A clear and energetic optimism on the state of the industry was in the air this week at the Digital Book World Conference in New York.
In 2010, e-book sales rose by around 400% and pulled in almost $1 billion in sales. Madeline McIntosh, Random House's president of sales, operations and digital, said her company is working on the belief that by 2015, half the books readers buy will be e-books.
"I'd like to think we are entering a golden age of publishing," said Brian Napack, president of Macmillan, the publishing house behind Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom." Jane Friedman, who used to run HarperCollins and now leads Open Road Media, a start-up e-book publisher, agreed. "I think the industry is vibrant, vital," she said.
Now in its second year, the conference is focused on e-books, from production to promotion; it is geared specifically toward publishers. Despite record-breaking cold and a sudden snowstorm, more than 1,200 people attended the three-day conference, doubling last year's attendance.
The huge jump in e-book sales has been driven by the increasing popularity — and decreasing price — of e-readers. About 10.5 million people now own a dedicated e-reader such as Amazon's Kindle or Barnes & Noble's Nook. Apple's iPad has been followed by a plethora of multimedia tablets. And e-books can be read on them all.
To accompany those many hardware choices, a dizzying array of software choices are emerging for consumers. Both Amazon's Kindle software and Google's new e-reader can be used on desktops, handhelds or tablets. Copia, one company giving demonstrations at Digital Book World, is using new e-reading software specifically built to enable social elements while reading, such as sharing notes on the text. Blio, also demonstrated at the conference, will soon be preloaded onto Dell machines; it is particularly suited for displaying image-heavy books, like cookbooks and children's books — and it can be set to read a children's book aloud when parents are otherwise occupied.
That's similar to, but one step behind, the app that won the conference's inaugural Publishing Innovation Award in the children's category. A Story Before Bed allows parents to record themselves reading a book, which their children can then listen to — it was particularly popular with U.S. soldiers serving overseas as a way to stay connected with their families.
A Story Before Bed was developed by Jackson Fish Market, a three-person company based in Seattle. Right now, the e-book space in the publishing industry is open enough to accommodate small developers with big ideas, ambition and access.
With e-book sales booming, publishers are trying to figure out what to outsource and what to do in-house. "Is it better for us to control it," McIntosh asked, "or to find a partner?"
And that isn't the only question. At the top of the list for many publishers, whose business has been focused on marketing their books to bookstores, is how they can move into selling their books directly to consumers.
"Publishers are going to have to prove they're better at marketing and publicity than the authors themselves," said Simon Lipskar, an agent with Writers House. "I want to know about the questions of curating and discovery. Are publishers curators?"
If they can't be, they have someone who can: independent booksellers, who insist that hand-selling books to readers is a viable alternative to Amazon. "I would love to talk to a publisher and say do you want to know who buys your book?" said Stephanie Anderson, manager of WORD bookstore in Brooklyn. "Because I could tell you that, and so could any bookseller in America."