Wrecking ball

“Life is not a tour of gas stations”

Last Thursday, Tim O’Reilly announced that the company named after him is shutting down its Tools of Change practice area and laying off Kat Meyer and Joe Wikert. In explaining this decision, he wrote:

We’re shifting the focus of our publishing tools group from hosting the conversation about publishing technology to bringing our own tools to market.

O’Reilly offers background that ultimately reveals more than he may have intended. He starts with the thinking that kicked off the Tools of Change franchise in 2006:

Publishing isn’t about putting ink on paper, and moving blocks of said paper through warehouses to readers. It’s about knowledge dissemination, learning, entertainment, codification of subject authority — the real jobs that authors and publishers do for readers… Our goal is to bring together people who are pushing the boundaries of publishing and those who want to learn from them, and to provide a table of contents (TOC), so to speak, on what modern publishers need to know.

Reflecting on the success of the TOC practice area, he writes:

Seven years on, “digital publishing” is well on its way to simply being “publishing,” and options for both publishers and readers continue to evolve and expand. Publishers are significantly more change-hardy than they were in 2006. And there are plenty of other events that are helping publishers keep up with new technology offerings in the space.

Seriously? That’s it? "Things are pretty much on their way, so we’re going to pack up our stuff and try to sell you a workflow solution instead"?

Out in the trenches, where I work, life looks a lot different from the world that O’Reilly describes. Very few established publishers are “change-hardy”. Most publishers still see digital technologies in terms of the prevailing supply chain, not as a means to disrupt that supply chain. With almost no exceptions, the page metaphor continues to prevail.

In that environment, the TOC community provided lifelines and a global network of resources. Just two weeks ago, I was part of an impromptu dinner in Berlin that included Sebastian Posth from Germany, Anna Lewis and Oliver Brooks from the U.K., Hugh McGuire from Canada and (later) Laura Dawson, from everywhere. The conversation covered the landscape of publishing innovation, and it was made possible only with the connections forged through TOC.

Even if you believe that traditional publishing “gets” digital (if there is any ambiguity: I don’t), what about things like self-publishing, or the primacy of web standards as a vehicle for creating, maintaining and disseminating content of all types? The most recent TOC in New York featured two widely praised, day-long workshops hosted by key players in the self-publishing and W3C communities. The hallway conversations alone were worth the price of admission. Who is going to lead that kind of dialogue now that O'Reilly has shuttered TOC?

In Thursday’s post, O’Reilly claimed that “after TOC 2013, we realized that a conference was no longer the best vehicle for us to contribute to publishing’s forward movement.” In fact, the company had been working against itself for months before this decision was announced.

O’Reilly closed its 2013 event without offering a set of dates for the 2014 conference. No sustaining event does that. The ambiguity hurts ticket sales, puts sponsorships at risk and calls into question an organization’s commitment to the event.

Any events professional will tell you: the way O’Reilly handled TOC is insane. If the company wasn’t sure it wanted to keep running TOC, at the very least it should have put the franchise up for sale as a going concern.

Even if someone was willing to offer just $1 to take over the franchise (as I and many others would have done in a heartbeat), O’Reilly would have saved both face and the cost of severance. Two people widely respected by the industry would have kept their jobs, and the community would persist.

You don’t have to convince me that maintaining a community is hard work. Sustaining a publishing community is even harder, because there is no one thing that people universally recognize as “publishing”.

But once you’ve helped make a community, you have an obligation to nurture and sustain it. If you decide you want to do something else with your resources, you still have to provide for its care and feeding. You don’t shut everything down without making an attempt to at least provide for its welfare.

The thing that made TOC valuable - unique - was its ability to cut across a range of silos and present ideas that mattered. Despite what O’Reilly claims, that isn’t something other events do or even try to do. The ones that come closest are the events that pretty much mimic whatever TOC did first.

Shutting down TOC is more than a disappointment. The decision calls into question much of what the company claims that it stands for. Consider the content of a TOC keynote that Tim O'Reilly delivered in February:

Why are we here? It’s not to make our fortune. There are certainly some people who have forgotten that. But I like to say that making money is like putting gas in the car. You know you need to do it, but life is not a tour of gas stations.

