Tools of Change for Publishers

Day one of O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference was yesterday. It’s was a mixed bag, with a lot of very strong speakers and some that seemed to be struggling to make an impact (or struggling for something relevant to say). All in all the audience is pretty receptive – they want every one of the speakers to succeed, but this is a very tech-savvy crowd and there isn’t much tolerance for glossing over or, god forbid, patronising.

There were three keynotes to open the conference, and it seems the first – by blogger and marketing entrepreneur Mitch Joel – was the biggest hit with the audience. Joel’s talk wasn’t specific, but it was inspirational, exploring the paradigm of the new consumer and urging publishers to hit “ctrl-alt-delete” and make a fresh start in the way they see consumers in the digital age. The concept that seems to have struck the biggest chord is his not necessarily revolutionary, but it is timely –  a reminder that publishers need to stop thinking of their readers as a broadcast audience. ‘“Like our Facebook page!” he said, “why don’t you try liking their Facebook page, and following your loyal consumers’ social media.”’ He told an anecdote of a friend of his utilising Amazon Prime to act on a purchase recommendation instantaneously. This is how the consumer of the future will buy – immediately, or not at all. Recommendations are everything. He and a couple of Twitter friends began recommending a particular brand of luggage – whenever they mention it now they’re capable of getting a number of online retailers to sell out within hours. It seems trivial, but connecting to influential readers (and book recommenders) is, I think, really going to be the future of book marketing.

I saw David Gosen speak next, from Nielsen, who peppered the audience with some fantastic statistics about the penetration of devices, especially tablets, in the UK, US and European markets. None of the information was necessarily game changing, but having it all in one place and from one engaging speaker was incredibly useful. Some of the topics he covered included the tendency of tablet readers to dual screen – 69% of tablet owners watch their TV while using their devices, and the majority of the information they’re looking up is unrelated to what they’re watching. Gosen urged the publishers in the room to get rid of the idea of ‘downtime’ – downtime no longer exists. Following neatly from Mitch Joel’s speed to purchase anecdote, Gosen said consumers want to fill all their time quickly and efficiently, and if you can’t do that then you will lose their loyalty.

This ties in quite interestingly with something the keynote speaker Bob Stein from the morning session said regarding social reading. Stein – the creator of the Criterion Collections – is launching a social reading platform called SocialBook. SocialBook will allow readers to share annotations, comment on each others’ annotations and buy special add-on content.  Contrary to expectations, however, this kind of social reading isn’t just for the time rich. The ‘glosses’ that Stein is selling as add-ons to books through SocialBook allow readers to get the annotations from an expert reading of a longer text – and therefore skim information intelligently. On the flip side, SocialBook allows deep analysis of individual pages or annotations for a book that a reader has a genuine connection to. These tools allow readers to connect with each other and connect to texts on multiple levels depending on the desired level of interaction.

There were plenty of speakers and a lot of interesting information to cover, but I’d like to end this post with the phenomenal talk given by Elizabeth Wood from Worldreader. Worldreader is working to give ereaders (at the moment they’re using Kindles) to kids and schools in sub-Saharan Africa. Wood reminded me how radically e-reading technology is going to change things. As she said, Kindles (and other e-readers) are approaching a zero price point. Imagine a world in which 200 million readers in sub-Saharan Africa get access to instantaneous (largely English) reading. They might not pay $8 for a book – but as Wood pointed out, they will pay something. This has a tremendous potential impact on world democracy and literacy and on the longevity of the book as a cultural object. It’s an optimistic time – and a great time to be involved in books.