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There were a lot of surprising comments at Bookcamp Toronto, not always in a good way, but the one that’s sticking with me most came in a conversation I had after introducing myself as a software engineer who works in publishing: “Wow, what a terrible job.”

Are you kidding? I think I have the best job in the world.

There is so much interesting work to be done. For me it’s like time-traveling back to the start of the commercial web in 1996, but armed with all the tools and learning of the last 13 years. Frankly I can’t believe how few other developers like me there are out there, given that geeks are typically such — pardon the pun — bookworms.

So by the end of the day at BookCamp I felt a little worn down by the amount of fear and negativity that arose in some of the sessions. Particularly dispiriting is that some of the most vocal dissenters were small presses and independent authors, the groups that are most likely to benefit from these transformations in digital publishing.

I’m glad that BookCamp brought so many different people together, but I wish more of them looked to technology as means to solve problems, not a scourge to be stamped out. Don’t scowl and insist, “Ebooks have to cost $20 because that’s what our production costs are.” Just ask us: “How can the internet help us to make $5 ebooks?” Technologists want to help.

I wanted to hear more from people like the author who, listening to a discussion about networked, linked, internet-aware books, asked thoughtfully, “Would I know that my book would be distributed this way?” I thought she was going to complain about loss of control, or sniff that this was an affront to her artistry, as many other authors had during the day.

Instead she said, “Because if I knew that, I would write a different kind of book.”

Tags: bcto09, bookcamp, toronto,

23 Responses to “BookCamp Toronto report”

  1. jane

    I can’t agree with you more, Liza, that the subsection of publishing that would benefit the most from digital publishing adoption is the subsection of publishing that looks upon it with the most disdain.

    The demographic that a) buys books and b) buys the ereader device matches that of the demographic that would ordinarily be in the small press/lit fic bailiwick. Think of how much more cost effective it would be to release a high quality, well designed ebook first and then move those titles that have interest into print?

  2. Richard Nash

    Part of what sustains the survival instinct in independent publishers is a sense of embattledness. The barbarians are at the gate. And, as with say, allergies, sometimes the immune system finds the wrong thing to fight.

    You learn, as an indie publisher, all these tweaks and tricks and workaround in order to manage to operate in the existing supply chain and you can get almost addicted to those, in a bizarre kinda Stockholm Syndrome. So that when someone shows you a way out, you flinch. And maybe you lash out.

    It’s just going to take some independent publishers to step through the door and survive, and maybe even thrive. Then they’ll be joined, rapidly, by their peers, because the good thing with indie presses is that they can move fast, once they decide to move.

    Thanks for stepping into the breach. Liza.

  3. liza

    Richard: There were a few anecdotes from small publishers who had shown real success too. “We released an free ebook for a limited time and saw increased sales,” etc. In contrast, I didn’t hear any case studies reporting failure.

    I hope those examples are what sticks in people’s minds.

  4. liza

    Jane: I thought of you when I heard the comment, “The market isn’t giving us enough feedback about what ebooks should cost.”

  5. Ian Barker

    Interesting. I think some of the concern arises because people are thinking in terms of current publishing paradigms, rather than in terms of where the business is headed, and the value proposition and resulting cost structure needed to support those operations.

    But without a doubt, the publishing technology companies, ours included, are very eager to help publishers — large and small — discover the products, services and business models that will sustain them in the future.

  6. Jack Illingworth

    Interesting. I almost feel that we were at different Bookcamps, but then I think we didn’t attend many of the same sessions — other than the one at which you demoed Zen Garden. There was a huge amount of positive energy and genuine curiosity coming out from most of the publishers that I work with that day.

    I do think that many people in the business (and I’m not excluding myself from this) could benefit from a discussion on collaborating with technologists. We’re getting better at it, but in most cases it involves hiring an outsider (who may not have many tech skills of their own) to manage and liaise. It’s a start, but that’s all it is.

