Introducing the London Book Fair’s 2011 CEO panel, U.K. Publishers Association CEO Richard Mollet asked whether the digital transition was more evolution, with publishers adapting over time, or more revolution, in which old powers are swept away quickly, sometimes violently. “I’ve never been to a revolution, but what is happening doesn’t feel very evolutionary,” said John Makinson, Chairman of the Penguin Group. What is happening, he added, is "a transformation" in every area of the publishing chain.

“At every step, something dramatic is happening,” Makinson said, from different forms and formats, to apps, mobility, and social networking activity, and "the changing character of content," is shifting the role of publishers, and forcing them to learn new skills. This includes a more direct relationship with consumers and the need for better pricing analytics. “We have to understand what consumers want, and what they are prepared to pay,” he said. Distribution is another key change, he suggested. As physical book retailers “succumb to the laws of economic gravity,” and new digital platforms emerge, the challenge for publishers is to “Try to understand how the growth in digital is going to track with the inevitable decline of, and in some parts of the world, the collapse of physical book retail.” Finally, there is the challenge of understanding the reader and how they respond to new forms of content. “Will they read immersively, as they have done,” Makinson asked, “or will they expect some other kind of experience?”

Next up, Li Pengyi, president of the China Education Publishing and Media Group, said that digital was more than a change of people’s habits, but a “change of lifestyle for many people.” Li said his concerns focused around three key questions: would traditional publishers be replaced by new upstarts? What were the core strengths that traditional publishers possess? And, would print disappear? He said publishers core strengths were in collecting and processing content, comparing Google to a vast library, and publishers to a good librarian. He said it was unlikely that publishers would be replaced as long as they found ways to make themselves indispensible, but was not quite sure about the future of print. He likened print to species rendered extinct by environmental change, but said if print was to die, “it would be a sad story.”

Elsevier CEO Y.S. Chi, speaking from an STM industry perspective, where the digital transformation is all but complete, said that publishers are definitely in a period of evolution, not revolution. “We are the incumbents,” he said of the major publishers. “When change is fast incumbents are toast. When change is gradual, incumbents reign. So it is not in our interest to make this a revolution.” Chi said the challenges he sees for publishers are better analytics, and providing better service. In addition, he stressed, it was important to bring in new people with new skills, and “a passion for the written word.”

Evolution, or revolution? “It depends,” said HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray, winding up the presentations. “The closer you are to the consumer, it definitely is a revolution.” Murray said it was striking how fast e-readers have been adopted, from about 15 million a year ago to over 40 million today. “That feels very revolutionary,” he said. “And that has a lot of impacts on our business.” Murray said the numbers in the U.S. now show that some books can sell 50% in e-book format in the first few months. “That is a watershed to me. That means we are beyond the tipping point in some genres, and that has great implications for our overall business.”

Chief among those implications is that the publishers' best customers are no longer visiting bookstores. That raises issues of discoverability and marketing. In addition, a world with potentially more than 100 million e-readers raises piracy concerns. And a major concern, Murray said, was scale. Over time, big publishers have created a lot of scale in distribution and manufacturing, he noted. “When you move to complete digital product and value chain, some of that scale goes away, and that’s where new ventures can challenge some of the incumbents.”

But Murray was upbeat about publishers' prospects. "This change also creates new opportunties," he said. "It is an opportunity to really reinvent our business, from new formats, to new platforms to reach readers around the world, whether on a two-inch screen or a 10-inch screen or a tablet. It allows us to be more creative and more efficient, and to have greater access to consumers." Once you take a book digital, there is "no specific cost" to distributing content globally. "That opens up so many doors and opportunities for us." Digital also means "greater speed to market," Murray added. "It no longer takes a year to get a book into the marketplace," he noted raising the possibility for responding to current events faster, with lower cost, and more creativity.

"There are tremendous opportunities," he concluded. "But change is not the easiet thing to do. But we are in the middle of it, and it is an incredibly exciting time."