The writing has been on the digital wall for some time, but with new initiatives and a noticeable emphasis on e-books, the 2010 Frankfurt Book Fair is embracing the digital future. From a StoryDrive program, a schedule of panels that seeks to break down barriers between books, games, films, and other media; to the launch of the Frankfurt SPARKS initiative, organizers are making an effort to “unite the worlds of publishing, technology industries, media and the Internet culture in order to develop collective viable business models,” said Juergen Boos, director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and to pioneer a role “as a content and media fair."

So far, so good. At six Frankfurt "Hot Spots," essentially exhibition platforms placed in exhibitor halls, presenters have offered fairgoers a running commentary from some of the industry’s biggest players, discussing the digital transition. And not a moment too soon. In a 2008 survey, some 40% of 1,000 industry professionals surveyed said digital content will overtake traditional printed book sales by 2018. Now, it looks like "it may be sooner than that," Mike Shatzkin told the FFD after a morning slot at the Hot Spot in Hall 8.0, where he talked about the upcoming Digital Book World conference program, slated for January in New York.

But the first session of the afternoon, on e-books, really captured the pace of change now hitting the publishing industry. Speakers included Brian Murray, CEO, HarperCollins; Evan Schnittman, managing director, Bloomsbury; Andrew Savikas, v-p, O’Reilly Media; and Rick Joyce, CMO, Perseus; and the panel was moderated by Google's Tom Turvey. All of the panelists noted explosive growth in e-book revenues. Murray said e-books made up about 9% of HarperCollins' total revenue, but when that number was adjusted to filter out things like children’s books or other materials not easily consumed digitally, closer to 20% of trade title revenue was now derived from e-books. The panelists agreed the growth was explosive, and that e-book revenues were now a significant revenue stream. In fact, with print revenues flat, nearly all of the industry’s growth can be attributed to e-books, another indicator of e-books' crucial role.

As to whether e-books were adding incremental growth or cannibalizing print sales, the panelists said it was hard to tell. Schnittman, however, said you can't measure that kind of thing on a title by title basis, but on a customer by customer basis. Once a reader makes a decision to read on a device, he notes, that customer is basically lost to print. There were thorny questions as well, with Turvey asking the panel if the industry standard 25% of net receipts royalty would change. Murray said no, defending the rate as a fair cut, adding that he saw nothing on the horizon that would change his mind on the subject.

As for the business of the Frankfurt Book Fair in the digital age, Turvey asked whether gathering in one location to sell "geographic rights" would continue in the future. All of the panelists said that changes were surely on the horizon, but Schnittman and Murray were quick to point out that it was language rights, not geographic rights, that were traded, suggesting the kind of personal exchanges fostered by the rights center had a future.

Indeed, if a theme may have emerged on the Frankfurt SPARKS stages on day one of the show, it was what a difference a year makes. At last year's fair there was no iPad and no iBookstore, and the dominant digital theme was piracy. This year, e-books and digital are looked at more as an opportunity than a threat. And next year, Google will have entered the fray with Google Editions. That is, "if the rumors are true," said Schnittman, needling Turvey over the much-delayed program. Google Editions is coming "soon," Turvey, promised the audience, making the fair's emphasis on digital right on time.