UVA and the Library of Congress use new media as a tool to explore the nature of publishing.

"This conference is one
of the very few
that brings together
publishing and technology
as the focus for
strategic discussions."

The keynote speakers for the University of Virginia's electronic publishing seminar series, "Publishing in the 21st Century: Tools to Meet the Challenge," have been extraordinarily topical each year of the series' existence, but never more so than the last two years.

Last year, as the book industry began to recover from the returns crisis, and pondered the nature of retail, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos talked about the beginnings of his enterprise, how he intended to revolutionize retailing, how he happened to choose books as his subject and his long-term goals.

What Is a Book?

This year the Publishing &Communications Institute of the University of Virginia Continuing Education division and the Library of Congress collaborated on the program, subtitled "Exploring the New Media," which was held at the Library of Congress in the second week of April, during a season in which every major book exposition has presented speakers concerned with expanding the definition of book beyond information between two covers.

This year's keynote speaker was Dick Brass, v-p of new technology development at Microsoft Corp. Brass's central theme was the place of electronic books in the history of publishing, and he compared and contrasted what was important in any form of printing or publishing.

Regarding how long it has taken electronic books to gain popularity, Brass quoted Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future: "Like a comet on some giant, loopy orbit, these things come around every eight or 10 years, not quite hitting the Earth, but coming closer each time."

Describing the five major players in the current e-book "fly-by," Brass voiced the hope of the industry that both the technology (screen quality, memory and power use) and the audience (not just PC-accustomed, but Internet-ready) were finally attuned enough that this time around, e-books would hit and stick.

Included in this discussion was a Japanese consortium of publishers and technology companies that aim to deliver e-book files to kiosks in bookstores via satellite transmission, thus keeping the retailer in the e-book chain.

Brass also hinted at two new e-book technologies on the way from Microsoft: ClearType, a technique for sharpening the type on a color PC screen so that even the tiniest text is easy to read; and Microsoft's own e-book Reader -- not hardware, but software that converts text for reading on a variety of players.

Brass's presentation underscored what many have missed in discussions of handheld machines versus PC functions -- that e-books, like print books, should be, and soon will be, available in whatever form people want them.

The Heart of the Matter

The heart of the program was a pair of panels Friday morning: "Rethinking Publishing Business Models," moderated by Scott Lubeck, CEO of NewRiver Inc. of Silver Spring, Md.; and "Tools and Techniques for Digital Publication," moderated by Michael Jensen, the director of publishing technologies for the National Academy Press.

Lubeck's panel discussed how digital technologies affect publishing, and most specifically, how to find the right audience for new types of products. "This conference is one of the very few," he stated, "that brings together publishing and technology as the focus for strategic discussions."

On Lubeck's panel, longtime multimedia publisher Byron Preiss discussed his new project, iBooks, which will combine classics of science, science fiction, history and mystery, in trade paper, with free browsable chapters available online. Each book has its own Web portal that allows readers to meet and take part in chats about the author and the author's work, creating "the iBooks virtual reading groups."

"We're combining the best parts of print and online to bring readers more of what they want," Preiss told PW.

On Jensen's panel, Bill Kasdorf, president of Impressions, a typesetter based in Madison, Wis. talked about how, with proper planning and use of the digital tools available, publishers could get much more use from a given text, relatively painlessly.

On translating typeset texts into SGML, HTML and XML, to turn those texts into electronic products, Kasdorf reminded his audience: "Structure Gives Me Leverage" -- that is, the logical structure that was inherent in the piece as written, what was body text and what was sidebar, helps define the SGML, HTML and XML tags that will turn the piece into an online or CD-ROM text.

Discussing how electronic publishing has changed his business over time, Thomas Wanat, director of online publishing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, said, "There has been an incredible shift in source of subscriptions. Ten years ago, 75% of our subscriptions came from blow-in cards [inserted in the print journal]. Today that number is 25% and dropping. All of that has shifted to people ordering on the Web." He also said that when the publication asks subscribers for renewals, print requests used to average about 1%; using the Web, the same renewal request gets better than 12% response.

For information on the next "Publishing in the 21st Century" seminar, scheduled for April 13-15, 2000, at the Library of Congress, contact Beverly Jane Loo, (804) 982-5345.