Change Itself Overtakes “Tools of Change”: What’s Next?
Tim O’Reilly has got to be one of the Industry’s most creative and challenging thinkers. He is a pioneer in popularizing the Web 2.0 concept — the social networking and interactive applications of Web usage. He and his team have built an impressive global enterprise that from its beginnings has been on the leading edge of our movement from the codex to multimedia content in the cloud.
The widespread regard he and O’Reilly Media had achieved in the publishing world for their innovative outreach explains why what could otherwise be considered a sensible business decision, to close down and move on from the TOC conference platform, came as such a jolt — even a sense of betrayal for some.
As TOC described itself in its 2013 conference prospectus, it was all about setting new horizons and a global culture, and about creating a community that would transcend the formal and legacy structures in the industry:
TOC reaches outside traditional industry boundaries to find people and companies from around the world who are doing stuff that matters. Program chairs Kat Meyer and Joe Wikert curate the content to bring together cutting-edge speakers, topics that push the boundaries of how we define "publishing" and unique insight into what's next for the publishing industry.
TOC is an inclusive meeting ground for exploring the options, a gathering place for the publishing community, and an unparalleled opportunity for in-person networking. Participants come away from TOC with the knowledge and inspiration to lead change within their own organizations.
Closing down TOC three months after its 2013 event pulled the rug out from under the community of publishing and supply chain professionals inspired by that vision. They had formed strong bonds and carried the message of innovation in the Web 2.0 world out to their working community throughout the year.
With O’Reilly’s transformative business mission in mind, O’Reilly announced last week the time had come to move on to other things. He wrote in his blog:
We realized that a conference was no longer the best vehicle for us to contribute to publishing’s forward movement. We’re shifting the focus of our publishing tools group from hosting the conversation about publishing technology to bringing our own tools to market.
This strikes me as a rational business decision on its face. And doubtless a difficult one for a business that was able to transcend its immediate product and service value proposition and inspire a following and extend its reach in so many influential ways.
Surely that was not his intention, but O’Reilly seemed to have overlooked his customers and their investment in his mission and community
A business doesn’t exist as a public service — its public service derives from its viability as a profitable business. Entrepreneurs and investors pursue a vision and a mission for which they undertake a risk and expect a reward — without which the incentive and the fuel to operate the business would be eroded.
That said, it has always bothered me that — as a confirmed believer in the marketplace as the arbiter of business success or failure in our industry (and analogously in others) — the investments of employees and customers in creating surplus value are not measured in considering stakeholder entitlements. The paycheck and product delivery are considered fulfillment of the contract.
Many a good publishing house or division was closed down through the years, not because it wasn’t profitable or failed to produce a superlative product for which it had a following, but it was not profitable enough. Or it diverted resources from initiatives that had more profitable prospects or mission priorities.
For me, the issue is not to forsake the more profitable option or a newly desirable mission for “the greater good.” One person’s good is another’s indulgence. It is to consider other options that would take into account the value of employee or customer interests and loyalties over time. It would bring humanity into the business decision.
As Brian O’Leary observed in his Magellan Media blog “Wrecking Ball” on May 6:
Any events professional will tell you: the way O’Reilly handled TOC is insane. If the company wasn’t sure it wanted to keep running TOC, at the very least it should have put the franchise up for sale as a going concern.
Even if someone was willing to offer just $1 to take over the franchise (as I and many others would have done in a heartbeat), O’Reilly would have saved both face and the cost of severance. Two people widely respected by the industry would have kept their jobs, and the community would persist.
How and why did this come to pass?
When Tim O’Reilly founded what was then O’Reilly & Associates around 1984 (now O’Reilly Media) it was transforming itself from a consulting and manuals writing company to a publisher of programming and software development books across the spectrum of technology. Extending its publication franchises it formed a conference division; it applied its internal work flow tools to a digital distribution business serving other publishers such Wiley, Elsevier and Microsoft Press.
It had already started Safari Books Online, a digital lending library, expanded its conference programs globally to Frankfurt, Bologna and elsewhere, and had become a leader in defining the Open Source community, when seven years ago O’Reilly Media launched the first Tools of Change Conference. O’Reilly saw the industry moving into the digital, Internet and social networking age — uncertain in direction, but with a bounty of opportunity ahead. And he saw there a business opportunity to bring together the technologists and the creators and the supply chain to explore future possibilities and present opportunities together.
