Tools of Change: “Let the Wookie Win”

By Neal Comment

The opening keynote addresses at O’Reilly’s “Tools of Change for Publishing” conference offered visions for publishing’s future as dynamic as you might expect. After conference organizers Tim O’Reilly and Sarah Milstein presented a humorous history of innovation in publishing from Sumerian clay tablets to Wikipedia, HarperCollins group president Brian Murray talked about how he set out to retool the company and, perhaps more importantly, reclaim the relationship with book consumers from the search engines. Central to their strategy: the development of “a working digital warehouse” that provides the one, high-quality source of digital content with which consumers will interact; he singled out conference exhibitor Libre Digital as the techies Harper had hired to get the job done.

Next up, Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson on the subject of “free.” This talk was very similar in content to Anderson’s panel at BookExpo, and Holtzbrinck‘s digital marketing point man, Jeff Gomez, has a good rundown of the speech. Basic takeaway: Anderson’s going to try to give away as many copies of his next book as his publisher will let him. “The notion of giving away thousands of books is not radical,” he observed (remember BookExpo?) So there’s definitely going to be a free audiobook for anyone who buys a print edition of Free; after that, things get a little hazy, but underwriting the printing costs with advertising has not been taken off the table.

Finally, Tim O’Reilly came back out to discuss “publishing in a Web 2.0 world,” starting with his company’s mission to “change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators.” This was fairly standard Web 2.0 talk about harnessing collective intelligence, curating user-generated content, and the like. The Wookie remark came towards the end, in reference to publishers’ relationship with customers—basically suggesting that it’s time to deliver content the way customers want it. (That position would lead to some sparks later in the day, as Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen used his afternoon keynote conversation with O’Reilly to reaffirm his commitment to digital rights management to protect his company’s intellectual property from piracy.)