Attending major industry events is always a big deal for us Aussies, as they are so rarely held in our hemisphere. With so many event sessions available online, either after the event or sometimes concurrently, you really have to ask whether it’s worth not just the cost but the travel time getting there and back. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since returning from O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing 2012 conference in New York a month ago.

In some ways TOCCON 2012 didn’t live up to my expectations – but that was a problem with my expectations! The talks were far less technical than anticipated, so I didn’t really learn any new tricks of the trade. Initially I made the mistake of going to see speakers whose work I’ve been following for ages, only to discover they weren’t saying anything new (for me). Once I changed my approach and went to sessions with topics, companies and speakers I knew nothing about, my experienced completely changed – for the better.

Exposure to new ideas 

The biggest reward for me was exposure to different ideas – not just new business models or tools in publishing, but hearing about different business goals. It was intriguing to learn not just what someone is doing but why, and to understand how that goal or business has changed from the initial concept, and the types of factors that brought about the changes. For example, I learned how two companies are using crowd-sourcing to decide what they publish, with popularity (number of votes) being the deciding factor. The idea is to take the risk out of publishing by knowing you have a best-seller on your hands before you sign up the author. In this case, I learned what I don’t want to do. I want to publish quality work, even if only a handful of people appreciate it enough to read it! Popularity – or ratings – are why TV shows like Firefly are cancelled and so-called “reality” shows get return seasons. Or, in the words of one  keynote speaker, don’t give people what they want, give them what they need – even if this is difficult because, in the words of another speaker, “pizza tastes better than broccoli”.

Inspiration and affirmation

The most inspirational keynote speakers for me were not publishers or techies but people involved in content creation because they believe in the power of stories: Baratonde Thurston and LeVar Burton. It’s easy for us publishing industry professionals to become caught up in the mechanics of software and the details of licensing and business models, and to sometimes lose sight of why we work in this industry. These speakers were a wonderful reminder that stories matter, that stories change lives – and most of us would not have entered the industry without experiencing that power at least once in our lives.

International context

Another personal plus was meeting people with whom I have been working or in contact only via email or Skype. The Internet has removed so many geographical boundaries, but it’s still good to talk face-to-face.

It was in such a positive frame of mind that I returned to Australia – buoyed by new ideas and excited about the prospects for Aussie content and publishers in a global world – only to come crashing down to earth when I read Henry Rosenbloom’s blog piece Book-trade blues. The article is depressing reading, not because of the gloomy picture it paints of the book trade in Australia or because of the negative spin it puts on recent developments, but because it evokes the paralysed mood of nearly every book industry event in Australia that I’ve been to in the last few years. Instead of wringing its hands, asking for government handouts, and worrying about competition, the Australian book industry should be embracing new ways to deliver Australian content and, even more importantly, new ways to distribute that content to the wider world. These are exciting times! At TOCCON 2012, I was able to feel that excitement, and feel part of a wider movement which hasn’t lost sight of its purpose.

In recent weeks, the outlook is more positive for Australian publishing, with the launch of the Digital Publishing Australia website. The site is an initiative of SPUNC with funding from CAL, both organisations with considerable get-up-and-go. It’s a wonderful resource, and its mission echoes the reason I started my own blog: “Digital Publishing Australia is a community that has been established for those wanting to learn more, or share their experiences about digital publishing.” I can only think the site creators share my frustration with much of the Australian industry commentary. Congratulations to all!

There is one disappointing aspect to the site: the list of Service Providers only mentions a mere four “Conversion services”, instead of providing a directory of production services (yes, like me – shameless plug!). I know many Aussie designers, typesetters and editors involved in producing digital books and content, and it’s a shame that we aren’t listed. (If you’re not sure of the difference between conversion and production, read my earlier post here.) Perhaps it’s time for Tools of Change  Down Under to bring to light the many wonderful publishing activities – print and digital – taking place here in Australia.

I don’t know if I will attend TOCCON next year or if I will choose some other industry event, perhaps one of a more technical nature or perhaps one closer to home. My experience at TOCCON 2012 has reaffirmed my belief that we can always learn something from industry gatherings, whether the event is held on unfamiliar territory or home turf, and even if what you learn is not what you expected to.