I showed up Tuesday morning at the gorgeous Cipriani restaurant and ballroom on 42nd Street for The Future of Publishing Summit, not knowing what to expect. I had been invited to attend this in an email last month which promised an interesting program (lots of big tech companies plus a book publishing “track” led by the always-interesting Carolyn Pittis of HarperCollins) at an all-day conference. I was invited because of my status as a “thought leader”; an all-day event like this with no fee is not unheard of, but it also isn’t common. I accepted.
Then when I heard from my friend Evan Schnittman of OUP over the weekend that he’d be going, I decided I should look at “what is this” more carefully. So I went to the web site for it and I found it almost impossible to figure out who was staging this thing and what they hoped to get out of it. My prior experience with free events — many I helped organize that were run by VISTA Computer Services (now renamed Publishing Technology) in the 1990s and several since hosted by MarkLogic — tended to have the organizer highly branded and visible. This one was opaque. “About us” on the “The Future of Publishing” web site described the conference, the agenda, and the goal of “setting the agenda for publishing’s new business model amid digital disruption”, and it led to a link listing the sponsoring companies. But nowhere did it say, “I’m the organizer of this event and this is why I want you there.”
When I got to Cipriani in the morning, I started to see some people I knew: Evan, David Young and Maja Thomas from Hachette, Peter Balis from Wiley, Dominique Raccah from Sourcebooks. “What is this about?”, I asked them. “Who is behind this?” Nobody really seemed to know.
As the day developed, it seemed that the two parties in charge were Tim Bajarin, President of Creative Strategies and Colin Crawford, former EVP Digital at IDG Communications, Inc. Bajarin kicked off the session recalling a critical meeting at UCLA in 1990 that really charted the course for CD-Rom development.
Uh oh, I thought. I wonder if these guys know what “CD-Rom” calls up in the mind of anybody in the room who was in trade publishing the 1990s.
What I had walked into took me back to the early 1990s when I went to a conference sponsored very openly sponsored by Microsoft for book publishers. The message then was, “here are the amazing things we are going to be able to do with CD-Roms in the very near future. To realize the true value of this technology, we need content. We’re not sure exactly how you make money from the content, but, hey, guys, get creative.” And, in fact, that was the message that the five key sponsors of this Summit — Sony, Adobe, Marvell, Qualcomm, and HP — had for their publishing audience.
This was the takeaway. Consumers are going to be navigating their content on faster, smarter, lighter, and cheaper devices that will open up more flexible and robust content delivery and consumption models. Publishers should take advantage of this! But “taking advantage” in this case often meant “more sound, more pictures, more video”. And that recalls the veritable disaster of CD-Rom development for book publishers: largely uncontrolled spending in development of new kinds of products, ostensibly but loosely rooted in books, that had no established market and never found one. The iPad had already unleashed several sparks of enthusiasm for enhanced ebooks; this conference wanted to pour fuel on those sparks and start a real fire burning.
The format of the day was that each of the primary sponsors got a half-hour to present their technology, following 30 minutes from Tom Turvey of Google on the forthcoming Google Editions. (Turvey joked about the fact that he had given the presentation to just about everybody in the room before in their office or his.) I’d say that most of the 30 minute presentations packed at least 5 minutes of useful information into them. There were definitely people buzzing about the fact that Adobe has a workaround to enable Flash-like content on the iPhone, which doesn’t support Flash. We all got the message that connectivity will be more robust and more routine; that both LCD color and e-ink (and before long, color e-ink) will be available in a staggering number of devices (or “form factors.”)
With all that capability in your hand, you can pull up just about any content you want. “Why would you read a plain old book” was certainly part of the message.
Then after a really terrific lunch, about half to two-thirds of the audience (I’d reckon; couldn’t really see because we were broken into three groups in different rooms for books, magazines, and newspapers and no more than a fourth of the audience was there for the final part of the program after the breakouts) remained to hear the content-based presentations. The intention here was “the tech guys will explain what’s coming in the morning; the publishing guys will explain where they are in the early afternoon; and then our experts will ‘pull it all together’ at the end of the day, allowing us to leave with a new plan for publishing.” The “experts”were additional sponsors, of course, and creators of tools or platforms for products or presentation: Zinio, Notion Ink, ScrollMotion, Vook, and Skiff. These are all very worthy companies with substantial propositions that have made real inroads working with established media.
But are they qualified to chart a commercial course forward for complex publishing enterprises? Frankly, I don’t think so.
Cader said privately on Monday that he had joined Conferences Anonymous. He wasn’t going. Admittedly, these guys had a rough row to hoe trying to tell people something new following on the heels of Digital Book World in January, Tools of Change in February, Pub Business Conference and Expo earlier in March, and an ABA meeting on digital change in between. People who are really junkies for this stuff were out at SXSW, which apparently also didn’t seem as revelatory to some savvy book practioners as it did last year (or so said my buddy from the Microsoft conference two decades ago, Lorraine Shanley.)
My sense of this one was “nice try”, but it didn’t work. The superficial logic of putting the tech and publishing people together, laying out the picture from each side and then coming up with “answers” within a single stimulating day is appealing, but it is ultimately impractical. Book publishers (and, I suspect, other publishers as well) aren’t going to do much today based on what they see tech might deliver two or four years from now. And book publishing isn’t one business anyhow. As Turvey of Google, who understands the publishing business better than any other tech company representative I know and, frankly, better than most publishers, spelled out in the beginning: “book publishing is about five different businesses that don’t have much to do with each other.” We in publishing know that very well. Tech companies that want to get our attention need to make clear that they know that too.