Friday 16 October 2009

O’Reilly TOC Frankfurt fails to deliver

O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change (TOC) conference came to Frankfurt on 13 October 2009 – the first time the concept had been aired outside of the United States.

It is safe to say that TOC Frankfurt had been eagerly anticipated; I was certainly looking forward to it and if the bustle during registration was anything to go by then so were the majority of the roughly 200 (my guestimate) delegates who had paid the not insignificant Euro 499 +VAT registration fee to attend.

There were a couple of slightly annoying housekeeping issues. Registration was a bit chaotic due to poor signage, the breakout rooms were cramped and generally way too small and problems with the internet connection throughout the day must have been embarrassing to O’Reilly given their cutting-edge internet reputation. These could have easily been forgiven (it’s not easy to put on a conference like this, especially in an unfamiliar venue) had a program that promised “new insights” delivered.

It didn’t.

The opening two keynotes, Sara Lloyd (Pan Macmillan) and Neelan Chokski (Lexcycle), shared a slick delivery style but failed to impart any real insight. The third of the opening trio, Cory Doctorow, gave a passionate – if rather hurried – view of what needs to happen to sustain books into the future.

As we headed for coffee and the parallel sessions that were to follow, I was feeling a little underwhelmed.

Brian O’Leary (Magellan Media) improved my mood as he outlined research – albeit on a small scale – that seemed to suggest a correlation between peer-2-peer piracy and an increase in sales. He was careful in what he said and began and ended by suggesting that more work was needed from a bigger range of titles and publishers (he was just reporting on a subset of titles from the O’Reilly list). I was therefore disappointed, but not surprised, to read the several “Piracy boosts sales” headlines the following day…

Timo Hannay (Nature Publishing Group) gave a typically interesting presentation, though many in the scholarly / academic publishing industry will have heard much of the content before, but while the panel session on Alternative Digital Sales Channels was entertaining enough, it didn’t really work as a Q and A, failed to really address the topic in hand, and consequently stuttered. Simon Waldman (Guardian Media Group) did manage to give an overview of the innovative things that the Guardian are doing that was both interesting and entertaining. The elephant in the room during his talk was that the Guardian, like many newspapers, are struggling financially and have reduced the number of professional journalists working on the paper (in fact the Guardian is sustained by profits from Auto Trader). Opportunities to generate income from the innovations that Simon was talking about appear scarce, but in fairness that wasn’t his brief and nonetheless he reported some neat stuff.

I did enjoy the PECHA KUCHA session. Though some of the presenters struggled with the challenge of this, errr challenging, format they all managed to get through it unscathed. Well more or less. It was fast paced which meant that if you didn’t like a particular speaker then, like the weather in Melbourne, you didn’t have long to wait for a change.

Closing keynote speaker and O’Reilly founder Tim O’Reilly wasn’t able to make it to Frankfurt and this news was kept until the last possible moment which was understandable, I guess. After all, the organizers will have wanted to ensure that everybody stayed to the end. Unfortunately the attempt by Andrew Savikas (VP of Digital Initiatives at O’Reilly Media) to fill the void was a big disappointment. The title of the talk was ‘Reasons to be Excited’ but Savikas did little more than drone on about O’Reilly Media itself. Again I thought there was little of interest or insight and for me TOC Frankfurt ended as it began – with a damp squib.

Some have criticised TOC Frankfurt for its anti-DRM stance. The trouble was that throughout the whole day there was no real debate – about DRM or anything else – and that’s perhaps the biggest lesson that TOC needs to learn. It was also pretty one-dimensional: Publish your content DRM-free and via an iPhone app. Yawn.

So in summary I would not recommend O’Reilly Tools of Change to ALPSP members on the evidence of the first TOC Frankfurt event. Admittedly this is partly due to the high expectations that I had, and indeed the high cost of attending. But the bottom line is that I can spend my time and my organization’s money much more productively, and other familiar faces that I saw at TOC Frankfurt generally agreed.

The Frankfurt Book Fair has announced that an improved TOC conference will be back next year. I am sure it will, but I won’t be there to see it.

