Some more thoughts on the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference

A continuation of people and things discovered at the O’Reilly TOC conference in NYC, February 13-15, 2012.

Valla Vakili, CEO of Small Demons  @smalldemons

The title of Valla’s talk was “Exaggerations and Perversions,” a phrase he borrowed from William James‘ book, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. James writes, “…it always leads to a better understanding of a thing’s significance to consider its exaggerations and perversions its equivalents and substitutes and nearest relatives elsewhere.”

Valla and his team have created what they call the “Storyverse,” where they bring all the details of fictional worlds to the real world. People, places, things. As they say at their site:

A place where details touch, overlap and lead you further. To new music to listen to. New movies to watch. Places to visit. People to know. And of course, new books to read. Getting started is simple. Just choose a book. See where it takes you.

This all seems very interesting. What does that character eat, drink. Where does she go? What other characters in other books end up in those same places? This can lead to an endless number of connections between an endless number of fictional characters. Readers have a passion, an obsession, for characters. I think of my own experience of reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in college and always wanting to open a bottle of wine and drink along with the characters. The worry is that collecting all this information about these characters and connecting them to shopping opportunities will lead to a world where writers write with product placement in mind. Of course that’s already occurred a couple of times. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime go obsess in that fictional world.

Good blog, too.

Eric Ries: entrepreneur and author of The Lean Startup. @ericries

His mantra: Build. Measure. Learn. His blog: StartupLessonsLearned

His provocative statement: if he were running a big publishing house he’d put together a group of 5-10 people whose sole job was to find manuscripts in the slush pile and turn them into bestsellers. Methodically. He doesn’t believe bestsellers happen by accident. Build. Measure. Learn. Test content with friends and their friends. Test different covers online. (He photoshopped different colored book covers into bookstore display shelves and asked people to tell him which one “popped” for them. [the blue one]) Test, test, test.

He took “pre-orders” for his book even before he had written the book. Charged people $30 even though he didn’t know what the publisher would charge. But put together 10,000 pre-orders before book was published. Kind of thing that gives everyone in the process a warm fuzzy feeling.

Len Vlahos (Book Industry Study Group) and Kelly Gallagher (RR Bowker) spoke on “Consumer Attitudes Toward Ebook Reading.” (And I was glad they used “toward” and not “towards.”)

Lots of stats:

E-book take-up flattened in 2011. Fiction is where the action is with e-books. When will other genres catch up? What does role of technology play in adoption.

And then this: heard from presenters more than once at this conference: “We tend to forget the reader.” (And people wonder why publishers are so terrified? Don’t forget your customers! Any first-day business-school student will tell you that.)

E-book buyer was originally male oriented but it is women with higher educations, higher income, homes. Perhaps women were waiting for the technology to shake out and settle down. Or is it just that women really are the readers and maybe it looked like men were readers because they were first to adopt the e-readers, but perhaps they were more interested in the technology than what you could read with it?

Fourteen percent of folks with an e-reader still haven’t purchased an e-book. What prevents people from buying e-books?

  1. More comfortable with print.
  2. Difficult to share with others.
  3. Inability to resell books.

Power buyers are social people. Power buyers need ability to share what they’re reading. While they buy 25 percent of physical books, they drive 50 percent of sales and value in the marketplace.

It seems that after two years of owning an e-reader, people to tend buy fewer books. In fact, there’s a slight increase in the number of physical books bought at the time. Technology backlash?

Erin McKean, CEO of Wordnik.com   @emckean

Everything is context. Wordnik is a large large dictionary. It connects words to other words. Words don’t have meaning without context.

She says your content is your core. Getting people to the core of who you are is the new holy grail. How to discover books without browsing. How do you get books into venues where people aren’t necessarily looking for books? People are reading blogs. Sweet spot for context/content delivery. But reaching out to bloggers is labor intensive. What if you could make an API for your content? And then people could connect your content to communities you might not even know about.

Bob Young, CEO of Lulu.com, @caretakerbob

Spoke about starting a business and how hard it has become since all the colleges now have entrepreneurial programs. Asking for a show of hands, turns out about half the people in the audience are either currently working for a startup or want to start a new business.

But it turns out that most of the people in the audience also say they were A students in college, and Bob says the chances of them succeeding in an innovative business are slim. It’s the C students who start and succeed in business. If you’re an A student, you’ve by definition bought into the system, the current education system, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Tom Peters once had a slide about this very topic. So Bob says, “please don’t start a business.” Well, he doesn’t want any more competition. More on that…

But then he goes on to say that if you are going to start a business, 1) have fun, and 2) follow your customers. Advice clearly not followed by many since they say “we’ve forgotten about the reader.”

What Bob set out to do at Lulu was to build a platform where authors could sell books directly to their customers. Books that generally have small specialty markets, e.g., cookbooks. Lulu really is fulfilling what Chris Anderson called “the long tail.”

But in an echo of what Erin McKean was talking about, sharing APIs, Lulu at first saw all the other people coming in to the self-publishing realm as competitors, but then realized that since they had been one of the first ones in, they could in fact share their knowledge with all the newcomers. Which is what they do at developer.lulu.com.

Seems the whole world these days is about opening up your API. Sharing, transparency, all that.

Good place to end the conference. Funny guy, Bob Young. No slides, which was nice.

Lulu blog

Complete list of speakers

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