Just two days after returning to New York from the Middle East, we headed to Seoul, South Korea, as part of an American delegation to the annual Paju Book City Forum, along with Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy and University of Hawaii “futurist” James Dator. The topic of this year's forum: publishing in the digital world. And from the opening day, it was clear that the roughly 100 Korean publishers in attendance were anxious about the future and keen to hear how other nations, including Japan and Australia, were handling change. If Korean publishers are anxious, they have reason to be—in 1997, publishing industry revenues topped $4 billion. By 2008, they had plummeted to $2.5 billion. And over two days of presentations, it's not likely that anyone's anxiety was eased.

Built on Books

Paju Book City is a fascinating place. Located about 30 miles from Seoul—the beating heart of South Korea's high-tech society. Paju is literally a city dedicated to publishing, designed to strengthen through architecture and camaraderie an entire nation's collective culture. The city houses everything from the offices of Korean publishers to warehouse facilities, as well as libraries, museums, bookshops, and printers. It is built on land reclaimed from the water at the foot of a mountain. By ordinance, no building can rise above five floors or spoil a landscape. And Paju was conceived with sustainability as an underlying theme.

In his opening keynote, Dator gave an enlightening presentation that put the entire conference in perspective, emphasizing that change was indeed coming—because change always comes. True to his Hawaiian roots, he told conference-goers the best they could do was to try to surf the wave. Of course, ever the futurist, he also sketched out a post-fossil fuel world where society collapses and returns to agrarian culture.

In one of the most engaging presentations, Kate Eltham, CEO of the Queensland Writers Center, closed out the conference's sessions with an overview of new business possibilities. Citing things like mobile devices and social media as opportunities for publishers to innovate, she urged them to deeply examine where they still add value before jumping off the digital cliff. “The challenge isn't technology,” Eltham stressed, “it's strategy.”

Platform for Growth

Certainly, the most eagerly anticipated speaker at the conference was Reidy. As the leader of one of the world's top publishers Koreans welcomed her detailed presentation about the digital marketplace. “E-books are a relatively small, but a rapidly growing, part of our business,” Reidy told publishers, noting that digital currently makes up about 6% percent of S&S's bottom line, but within the next seven years, digital could account for 25%, she said. The following day, a Korean newspaper eagerly quoted the 25% figure.

In his talk, Lee Jung-ho, director of nascent Korean e-book provider Booxen Digital, acknowledged that Korean publishers remain wary of the digital market. “At this point, the most important thing for Korea is that we must change our perception of digital publishing,” he said. “In Korea, the mistrust of e-books is still prevalent and the publishing industry doesn't seem ready to jump.”

In fact, a lack of trust may be the only thing inhibiting Korea—a highly tech-oriented society—from enjoying a vibrant e-book market. One ringing testament to Korea's ability to innovate is Google's weak foothold there. In fact, Korea is one of the few places where Google has but a small slice of the search market, and where a homegrown search engine, Naver, dominates. Touring Paju, one of the highlights was the digital publishing center—which displayed the full array of handheld reading devices, as well as four floors of innovative, book-oriented technology.

If the two-day forum did little to ease anxiety about the future of books, it very well might have been the push Korean publishers needed to face the future. In her talk, Reidy acknowledged the challenges of moving to digital: Infrastructure is expensive. Decisions are complex. Digital must be integrated—not separated—from organizational goals. In addition, publishers already struggling with declining revenues may not see a return on their digital investments for some time. But she was consistently upbeat, too. “Digital publishing is very exciting,” she said. “Publishers should thrive.”

Still, that was cold comfort for one Korean printer. “My grandfather started this business,” he told me wistfully at a dinner reception. “Now, I will probably not have a business to pass on to my children.”