Hug a Technologist - #TOCcon NYC

27 February 2013 in Future of Publishing

Am just back from NYC where I attended Book2Camp as well as #TOCcon – O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change conference.  I say, ‘just back’, but of course, owing to time passing more quickly than it should, I’ve been back a while now.

I had a great time in NYC.  Book2Camp was an interesting afternoon of discussion, though I’m tiring slightly of the unconference format, where topics for discussion are suggested by participants; while timings of sessions are pre-determined, there is no set agenda.  Sometimes this works well, sometimes not so well.  In NY the discussion was interesting, but not quite fresh enough for me, not quite radical enough.  Ever since hearing John Naughton talk at the AHRC Moot Day I went to in the autumn, the idea that we are only at the very beginning of a long process, that the digital will transform every single institution we hold dear, from libraries to universities, let alone bookshops and publishers, far beyond our current imagining, has stuck with me, making me impatient with discussions that dwell on where we are today without taking a more trenchant look at where we might be heading. 

The High Line

TOC itself worked better for me as a format for thinking about how to transform writing and reading in the digital age.  First off, I was lucky enough to have been asked to speak at TOC’s first ever day aimed at writers, the Author (R)evolution Day.  This was a great day, where a big range of writers’ organisations, and writers themselves, got the chance to talk about how writing, reading and publishing are changing, and what kinds of opportunities this presents for writers.  The writer as entrepreneur was a theme that emerged during the day, and while it isn’t a mode I see myself employing (ahem), the notion of writers taking control of their own publishing apparatus applies as much to established, traditionally published, or emerging writers as it does to the self-published, and this is something we’re trying to facilitate at The Writing Platform.

One of my favourite talks was given by Laura Dawson, from Bowker (this link takes you to her talks and slides at TOC).  Bowker are the people who are in charge of issuing ISBN numbers among other things (Laura was also at Book2Camp where she was one of several people knitting during the sessions – knitting!). Laura talks in a clear and urgent way about the need to improve metadata for books, the way that this information, this data, accessed by search, is one of the main tools that readers use to find books online, and so this data – the words, keywords, and tags, used to describe the book – needs to be as accurate and as all-encompassing, and as reader-centric, as possible.  Writers need to understand metadata.  Her most startling slide included the following information, gathered from Nielsen UK: 

- Titles that meet the BIC Basic standard see average sales 98% higher than those that don’t meet the standard
- The addition of an image (to a book’s metadata) has a strong impact on average sales, of 268% in comparison to titles without an image
- Split into offline and online sales, offline sales see an increase of 35% for titles which have all enhanced metadata elements present, whereas online sales see a massive 178% increase

The current writing economy is very complex and the day reflected that.  My talk was the final talk of the day.  I took the opportunity to launch The Writing Platform and, as well as that, given the revolutionary theme, I came up with some exhortations for writers.  Here’s what I suggested:

hug a technologist:  for many writers, myself included, the only way to move into the sphere of creating work for digital platforms is to collaborate.
make your work spreadable:  for your work to have a meaningful life online, you need to create work that is spreadable.  ‘Spreadable media’ is a hugely useful concept that Henry Jenkins and his team are exploring. 
look at what’s out there, and start thinking beyond the book: this is an exciting time to be a writer - get out there and start experimenting.

The rest of the conference had numerous highlights, terrific keynotes, and many many great conversations in corridors and over lunches and drinks.  I met Eve Bridberg from Grub Street, a very dynamic centre for writers in Boston, and renewed my acquaintance with journalist and writer Porter Anderson (whose conference twitter stream and Writing on the Ether column are both must-reads) and Meg Vann who now runs the Queensland Writers Centre, a focal point for local/global, online/offline writer-centric activity in Australia (and who I’ll be visiting later this year). Hugh McGuire’s talk on the book as API was galvanising in terms of opening up new ways to think about how books can become more webby (a version of this talk exists here); in my dreams, we’ll create a version of my new novel Landing Gear using this approach.

And, as always, being in NYC was exciting enough in and of itself.  I had a couple of meetings with editors, outside the conference, to talk about my new book.  I met my new Canadian publishers and drank a glass of Californian bubbly with them to celebrate. I rode the subway and took taxis, and talked to people about Hurricane Sandy. I wandered around the city’s streets – surely wandering around New York City is one of life’s greatest pleasures? – and, early one morning, 8 a.m., a cold and sunny February day, I went for a walk on the High Line.  There were few other people, the planting was snow-blasted and brown, and the boardwalk was slippery in places, but what a gorgeous re-imagining of a post-industrial urban space, strangely moving, simultaneously affirming and melancholy. 

I was lucky to be there.  Thanks again to Kat Meyer, Joe Wikert, and TOC.

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