We have to remember what publishing is really about, what writing is really about. I started writing books and then publishing them for other people because there were problems I wanted to solve. We still have a job to do. And that job to educate, and to entertain and to figure out how to gather the knowledge of the world and share it with other people.

In a report posted the next day, Andrew Albanese summarized a message that O’Reilly has tried to popularize: “Work on stuff that matters”. After the announcement, I had to ask myself, “So what matters at O’Reilly now?”

The answer? Selling publishers proprietary workflow solutions. And what doesn’t matter? Owning up to the implications of a keynote Tim O’Reilly gave only three short months ago.

More than a bit of disclosure: I am an O’Reilly author (three times, including Book: A Publishing Manifesto, a research paper on book piracy and an overview of the use of XML in book publishing). I’ve spoken nearly 20 times at TOC events in New York, Frankfurt, Bologna, Chicago, Austin and Charleston. Last year, I was invited to attend and participated in a NewsFOO event that took place in Phoenix. I consider Joe Wikert a friend and Kat Meyer a close friend. Neither had any awareness or involvement in the creation of this post. I’ve written favorably about O’Reilly and TOC in the past, and I may write favorably about O’Reilly again in the future… but not today.


Posted by Dan Blank
May 06, 2013  at  07:49 AM

Thanks for really analyzing this, I was taken aback by this announcement last week. You make so many good points, and personally, I kept coming back to what it means to be a part of a community, and to serve it.

Kat had shared a Tweet that the community was not TOC, but us, and I appreciate her generosity in this regard.

But TOC did all of what you said above - and that helped us all. It pushed us all. And what I most disliked about companies/organizations using the term “community” is that to me - it almost always foreshadows decisions of this: that they can just cancel their support of a community.

And I wonder about the business side of this. I understand and respect that O’Reilly is a BUSINESS. I can’t help but wonder how business decisions played into this. I know events are VERY expensive in both hard costs and the time/stress to organize. And the TOC event was such a high-quality event.

And yes, I am completely bummed that Kat and Joe were laid off in this process. That cuts me right to the core.

Thanks for really exploring things here.

Posted by Fran Toolan
May 06, 2013  at  08:00 AM

It is in fact a strange move. But, perhaps, the wisdom of it will be revealed sometime in the future.

I can tell you this, if they think that selling workflow tools to publishers is going to be more lucrative (both in money and in good will) than the TOC franchise, they haven’t done the right market research.

Even if they are going into that business, what better platform than TOC to launch it? 

I don’t think closing down TOC will disenfranchise anyone from O’Reilly (for long), except those that were friends of Kat & Joe (even though they were relative newcomers), and those who thought O’Reilly thinks too highly of itself already.

Maybe they are shutting it down so that publishers and service providers will save those expensive sponsor fees, and then they can use the money to re-sell the tools?

Posted by Philip Turner
May 06, 2013  at  08:34 AM

Excellent post and comments. I’m slightly puzzled by the fact that so many are lamenting the shuttering of an event that many people willingly paid to attend. Now I know that doesn’t mean ToC was at all profitable—evidently it wasn’t—but still, to just lock the door on something that some people had been shown they were willing to pay for defies logic. For my part, I will also miss the influx of smart publishing people that flowed into NYC for a week in February, and Kat and Joe’s winning personalities and skillful facilitating.

Posted by Peter Turner
May 06, 2013  at  09:03 AM

Thank you, Brian, for the post. I’ve been scratching my head about why (and how) TOC was shutting down and your thoughts here have helped clarify my own. If we pull back and look at this from a broader perspective, the decision to shutter TOC may fit into an increasingly unpleasant (to me) sense of how the publishing industry is shifting.

Publishing has always been about facilitating the creation and distribution of content. But the publishing role was always central; call it what you like: curating, gate-keeping, controlling. I’ve always liked thinking of publishing as propagandizing but in a positive light, that is disseminating content that reflects one’s taste, mission, view, and bias. This is personal act, where the authors and publishers are partners, co-conspirators, in the act of publishing.

