Text One Zero is a consulting and research subsidiary of First Conferences, a London—based exhibitions firm. The company has been presenting conferences throughout Europe on the digital delivery of music since 1990. "We identify new markets; find the industry leaders and research where we think its heading," said Dan Tse, press liaison for Text One Zero. First Conferences has expanded its focus to include digital publishing; last month's conference in Brooklyn, N.Y., was the first in a series of U.S. Text One Zero events focused on e-publishing.
The Brooklyn conference featured participants from the largest publishers to the very smallest. Indeed, the refrain from many of the small e-publishers in attendance was "we didn't get any venture capital money," emphasizing their no-nonsense focus on low overhead, efficiency and customer service over a spiraling burn rate. Web entrepreneurs like Dave Howell, CEO of Alexandria Digital Literature, an e-book site, said Web commerce has not failed—"Very few e-publishers are failing, probably because we're so small." Other panelists said it was simply too early to expect the perfect revenue model. Targeted advertising; CD-ROMs chocked with content, unlocked piecemeal for a fee; e-books generated from membership sites; and new, low-cost reading devices were all discussed as possible breakthrough revenue models for the nascent e-publishing business. "Hybrid revenue models are the most likely to succeed," said Ram Devineni, publisher of the literary e-press Rattapallax Press. "Using a single approach will likely fail."
Print-on-demand publishing services seemed to be having some success. 1stBooks.com and GreatUnpublished.com, which offer publishing services and online retailing for e-books and POD titles, both claimed growing revenues. "People want e-books and print books. The mediums overlap," explained Jeff Schwaner, cofounder of GreatUnpublished.com, which offers the e-book edition free with the purchase of a POD print edition. Publishing consultant Ken Brooks of Publishing Dimensions and Josh Haims of iUniverse.com both cited the potential of POD to deliver customized, variable content; eliminate inventory and distribution costs; and "push the marketplace," said Haims.
In fact, the POD firms seemed a little bored by all the emphasis on e-books. Peter Zelchenko, president of Volume One, a print-on-demand firm, said, "E-books are a distraction from POD. What people really want is quick access to hard-to-find titles."
E-book publishers were especially put out with media descriptions of "e-books" as only the devices, not the files that run on them, and with analyses that claim the industry is slow to develop because "nobody wants to read on a screen." Indeed, several polls taken in the sessions established that more than half the attendees spent more than half their reading time using some sort of computer screen, rather than paper.
The reason for the emphasis on devices became clearer in the panel on display technologies. Many observers have pointed out that current dedicated devices are too expensive; consumers would be more accepting when prices were closer to $50 than to $500. Stewart Hough of Cambridge Display Technology, explained why that day may never come. "The display is the hardest part of any device to make," he asserted. "Developing the technology takes about $100 million. Fabrication and distribution raises the stakes to between $600 million and $1 billion."
The upshot, according to Hough, is that e-books will eventually have quality tiers, like print books. The highest-quality screens will be restricted to multi-use devices that can also play videos, DVDs and music. Mid-range e-books, like trade paperbacks, can include some graphical elements, and will appear on devices like the current Gemstar REBs. E-Ink, currently able to show one color, would become the equivalent of the mass market paperback—all the text, but no frills.