Life Is Not A Tour Of Gas Stations

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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.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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