Increasingly, what counts as the publishing process is now about providing service to content creators and providing it for a fee, not as an investment (in the broad sense of the term), and with little of the zealotry that is part of this positive sense of propagandizing.

The decision to shutter TOC and how it was done fits nicely, and sadly, into this broader picture.

Posted by Don Linn
May 06, 2013  at  10:47 AM

Tim O’Reilly wrote:

We’re shifting the focus of our publishing tools group from hosting the conversation about publishing technology to bringing our own tools to market.

Am I missing something or is that a false choice? It seems as if it could be ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’.

I hope we will learn more about the real reason for this regrettable decision as time passes. Two very good people deserve better.

Posted by Peter Turner
May 06, 2013  at  11:05 AM

I wonder, Donn. Ideally, it is a false choice, but not if one way is perceived as leading to greater profitability, overall benefit, etc., and the other less so.

Posted by Publerati
May 06, 2013  at  12:18 PM

This is off topic but I have a feeling people here can help me answer a question that puzzles me.

I see more and more publishers are selling books directly off their sites. I once worked for a consumer software publisher that made the huge investment in operating direct to consumer operations and what we found is that most people want to shop at a reseller because they did not do enough business with us to hassle with remembering passwords and unique and often bizarre ecommerce interfaces. The trust was not there. Just so much easier to order quickly on Amazon or Walmart where I buy maybe as much as twice a month across all categories.

Does anyone know what percentage of a typical large publisher’s sales are actually being done direct online to them and what those P&Ls; look like? Keeping all the direct selling systems upgraded and connected and paying avaricious consultants is a major expense and some bury much of it in IT/Operations fixed overheads when in fact it should be a direct cost of doing ecommerce. Thanks.

Posted by Peter Turner
May 06, 2013  at  04:03 PM

Publerati: I have some good sense of this but probably better to move over to eMail as it is off topic to this post.

Peter Turner

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Posted by Thad McIlroy
May 06, 2013  at  06:06 PM

Thanks for speaking up Brian. I gave it just a tweet: “Incomprehensible”; your well-considered post is far more valuable. Perhaps the underlying truth will become clear. Certainly we should hear a more coherent explanation from the O’Reilly crew, if only to understand why we’re being punished.

Posted by Mike McNamara
May 07, 2013  at  05:41 AM

I was amazed as many were when O’Reilly made this announcement and still can’t understand the decision. Excellent analysis on your part, perhaps we will get to know more at some time in the future. But for now this leaves a big gap and I wonder what will fill it?

Posted by Kristen McLean
May 07, 2013  at  09:57 AM

Brian, thank you for giving such an elegant voice to what I’ve been feeling since last week.

What I find profoundly short-sighted in all of this is the fact that it is possible to take a brand like TOC, and the community around it, and shift the mode of communication and facilitation without just pulling the plug on the asset.

And it is an asset, as was pointed out above. People pay to come and be there, and a network of people listen, participate, and amplify. In a social media reality, the network effect is valuable in and of itself.

Shift the venue, shift the mode, take the events online, sell it to an entity better able to facilitate it—or more interested in doing so. If the economics aren’t working, there are ways to fix all of that that meet with corporate expectations. The responsibility factor that Brian raises is what I think was really at the heart of this.

I’m disappointed with O’Reilly the brand, both the company and the man, and the fact that they couldn’t reconcile the lofty rhetoric and the business reality. If Tim is just a figurehead, he was the wrong person to write that post. If he’s not, he was the wrong person to give that keynote. 

Seems a waste in so many different directions.

Posted by Kevin Shockey
May 07, 2013  at  05:36 PM

They did the exact same thing with the Web2.0 conference series. One year it was fine, then “gong.” It was gone.  Having worked with O’Reilly for 8 years I find them less and less relevant, especially for decisions like this.  By the way, just so you know, I wouldn’t be surprised if they shuttered up OSCON too.  Although it is one of their most profitable conferences, O’Reilly Media (as a whole) has moved from open source.

Posted by Kassia Krozser
May 07, 2013  at  11:09 PM

Okay, I keep saying I’m done talking about this, and, truly, I am. Except one thing. One thing that expands upon the one thing I keep circling back to: the community. Since the first very Tools of Change conference in San Jose, O’Reilly endeavored to create a community around the conference. This sustained interest in the topic, built interest in the conference, and, of course, created a physical location for all of us to meet in person to talk more about the things that we believed were so important.