  7. Morgan Cowie

    I second Jack. At book camp TO, I heard a lot more people looking for answers to ‘how can we do this’ rather than ‘how can we stop this’.

    Publishing is not a fast-moving, early-adoption kind of industry. Knowing this, we have the opportunity to keep building on the how:

    *How do we transition out of customer-alienating drm?
    *How do we move towards standards that make things more efficient and drive quality, thus making it cheaper to do more?
    *How do we create a beta-embracing culture where we experiment without betting the farm?

    These are all questions that technologists have a great depth of insight into and excellent reasons for the dialogue to deepen. I guess the question is – how?

  8. Don Linn

    We have to get over production costs. The market doesn’t owe publishers a living. We should be able to put a version of Moore’s Law into effect for digital publishing as the tools evolve and folks like Liza are making that happen. We don’t know all the how’s, let alone the outcomes yet but if we wait until the model is fully developed and the risks are all gone, it’ll be too late.

  9. liza

    I’m glad to hear I might be full of it!

    Here, I’ll try some drive-by answers:

    How do we transition out of customer-alienating drm?

    Try it and measure the outcome.

    How do we move towards standards that make things more efficient and drive quality, thus making it cheaper to do more?

    Fire your tech vendors who use proprietary software.

    How do we create a beta-embracing culture where we experiment without betting the farm?

    Hire a bright web developer and bring them into your office. Don’t make them do IT work.

  10. Jane

    liza: seriously? does the $9.99 crusade at Amazon by Amazon readers tell the industry anything?

  11. liza

    That comment was part of a discussion on the $9.99 campaign!

    I believe the assertion was being made that the $9.99 price was “artificial” (because it was introduced by Amazon), and that there are hopes that the “natural” price point was higher.

  12. Jane

    Liza: So essentially they aren’t hearing the price talk that they want to hear.

  13. Hugh

    Then there was Alana from Coach House Press who told me: “We put our entire backlist of books on the web, in html, for free in 1997…and the rest of the Canadian publishing industry basically forced us to stop” …(!).

    I think the techy sessions probably attracted more resistance, because skills/jobs are on the line due to changing tech.

    I was actually shocked at how positive the engagement was in the rest of the sessions.

    And yes, I did not quite get this: “we need clearer price signals on ebooks…” but I did not have the chance to talk with the woman who said it.

  14. liza

    I’ve heard nothing but good things about Coach House in terms of their innovative approaches.

  15. Miette

    Right, I heard both:

    – [publishers] need to continue to keep things locked down and in the maw until we figure out how to inflate prices in other ways to keep margins high enough for everyone to get a cut

    -and-

    – we should explore every imaginable way to disseminate content and reach readers, even if that means giving it away for free or looking-the-other-way and tacitly accepting a limited amount of the ILLEGAL and BAD.

    Then I came home and took a swig of the mouthwash that is Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, to remind myself that we as creators don’t have to keep literature confined to strict market terms.

    Love the Zen Garden– big fat kudos!
    – Mtte.

  16. Priyanka D

    This is an interesting point, while I came across your blog. Though I am not in ebook business, I can understand how often technology is not seen as a utility, its blamed for not doing somthing. Which is silly cause we made it to make our work easier…!

  17. steph troeth

    It’s funny, I felt similarly that people were not so ready to embrace what technology could help to solve. Perhaps it’s because we’ve lived (and stumbled) through the early days of the web — for me I know it was particularly distressing to hear the same arguments again, 10 years late. Though as you put it, we ought to be able to learn from the last decade or so.

    What’s more interesting is that books aren’t a whole new thing; they have been with us for such a long time that we can derive a much better sense for what people /need/, we just have to figure out what they would like, or what they would like when they see/feel/use but don’t know it yet. The web was all new and unproven, and had remained unproven for a very long while; to this day, we still stumble forwards with what the web ought to be.

    For me as a technologist, there are few things more exciting to be at this meeting point where we are essentially evolving a very old medium. It means there are old “habits” we have to deal with, but that’s only part of it. Gives me goosebumps, it does.

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