s a yawn?”, but we also got thoughts about things that could be combined or reframed. Then at the end of June, we had an exciting and rigorous 2-hour meeting with many of the Council and a number of our F+W colleagues at which we solicited even more ideas and honed our thinking further.
This process eliminated a number of topics that were on my initial list. Some of them were dropped because the group thought interest would be low (usually because they were too narrow or specialized); for others we couldn’t see who could speak to them effectively. But among those we knocked out were:
* Will non-US publishers start to establish a virtual sales presence in the US as ebook sales grow?
* How do publishers deal with image rights for old titles becoming new ebooks?
* What changes are on the horizon for publishers’ relationships with the library market?
* Are trade shows becoming an anachronism in the age of digital communication?
* How much of the solid print backlist is still locked up by rights issues?
* To what extent do publishers view single-title marketing as a practical endeavor?
All of these topics are “worthy” but, against very stiff competition, they didn’t make the cut.
The survey and Council conversation also helped us refine how we’ll approach a number of subjects.
Author royalties for ebooks will be handled as a survey and presentation, not, as first occurred to me, primarily through a panel of agents.
Our Council felt that how publishers make the business decisions to acquire content not necessarily intended for first use in a book was worthy of discussion. A subsequent conversation with potential speakers convinced us that “making books out of content that started another way” would be a relevant extension and should be in that same discussion.
Marketing and metadata were identified as topics that I should have included but hadn’t. As a result, we will have two metadata panels (one on core, one on enhanced) and we’re getting great help from BISG Executive Director Scott Lubeck (on the Conference Council, of course) putting these together. Although we have several panels that touch on marketing, I’m still thinking about the best way to tackle how single-title promotion has changed (which it has: profoundly).
What I had imagined as “The Tools Every Publisher Must Have in 2011” morphed into a conversation about “industry solutions” — such things as Edelweiss and NetGalley and Filedby. A further refinement from our first idea is that we’ll have a panel of publisher-users discuss these, rather than go with my initial idea of inviting the companies themselves to present their solutions.
We knew we needed to discuss the future of bookstores. Our Conference Council meeting yielded the suggestion that we have analysts who follow industry stocks discuss that topic (and a hat tip to Michael Cader for that idea.) We’ve recruited Marianne Wolk, a market analyst who follows Amazon and Google, to speak, and she’s helping us look for other analysts or investors to join that discussion. And we’re also putting together a panel of independent bookstores; we’ve already talked to more than half-a-dozen and will talk to several more to pick the three or four that can deliver the freshest, most relevant, and most articulate content for our conference. (I would hate to leave this to self-selection.)
A panel I’d thought we needed on “ebook first” was dismissed as old news and too narrow.
We lean heavily on expertise that we know and trust.
Apparently, sometimes our technique gives us the same result as our counterparts’ crowd-sourcing. Liza Daly is the most compelling thinker I’ve encountered on ebooks. Last year we had her do 20 minutes on “ebook basics” which was one of the most-praised components of our program. I knew we had to have her back and a fast conversation with Liza quickly yielded the subject. She’s going to talk about “cost-effective development of enhanced content: how to display on multiple platforms without multiple headaches.” I’ll bet many attendees will find this the most useful 20 minutes at the show. I see that O’Reilly has her on their Frankfurt TOC program. That’s a good decision no matter how they arrived at it. (And I’d advise SXSW to make sure the ballot box is properly stuffed for Liza if she’s a candidate for their event next March.)
We had outlined three different research projects we wanted to present. Two are follow-ons from last year. Verso Media has a panel of “book” consumers and Bowker, working with BISG, has a panel of “ebook” consumers. This year, Digital Book World is sponsoring a follow-up effort with Verso and so the reports from both of those groups of consumers will be updated. (The BISG-Bowker effort was already ongoing.)
But then we discovered a new data-gathering opportunity with a company called iModerate, which does both surveys and online qualitative research, and we put them on an assignment of studying in depth a particular subset of ebook readers: those that read on multi-function devices like iPads and smartphones. Michael Cader suggested some ways to help the audience get maximum value from the data. As a result, we put those presentations together on the program, will distribute some data to the audience in advance, and have the presenters join in a panel after they say their own pieces. We thought that was a great idea; we’re doing it.
Maria Campbell, the veteran scout who has been on the foreign rights scene for decades, knows the players trading international rights better than anybody. So we drafted her to help us find the right person to lead a discussion of how the growth of ebooks will affect territorial rights. That right person is Cullen Stanley of the Janklow and Nesbit Agency, with whom we’re now working to craft the right combination of agents and publishers, American and foreign, to make this a balanced and informed discussion. The inclusion of agents is a key point of differentiation between Digital Book World and just about every discussion about the digital future I’m aware of. There are many aspects of the conversation about the digital future that simply can’t be sensibly conducted without the involvement of agents.
Lorraine Shanley, a member of our Council, is not only a consultant but also one of the leading executive recruiters in publishing. We wanted to examine how skill sets are changing in publishing. I thought I’d put together a panel of recruiters. Lorraine suggested that it made more sense to create a panel of executives who came to publishing from other industries. We liked her idea better and we now have Charlie Redmayne of HarperCollins as the first of the executives who will join Lorraine for that conversation.
I don’t mean to suggest we’re unique in doing things the way we do. Mark Dressler, who puts together programs for BookExpo America and for the Frankfurt Book Fair (and who will interview me about the Digital Book World program at a Halle 8 stage on Frankfurt Wednesday), is also a micro-programmer and very highly consultative and interactive in his program creation. I am sure some of what you see at TOC and SXSW resulted from interaction, too. I just can’t help thinking when I hear “calls” for programming how much the conversations we have inform and improve what we offer. Although I’m the proud Conference Chair who gets credit for putting together the Digital Book World program, it’s consultation with the most knowledgeable players in town that makes it what it is. Perhaps it is “crowd-sourcing” of a different kind.