Keeping Independent Booksellers in the Digital Dialogue

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By Len Vlahos, ABA Chief Program Officer

The weather in New York on February 11 and 12 went from sub-zero wind chills, to snow and sleet, to driving, soaking rain. But inside the Marriott Marquis in Time Square, at the O'Reilly Media "Tools of Change" Conference, it was all sunshine and light.

The two-day event was a reprise of the Tools of Change conference held last year in San Jose, California, in mid-June. The most notable change at this year's event was the number of attendees. Moving the event to New York drew publishing professionals from every discipline -- editorial, marketing, sales, IT -- in astounding numbers.

The lineup of speakers was impressive: Tim O'Reilly (our host), on how the economy of free is changing the way books are bought, sold, and read; Seth Godin (author of 10 books and my former boss!), on how to use new media, new marketing, and new thinking to create bestsellers; Douglas Rushkoff (Get Back in the Box, HarperCollins), on how interpersonal connectivity is the new coin of the realm; John Ingram (Ingram Book Group), on the evolution of the supply chain; Sara Nelson (Publishers Weekly), on how digitization is impacting the editorial and marketing processes; and so many more.

Most of the information presented was aimed squarely at publishers, but there was a lot for booksellers (and trade association professionals) to learn, too.

Two themes seemed to come up in session after session. The first was best espoused by Rushkoff in his Monday morning keynote: Whose Story Is This Anyway? When Readers Become Writers. "Content is not king; contact is king," he said, harkening back to Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message" to explain that people use content online (and offline) to make connections with other people. Rushkoff made the case that after 50 years of television undermining the human need for contact "we all wound up in different rooms, watching some niche cable channel on our own individual TV sets"; however, new technologies have enabled us to reconnect. This theme of "interactivity" being replaced by "interpersonal connection" was repeated often throughout the conference. Godin used the examples of his own bestsellers (Permission Marketing, Purple Cow, Idea Virus, etc.) to make the point that "it's not about selling books." It's about the relationship.

The second major theme, and really, the point of the conference, was about how best to distribute digital content. Underscored by HarperCollins' announcement,on the opening morning of the conference, that it would be giving away digital copies of Paulo Coelho's novel The Witch of Portobello and five other books, it was clear that publishers were seeking to find distribution models that work. Issues like copyright, digital rights management, and social media were discussed and debated. The debacle in the music industry -- Napster, RIAA lawsuits, iTunes, and declining sales -- was oft referred to, and the early success of the Amazon Kindle was frequently invoked.

One of the most engaging sessions was Craig Miller's "Reaching the MySpace Generation." Miller, who handles business development for Libre Digital, suggested that a device for reading e-books would not have iPod-like success until it met several key criteria: all the world's content available in a standardized form; individuals having access to everything they'd ever read, and the ability to rip that content in much the same way they rip compact discs; the ability to pass content to friends and family; a compelling interface; and all of it available for under $200. (Miller clearly didn't think the Kindle, in its current form, was going to be the "killer-app.")

As is the case with so many conferences, the greatest value was the time in between sessions, meeting colleagues old and new. It's important for independent booksellers to have a voice in digital dialogue currently taking place, and I feel lucky to have the opportunity to be one of those voices.

If you have questions about TOC, don't hesitate to drop me a line: len@bookweb.org.