At 7:00 AM on a cold, snowglobe of a morning, I stood with three other students from NYU’s Master of Science in Publishing program outside a ballroom at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers, bleary-eyed but eager to participate in one of the biggest and most relevant digital publishing events of the year. The second official Digital Book World conference (“DBW”) was about to begin in earnest, and there was much work to be done. As one of a small number of students lucky enough to snag a volunteer position at the event, I was determined to help pave a smooth experience for all attendees, even if that meant working at the coat check in return for time in the actual conference sessions. Not a bad trade-off at all!
After the morning rush finally subsided and attendees settled into the main ballroom, the coat checker crew was invited to sneak away and catch one of the first panels of the day. In “A CEO’s View of the Future,” speakers Brian Napack (Macmillan), Jane Friedman (Open Road Integrated Media), David Steinberger (Perseus), Michael Hyatt (Thomas Nelson), and David Nussbaum (F+W Media) discussed trends in the digital publishing realm and fielded more than a few tough questions about strategic corporate decisions and preparations for the future.
When asked if they were worried about competing with e-tailers like the Google ebookstore, Apple iBookstore, or Amazon, Jane Friedman, former HarperCollins CEO and now Open Road founder and CEO, replied that publishers will always be the purveyors of content, and that retailers are partners to be embraced. Along the same lines, Macmillan President Brian Napack championed the importance of the publisher as content curator. With over one million books published in 2010, Napack asserted that the role of the publisher was “to find that one.” Does that mean honing in on the big fiction bestseller? David Steinberger, CEO of Perseus Book Group, argued: “Fundamentally, digital is about lowering the barriers to market and selling books.” He sees “a giant wave [coming] where the book that has a more modest audience is going to reach people in a way that’s more seamless than ever before.”
As to the question of whether a $9.99 ebook price devalues the product, the panel largely agreed that any price is the right price—as long as the market determines it. (Napack pointed out that not all ebooks are created equally, and that a wide variety of pricing is necessary.) Ultimately, the executives on the panel all concurred that this nascent, transitional period for digital books is an exciting beginning–not an end–for publishers.
Finishing my volunteer shift, I was permitted to attend two of the afternoon sessions: “EPUB 3.0: Updates & Advancements” and “Beyond the eBook: What’s Possible?” The EPUB panel, composed of Cristina Mussinelli (IDPF), Eric Freese (Aptara), Kevin Watters (Harlequin Enterprises Limited) and moderated by Joshua Tallent (founder of Ebook Architects), touched on the basic details of the upcoming version of EPUB (an eBook standard meant to function as a single format for publishers worldwide), highlighting some of the key improvements such as the inclusion of HTML5 and CSS3, enhanced metadata tags, and some scripting capabilities. In addition, the panel discussed how EPUB 3.0 will be able to integrate rich media, offer enhanced global language support (for foreign languages that use different characters or reading/scrolling techniques), maintain page layouts and provide a greater degree of accessibility for disabled/handicapped readers.
The “Beyond the eBook” panel, moderated by Pablo Defendini (Interactive Producer for Open Road Integrated Media) and composed of the digital software-specialized panel of Sriram Panchanathan (Aptara), Charles Stack (Sideways), Matt Cavnar (Vook), and Andrew Malkin (Zinio), focused more on specific technologies and platforms. Each panelist gave a brief presentation of their particular company’s technology and demonstrated how they can help publishers create slick, enhanced and scalable ebook content.
Ultimately, Digital Book World’s message was one of optimism and excitement for the future of publishing. Though the industry is clearly going through a period of volatility and transition, in the words of Sideways’ Charles Stack, “We are in the prehistoric cave-painting stage of digital book evolution.” There’s a long way to go, and for the intrepid publisher – or ambitious NYU publishing student – the possibilities are endless.
by Thea James