Building this community required substantial resources on the part of O’Reilly. But it also required resources—time, reputation, and intellectual property—from the community. We gave this willingly because we believed ourselves to be part of the TOC community. We were valued members of the tools of change…even if we were often no more than penny stock investors (you know what I mean). But we held a lot of stock collectively

I get that this conference was likely no longer financially viable for O’Reilly. Or perhaps it no longer fit with the vision or mission of the company. Both of those are valid reasons for discontinuing a venture, and I can appreciate this (in fact, if Tim O’Reilly had said this in his post, I would appreciate his honesty). But the way this was discontinued ignored the investment of the community at large.

By pulling the plug in such a manner—and, honestly, I don’t know if there’s a good way to do something like this—O’Reilly made all of our investments feel less valuable. I was always treated incredibly well by the O’Reilly, so I was happy to give as much as I could back to TOC. But the lack of, well, offering TOC back to the community, for lack of a better description, makes me wary of giving so much in the future.

Of course, I know me, and I know I’ll still do what I can for anyone who asks. But I wonder if my investment will be as rich.

Posted by Kristen McLean
May 08, 2013  at  09:45 AM

Well said, Kassia. My question? Where will this community coalesce—because I’m sure it will—and can we do in such a way that we are not beholden to a company or corporation?

I keep going back to something Cory Doctrow said (and I will now paraphrase) in his keynote at Author (R)evolution Day at this years’s TOC: If in the name of community they take your contribution, lock it up, and then don’t give you the keys, it’s not really yours, it’s theirs.

He was talking about DRM, and author-centric data generally, but I think the point is much larger. Do we need to have such a large backer to bring this community and this conversation together?

Posted by Brian O'Leary
May 08, 2013  at  10:47 AM

For this post, I’ve held back a bit in responding to individual comments. I’d like to come back next week with a post that offers some ideas about what we might do to define and sustain the community in a way that restores Kassia’s faith and honors Kristen’s channeling of Cory Doctorow’s “keys” argument. In the meantime, I appreciate the many contributions that people have made here.

Posted by Peter Turner
May 08, 2013  at  11:09 AM

One dimension of this coversation about TOC and pub/tech conferences in general is the question of community and utility. What I mean is that it often seems the programming is at times like a carrot on a stick. One can smell the utility of the content-discussion presented but one often comes away with an empty belly. Part of this has to do with the scope of the topics at hand and the diversity of what counts as publishing. But I think there’s more to it. I wonder what would happen if each session at TOC or DBW were put to the following litmus test: Will this session aid the attendees in their current business practices and tactics or alter their business strategies in the next 6-months.

Posted by Kristen McLean
May 08, 2013  at  11:25 AM

Agree, Peter. I think Ed Nowata referred to it as “technobabble” in his piece on this discussion last week.

I’m very fatigued with the talking from the stage element of conferences generally. I’d really like to see content creators talking to other content creators more about exactly how they undertook a successful project, and I’d like to see more pan-directional conversation rather broadcasting.

I’m in the business of building tools fro authors right now, and I’m finding the most value is coming from listening to them tell ME what’s working so I can help spread the word and archive the breadcrumbs for others to follow.

Posted by Peter Turner
May 08, 2013  at  01:47 PM

Hey, Kristen. I totally agree. We need more listening, less of a death grip on our own opinions, and, as you say, more listening. I also think if one were to re-tool TOC (couldn’t resist) it would be great to begin with a sober look at the pain points of the various segments of the publishing community. What problems want solving?—both now and going forward. That question strikes me as a better touch-stone. I know I’m dreaming, but what if a new incarnation of TOC was not-for-profit with the programing crowd-sourced?

