A More Fluid Publisher: Report from TOC 2012

For somebody who has been knee deep in e-books, XML-first workflows, and the development of a container-agnostic publishing strategy for the past couple of years, the sixth annual O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing (TOC) Conference, held in New York City on February 13-15, 2012, was an exciting way to connect with the people and ideas on the digital cutting edge.

The tech focus of the meeting started pre-conference, with O'Reilly's web interface for scheduling that allowed you to create a customized itinerary based on your interests, connect with other attendees you were interested in meeting, and more. This was supplemented by a TOC app that was available for both Apple and Android systems. This nifty little app (funded by sponsor MarkLogic) synched with your pre-conference online choices, allowing you to walk around with your customized schedule—and GPS-driven map—in your pocket.

In a workshop titled "Down & Dirty EPUB 3.0: Building an EPUB 3.0 From Start to Finish," Tom McCluskey and Amanda Gomm from Digital Bindery in Portland did an excellent job explaining the technical underpinnings of an EPUB file, highlighting what makes 3.0 a big improvement over 2.0.1. Amanda Gomm is planning a similar session for the AAUP Annual Meeting in Chicago, which will be a must for anybody dealing with EPUB (or 3PUB, the tech slang for EPUB 3.0). On the business end of the spectrum, Todd Sattersten's "Minimum Viable (Publishing) Product" workshop was quite provocative: "not publishing in big ways, but in small ways." Much of what Sattersten had to say can also be found in his own minimum viable publishing product, Every Book is A Startup, a work in progress that will be added to and updated over time—but is for sale from O'Reilly now.

Corey Pressman's presentation, "Hopeful Monsters: Punctuated Equilibrium and the Post-Book Age" was a more philosophical exploration—by an anthropologist-turned-e-book-specialist—of the history of the book as a container for content. Pressman made a compelling case that our ideas of what a book is or should be are limiting our ability to deliver content in exciting new ways made possible by the digital medium. LeVar Burton—whom I happened to meet utterly by chance while waiting for a cab outside the hotel—delivered a brief but inspiring opening keynote speech. "What we imagine is what we create," he argued (pointing to the original Star Trek communicators as the model for the flip cell phone), as he made a case for the continued relevance of books within the larger media ecosystem today.

If there were any key themes of the conference, I would say that they included a focus on agile workflows and processes for being able to bring product to market faster (sounds like a pipe dream from a university press point of view), alternative visions for e-books (either short-form works or more fully born-digital multimedia products), and the possibilities to integrate social media with books and a reading experience. This last was exemplified best by conference sponsor Copia, which offers a social media reading platform for university students. Together, all three of these themes really emphasize a more fluid publishing process and product, quite a different thing altogether from the static version of record that is the coin of the realm in university press publishing.

Speaking of which, there were not many faces from the AAUP present, although I did cross paths with Monica McCormick (NYU), Krista Coulson (Chicago), Eric Zinner (NYU), Emily Young (Duke), Emily Arkin (Harvard), and Thomas Elrod (North Carolina). I also heard a rumor that Jake Furbush (MIT) was in attendance. This is a difficult conference to attend on a university press budget—registration alone, unless you are getting a day pass, runs about $1,500. Fortunately, you can buy the entire conference on video for just $399 (all workshops, sessions, and keynotes were recorded) so the entire staff can (virtually) attend. Some interesting features of TOC, including the Digital Petting Zoo (there are many e-readers out there besides just Kindle and iPad, many of which I had never heard of) and the "Ignite"-style keynote sessions (a series of 5 minute keynote speeches limited to 20 slides) are also currently planned to be included in some form at this year's AAUP Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Darrin Pratt
Director, University Press of Colorado