The Rise and Fall of Digital Book World | On Platforms

Digital Book World debuted in January 2010 in the midst of giddy predictions that both traditional publishing and print itself were dead, perhaps best personified by the Tools of Change conference, an annual gathering of pundits and technophiles who relished dancing on the industry’s virtual grave. The iPad officially debuted on DBW’s second day and the program was adjusted to provide a break so attendees could watch Steve Jobs’ presentation streamed to a couple of monitors—just one of myriad examples of the publishing industry giving Apple free advertising for its magical device that was allegedly going to save it.

[Spoiler alert: It did not.]

I gave the closing talk at that first DBW, officially announcing our plans to not simply be an annual conference, but instead, we were building a year-round platform that would include in-person and online events, education, resources, and expert insights to help the industry deal with digital disruption. I confidently declared: “People are reading more than ever, and some think that’s a threat to publishers. I think it’s an opportunity.”

The Future of Publishing is Bright from Guy Gonzalez on Vimeo.

My official role at the time was Director, Programming & Business Development—effectively the equivalent of a Publisher & Editorial Director in F+W Media’s community-centric business model—but my unofficial title was Chief Executive Optimist. I ran DBW for its first 18 months, leaving after its successful second edition beat our audience and revenue goals by a healthy margin. That success was partly thanks to what I’d done over the preceding 12 months, including producing 50+ webinars and 3 smaller in-person events; writing and/or editing 200+ articles for our website; and building a solid email list and Twitter following that kept us consistently engaged with the publishing community.

Solutions, not theories; practicality, not punditry.

“What the rest of the internet has shown is that you build community not by building a community, but by enabling a group of people to do what they want.”

You Don’t Build Communities, You Enable Them, Mike Masnick

Digital Book World was actually conceived at the 2009 edition of the Tools of Change conference. F+W Media’s CEO, David Nussbaum, attended and left frustrated by the antagonism and pessimism on display, confident that his industry wasn’t doomed. He also believed that there was a need for an industry gathering that centered practitioners and offered immediately actionable insights rather than gloomy prognostications coupled with sales pitches for the latest technology panacea.

Nussbaum first turned to Mike Shatzkin to help develop the program to support his vision:

“It was five years ago this summer that David Nussbaum and Sara Domville of F+W Media took me out to lunch and said they thought the book business could have a more useful digital conference — one, in their words, that would give you things you could go back to the office and use — than the existing set of conclaves, led by Tools of Change, then provided. And they flattered me and provoked my imagination by saying ‘we think you’re the guy to program it’.”

The book world keeps changing, so Digital Book World has to change too, Mike Shatzkin

At the time, I was nearly a year into my role as Publisher & Editorial Director for Horticulture, after a significant reorganization that brought F+W Media’s books and magazines units together under branded communities. Prior to that, I’d been the advertising director for Horticulture, Writer’s Digest, and Family Tree magazines, and I’d built a modest “platform” here by passive-aggressively blogging my thoughts and frustrations about the industry—including many thinly veiled takes on internal issues—while struggling to find anyone on the magazine side using Twitter in an interesting way.

Internally, Digital Book World was getting a lot of attention, partly because it was the CEO’s new shiny, coming on the heels of a pretty successful reorg, and partly because it was an ambitious push into B2B media for what was predominantly a niche consumer publisher. By the time DBW was announced via press release in midsummer 2009, I’d volunteered to take on selling sponsorships as an additional responsibility, making a huge bet on my least favorite thing—sales—because DBW’s potential was so appealing.

By the time I found myself in Germany for the first time that October, attending the Frankfurt Book Fair on behalf of DBW, the interest in the conference was so hot that Nussbaum had decided to expand beyond an annual conference, applying F+W’s community model to it, and tapping me to run it.

*Record scratch* *Freeze frame*

So, how did a magazine guy end up running a major book publishing industry conference?!?!

90. Even at its worst, our newfound conversation is more interesting than most trade shows, more entertaining than any TV sitcom, and certainly more true-to-life than the corporate web sites we’ve been seeing.

91. Our allegiance is to ourselves — our friends, our new allies and acquaintances, even our sparring partners. Companies that have no part in this world, also have no future.