Posted by David Mitchell
May 08, 2013  at  04:37 PM

I wonder if O’Reilly decided to end TOC because it was, in fact, not giving the bulk of attendees enough for their money.  I attended it four times and found each subsequent event less and less satisfying.  For 2013, I did not even keep my notes.  I agree with Peter Turner’s assessment that the scope of the conference was too broad.  It presented a number of innovative speakers conveying very interesting ideas, the majority of which, alas, had little to no practical relevance.  Many of the more practical sessions repeated information available elsewhere.  While I agree that the community of ideas is important to maintain, those of us paying close to $1,000 for two days are not getting the enough benefit from that.  And smaller, more cohesive events may well do that side of it better.

Posted by Bill Rosenblatt
May 08, 2013  at  09:09 PM


With all due respect, I think you’re overthinking this.  I have been a huge admirer of TOC and am definitely sad to see it go.  But I think the reason is quite simple: it wasn’t making money. 

Remember that ORA runs several other conferences, like Web 2.0, all of which are an order of magnitude bigger than TOC and serve tech communities that, let’s face it, are much better sources of sponsorship money.  Kat Meyer told me this herself during the last TOC. Perfect example is the commenter here who demurs at spending $1000 for two days.  That price would be considered “bargain basement” in the tech biz.

ORA put a ton of resources into the show, much more than is typical for a conference that size.  They did a great job, but the fancy websites, databases, community features etc. don’t come for free, however much everyone likes to pretend otherwise.

Tim said it himself: no one does anything in publishing for the money. 


Posted by Brian O'Leary
May 09, 2013  at  08:07 AM

Responding to aspects of the last couple of comments: I think it best to refrain from speculating why O’Reilly made this decision - the data is absent - and focus on the points made in my post. Forming a community brings with it specific obligations, and any community organizer has an obligation to provide for its care and feeding.

I haven’t argued that O’Reilly should have kept TOC; I’m making the case here that it should not have acted without notice to dismantle the community. If that’s “over-thinking”, then I’m more than happy to be over-thinking this.

Posted by Bill Rosenblatt
May 09, 2013  at  08:59 AM


I’m not really speculating - I’m extrapolating from what Kat told me at the last TOC, plus my own experience producing conferences myself (on a smaller scale, for sure) over the last 9 years. 

I agree with you that the community is worth something, and it’s a shame to just throw it away.  But you should also bear in mind that many B2B information orgs start and end trade shows (and other properties) on a regular basis.  This was my experience with IDG and Jupitermedia anyway.  Most conferences don’t make money themselves, they are ancillaries to other things like trade associations (CES, NAB), publications (DBW, Pub Expo), or market research (Gartner, Outsell). ORA had no synergies with TOC, so TOC had to stand alone financially.  This is very difficult.

Alan Meckler (Jupitermedia) had a practice of shutting down properties with very little notice if they weren’t making money, even if he believed in the subject matter.

Was this a sloppy way to end it?  Perhaps.  But it could well have been a decision that it just wasn’t worth the cycles to do it in a better way.

Posted by Kevin Shockey
May 09, 2013  at  10:23 AM

I am a manager for the TOC Publishing Group In LinkedIn.  I believe that it is appropriate to believe that this group can be salvaged.  http://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=104765&trk=hb_side_g

I believe that many of us already belong to that group. Let’s keep the conversation going!  I’m deeply committed to figuring this out for myself, and I know many of you are too.  Let’s band together to defend what we created!

Posted by Kristen McLean
May 09, 2013  at  11:02 AM

Thanks, Kevin. Many of the startups are also networking at the #Pubhack group on linked in as well. Joe was (and I hope will continue to be) one of our most frequent posters.

Posted by bowerbird
May 09, 2013  at  12:53 PM

a community cannot be “dismantled”.

it will reorganize itself spontaneously.

when it is a _true_ community, that is.

especially in a hyperconnected world.

then again, all the cars traveling south
on the 405 in the afternoon rush-hour
do _not_ constitute a “true” community.

they’re just objects which happen to be
heading in the same general direction.


Posted by Deni Auclair
May 09, 2013  at  02:04 PM

I can understand a business decision about continuing something unprofitable, but I find it incredibly short-sighted to lay off two of the most visible and influential people in publishing today, Joe Wikert and Kat Meyer.  Just because the industry has changed doesn’t mean that the way business is conducted has changed.  Few people have the contacts or industry knowledge that these two do…

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