The Apps Will Not Set Them Free

IsaKft is a writer and entrepreneur who runs fluffy-seme, a web-publishing platform (formerly a digital publishing house: see this guest post for her experiences as a digital publisher). Today she talks about her experiences at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change (aka TOC2011) conference, which concluded last week.

I have never seen so many iPads in one room before in my life.

It was like walking into an Apple store, except the business casual gurus at the podium were not Steve Jobs but representatives from the various factions of digital publishing. I don’t know if tech can save publishing, but looking around the room as the speaker blathers on about ePub3 I can guess what the professionals think.

O’Reilly’s annual Tools of Change conference is all about pushing the boundaries of publishing and applying innovation to tired paradigms and business models. It sounds exciting and certainly many aspects of it were exciting. The Startup Showcase was a room full of interesting ideas (including mine!) for every facet of publishing: community lead storytelling, ultimate dictionaries, digital ‘DVD extras’ for books … there was no shortage of innovation on hand.

But other aspects of the conference were more telling. For example, I arrived at Data-driven Marketing and Product Development eager to pick up some new tricks only to find myself sitting in Design Process 101. I sat through a ten minute explanation of iterative design basics that have been around since the 80ties, while a fascinated audience of publishers took careful notes on their iPads, before I left.

Seriously? Are the leaders of publishing so far behind that methodology that was ground breaking when cellphones were the size of tissue boxes is news?

Moving down the hall I slipped into Can You Afford Not to Consider Accessible Publishing Practices? That I misunderstood what was meant by ‘accessible publishing’ was a happy accident, because this was probably the best lecture I saw. Dave Gunn broke down the technology that is making access to publications for the disabled cheaper and easy to pull off, but what stood out for me was the point he made about how the futuristic tech of today is built on tools originally designed for the disabled. Computers can analyze movies because of Closed Captioning, cars can respond to voice commands because of recognition software, inventions that track eye movement are bringing us closer to machines that we can control with our minds. This was what I came here for. This was really interesting stuff.

This was also the least attended of all the panels and workshops I saw. There were maybe forty of us in a room arranged to hold two hundred.

There’s an old joke about the first web bubble and the death of the business method patent. Once a relatively obscure legal structure, business method patents surged when entrepreneurs found they could use them to patent completely normal transactions simply by adding ‘on the internet’ to the description.

This is a shopping cart … on the internet.
This is credit card processing … on the internet!

Eventually these patents proved unenforceable– and therefore a colossal waste of money– because there’s nothing really innovative about doing what you’ve always done just ON THE INTERNET.

Sometimes when I look at what the experts are calling the future of publishing I feel like it’s business method patents all over again. Most of the talk from publishers is ‘how can we use this tech to continue doing what we’ve always done, to bring back the good old days?’ Very little talk about how tech can be used to cast light on the inefficiencies that brought us the bad old days to begin with. Very little talk about how tech can be used to minimize waste, increase accountability and sell books smarter.

Over lunch I met Rick, an IT guy for a big name publisher. He ranted to anyone who would listen about the critical flaws in accountability at his own company. Books are judged based on units out the door, shipped to the Walmarts and Barnes and Nobles of the world. By the time the real sale figures have come in and actual profits or losses realized the congratulations and bonuses have already been issued and the editorial staff is working on other projects. The people who put out books that lose money never receive any feedback, never learn from their mistakes the way they could. It’s inefficiencies like this that are driving publishers out of business. Precisely the types of problems that tech can solve. Today.

I suppose none of this should come as a surprise. First rule about technology is that technology does not change behavior, technology only makes existing behaviors faster and easier. A colleague of mine is one of those great idea people, always telling me about a new gadget that’s going to make him organized enough to execute. It never happens because there’s nothing about a gadget that can change his attitudes or the way he sees the world, which is the root of the behavior. That’s what technology is: not a change maker, merely an accelerant.

The tools to change publishing are already here– most of them have been here for two decades– but can publishers learn to appreciate them? Or will I come back to a much smaller TOCcon 2031 and find myself sneaking out of a workshop called OMG There’s This Real Time Sales Tracking Thing, Did You Know????

IsaKft runs fluffy-seme, writes The Freelancers (amongst other things!) and may be found on Twitter as @IsaKft.

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Category: Guest Bloggers · Publishing