The imperative to develop a connection to readers and communities of “passion,” the institutionalization of self-publishing, and the transformation of book publishing from a “product lottery” to an industry delivering “services” that create new revenue were just a few of the themes bouncing around the morning session of IDPF’s Digital Book 2012, held at the Javits Center in conjunction with BookExpo America.

In front of a sizable crowd in the Javits Special Events Hall, IDPF executive director Bill McCoy welcomed the audience, announcing that “experimenting is the theme” of this year’s conference and “that you’ve got to make the future. You’ve got to be a doer.” Marketer and publishing maverick Seth Godin certainly fits the description of an experimenter, and he spent his time reviewing the success of the Domino Project, an experiment in partnership with Amazon

.com, through which he published 12 sometimes unlikely books over the course of a year, and, he says, made bestsellers out of all of them.

Godin says he’s focused on attracting attention from an interested reader, not in competing for what he called “scarce shelf space.” Godin’s point is that things have changed: books used to be scarce, but no longer. Retail shelf space for books also used to be scarce, he said, but the Internet and online retailing changed that. What is scarce is “the connection to readers that a company like Amazon has,” Godin says. “The power is with whoever knows who is interested in what,” he continued, chiding publishers for still being far too interested “in the next cool thing that will get you a little shelf space.” Godin touched on themes that the panels that followed him would echo: connect with readers and think hard about just who your real customers are and engage them.”

Most of his themes were taken up by the publishers’ roundtable, which featured Random House’s Madeline McIntosh, Jane Friedman of Open Road Integrated Media, and Richard Charkin of Bloomsbury, but not before Friedman made a point of correcting McCoy’s introduction of her as a trade publisher. “I’m not a trade publisher, I’m a digital publisher,” she said, followed by Charkin (“I’m just a publisher”) and McIntosh (“I’m a global print publisher that releases books in all formats”). Once that was out of the way, all were quick to define just who their real “customers” are, and actual book readers were more often considered their indirect customers. Authors, they all declared to one degree or another, are the real customers of publishers today.

“We try to service our authors and their relationship with their readers,” McIntosh said, noting that was far more effective than trying to brand the publishing house directly to readers. “Most readers are looking for authors, not for publishers,” said Friedman, adding that digital marketing was her company’s specialty. Charkin said that while publishers spend a lot of time talking to retailers, “they are not our real customers.”

Probably one of the most interesting responses of the morning was McIntosh’s embrace of the rise of self-publishing. Citing the success of the originally self-published 50 Shades of Grey, which has sold 10 million copies since Random House acquired it, she described the book as “one of the bonuses of self-publishing. Many more people can bring their content to life and when they reach a certain level of interest, we can jump in.” The book was also used to support the notion that digital releases can drive print sales and the reverse, with the book’s sales split about 50/50 between digital and print.

Oddly for a provocateur best known for poking fun at publishers about their impending obsolescence, digital publisher Richard Nash closed the morning session with a presentation that actually put publishing in the forefront of the digital revolution going on in media. Nash pinpointed the digital publishing revolution with Pagemaker, the desktop publishing application that debuted in 1985 and subsequently led to an explosion of publishing in the years that followed. While it was a production revolution, Nash said, rather than a consumption revolution, it happened eight years before the arrival of the MP3 and about 16 years before the iPod. “Publishing offered this kind of broad access to the marketplace far earlier than other industries,” he said.

Nash added that publishers need to “cease being a producer of products [and become one] of services. Products are a lottery; services are for revenue.”