Fifty Shades of Leverage in a Cost-Recovery World: O'Reilly TOC 2013

Mick Gusinde-Duffy (Georgia) attended the February 2013 O'Reilly Tools of Change Conference in New York, representing AAUP as a Media Partner. In May, O'Reilly announced the end of their popular conference series.

The biggest surprise for me at the O'Reilly Tools of Change (TOC) in Publishing Conference, held in New York last February, was the extent to which the most compelling sessions were not so much about cutting-edge technology, but rather about evolving content formats, and the shifting (yes, social) networks in which this content is churning.

On the evolving content side, the watchwords were pamphlets or serials. Content-providers and social-networkers of various stripes are all looking for innovative ways to deliver short, pithy publications. They are also embracing the work-in-progress virtues of the web, with rapid revisions and rewrites, driven by reader feedback and opportunities to collaborate.

For example, Peter Hamilton presented a session on his Leanpub site, where users can draft work and "publish" it over and over again, adjusting it based on feedback from the community of users—the mother of all writing workshops, if you will. Sites like Leanpub hark back to the periodical publishing days of the late 19th century, according to Hamilton, where authors like Dickens published work in serial form first and later installments were revised based on the ongoing feedback he received via fan mail. Only later did these installments come together as the massive novels we know today. As Hamilton put it, "a book is a startup," and you need to find ways to build support for your startup.

In addition to the writing and feedback community on Leanpub, the site provides conversion and delivery to multiple e-reader formats as well as to print-ready PDF. And authors can sell their content through the site, too. Authors publish "early and often," testing the market waters and building a readership, they hope.

One recent poster child for this sort of networked, serial writing process is Fifty Shades author E.L. James, who cut her teeth with posts to the Twilight fanfiction site before whipping up a complete novel.

I found all of this very interesting, but struggled to see just how such strategies might align with the "gold standard" peer review process we university presses like to hold up as our primary value to the academy. We have Creative Commons' online review and comments, but that doesn't yet match the rigor and judgment associated with conventional peer review.

New forms of online networks were also a feature of this conference. First, something I am calling the "Goldilocks" model was presented by Evan Williams (co-founder of Blogger and Twitter). He is launching a new social network site called Medium. Blogger allowed writers to express themselves in long-form posts and stories; Twitter restricted posts to 140 characters ("boot camp for songwriters," as Roseanne Cash once put it); Medium is just right. Participants will be able to post and read stories with viewing and commenting not just limited to "friends" networks. Participants can also add notes to stories, recommend them, and gather them in "conversations" (a set of stories related to particular subjects). So the writing and reading space becomes more collaborative. Medium is still in its beta stages, so it will be interesting tracking how the site develops.

Also in beta is Little Bird. This fascinating search/networking hybrid gathers and identifies experts and influence-makers online. The founders initially used some quite creative, but crude, expert-finding strategies. They identified a set of successful, innovative products, collected early blog entries related to those products, and then distilled that list down to the people who were most consistently commenting early, and accurately, on a product. These are your experts. Little Bird has subsequently developed an algorithm trolling websites and blogs to identify experts on a remarkably wide set of topics. As it grows, users will help to refine that list of experts with Yelp-like feedback.

An interesting piece of this environment is the possibility of measuring influence. So, for example, we may feel that publication x is a great venue for promoting a book, but based on data from Little Bird, placing a story with blogger y or tweeter z might have significantly higher impact.

My favorite anecdote: Little Bird's founder wanted to promote a new piece of software and so, using his expert-finding technology he identified a very influential but seemingly little-known blogger. When he approached the blogger, he was told, "Oh, I wrote to you six months ago asking to see that software, but you ignored me."

If it becomes established, the potential for this sort of search and networking space might be invaluable. Users can register for the beta site and experiment, and new categories of expert are being requested and generated all the time. I can see this becoming a useful tool for tracking down book reviewers, marketers and even formal peer reviewers if the network grows. The possibility of really drilling down into small but lucrative niche markets could also be accelerated with this idea.

These are the developments and presentations that caught my attention, but there was so much more for other interests. Other deserving sessions included O'Reilly's DRM-free, territory-free online content, coupled with POD-only print books, distributed directly by Ingram; reinventing comic books and graphic novels for digital reading; Academic.edu founder Richard Price speaking on the future of academic publishing—a conversation that focused on business models for sustaining the site, as well as evolving "metrics" for academic advancement; and the potential for crowdsource funding to help "divorce ourselves from capitalism."

For those who were not able to attend, many videos and slides from the conference can be viewed at the TOC site.

Mick Gusinde-Duffy
Editor-In-Chief, The University of Georgia Press