95 Theses, Cluetrain Manifesto

I also attended that 2009 edition of Tools of Change, not in person but via its hyperactive hashtag on Twitter (RIP #TOC…), and to this day there are people who still believe we met me there in person because I was so active on it myself. I even wrote a couple of posts on some of my takeaways related to one of my favorite topics, communities: Building Communities Around Content #TOC & Three Tips for Curating the Community #TOC.

At the time, I wasn’t intentionally building a platform nor executing some master plan to infiltrate the book side of the industry, I was simply looking for and engaging with an extended community of industry colleagues who were unsatisfied with the status quo and had their own ideas of how to change things for the better. Back then, Twitter wasn’t the hyper-filtered echo chamber it’s become, and blogs were still primary platforms for discovery and networked conversations. There were many civil disagreements and debates, and social hierarchies hadn’t yet calcified to mimic their IRL versions.

When I officially took DBW over, one of my first acts was to launch a WordPress blog because F+W was still using a clunky proprietary platform that would take weeks to launch, and as a conference, the registration site was the main priority. Surprisingly, that original content site is still live at digitalbookworld.wordpress.com, including my subtweet of a tagline: “Solutions, not theories; practicality, not punditry.”

You can also see the seeds we planted in the first post, Why Attend Digital Book World:

Other conferences focus on new technologies, but only DBW 2010 puts them in perspective, speaking directly to book publishers and their trading partners to address both immediate needs and future goals to not only survive, but thrive in the rapidly changing world of book publishing.

F+W Media was a relative unknown on the book side of the industry, casually dismissed as a niche publisher serving “enthusiasts,” and many openly questioned DBW’s viability as a result, ironically even Shatzkin himself! Meanwhile, TOC was the biggest and most influential conference in the space, so we purposefully positioned DBW to fill the gap they’d left.

Our tone was intentionally positive and optimistic while acknowledging that change was definitely afoot.

We made a concerted effort to get speakers who actually worked in the industry and could speak from experience, minimizing the stage time for consultants and vendors which had a direct impact on the business model as we couldn’t count on big-money sponsorships. DBW’s success was built on its relevance to its primary audience which translated into registrations; sponsorship, at least in my time, was gravy.

I used my own modest platform to build a following for DBW’s Twitter account and early content. Rather than blow a limited marketing budget on traditional channels and standard registration promotions, I built our email list by producing three free webinars ahead of the first conference, and promoting them via paid emails to Publishers Weekly‘s email list. I also launched a weekly “webcast” called DBW Roundtable where a panel of industry colleagues discussed the topic of the week, not only steadily building our audience and email list, but also serving as a test lab for potential conference programming and speakers.

My content strategy wasn’t to make DBW another traditional media outlet, but a trusted platform for informed opinions and industry expertise that offered the kind of actionable insights we promised at the annual conference—on a year-round basis. In doing so, it would not only ensure the continued relevance of the annual conference, it would also become a steady source of new ideas, content, and voices while also developing additional revenue streams.

In November 2010, I gave a presentation on Audience Development in the Digital Age, and the back half broke down my first year with DBW with specific examples. While the levers I’d use today may be a little different, the underlying philosophy remains valid and I’ve since executed variations on it in subsequent roles.

The Decline

DBW itself has evolved a couple of times since I left in 2011, each iteration arguably a shadow of its original self as the underlying concepts of community and practicality became less central each time. It’s kind of ironic that the Twitter account I started and nurtured currently has me and an astonishing number of industry colleagues blocked, and its hashtag is coincidentally pretty quiet at the moment “Digital Book World” is a fully virtual event.

One of the downsides of building someone else’s platform on the back of your own is sometimes yours suffers in the process.

Eighteen months of creating and producing multiplatform content for DBW and managing its Twitter presence was eighteen months of my own platform taking a back seat. Most of my creative output related to the publishing industry which had put me in a position to run something like DBW had shifted there—leaving this site in search of a new identity its yet to find—and when its new owners unexpectedly decided to nuke 8 years of content without warning back in 2017, it was a reminder that owning your own domain means more than simply registering a URL.

While I’d cross-posted a few of my favorite articles and was able to recapture some others via the Wayback Machine, I’d unwisely taken for granted that this thing I helped build from scratch would always be there and I’d always have a place within it. Oddly, that doesn’t just apply to DBW but the now defunct F+W Media itself.

Relatively speaking, building platforms is the easy part. Maintaining them, and knowing when to let them go, is the real trick.


This is the first in a series of posts about How I Built Platforms, and How They Deteriorated Over Time.

Source: Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

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