The 2011 London Book Fair seminar program kicked off with a good old-fashioned debate featuring four great publishing personalities. The provocative resolution: “Publishers in the digital age will be irrelevant.” Hosted by Susan Danziger, CEO of DailyLit and organizer of the Publishing Point, and moderated by Michael Healy, executive director of the Book Rights Registry, the teams included Richard Charkin, executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing; Andrew Franklin, publisher and managing director of Profile Books (arguing against the motion); Cory Doctorow, bestselling author, blogger, and Publishers Weekly columnist; and London-based tech author and publisher James Bridle, arguing for the resolution. But as Doctorow noted early on, the question was an artificial one, and as the debate went on, it was clear that no one truly believed that publishers were going away, while all agreed that publishing was changing rapidly.

Doctorow kicked off the debate by quoting a definition offered by his editor at Tor Books: “A publisher is an institution that identifies a work, identifies an audience, and takes such steps as necessary to connect them.” That, he says, suggests there will be publishers in the future. But those publishers, he noted, may not look anything like the large “monolithic” publishers of today. “Today, a prime fitness factor is the capacity to conduct a social relationship through the Internet,” Doctorow observed, noting that the web has changed the value proposition from “buy this book because you can’t read the text otherwise,” to “don’t pirate this book because your friend needs the money.” The next wave of publishers, he suggested, may very well be small entities that are laser-focused on solving 21st-century problems. “And that may be nothing like the publishers of today.”

Doctorow was rebutted by Franklin, who relied on humor and focused his defense of publishers mainly by deriding self-published authors. “No one owes publishers a living,” he noted. But "free is too much to pay for the majority of self-published books today.” He pointed to the past scams of “vanity” publishers who convinced authors to fill their garages with expensive books, and acknowledged the Internet and the tools of the digital age have changed things, but insisted that those who think they can simply post their works online and gain an audience were wasting their time.

Next up, Bridle nicely analyzed the current state of play for publishers through a simple example: advertising. Publisher advertising is largely about “buy this book,” he noted, while Apple’s advertising shows people reading. “It isn’t about selling an object, it is about the process," he noted, suggesting publishers today lack imagination and have been too quick to cede the next generation to other companies. “We’re being eaten by Amazon,” he said, “surrounded” by companies that seek to take reading from publishers. Readers, he says, think of publishers as the people who tell them they can’t lend e-books, and who insist on bad DRM and excessive pricing. He called “social reading” the next great wave and, rebutting Franklin, recognized that our best readers were also our best potential authors, praising nascent efforts like Richard Nash’s Red Lemonade imprint for its “community-based” approach. “If publishers today are not irrelevant, we will be soon,” he insisted, “unless we sieze back the high ground.”

Charkin batted cleanup for the publishers' side—but confessed he was not quite sure where he was in the argument. “It’s hard to oppose a motion you sort of agree with,” he conceded. Nevertheless, using his experience and assessment of academic publishing, Charkin offered a spirited defense of the publishing world’s achievements. He conceded, however, that challenges lay ahead, and cited “24/7 marketing” as the big challenge. "It used to be that publishers launched things, and had big parties, and hoped they caught on," he noted. In the digital age, however, customers can discover something, and buy it, at any time, and marketing efforts need to reflect that reality.

In the Q&A period, the audience seemed quite moved by the team of Doctorow and Bridle. Some took umbrage at the “mad author” sterotype. One observer noted the age difference between the debaters and said it perhaps pointed to a new guard coming in. Another questioned the number of jobs publishers are now outsourcing overseas, and the editorial and marketing work they are shifting back to the author. Little, Brown's Geoff Shandler asked who, if not publishers, would invest in serious books? Doctorow suggested that there were surely more than five or six big firms that could recognize the value of what publishers do. Charkin concluded that the debate itself was indicative of publishing being in a healthy state. Bridle disagreed, saying publishing was unhealthy, and insisted publishers needed to focus more on serving readers.

The closing then provided the most dramatic moment of the debate. With the last word, Doctorow slammed Publishers Association CEO Richard Mollet, a former music industry executive, for comments suggesting that e-books could never be owned, only licensed. A fired-up Doctorow suggested publishers were destroying themselves with such a policy, suggesting statements like that demonstrate not just obsolescence but that you are “an enemy” to the future of books.

At the end of the audience voted: 45 agreed with Doctorow and Bridle. 201 for Franklin and Charkin. Eager to engage new challenges, clearly publishers at the London Book Fair are not eager to disintermediate themselves.