The case could be made that Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, author of the new book Free and the Long Tail, the seminal work that outlined a new paradigm of Web-enabled book searching and selling, is the patron saint of this year’s digitally focused BEA. At last night’s panel, “Jumping Off a Cliff: How Publishers Can Succeed Online,” Anderson was joined by Scribd cofounder Jared Friedman, New York Times digital guru Nick Bilton and the moderator, PW’s Andrew Albanese, in a conversation that can be heard all around the convention floor: What can the book industry do to avoid the unfortunate fate of the music industry?

The short answer to book publishers is: don’t act like the music labels and turn your companies into a disruptive force that comes between readers and the real product—writing and writers. Anderson began by describing a book industry dominated by “costly, monopolistic supply chains” that seemed much like the ill-fated music industry. But Anderson went on to say that unlike the music CD—described as the wrong unit for music, sold at the wrong price—“There’s nothing wrong with the physical book,” he said. “Long battery life, high resolution pages, easy to read, you can give it away—it’s a superior format,” he continued to some laughter. “The digital formats are great but they enhance the physical book rather than replace it.”

Anderson’s point was that the analogy to the music industry only goes so far, and that authors and readers are on the cusp of a new age of book promotion and reading. Friedman and Bilton were also quick to point out that book publishers better recognize how their role will change. The real product of the music industry, Anderson emphasized, was not the CD, but the music itself and the relationship between it, the musicians and the fans. “The product is not the music labels, “ Anderson said. “I care what happens to bands not labels. Screw the labels.”

Bilton pointed out that the iPod “was not the first digital music player, but it came during a perfect storm and offered a great experience.” Scrbd’s Friedman—much in the news as he moves the online site (and its 60 million users) into new promotional relationships with publishers and authors—was also optimistic about book publishing and the new digital paradigm. “It’s a fallacy that bits and bytes can’t be monetized as well as print,” he said, “and you can do more on the Web than put print-world stuff on it. I’m optimistic that publishers can manage this transition without the hiccups of the music business. They’re already doing this.”

Bilton made the point that going forward, all media companies, whether TV networks, newspapers or book publishers, will produce similar content. “CNN produces writing, the New York Times now produces videos, podcasts and all manner of multimedia. We will all create the same type of content and we’ll consume it all on the same devices. There won’t be the distinction between books and newspapers and other media.”

Among other useful points made for publishers: piracy can be useful, it drives sales and besides, Anderson noted, “it’s impossible to stop.” Friedman: “The future is DRM-free, we put all this DRM stuff on Scribd and publishers don’t even use them.” Friedman again: “What is a book? It’s a hardcover, an e-book, a Web book, an audio book, a video on YouTube; I don’t know where the book ends and I begin.” And for authors: “DIY in the digital age doesn’t mean you’ll be a celebrity,” Anderson said in response to a query about online promotion. “It will help you increase your audience and saves you from obscurity even if you can’t quit your day job.”

Bilton turned to the movie industry and cited it for failing to learn from the past. “They’re following the music industry by shutting down Pirate Bay. Why frustrate millions of fans? Make it easier for me to get films legally if you want to stop pirating.” And Friedman provided the ultimate theme of the evening. “People want digital content," he said. "The faster you get it to them legally the better. Jump off the cliff, sooner rather than later.”

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