Those of us in the shallow, print-y end of the digital publishing pool can be forgiven for thinking that Tools of Change was the company, and tech publisher O’Reilly and its Safari Books Online merely adjuncts of that glorious and grueling confab. Which made last week’s announcement that O’Reilly was discontinuing the Tools of Change conferences (the New York flagship and its smaller meetings, including those timed to book fairs in Frankfurt and Bologna) and its blog all the more surprising.
In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been all that surprised.
Topmost for me is concern for the two indefatigable leaders of the TOC conferences, Kat Meyer and Joe Wikert, who are out of jobs, though I trust not for long, considering their skill in bringing the conferences together and expanding its scope over the past several years. (Which can be cold comfort–as we all know, physical, butt-in-chair jobs are harder and harder to come by in the vaporware publishing world we increasingly inhabit.)
Which is only one of the reasons that the end of TOC could have been anticipated. Besides the slushy misery of hosting a huge conference in New York every February, the very digital technologies that we trumpet to make virtual visits and bit-driven reading possible can render lots-of-butts-in-conference-chairs harder to justify. (The museum world still seems to like its get-togethers, thank goodness, and if the need to meet our colleagues in person is a residue of the academic-world conference mentality, I’m all for it.)
But as anyone who’s been to more than a few of these things and eventually got over the “why am I here?” nerves, what made these conferences so valuable were the conversations sprouting like tubeworms in the tectonic gaps between panels, often running into and through the next scheduled talks. (Check out any run of tweets from a conference Twitter stream or Epilogger–if people hailed what they learned chatting with a newfound colleague instead of sitting in too-cold-or-too-hot ballrooms, then save the date for the following year.) This past February, at my third TOC, I finally felt empowered to miss a panel or two in favor of talking to people whom I’d found, or who found me, on the conference message board. Those conversations continue to this day, broken up by weeks in the here-to-Neptune timelapse of modern time un-management, and I expect they will bear fruitful results, if only through metaphors and pie-high schemes that make this digital age so strange and nervy and exciting.
But just as a trillion-dollar manned space program is an inefficient way to develop Tang, a giant conference is an expensive excuse for chats, both for those who are supposed to attend, and for the organizers. There are only so many iterations of the question, “so what’s next for digital publishing?” or “what’s the new platform or tech we need to invest in?” Eventually, the descriptions of the tech become the thing itself, especially in digital publishing, in which the agile process of putting content together can become the product. How many digital pubs could be birthed in three days? (And try monetizing that. And, yes, it’s being done in “hack-a-thons” everywhere. Or so I’ve heard.)
So, while bummed, I get O’Reilly’s reasoning for stopping for conferences, though the callous manner in which it was announced has the publishing world extremely annoyed. A little odder is their decision to focus on “bringing their own tools to market.” They are extending their own in-house publishing platform, an authoring-to-publication tool, and monetizing it, leveraging the considerable brand recognition they’ve developed on the mutual backs of their Safari Books and, since (to quote The Matrix) “Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony,” the TOC conferences themselves.
But the question is, are the conference audiences in search of such a platform? That’s exactly what came across at this year’s TOC, as the platform-and-protocol mania of previous events gave way to a more flexible, audience-driven set of goals. I have no doubt that O’Reilly can pull off the techie end, but have they read the market correctly? Were the TOC conferences actually Trojan Horse marketing experiments? (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Okay, there is.) The money that went into my attendance at TOC is not going to be rerouted to chase the next collaborative platform. It’s not the idea that’s the problem. It’s that, in this day and age, it’s hard to go with one vendor’s version over another.
I wish O’Reilly the best because it’s bad karma to do otherwise. (And it would be the epitome of hypocrisy for me to have told people “eh” when Amazon bought Goodreads, and to then bash O’Reilly in public when they chase dollars–I mean vision–in a different way.) I wish Kat and Joe the very, very, very best because they’re the actual victims here. (I suspect that the carcass of TOC will feed more than a few smaller, more nimble conferences which will be great.) Personally, I’m extra bummed because I had spoken with Kat recently about getting more museums and other non-profits to attend future TOC events–as panelists–and describe the great things that museum technologists have been doing while the publishing world convulsed into spasms at each new digital flavor of the season. Of course, all the information presented at these conferences will be available over the intertubes, but the handshakes and the chats will be a little harder to generate in the skype-a-verse, and for that, we should all be bummed.