The E-Book Summit kicked off this morning with an engaging, cordial discussion with Jane Friedman and Jeffrey Sharp, co-founders of Open Road Integrated Media—an appropriate start to the event as the discussion hinted at both the promise of digital to transform publishing, as well as the thorny issues and legal battles still to come. Friedman and Sharp took turns sketching an invigorating vision of the future, with Friedman, the former CEO of HarperCollins, describing the company as “marketing” oriented, and Sharp talking about bringing a filmmakers view to content production—a “360 degree” company with an eye to expanding—and exploiting—the market for content empowered by technology.

Friedman told the audience that the business—a lynchpin of which will be “an author-branded backlist,” including writers like Iris Murdoch and William Styron, as well as “e-riginals,” under the watch of editorial director Brendan Cahill, would launch in 2010 with as many as 750-1000 e-books—but from “a relatively small” list of authors. The company will also hopefully publish 20 originals, as well as roll out multimedia components, such as short films Sharp called “mini-docs.”

Friedman said the company was still “auditioning” distributors and would seek to price the e-books around $14, about the same as a paperback book—although Friedman conceded that pricing is key, and ultimately, the company will see what the market will bear. Open Road E-books will also agnostic—that is readable on many devices—and non-returnable. Revenues will be split 50-50 between author and publisher. And, among the “various layers” of the business, is a plan to offer a “curated” self-publishing program. Friedman used the company’s recent agreement with William Styron as a good example of Open Road’s desire to “aggregate content” including books and collections, including his personal papers, “to curate it, brand it, and push it back out again.” She called it a “back to the future” business plan.

Of course, executing that plan may involve more than just navigating a new digital marketplace. Moderator Carmen Scheidel raised the potentially thorny digital rights issue—an issue that came to the fore late last week. Although Styron’s estate has agreed to sign up with Open Road, his publisher, Random House, issued a letter claiming it owned rights to publish backlist titles in e-book format, including Styron’s work, and that it would continue to do so. Friedman and Sharp said, diplomatically, that they believed Stryon’s estate had the rights to sign up with Open Road. “I hate to have to waste energy on this,” Friedman conceded of the digital rights issue, “when the goal of this is to bring books back to life.”

Scheidel kicked off the Q&A period by asking Friedman her thoughts on the current publishing climate. While she expressed her belief that there would always be physical books, she acknowledged the industry had entered into a period of “secular” change—change from which there would be no going back. One questioner, an author asked about concerns, as expressed by some that e-books would erode print sales, to which Friedman responded some erosion was likely—but that publishing had to serve a new audience. “We need to reach every possible consumer.”

Sharp, meanwhile, used one of Open Road’s authors, Jonny Diaz, a writer of gay romances, as an example of the power of digital to expand consumer choices and win new business. “There is a market for gay romance novels,” Sharp said, “and it is not on the back shelf of Barnes & Noble.”