Transcendental blues

Five summers ago, I was juggling two assignments that would start an unlikely arc in my publishing career. With Laura Dawson, I was researching and writing what would become a 20,000-word report on the use of XML in book publishing, and on my own I was researching the impact of piracy on paid book sales. O'Reilly Media was the publisher for both projects.

Until that summer, I'd done very little public speaking on publishing topics. Although I'd worked in the industry for 25 years, consulting for ten of them, my focus had always been on the companies I worked for and the clients who hired me. I tended to treat those experiences as confidential: I'd been hired to solve a problem, not to develop marketing copy or land a speaking engagement.

Exceptions were rare. In one case, a client with a limited consulting budget asked if we would take on a more extensive project if we could talk about our work with potential clients. We agreed, and a summary of the project was presented at the 2008 Tools of Change (TOC) conference in New York.

XML and piracy led me to take on public roles in ways I hadn't really expected. I was generally comfortable speaking in public; by 2008 I'd run for local office five times and served nine years on my community's school board. But for the first time I started to think about where the industry was headed.

The two research reports soon became the foundation for a series of public presentations, including: a conference dedicated to XML; the 2009 version of TOC; BookNet Canada's Tech Forum; and BookExpo America. Print-on-demand (POD) research that had been sponsored by BookNet Canada evolved into a call for much greater use of the technology within book publishing.

In March of 2009 I started blogging (more or less) regularly. It took me nearly three years to work up to a "post every day" schedule, and for much of the first year that I posted, I had only a marginal sense of how I was choosing my topics. Still, my writing experiences started to shape my speaking in several ways.

The first was breadth. The blog covered magazine, book and association publishing, and I searched for topics that filled these buckets. As I tried to write more regularly, I began to look more broadly for examples, and as I did that, I started to find a number of common themes.

The second was depth, as I started to return to these themes in a cumulative way. The impact of piracy was an early meme, one accelerated by my experience at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009, where I had been alternately boosted and condemned for a presentation offering evidence that a growth in sales of the titles we'd been studying took place at the same time as the onset of piracy.

Depth came in other areas, as well. In the fall of 2009, I delivered the first of several overviews of trends in mobile reading. I continued to present the case for greater use of POD in book publishing, and I started to develop a new set of ideas about the challenges of print-based workflows.

My writing shaped my speaking in one other way: reach. As I started to find a voice in text, I wanted to integrate it into everything else I did. I started seeing connections across workflow, piracy, mobile technologies, and POD and other short-run production technologies. I came to see how the growth of online communities and disruption in magazines (already evident) could affect book and association publishers.

I hadn't planned or expected any of this; speaking grew out of my writing, and my writing increasingly reflected a concern for the future of publishing.

January 2010 provided an early turning point. For the first iteration of Digital Book World (DBW), I'd been asked to moderate a panel on "eBook challenges: Competing with free and getting the timing right". Nominally, the panel was tied to work I'd done on piracy, but its participants had been assembled before I was asked to moderate, and my role was limited to managing the four panelists.

The panel wound up being the kind that certain conference organizers love. It generated lots of heat, much of it provided by a well-known literary agent, but it offered precious little light. The panel format is well-practiced, but its effectiveness depends on factors that are often underattended. I left the stage discouraged, vowing to never moderate a panel again.

I was already on the hook for two presentations (piracy and POD) at the 2010 TOC conference, followed by an overview of XML for the U.K.-based Independent Publishers Guild in March of that year. Chastened by my DBW experience, I planned to attend those two meetings and then retire from speaking. 

Though I had dialed back on talking, I kept writing throughout the spring of 2010. April saw 27 posts, with another 21 in May and then six in June. Writing became an exercise in public revelation, and I started exploring for the first time many of the themes that would consume much of the next three years:

  • Formats as an option and "the privilege to be objects"
  • Content brands that "solved a problem"
  • Single-use workflows as a costly conceit
  • A focus on community, not devices
  • The interplay of DRM, value and price
  • The rise of an author class
  • The coming value of global markets

It was a good three months, a period when the work of the prior two years kind of came together for the first time. It was also just ahead of Peter Brantley's call for papers (CFP) for the first iteration of Books in Browsers.

By the time the CFP went out, I was already trying to write what I called "A unified field theory of publishing". It kept getting pushed back. The argument was more complex than any of the things I'd normally tackled on the blog, but I also thought no conference would ever provide a platform to talk about the corrosive nature of publishing workflows.

I was wrong. In mid-July of that year I proposed "unified" to Peter Brantley, whose simple answer was "Go for it".

Somewhat frustrated by my earlier speaking experiences, I threw myself into making "unified" the strongest case I could. I threw out bullet points and asked my oldest child, then 24, to help illustrate the talk. Soon after, we threw out PowerPoint and started experimenting with Prezi. The work continued through August, September and much of October. I remember doing little else at that time.

The morning of the conference, I posted the text for "A unified field theory of publishing" on the blog. At the time it was the most extensive post I'd written, and the title was way too long for the narrow columns on the home page. I needed a shorter description, and in the early part of a San Francisco day I named it "Context first".

In the years to come, that presentation was followed by "The opportunity in abundance" (2011), "Community organizers" (2012) and "Disaggregating supply" (2013). Beyond these four presentations, I've also talked about the role of metadata in the book industry supply chain; new and emerging business models; best practices in digital exports; and the impact of digital publishing on territorial rights.

I was able to migrate, successfully, from talking about what interested other people to talking about what I think should be interesting to anyone in publishing. Along the way, I travelled more than 300,000 miles and attended more than 100 events.

I think of these things not because I've done a lot, but as part of an exercise to figure out what I've done and what I should do next. Over the course of this summer, I've been culling literally hundreds of files built up over 15 years of consulting, researching and speaking. The amount of paper I've recycled has passed 20 linear feet, liberating on its own, but a move that makes me wonder what I'm hanging on to still.

So I find myself toward the end of an arc that started five summers ago, and I am reminded of how I felt early in 2010: I want to do something useful, but I don't think that means doing more of what got me here.

Books in Browsers now positions itself as "a small summit for the new generation of internet publishing companies, focusing on developers and designers who are building and launching tools for online storytelling, expression, and art." I'm keenly aware that I don't make anything, that as a consultant I fundamentally lack any skin in the game.

It may be time to change that. As was the case in 2010, I'm on the hook for presenting at two more meetings, and then I am done. Unlike 2010, I'm not of the mind that "being done" means "never speaking again". I just need to find a better way to make the messages stick. You don't know until you try.

A bit of disclosure: After that 2010 experience, I actually did moderate another panel discussion, "Running with the bulls: Publisher perspectives on managing eBook growth". It was part of a NISO conference, "The eBook Renaissance" that took place in Boston last October. I have a good deal of respect for the work that NISO does, and I like Todd Carpenter and Nettie Lagace, who put together the event for NISO. Todd promised that it would not be much work, but we both knew he was fibbing. This eBook discussion shed a lot more light than heat. Maybe the moderator is learning as he goes.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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