The fifth installment of Digital Book World, the annual New York City conference on digital publishing, was held last week. The program included Tim O’Reilly—arguably, the guy who started the whole digital book conference circuit, with the Tools of Change for Publishing series, which he ended last year—and author Brad Stone (The Everything Store). The conference focused on Amazon, the rise of startups and digital book entrepreneurs, and the e-book subscription business model (which participants are following with interest, and some skepticism).

F+W Media, the event’s organizer, used this year’s DBW to pay a bit of tribute to O’Reilly, and to look back over the last five years to gauge how much the industry has changed and to examine what needs to be done to move publishing into the future. DBW council chair Mike Shatzkin sketched a before-and-after picture of the book industry and its transition to digital since the launch of the conference in 2010. Back then, as he said in his opening remarks, there were still six big trade book houses, it was tough to find people with tech skills, the Kindle and Nook e-readers had been on the market for a short time only, and the iPad hadn’t yet debuted. Today, Shatzkin noted, book publishing has seen a “near-total transformation” into a digitally focused industry in which there is “a single dominant e-tailer, a single dominant physical retailer, and a single dominant publishing house.” The industry is now awash in technology and faces a new set of challenges, including competition from niche categories and self-published content, and a steady decrease in physical shelf space, along with related discoverability issues, forcing publishers to seek new ways to get books in front of readers.

Conference participants also pointed out that books are competing for consumers’ attention—and dollars—with a growing abundance of digital content. According to a report from Nielsen Book delivered during DBW, the book industry seems to be losing teen readers to other forms of digital entertainment. The report shows that between 2011 and 2013, the number of U.S. teenagers who say that they don’t read for fun has increased from 21% to 41%. At the same time, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, publishers are serving a marketplace split between digital and print, though still dominated by the latter. The study reveals that only about 4% of all book buyers read e-books only, but the number of adult Americans who own digital reading devices continues to increase (from 42% in September 2013 to 50% at the beginning of 2014). The use of tablets for reading is also rising steadily: 42% of adult readers now own a tablet, up from 34% before the latest holiday season—and 32% of adult readers still use dedicated e-readers like Kindle and Nook e-ink devices.

This transformation of the publishing landscape came up during the CEO panel, when O’Reilly was asked, once again, why he chose to shut down the TOC conferences. He pointed out that the industry has changed a lot since the conferences were launched in 2007. “We do events as part of our mission to move the industry in a certain direction,” O’Reilly explained, seeming a bit perplexed to be asked yet again about ending TOC. “We wanted people to pay more attention to e-books. Everybody’s on board with e-books now, so we’re done.” O’Reilly added, “We fold conferences all the time; now we’re working on other stuff”—including launching a public beta of Atlas, a new Web-based publishing platform and authoring tool designed to cut costs and streamline the publishing process.

In a presentation at DBW entitled “The Real E-book Revolution Is Just Beginning,” O’Reilly outlined a set of principles to guide publishing in this new era. Focusing on what he called “the arc of data”—a process driven by an examination of the question, “What job does a book do?”—he pointed to technological innovations like Google’s self-driving car and the Moto X, a voice-operated smartphone. It’s a process, he said, that will take publishers from the development of “information products to information services.” He pointed specifically to location-based car-service apps like Uber and asked whether they can “provide a lesson for the book industry.”

O’Reilly said these new information services will be built on existing tech platforms that can harness resources across networks and operate “above the level of a single device.” But he noted that amid all the talk of marketplace efficiencies and disintermediation, one important aspect of the digital transition is often overlooked: “Publishers need to ask how will we be of use,” he said, “and how will we help our authors—not how will we survive.” Social media, we sometimes forget, is a revolutionary technology because of its ability to easily connect like-minded people anywhere in the world, around any topic of interest—not simply because it’s a cheap marketing platform. “Why does John Green need a publisher,” O’Reilly asked rhetorically, invoking the popular YA author as an almost inspirational example of how to build an online community of passionate fans (his videos have over a million views on YouTube and his books have over 60,000 reviews on Goodreads) who also want books.

Many presentations at DBW focused on the power of Amazon, and O’Reilly wasn’t the only speaker at the conference to call on publishers and booksellers to move beyond denouncing the e-tailer: during his presentation, consultant Joseph Esposito said the book industry needs to “innovate in order to beat Amazon.”

O’Reilly’s point is that publishers will find innovation (and increased profitability) by forging direct, imaginative, and humane connections with customers. Publishers, he noted, have to do more than “survive” perceived threats; they need to be “generous and create more value than [they] capture.”

“That’s why we got into events,” O’Reilly said. “Because we can help people.”

A Snapshot of Reading in America in 2013

Percentage of adults who read at least one book in the following formats in the past year

Total Print E-book Audiobook
Total (All adults 18+) 76% 69% 28% 14%
Male 69 64 23 14
Female 82 74 33 15
White 76 71 29 14
Black 81 75 30 19
Hispanic 67 56 16 14
Age group
18–29 79 73 37 15
30–49 75 66 32 16
50–64 77 71 27 16
65+ 70 66 12 10
Education level
High school grad or less 64 57 14 10
Some college 83 78 32 15a
College graduate 88 78 45 21a
Household income
<$30,000 68 63 14 12
$30,000–$49,999 75 70 28 16
$50,000–$74,999 85 78 42 19
$75,000+ 83 74 46 14

Source: Pew Research Center's Interest Project Omnibus survey, January 2 - 5, 2014, N=1005 American adults ages 18 and older. Interviews were conducted on landlines and cell phones, in English and Spanish.