No doubt the big news this week for the digerati, the surprise decision by Tim O'Reilly to 'shutter' the Tools of Change conference and cull the community. The decision did not play well within that community with strongly worded responses both from Porter Anderson and Brian O'Leary. The Bookseller's own Sam Missingham also nailed it on FutureBook describing its passing as "premature".
I'd agree with that. But actually, there has been talk in the sector for some time about 'peak conference', especially as the industry has moved from the position of wondering how digital change will impact, to actually responding to that change. This seems to be where O'Reilly is positioning himself, writing on this blog that the company is "shifting the focus of our publishing tools group from hosting the conversation about publishing technology to bringing our own tools to market".
Despite the criticism the decision has prompted, one can only admire O'Reilly's dedication of purpose. Having built the brand, and for many led the digital conversation, he now wants to be the voice that ends it and takes it in a new direction. No mixed messages here.
Except that, of course, not everyone did buy in to the O'Reilly worldview, which was so astutely dissected by the writer Andrew Keen in his book, The Cult of the Amateur. When TOC initially came to Frankfurt the conference was criticised for pushing an anti-DRM line, with some quipping that it was aimed more at developers than publishers.
But actually one of the things TOC did well was that it invited in voices from outside the trade, and sometimes those voices said uncomfortable things about publishing. It cut across silos, as O'Leary writes. That's to be welcomed. But there was very definitely an O'Reilly agenda about TOC, particularly in its early days, which is why much of the community now feels so disowned. As O'Leary puts it: "once you’ve helped make a community, you have an obligation to nurture and sustain it. If you decide you want to do something else with your resources, you still have to provide for its care and feeding."
But perhaps that community is now better off on its own, defining its own future rather than waiting for an O'Reilly type figure to deliver them from the wildnerness. I'd say that rather than reaching 'peak conference' we have evolved as an industry into one much more comfortable talking about the change among ourselves and certainly one more equipped to do so.
At the best digital conferences I've been to insiders now at least match, word for word, the consultants or players from outside the sector. Over the past decade I've seen publishing conference evolve into collegiate workshops and we have become more confident as an industry because of it. But, though TOC had a hand in that, it was only a guiding hand, and in Europe, we are still very much in the early days, with pan European conferences such as IfBookThen only really now feeling their way into these digitally nascent regions. I'd like to think forthcoming FutureBook conferences will also fill this need, just as evolving the European digital conversation was part of the reason for the creation of this site.
In some ways then the O'Reilly retreat is to be welcomed. Just as the publishing community never let TOC entirely set the agenda for how their industry would change (trade publishers still use DRM, they still fight piracy), its closure should not define the digital conversation going forwards. There is still much to learn, much to talk about. And yes, Tim, tools to buy.
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