At the opening session of the Wharton School’s Future of Publishing conference, held April 30 at the Marriott Marquis in New York, Atria’s Judith Curr offered an interesting observation. Despite all the talk in recent years about the “demise of publishing,” Curr said, “everyone wants to get into it.” Indeed, for all the challenges facing the industry, new technology (especially the iPad) infused the daylong event with a sense of opportunity, certainly underscored by the number of people whose name tags identified them as “LLC.”

Curr was joined on a the opening panel with Perseus CEO David Steinberger, Conde Nast Group President David Carey, Kevin Delaney, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and Andy Hunter, of Brooklyn-based e-book start-up Electric Literature. Carey spoke glowingly of the promise of the iPad and its new offering from Wired Magazine, that would feature video and animation, and said that with some 30 new tablet devices expected to come on the market in the newest few years, publishers would be invigorated. Delaney also pushed a “multi-platform strategy” for periodical content.

Speaking to an audience of book professionals, business people, technologists, publishers and students, the book publishing contingent was frank, and insightful. Steinberger said the Internet created new opportunities, such as Perseus’ new venture with the Daily Beast, Beast Books, but that technology required a new approach. The promise of technology, he said, is “the ability to connect specific books to specific audiences,” adding that the “blockbuster approach” of “chasing bestsellers feels riskier than ever.” Among the key challenges facing publishers, are changes to “traditional” book retailing. “Half of all unplanned book purchases happen in bookstores,” Steinberger noted. “How do you re-create that discovery?”

Curr said that “every part” of the publishing process should be re-examined, from editorial, to production to and sales, “but at the end of the day, money has to change hands.” She spoke of Atria’s publishing four Vooks, and of Jodi Piccoult’s new, .99 cent app, and urged more experimentation. The future, she said, would challenge the people and processes book publishers have relied on for decades.

Electric Literature’s Andy Hunter also encouraged experimentation, urging publishers to allow their people to fail in the pursuit of new business opportunities. He likened the situation to Noah before the deluge. The urge, he said, is for people in the publishing business to stop working on the crazy vision and get back to work on the farm. “But by the time the ark proves its usefulness, it is too late to use it.”

The day’s second panel, on the Future of the Consumer, offered more of a statistical snapshot of today’s consumer, than looking forward to tomorrow’s. Nevertheless, the panel offered some interesting data and observations, including from Fordham University’s Al Greco, who reminded the audience that there was more to publishing’s digital transition than trade books, noting the e-texts in education are booming. Among household’s with over $100,000 in income, Greco noted, 99% were online, and more than half had smartphones, suggesting the digital transition was complete for a large sector of book buyers.

Peter Hildick Smith, from the Codex Group, a book-market consultant, offered data gleaned from a recent survey of 6700 book buyers, noting that Kindle and iPad owners still largely bought print books. According to the data, admittedly preliminary given the devices small overall penetration, Kindle owners bought 37% of their books for the Kindle while iPad owners bought 46% of their books for the iPad.

A late-morning session dedicated to book publishing offered a great view of the industry’s state. It featured elder statesman turned forward-looking entrepeneur Jason Epstein, Hyperion’s Ellen Archer, Steve Wilson, CEO of self-publisher Fast Pencil, and Brendan Cahill, who left his editorial job at Gotham Books to get a business degree from the Wharton School, and returned to publishing in 2009, with Jane Friedman and Open Road. At Wharton, he said, he gained a clear-eyed vision of the business challenges facing publishing, and spoke of having a “road to Damascus” moment, noting that the industry was “a device away” from a major tipping point.

Epstein, now chairman of On Demand Books, told the audience he first joined Random House more than 50 years ago, when the company consisted of just eight editors, and offered a brief history of publishing’s transformation from a backlist-driven business to a bestseller business, as small independent bookstores in cities gave way to malls, and superstores and major media conglomerates moved in. Epstein said he was uninterested in questions over prices or formats, as bigger issues loom: copyright must be updated as territoriality is challenged, preservation issues must be addressed, as “a sunspot” could wipe out human cultural history, and the business is facing fundamental change. If the world was to start a publishing house today, “the last thing we would do is create a conglomerate,” he noted. “We would start something like the Random House I knew in the 50s.”

Wilson, hinted at what the industry might look like going forward. He sketched a connected world where writers shared their work online, while writing it, and where writers and readers would create an eco-system of give and take that could exist in print, online, and be served piece-by-piece. None of the panelists disagreed, but Cahill warned against publishers participating in a false debate.“We have to do it all,” he said.

At a lunchtime keynote, Martin Niseholtz, senior VP of digital operations for the New York Times, another Penn alum, neatly captured the diving force of change in publishing: engagement. Going forward, publishing is no longer about “the printing press, or the server, or the cave drawing for that matter,” he told the packed room. “It is about creating an essential human connection.” To achieve that, the Times is deepening ties with social media, working with companies like Google, and experimenting with new design. Success, he stressed, “will require a different approach to the evolving ecology of the web. It’s exciting because it opens us up to so much more. For that to happen, we, as publishers, have to open ourselves, in many ways.”