From Digitized Books to RFID: Keeping Abreast of 'Tools of Change'

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By Len Vlahos, ABA Director of Education & of

There I was, deep in the heart of Silicon Valley. No Blackberry, no roaming broadband connection for my laptop. Just a guy with a briefcase and hardcover copy of Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower to keep me entertained.

I was in San Jose for the O'Reilly Media "Tools of Change" conference -- a gathering of publishing professionals, all eager to hear about the latest trends in new technology. I had been dispatched to the event to help continue ABA's efforts to ensure that independent booksellers are participating in the digital revolution, to keep our ear to the ground, and to share our voice at the table.

In many ways, "Tools of Change" was a prototypical conference: We attended plenary sessions presented in a large hall, the eerie glow of smart phones the only points of light as attendees checked their e-mail; we watched a parade of PowerPoint slides at the smaller breakout sessions as we huddled for warmth in over air-conditioned meeting rooms; and we broke bread together at communal breakfasts and lunches sporting standard hotel fare and long buffet lines. But even a jaded conference-goer could sense there was something different in the air.

You could sense the winds of change in the keynote addresses. Highlights included talks by Tim O'Reilly, the publishing and new media guru (and conference organizer), who coined the phrase "Web 2.0"; Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen, who made the worrisome pronouncement that print will ultimately die (a view of the future not universally shared at the conference, but one that sparked much debate); Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia and a new venture,; Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired Magazine and author of the controversial "Long Tail Theory"; Brian Murray, a group president at HarperCollins, one of the publishers hacking a path through the dense growth of the digital landscape; and John Ingram, chairman of the Ingram Book Group, who announced an exciting new deal between Ingram and Microsoft LiveSearch.

The keynote that had the most enthusiastic response was from a designer at the Royal College of Art named Manolis Kelaidis. His talk, "bLink: Completing the Connection Between the Analog and Digital Worlds," is hard to describe with words alone; Mr. Kelaidis demonstrated how he digitized a printed book. Yes, you read that right. He digitized a traditional book, printed on paper and bound in cloth. These digitized books display printed icons throughout their text. Touch the icon with your finger, and you'll launch a Web browser on your computer or handheld device, or, perhaps, start a song on your MP3 player. I won't pretend to understand the technology, but "conductive ink" working in tandem with a microchip is what makes the system work. It simply has to be seen to be believed.

Kelaidis' address was the only presentation to get a standing ovation in the two days of sessions I attended. I found that interesting. Was his innovative device so lovingly embraced because the attendees saw it as a useful tool to sell books and content? Or were publishers enthralled because it enabled us to talk about digitization while continuing to dwell in the realm of the printed page?

Other interesting sessions included presentations on RFID, panel discussions on the current state of eBooks and digital content in the major publishing houses, and a well-stated case for why standards are so important in the rapidly changing world of publishing and bookselling. (Just how do you assign an ISBN to a piece of disaggregated digital content created on the fly? If you're not sure what that means, send me a note and I'll explain.)

But as good as the sessions were, the beating heart of the conference could be heard mostly loudly in the halls. The conversations between attendees -- in which ideas about new technologies and business processes were shared, content deals bartered, digital strategies proffered -- was where the real action took place. The networking opportunities alone were well worth the price of admission.

Erin McKean, chief consulting editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press, gave the closing address: "Dictionaries and Other Book-shaped Objects." The premise was intriguing. "What's a bird-shaped object?" she asked, showing the audience an image of a robin. "This fits our idea of a prototypical bird. But what about this?" The image on the screen changed to an emu. Ms. McKean asked if a five-foot tall bird that didn't fly and occasionally attacked humans fit our idea of prototypical bird. Was it a "bird-shaped object?"

This was all a precursor to her suggestion that a dictionary, a traditionally "book-shaped object," did not, in fact, fit our prototypical idea of a book. "I'd like to have the OED with me at a restaurant to decipher the menu," McKean said. "But it won't fit in my back pocket. I'd much rather have it on my smart phone."

It was food for thought. Just because a dictionary has always been published in codex form, doesn't mean it should be. Consumers want information and content in myriad ways. It was the perfect polemic to end the two-day discourse on change. Our job is to serve consumers how, when, and where they want to be served, even if it means selling emus alongside robins.