The publishing industry is in the midst of a rapid, tech-fueled period of change, but what does that change mean for the future of the business? That was the question posed to an opening panel at the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair: What Is a Publisher Now?

“I think it is fair to say that about 5-10 years ago the publishing industry was well-defined: Retailers retailed, publishers published, distributors distributed, printers printed, and editors edited,” said moderator Karina Luke, executive director of the U.K.-based based Book Industry Communication (BIC), teeing up the question for the panel. "How does that compare to the publishers role and to the content industry of today?”

First up, Pearson president Mark Anderson offered a perspective from the realm of education publishing. “For organizations which have traditionally provided content, the way in which content is conceived, and articulated and distributed is changing fundamentally from the book metaphor to something quite different, away from that linear static fashion.”

Beyond the publishing world, he explained, technology is changing institutions and individual expectations, he explained, forcing publishers to evolve more broadly. In the case of Pearson, he said, the company has evolved from a publisher to an education company. And, more “revolutionary” changes are on the way.

Speaking from a trade perspective, Random House U.K. digital publisher Dan Franklin argued that while processes may have changed, the core competencies of publishers have not.

“I think the trap in the discourse around publishing at the moment is that we talk a lot about disruption and how digital technology is disrupting publishing as if they are two monolithic entities that can easily be framed in opposition to one another,” he said. “but the publishing industry has undergone disruption recurrently throughout the whole phase of its being.”

However, what is disappointing, Franklin added, is how so many publishers today have to this point simple replicated the physical market digitally. “We basically have a mirror going on,” he said, noting that as the market is reaching "maturity" that has led to a sense of “existential angst” creeping in about the future of publishers. The good news, he said, is that there now at least seems to be a foundation or platform in the publishing business from which to innovate.

Publishing Technology CEO George Lossius agreed with Franklin. “Publishers have not really extended themselves very much,” he said. “Personally I think the future for content providers is quite bright. We are never going to have more readers of content coming on the market as we have today. But at the same time, I do not think we are stretching our minds in terms of trying to understand what that increasing audience is looking to receive from us as content providers.”

Last up, Victor Henning, co-founder of pioneering academic service Mendeley, now part of Elsevier, said competition would determine the path forward. “I think in a way, whether you want it or not, what you’re doing is defined by who you are competing with,” he observed. “And again, whether you want it or not, especially in academic publishing, we are competing with the big technology companies like Google, Apple and Amazon.”

That competition brought the panel to the key takeaway of the discussion: that publishers today must get closer to the consumer. “Consumers today have expectations that are molded by what they are experiencing on their Apple iPhones, and interacting with Google services,” he explained. “The old way of controlling access, DRM, and separate stores for separate publisher content, I do not think that is what consumers are coming to expect in terms of usability.”

The panel agreed that getting closer to the consumer was at once a key challenge and opportunity. Anderson noted, for example, that Pearson one way or another interacted with more than four million consumers globally who learn English, but that the company only knows anything about 40,000 of them because most of them were serviced through intermediaries. “We are on the cusp of a big change,” he said, “because, increasingly, we are going to be doing business directly with the institutions, or with the learners themselves.”

The conclusion of the panel meshed with remarks delivered at the CONTEC conference on Tuesday by Wiley president Stephen Smith, who stressed that publishers are no longer mere content providers, but service providers. Fulfilling that role will provide new challenges in terms of staffing, and resources, but it is a role publishers can, and must play, Lossius noted.

“Generally, publishers were a long way away from the consumer, but it is getting closer, and it will get closer and closer and closer,” Lossius said. “That is the effect of technology.”