"Apps, apps, apps," said Carolyn Fortin, from Canadian packager QA International, when asked about the conversations she has had with publishers at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. Last year, she added, her conversations were about "books, and the future of the publishing industry." This year, she told a good-sized audience from one of the Frankfurt SPARKS stages, publishers are thinking more about their content, no longer about just taking book content and repurposing it for a web version of the book, but really thinking about the possibilities for new digital formats. She briefly referenced some the investment lost when publishers dabbled in CD-ROMs. "Everyone now believes that (digital) might be worth it."
Fortin's comments are a pretty good encapsulation of this year's fair, now on its final day before the public storms the gates, and they may help explain why the mood of this year's show is upbeat, despite flat or declining book sales, a terror threat, a struggling global economy, and "currency wars" that have made international business all the more challenging. With real revenues now coming in from e-books, and new players including Google and Apple, innovation is in the air at this year's fair, while disruption was more the mood last year.
In addition to new opportunities, the fair has also had a jolt of new business thinking. Alongside traditional publishers are a number of digital upstarts, including Jane Friedman's Open Road, who were displaying in the exhibit halls and addressing conference-goers at a session to announce the company's new list, just a year after the venture debuted at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair. OR Books's John Oakes was also at the fair, and in a session at the Frankfurt Tools of Change conference said his new venture was doing very well so far, with a direct-sale, no DRM e-books, and non-returnable, pre-paid print book model. And Richard Nash, who announced his new venture, Cursor, in PW in July of 2009, unveiled his first list for spring, and also spoke more about his community-based, platform driven vision for publishing. Although the proof of their concepts may have to wait a few more Frankfurts, they are three examples of the energizing and expansive thinking exhibited by publishers.
In addition to a growing e-book market, Frankfurt organizers also get credit for the changing the mood of the show. For example, a "device" hot spot had fairgoers lined up to check out a full array of e-readers, tablets, and other reading devices, part of the Frankfurt Book Fair's SPARKS initiative, a concept that also put speaker stages right in exhibit halls and held quick 30-minute events throughout the first three days of the fair, interviewing publishers and other innovators strictly about digital issues. Despite some occasional glitches with microphones, the stages have proven very popular. Rather than shunting conference-goers off to distant rooms for sessions, the SPARKS put the most interesting conversations exactly where they belong: on the show floor. BEA's Mark Dressler, who organized the effort and moderated many of the events, told PW he was very pleased with how the events were received, and said he would do a similar digital program at the 2011 BEA.
Despite the focus on digital opportunities, the future will not be clear sailing, of course. Among key issues now facing publishers are territoriality and other rights and contract issues complicating the digital transition, not to mention the fast pace of technology, pricing and new gadgetry. However, if this year's fair is an indicator, publishers certainly seem more eager to explore, rather than shy away from the tough issues.