Ian Russell
#alpsp #tocfrankfurt #fbf09


  1. Really interesting, thanks Ian. I didn't make it to TOC and have also never been to the US TOCs - have you? Have they typically been any better, if so?

    Most of what I've read / heard is along these lines - that the O'Reilly experience just isn't quite applicable to other publishing disciplines, and that overall the day did not add anything useful or thought-provoking to the existing debate.

    What a shame that Tim O'Reilly didn't go. Did he have a good excuse? otherwise it does look like a bit of a snub, and doesn't help them to get the buy-in they need for this event off the ground long-term.

    I wonder if they'll be back next year (probably, since attendance was so high) - and if so, whether attendance will tail off dramatically as delegates revert back to their previous pre-book fair commitments (STM, Supply Chain, etc).

  2. @Ian -- thanks for the feedback, and I'm sorry to hear you were disappointed in the event. Many people came to me personally during and after the conference to say how much they enjoyed it and how pleased they were with the speakers. But we appreciate and value critical feedback, and do use it to plan future programs. I welcome you to submit a proposal for the next conference.

    I'm also sorry to hear you were disappointed with my keynote. Tim's shoes are big ones to try and fill, and much of the material covered came directly from exchanges with him about things that excite him about what's happening in the industry from his perspective.

    @Charlie -- Tim injured himself while on holiday in Italy, and as of two days before the event we'd still hoped he'd be able to attend. But he simply wasn't in a condition to continue his travel, and returned home on advice of a doctor.

    While it's true that some of what we see and do may not apply to other disciplines, it's also true that the same could have been said in 1993, when we launched the first commercial web portal at a time when there were about 200 web sites. Personal computers, the Web, online forums, blogging, Facebook, Twitter, wikis, cloud computing, and even open-source software were all once roundly dismissed as irrelevant to "mainstream" firms.

  3. Thanks, Andrew, for engaging. I'm sorry to hear about Tim's accident (and sorry for questioning his absence, too! - I hope he is set for a speedy recovery).

    You're right that we don't always recognise the future crossover potential of current developments - I'll hope to come along next year and judge for myself. (I should have added that I've always heard good things about previous US TOCs!)

  4. Many thanks for this summary, Ian. I did not attend, but did follow the back channel on Twitter. The tweets that came out of #tocfrankfurt became increasingly downbeat as the day progressed, and it was obvious that all was not well at the event in terms of its failure to meet the presumably rather high expectations of a proportion of the attendees.

    Part of the reason for this is that things are moving on. If any given attendee felt that the utility of DRM still needs to be debated, I suspect that their disappointment would have been significant.

    Surely the point is that this doesn't *need* to be debated any more, does it? Continuing to defend the perceived value of DRM from the PoV of publishers as a hypothesis for the purposes of a theoretical debate does nothing to change the fact that 1) DRM does not work; 2) DRM denies rather than facilitates access; 3) supporting DRM serves to push publishers further into a corner where they will end up doing nothing other than talking to themselves and hiding the information they publish from the audience they would like to reach out to. Invisibility is equivalent to irrelevance.

    Those large, inflexible, resolutely myopic elements of the industry that are hell-bent on continuing to 'defend' the indefensible will do nothing other than increase the velocity and trajectory of their decline.

  5. You might have a point Andrew.

    Clearly DRM isn't such a huge issue in scholarly and academic publishing, but it is for the trade publishers. My personal views are pretty close to yours but it seems like there did need to be an opportunity to debate this at TOC. My disappointment was that there was no real discussion about anything.

    It did make me realise just how clued up the STM publishing industry is. I honestly think that the trade publishers could learn a lot from us...

  6. I personally believe that TOC was a good event and a good place to meet to talk about different ideas. It could be that the downbeat mood was apparent because publishers who were speaking were not speaking about anything particularly new because they are sitting on a range of innovative projects which they are waiting to release on their customers but were unable to speak about.

    As a digital product design consultancy, we know that there are new solutions coming through from us for clients soon to release to the market but no one is ready to talk about them yet!

    Next year might be quite different as the wave of new digital products comes through.