Report: Tools of Change 2013, New York

Report: Tools of Change 2013, New York

The term “walled garden”—used most frequently in conjunction with Amazon’s closed ecosystem—was in frequent use at this year’s Tools of Change conference in New York.

The conference tried to explore how to break through walled spaces—and not just the obvious ones. It’s too easy to rail against Seattle monopolists when the problem is also inflexible, old-fashioned patterns of thinking and doing—in other words, us.

Co-chair Joe Wikert saw much of ToC’s message as: “Let’s not get too comfortable. The start-up space is critical: we need to collaborate with new entrepreneurs. In an increasingly competitive world, we need to focus on what we do best and outsource the rest. And if we emphasise community first, e-commerce will follow.”

Fifteen hundred people (the same as last year) attended one or both days of the conference. It was preceded by a pre-conference workshop day, with one track aimed at authors—everything from self-publishing to support networks—and the other at the techies who underpin digital for publishers large and small.

Discovering books
One of the best sessions came courtesy of Otis Chandler, co-founder and c.e.o. of six-year-old social reading/recommendation site Goodreads, which registered its 15-millionth user last week. Goodreads had put out an open call to publishers: what would they like to know?

The findings came from surveying members from December 2012 through January 2013, using Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as jumping-off points.
In terms of discovery, most powerful to least powerful influencers went like this: a friend’s recommendation; media mentions; Goodreads; the Goodreads Choice Award; Amazon; bookstores; libraries; Facebook; book clubs; blogs; Twitter. So contrary to common belief, Chandler said, “Facebook and Twitter don’t score high for discovery”.

When asked where they acquired the book, Goodreads members listed libraries first, and 30% of library users read it in e-book format despite the limitations in place on libraries’ ability to lend digital books.

Lessons learned: “a lot of effort put into getting the right cover and blurb can pay off—it did for Morgenstern,” which was the older, lesser-known title, where, interestingly, Nook and iTunes facilitated “far less discovery”.  

In a separate Goodreads survey of 1,500 members, 35% of cellphone owners said they read e-books on their devices. Tablets beat e-ink by four to one at Christmas.

Seventy-three percent of people who read e-books “shop around” for the best price; and people say they get e-books from different platforms, making “cross-platform purchases”. A lot switch between Apple and Kindle.

Forty-nine percent surveyed said they would be interested in reading a serialised e-book rather than wait six months for the whole book to come out digitally if the author is already known and liked. The same doesn’t apply for unknown writers.

John Tayman also got the audience’s attention. He’s been commissioning, collecting and curating e-shorts for Byliner, the company he launched 18 months ago. It sold a million e-originals last year, one-quarter of all shorts sold, feeding into Amazon Singles, Apple Quick Reads, etc. The firm has just begun a subscription direct-selling operation on their own.

Byliner boasts a directory of 5,000 author “brands”—people like Margaret Atwood or New York Times food maven Mark Bittman. It keeps a monthly tally of authors whose fans seek work by them—515,000 wanted more Bittman and 461,000 more Atwood. They just can’t get enough.

Byliner sees itself “curating and cleaning up content so readers can find the entire body of an author’s work, turning the author byline into a powerful reader acquisition tool that quickly transforms a first-time reader into a devoted fan, creating an IMDB for writers and a Netflix for readers.”

How to become a Netflix for readers inspired other panels as well. On one, the Bertelsmann-Holtzbrinck joint venture Skoobe’s c.e.o. Christian Damke said his site—thus far limited to Germany and German books—has three access (rather than ownership) models: for a basic $9.99, readers can borrow five books simultaneously and read them for 30 days; then there is Skoobe Plus and Skoobe Premium. Each tier costs and offers more. Users are avid readers who are not necessarily looking for bestsellers, but rather “better experiences and legal recommendations”.

Eighteen percent of customers who have said they like a book on Skoobe have gone on to buy the print version at a bookstore. And 11% went on to buy the e-book despite the fact that they had full access to it via the site. Take note: by mid-year, Damke intends to offer English-language titles from the open market.

Evan Ratliff of the Atavist, Jennier Lee of Plympton, and Jon Feldman of Open Air Publishing explored the “third tier” space between big houses and self-publishing. Ratliff was formerly at the New Yorker and Lee at the New York Times; both recognise, as Lee put it, that after this period of scrambling, “the best direct-to-consumer model will ultimately flourish”.

All mix fee-and-revenue-share payment schemes for their authors, some fixed, some still experimenting. All have different ways of funding operations. Open Air has been a beta-tester for Inkling Habitat (with its Google Search-oriented Content Discovery Platform and avowed mission to take on the “Darth Vader” of Amazon, Inkling was all over ToC). Feldman is “not afraid to make stuff free” to aid discovery (prices range from $10 on down). “Authors share in our revenue, and if a book is free, they share in that,” he said.

Traditional bookselling

Nor, it seems, was bricks-and-mortar independent bookselling regarded as the sexiest topic for the ToC crowd. American Booksellers Association c.e.o. Oren Teicher presented a session on how bookselling is changing. Despite the general recognition that discovability is a key issue, and that indie stores remain one of the greatest discovery mechanisms we have, the talk was sparsely attended. Nevertheless, it was worth hearing.
“We are seeing a renaissance of independent bookselling in the US,” Teicher asserted, pointing to statistics from 500 of ABA’s 1,600 member companies which showed a book unit sales increase of almost 8% in 2012. There are now 420 stores using IndieCommerce online, a 15% increase on the previous year. Online sales in 2012 grew 28%. Last year 43 new stores opened (of course, stores also closed).

An important change factor is that “indies are now adopting appropriate technology”, and Teicher says that “early numbers are encouraging” in the indies/Kobo partnership that began last August. Four hundred stores signed up for Kobo over the holiday period. “Thousands of new e-book accounts have been opened at Kobo, and they are discerning content changes from our members.”

Other critical factors for keeping indies going have been the “localism” movement; the introduction of lots of different non-book product; and their expertise in the booming kids and YA markets. Fifteen stores have partnered with On Demand Espresso machines, mainly used to satisfy the voracious appetite for self-publishing.

ABA’s Winter Institute—taking place this week—will devote a lot of discussion to Kobo, but also to new ideas about working with publishers—consignment sales, extended dating, rebates, trading co-op for title placement, etc. Teicher urged publishers to “join us to help rethink the model”.

“You’re wrong if you think physical books are a relic of a bygone era,” Teicher said. “After all, Jeff Bezos has said that physical books are the perfect invention. I agree.”