R.I.P. TOC

Here’s something that’s a little off topic for this blog but can’t be covered in 140 characters.

The O’Reilly Tools of Change for publishing (TOC) conference has been abruptly cancelled after a seven-year run that culminated in its last show in NYC earlier this year.  The announcement was made by Tim O’Reilly, CEO of the iconic tech publishing company O’Reilly Media, on his blog late last week – along with some hints that O’Reilly may be commercializing the editorial workflow tool (Atlas) that O’Reilly has been developing in-house and using with its authors.

This is a real loss to the publishing community.  It echoes the trajectory of Seybold, which had previously been the go-to conference for innovation and technology in publishing: Seybold rose with the desktop publishing revolution of the early 1990s, got hit badly in the dot-bomb crash of the early 2000s, and never recovered.  Both conferences, in their heydays, attracted over a thousand paid attendees and featured well-constructed, jam-packed, multi-track agendas and large exhibit halls as well as a real sense of community among attendees, vendors, and speakers.

As someone who (in a smaller way) has been involved in conference production for over a decade, my view is that TOC was one of the best-organized and best-produced conferences ever — thanks to co-chairs Joe Wikert and Kat Meyer and their team.   Their use of the web to organize the agenda, speakers, and community was unparalleled.  The agendas were canny, creative mixes of basic education for publishers and sessions on innovative technologies and business practices; accordingly, the speakers were mixes of old hands and new upstarts.  Keynote speakers weren’t the usual publishing industry luminaries but “outside the box” thinkers like, most recently, the media theorist/futurist Douglas Rushkoff.  Hallway buzz was palpable.

While I don’t know the exact reasons why O’Reilly pulled the plug on TOC, I would guess that they were mainly financial.  Kat Meyer told me that TOC was a poor stepchild among other much bigger events that O’Reilly produces, such as Strata (Big Data), oscon (open source), Velocity (web development), and Web 2.0 Summit (now also discontinued).  It’s not at all unusual in the tech world for conferences to appear and disappear as tech trends wax and wane; for example, Jupitermedia, with which I produced the Digital Rights Strategies conferences in the mid-2000s, created and disbanded conferences all the time.

O’Reilly has a product mix that’s not unlike other B2B publishers such as Reed Business Information, McGraw-Hill, and United Business Media (not to mention digital natives like TechCrunch): its publications, conferences, training, and other services are all interdependent and represent cross-selling opportunities.  When viewed this way, TOC was an anomaly: a conference about publishing, put on by a company whose real business is information technology (and that, like those others, happened to start out as a pure-play publisher in its field).

O’Reilly had few synergies between TOC and its other properties.  Conferences are more usually put on by organizations that have other lines of business — such as industry trade associations (AAP, ALA, NAB, CES), market researchers (Outsell, Gartner), or vendors (Apple, Oracle, SAP), as well as B2B publishers.  TOC was, by that perspective, a standalone property.  It’s difficult to operate a standalone event and make a profit, particularly when you spend as much on infrastructure and community (and Manhattan hotel space) as O’Reilly did.

And the publishing industry is not exactly known for its lavish budgets.  One commenter on a publishing blog demurred at having to pay US $1000 to attend TOC for two days; in contrast, conferences like Velocity and Strata charge as much as double that amount.  As Tim O’Reilly himself commented at his last TOC keynote speech, “Why are we here? It’s not to make our fortune.”

There are other conferences about publishing, put on by companies that publish about publishing — such as Digital Book World (F&W Publishing) and Publishing Business Conference (NAPCO).   Those organizations are probably celebrating TOC’s hasty demise, but it remains to be seen whether they will fill the void it has created.

 

 

 

3 comments

  1. Hi Bill,

    I tried to comment and got the usual screwed up message I receive because I run two blogs also using WordPress:

    *ERROR: The password you entered for the email or username thadmc is incorrect. Lost your password?*

    I tried several variations of username & pword, but as I’m also logged into my own blog this just makes things worse. I greatly prefer DISQUS for commenting for this reason.

    Meanwhile, when I tell blog owners like you, or, recently, Eric Hellman, I’m of course told “Funny, no one else has complained about this problem.”

    By logging in you’ll post the following comment to R.I.P. TOC:

    Your observation of the unique quality of TOC is spot-on: Their use of the web to organize the agenda, speakers, and community was unparalleled. The agendas were canny, creative mixes of basic education for publishers and sessions on innovative technologies and business practices

    The show was a healthy draw both for attendees and sponsors. It may not have been making millions but theres no reason for it to have been unprofitable.

    I think well soon learn the real reason for the cancellation.

    Thad McIlroy The Future of Publishing thad@thefutureofpublishing.com

    NEW: The Metadata Handbook

  2. I should add, for those who don’t know, that Thad knows whereof he speaks. In his modesty, he neglected to mention that he was Program Chair of Seybold during its glory years when it packed the Moscone Center in SFO and Javits Center in NYC. And as I got my start in conference production as a Seybold track chair in 2001, I owe my experience in the field (at least indirectly) to him.

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