It's like a gathering of penguins," quipped Michael Fragnito, vice-president of B&N Digital, of British publishing folk hovering around the waters of e-publishing. "They'll watch and wait, and when one comes up with a fish, they'll all jump in."
Fragnito made that comment to PW toward the end of the London Book Fair, but the simile fit many of the 160 publishing professionals attending the first-ever ePubLondon Conference, held at Olympia on the Thursday and Friday immediately preceding the LBF. EPubLondon, a Reed Exhibitions event under the guidance of Helen Shiers, director of the LBF, divided its program in two: consumer e-publishing on the first day and STM (scientific, technical and medical) on the second. The waters grew choppy at once as the first day's keynote speaker, new media consultant Tony Feldman, cast doubt upon the near future of consumer e-publishing. After pointing out that the average consumer spends "about 10 times as much time looking at the television as going online," Feldman concluded, "It is hard to make a case for [consumer] e-books having a significant impact on our revenue streams, at least in the time frame by which we plan our businesses." He waxed skeptical about print-on-demand as well, insisting that it is, at least now, "not good enough to deliver the production value" that consumers want.
So where does that leave e-publishers? Perhaps adrift upon depths already murky from concerns about issues of rights and security. After a series of presentations—on digital rights management, copyright and e-book piracy—that expressed optimism about consumer e-publishing in direct ratio to each presenter's financial stake in that industry, Fred Perkins, chief executive of the Stationery Office, wound up his late-afternoon talk by exclaiming, "Territorial rights are dead!"—i.e., how can one maintain bordered territories in the borderless Net? Many penguins squirmed in their seats.
The second day of the conference, chaired by PW's editor-in-chief, Nora Rawlinson (Nicholas Clee of the Bookseller chaired the first day), explored calmer, more nutrient-laden waters. Though consumer e-publishing gets more mainstream press, STM publishing appeared to many presenters and listeners to be where e-publishing would make—and has made—its strongest initial impact. The keynote address by Arnoud de Kemp of Springer emphasized the future importance of multimedia in STM publishing, electrified the audience by flapping a plastic sheet permeated with electronic ink, courtesy of MIT, and discussed the increased importance of peer review in STM e-publishing, given the notorious unreliability of much of the information available on the Net. Further speakers and panels took on educational e-publishing, standards and the issue of bringing e-books to market.
Finally, Feldman returned to the stage, declaring, "It is imperative" that every publisher explore the option of digitizing their content. The general consensus among conference attendees was that the first ePubLondon offered much guidance in taking this step—and that Fragnito's fish, as it were, could be discerned swimming just below the surface of the Sea of Bytes.