From O’Reilly Media’s Joe Wikert’s opening remarks saying “it’s all about storytelling” to Mondadori’s Laura Donnini ending comment of “We sell dreams,” content was the word participants kept coming back to at the inaugural Tools of Change Bologna, the day before the opening of the Bologna Book Fair. A sellout crowd of 250, from 27 countries, attended the day-long program on Sunday, March 27.

Many of the same conversations from recent DBW and TOC conferences surfaced throughout the day, from ePub to HMTL5, digital rights complexities, discoverability, price pressures, and DRM as protection vs. sales deterrent. The importance of social networking came up in several talks as well; Moms with Apps co-founder Lynette Mattke called it “the driving force in connecting with your audience.” And Lasse Korsemann Horne of Gyldendal in Denmark gave the digital world a new phrase when referring to apps that introduce the concept of the book to “Generation Angry Birds.”

Morning keynote speaker Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow reminded attendees that the shift to digital has given publishers new opportunities “to connect directly with consumers cheaply and efficiently.” Citing statistics of how many four- and five-year-olds are online in the U.K.--saying that 14% of them can tie their shoes but 34% can open a browser--she emphasized, “This is where your customers are.”

Looking toward the future, amid accelerating change and an ongoing economic squeeze, she expressed concern that the “downward pressure on price would have an impact on creative investment and experimentation.” But she encouraged audience members to take the leap: “If you haven’t already, go and open the door.”

Scholastic’s Deborah Forte, on the morning’s Going Digital panel, advocated for publishers moving to “a push model rather than a pull model” for distribution. “Kids will have a lot more say in getting their books,” she predicted. “Instead of a distribution system where everyone is going in a bookstore to buy a book, it will be a consumer-centric system. We need to recognize that the customer is in charge. And companies need to rethink their marketing strategies.”

She cautioned against rushing to publish apps as a reaction to the marketplace. “You need to ask: how do they connect you to your audience?” If a book is being translated to a screen, “What is making that experience better?”

Lyle Underkoffer, v-p of digital media at Disney Publishing, spoke of an opportunity that going digital provides: “You can change prices easily; it gives you the ability to test prices. It’s not about making better margins, it’s about providing a better consumer experience.”

Moderator Joe Wikert shared an internal O’Reilly mantra when he advised publishers to “fail forward fast,” and come up with a minimum viable product to get into the game, and warned against initial overinvestment. Underkoffer added another cautionary note, saying, “Overproducing can lead to bigger potholes.” Though he said that now is a time for experimentation, he added that it’s difficult to be at the forefront at a time of great change. “The second-mover strategy is not always the worst.”

The Four-Letter Word of Digital

Free vs. lite vs. paid was a topic for discussion at Wikert's panel. Calling free “a four-letter word,” Underkoffer said free is “very slippery,” and can create expectations of a lifetime. At Disney, “we don’t want to train the consumer that they can get Disney content for free.” To HarperCollins U.K.’s Tom Conway, “free” is more about “lite.” “A lite version of one of our top apps,” he said, “has been key to its success. People can sample its richness” and delve deep enough into it to see that it’s worth the price. In a later session, Brian O’Reilly of Magellan Partners pointed out that if you don’t give people an opportunity to sample, “you run the risk of losing readers." But as Conway reported, experimenting with an app being completely free didn’t boost sales after the app’s shift to paid.

Though Apple has a huge headstart in terms of both product and distribution, several speakers throughout the day discussed the opportunities that are emerging with new platforms, including Chrome OS, HP WebOS, and perhaps the most promising, Android.

Kevin O’Connor, director of children’s content for Barnes & Noble, who gave a demo of Nook Kids, said that B&N will be launching an app store in April. In a few weeks they’ll announce some enhanced features to their proprietary children’s book format, which he described as “light motion graphics.” Speaking to the notion that you can create a comprehensive inventory much quicker in children’s than you can in adult, he said, “If you have 10,000 titles, you would have every single title that has sold significantly in the last few years.”

In the Digital Sales and Marketing Channels session, Lynette Mattke stated that it’s not enough to just develop an app and put it in the App Store. “Platforms will be changing, and that app will need constant attention and updates.” Fellow panelist Josh Koppel of ScrollMotion called that “the most important point anyone’s made today. In order to keep that app successful, it’s a long-term investment.” And moderator Joe Schick of Baker & Taylor added, “If a book is a product, an app is a service.”

In an afternoon keynote, illustrator and Cambridge School of Art professor Martin Salisbury said that with emerging technology such as e-books and apps, “The people who embrace it first are seduced by the technology rather than what you can do with it. But eventually the artists figure out a way to make the technology work for them. We’re in that phase where everyone’s floundering around talking about the medium and not the content.”

And Donnini at Mondadori, the final speaker of the day, tackled -- among other subjects -- the thorny issue of discoverability. “The bestseller list is the most effective promotion, after approval in the App Store, but the biggest challenge is how to get visibility in the store. Traditional advertising is a complete waste of time to promote your app, but Apple doesn’t take adds. You have to get on the bestseller list and stay in the top 10.” How to do that? She gave some advice, including showing an app on the web, developing a video to showcase the app, put the video on YouTube, show it on Facebook, use Twitter. Then track your results and adjust the price if needed. “Upgrade with extra content. Feed your customers; always try to give them something new."

Speaking after the conference had ended, Dublin-based blogger, writer and editor David Marbury pointed out the lack of hard sales numbers throughout the day. “Nobody mentioned figures for a good reason,” he said: “no one’s selling anything. One of the big U.K. publishers told me that one of the biggest names on their list has sold 90 [e-book] titles. No one’s entirely sure what’s happening, it’s all still moving so quickly. HMTL5 is now Mecca but no one’s quite sure how it’s going to work. It’s all white noise until something lands and settles.”

Kids Can publisher Karen Boersma did find some takeaways from the day’s sessions. One was the importance of updates; “as a consumer I want them right away,” so it would stand to reason that as a publisher, you have to commit to doing them regularly as well. In general, for digital conferences like the first TOC Bologna, Boersma said, “If I can come away with one or two good ideas, I’m happy.”