Before Joe Wikert and Kat Meyer took over organizing and vitalizing TOC, Andrew Savikas provided the conference hosting. And each event featured a keynote, closing and/or interview with Tim himself exploring possibilities, raising questions and setting his stamp on the event.
It was quite clear then that TOC was as much an expression of Tim’s personal and professional interest in finding new tools and pathways and speculating about the digital future as it was a business opportunity.
Wikert and Meyer added new energy and a new stamp. While to my more conventional, linear and conservative tastes, the conference seemed to move more and more towards entertainment as much as content, multitasking as much as focus, I enjoyed the show and the smorgasbord of choices, and always came away with something new learned or a new idea to consider. I figured that the newer and younger generations in our future were more than able to keep up with the pace.
One innovation that sticks in mind that warned me I was probably out of step with the army of change is agile publishing, revolutionizing the process of authoring itself. It is fundamental to the process of “writing,” and was introduced last year with examples of its application by O’Reilly and Sourcebooks — the process by which reader feedback is applied to the initial drafting of the manuscript and its eventual publication in early stage, rough cut or feedback editions. Hard for me to wrap my arms around this mode of writing — but it has also been practiced for some time in the fiction form, allowing readers to select scenario options from chapter to chapter as a new title is developed by the author.
With such experiences, a network of thought leaders and early adopters emerged as a year-round community, providing inspiration for each other, and a platform for presenters and service providers and vendors in the digital space to reach this doorway to the wider market.
O’Reilly saw the need for a forum in the trade show world whose agenda wasn’t tied to immediate established interests, but rather reached out to possibility and opportunity. (In my opinion those meat and potatoes interests are vital and deserve attention, which is what the other trade conferences and expo’s address)
It required a lot of stamina to get through three days of plenaries, keynotes, presentations, lightning rounds, demonstrations, schmoozing at exhibits of all kinds, round tables of interest groups late into the night and on the fly discoveries of new connections and new networks to become a part of.
Their capacity audiences brought enthusiasms that were up to the task, and the presenters that TOC collected — including artists, performers, dreamers and cage rattlers, satisfied audience appetites. A variety of formats and experiencing characterized the events: including half-day intensive workshops, multiple breakout tracks, short consecutive plenary keynotes, features such as Startup Show Case, Ignite brainstormed rapid presentations, late evening Round Table Sessions, the Digital Petting Zoo (reading devices), Media Shift Mixer, TOC Drinkup and other social connections.
For old timers and conservatives such as myself, it wasn’t easy to keep up with the program — but I enjoyed every moment, even as in the darkened room of packed plenaries, people were multitasking and tweeting all around me with their portable devices as I tried to take notes the old fashioned way in my steno pad.
I, too, was ready for change.
Nonetheless, I expected that TOC would go on forever — in effect that change would never change.
So how did its sudden passing come to pass?
O’Reilly himself decided for some good business reason it was time for a change. The question remains not so much why. O’Reilly Media overall will continue among the leaders of the pack, I have no doubt
Change comes one way or another — but could he have managed it in better ways, considering the TOC community he himself created?
Events such as DBW, BEA, ALA, AAUP, IBPA, PubWest, Publishers Launch and our own Book Business magazine’s Publishing Business Conference and Expo will take up the slack in their own way.
Meanwhile, perhaps, some new upstart, some Black Swan, will emerge and overtake us all, and change the whole game for everyone.
Eugene G. Schwartz is editor at large for ForeWord Reviews, an industry observer and an occasional columnist for Book Business magazine. In an earlier career, he was in the printing business and held production management positions at Random House, Prentice-Hall/Goodyear and CRM Books/Psychology Today. A former PMA (IBPA) board member, he has headed his own publishing consultancy, Consortium House. He is also Co-Founder of Worthy Shorts Inc., a development stage online private press and publication service for professionals as well as an online back office publication service for publishers and associations. He is on the Publishing Business Conference and Expo Advisory Board.