The five publishing executives who took part on Digital Book World’s CEO panel Tuesday morning all agreed that while the industry is undergoing unprecedented changes, their companies are moving to adapt to new realities. Their view was consistent with a survey contacted by James McQuivey of Forrester Research that found 83% of publishing executives believed their company is capable of managing the digital transition.

McQuivey presented highlights of the study just before the CEO panel Tuesday, which also found that 80% of execs believe their staffs will need retraining to compete effectively in the digital marketplace. McQuivey also presented some research findings, including the estimate that consumers spend $1 billion on e-books in 2010, a figure that should reach at least $1.3 billion in 2011. The consensus among those surveyed was that e-books would comprise half of all trade book units by 2014, and 53% said they expected print sales to decrease this year.

The CEOs agreed that they face many challenges, but said there are many opportunities as well. Jane Friedman, CEO of Open Road Integrated Media and former CEO of HarperCollins, said the industry is “vitale and vibrant,” adding that at no point in her career as she seen such change and that things will never go back to the way they were. “It’s the end of the beginning”of the digital transition, Friedman said. Macmillan’s COO said publishing is entering a “golden age,” but added that the question is will it be a golden age for publishers. He noted that unlike some other media industries, publishers have been handed a great gift--millions of devices in the hands of readers that provides publishers the opportunity to create new products. The publishers that prosper, Napck said, will be those that adopt the new skill sets needed to publish in a new marketplace.

While many questions loom over the creation and delivery of digital content, the immediate question confronting publishers in what is happening in the distribution of print books, Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt said. With the number of bookstores shrinking, publishers will need to find new ways to allow consumers to discover books, Napack said. Just putting books in Amazon is not marketing, he said, adding that publishers will need to more effectively use social media to promote their titles. Hyatt warned that social media can’t be treated as a broadcast medium, but rather needs a targeted message.

Most panelists agreed that the downsizing of the bookstore chains meant that independent booksellers have a chance to mount something of a comeback. Napack said that while independent booksellers’ market share will remain relatively small, their role in bringing books to market will increase in importance. And while there will be fewer bookstores in the future, Napack said he believes there will always be physical bookstores.

Panelists also touched on e-book pricing, with all agreeing with Friedman’s statement that “free is not a business model, it’s a marketing model.” While the “post-agency” e-book price seems to have settled around $9.99, Napack expected there will be a range of prices moving forward. Hyatt observed it would be “mindless” to settle on one price.

The Retailing Future

Matt Fassler, an analyst who covers Barnes & Noble for Goldman Sachs, said on the What’s the Future for Bricks-and-Mortar Bookstores? panel that he believes that after a painful downsizing a core of physical bookstores will remain. He said other industries have seen independents and big box retailers co-exist and said there is no reason that can’t happen in the book industry. Earlier in the program, Mike Shatzkin, head of the Ideal Logical Company and a conference organizer, predicted that in 10 to 12 years brick-and-mortar bookstores “will more or less disappear.”

Fassler acknowledged that B&N is undergoing a costly transition, but said the company made the correct strategic decision in moving into the e-book space (he stopped following Borders in 2009). He said the superstore model was never a particularly good business model and was more beneficial to consumers than to B&N and Borders. One of B&N’s biggest challenges is Amazon’s aggressive stance in the e-book business, Fassler said, a point underscored by Marianne Wolk, who follows the e-tailer for SIG Susquehanna Financial. With its strong financial position, Amazon has been willing to sell e-books for little or no profit in order to drive market share, Wolk said, a strategy that Amazon shows no signs of abandoning. She said she doubted that Amazon would buy a big publisher to gain access to content, but would stay on its current course of expanding content by working directly with authors.

Both Wolk and Fassler said bookstores’ best chance to survive is to focus on being a “local merchant.” Wolk observed that working with Google could work well, since Google appears invested in developing local businesses.