Getting digital content adapted quickly to as many different devices and consumers as possible was the clear message that came through last Tuesday at the TiE-DC (The International Entrepreneurs) Education Panel held at the Top of the Town in Arlington, Vir. Dev Ganesan, CEO of Aptara, moderated a discussion with Ken Brooks, senior v-p for global production and manufacturing services at Cengage; Scott Marden of Compass Partners, LLC, an equity firm; Jeff Livingston, senior v-p at McGraw-Hill; Scott Abel, president of The Content Wrangler; and Bob Kelly, director of journal information services at the American Physical Society.

With a million-dollar view of Washington, DC as a backdrop, M-H’s Livingston’s observed: “Here we are in our nation’s capital. Look behind me – you can see it! If the federal government doesn’t start realizing that educational materials are a priority, I fear our students will not be able to compete.” Livingston, who emphasized that he believes within a decade all public high school students in the U.S. will access nearly all curricula via laptops, also agreed with Brooks on the fact that their companies are “not in the content business” but in the “access business.”

That means, according to Ganesan, “As publishers, we need to be agile about delivering our content in as many media as possible.” Everyone agreed that the advent of the iPad “is a tipping point” beyond which publishers and content developers cannot ignore digital content. “Content continues to be the king – and queen– but everything needs to relate to a publisher’s brand. I believe that this will result in deeper, richer stories, because the old media brands will compete again,” said Marden.

Brooks went further: “Educational publishing’s future lies in a mix of functionality and delivery.” He said that educational publishing isn’t about content, but about “how to solve problems for professors and help students; ultimately, it’s about student retention.” Like Livingston, Brooks sees an all-digital future for classrooms, “most likely when all of today’s digital natives have grown into tomorrow’s professors.” Ganesan quipped that educational publishers need to change their slogan from “We Create Books” to “We Help Students Learn.”

The panelists agreed that while today’s digital devices are accelerating adaptation due to availability and accessibility, those devices are simply tools. Abel’s view, from the world of content professionals, is that publishers are on the right – and fast – track. “Publishing today is not about books. It’s about all of the components of content that make up a book. Taken separately, they have more value, and the potential to increase in value as customers use them.” Livingston echoed this, saying that he sees today’s devices unleashing creativity. “It’s a price issue,” he said. “When we start seeing a product that’s under $150, everything changes – and we want to be ready for that change.”

One participant’s question pinpointed a problem: “Who is the enemy” in the changing publishing world?” “It’s just as Walt Kelly said in Pogo, decades ago: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’ The enemy is the old, traditional model of publishing,” Kelly responded.