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European Conference Debates E-Publishing
Herbert R. Lottman -- 2/21/00

These days, an electronic summit starring key executives from the likes of Microsoft and AOL, Bertelsmann and Holtzbrinck, Xerox and NuvoMedia and Bloomberg, Elsevier and Havas/Vivendi is bound to command respect. Sponsors of this two-day international conference on Publishing in the Digital Age at the end of January included the Bertelsmann Foundation, Bertelsmann's book and multimedia companies, the Holtzbrinck publishing group and Italy's leading independent distributor and online bookseller, Messaggerie Italiane. "Registrations were trickling in," confided Messaggerie's CEO Luciano Mauri, "until news of the Time Warner-AOL merger broke. Overnight we filled this large hall." The site was a Palladian monastery island off Venice's central San Marco Square.

The keynote speaker was Bertelsmann's Klaus Eierhoff, appointed CEO of the group's multimedia activities not too long ago, and soon to add Bertelsmann's global book club strategy to his plate. He couldn't resist beginning with a personal comment on the takeover of media leader Time Warner by upstart AOL, thanks to a stock "bubble." Is multimedia a niche, or our collective future? he asked himself--and came down hard for further online expansion, announcing accelerated operations to blanket the world with Bertelsmann's online bookselling service, BOL (and sister company B&N.com). Asked by moderator Florian Langenscheidt of the international reference and travel group whether he saw the development of separate Internet worlds, one for the U.S. and one for Europe, he replied yes regarding delivery, no concerning content. When asked, "Will Amazon make money?" he nodded.

To an audience consisting chiefly of Italian, German, Dutch and French industry leaders, makers and shakers demonstrated their software and their dreams. Richard Charkin, CEO of London's Macmillan, described an experiment: turning a leading print-on-paper standby, the Grove Dictionary of Art, into an online product that allows inexpensive consultation combined with commercial sponsors. For AOL Europe--in which ubiquitous Bertelsmann was still a partner--Frank Sarfeld reported the group's progress in building "a global medium."

Although NuvoMedia's Martin Eberhard made the case for e-books as cheaper and less risky than printed books, many publisher participants expressed sotto voce doubts about the future of this product. But there was much favorable talk about E-Ink, the proprietary electronic technology that came out of MIT's Media lab. Minh-Son Nguyen, responsible for electronic book projects at France's Havas, part of the fast-growing international Vivendi conglomerate, told PW of plans to feed Havas editorial content--which includes major reference works in English and Spanish as well as French--into the new process via a recently founded Electronic Content Publishing facility. Havas is backing its intentions with a $5-million investment in the E-Ink Corporation in Cambridge, Mass.

In a panel devoted to e-commerce, Heinz Wernelingers, president and CEO of BOL International, stressed the need for individual country and language adaptation, pointing out that Amazon has steered clear of continental Europe--except for Germany, where it acquired a local company. A last speaker, Margot Fröhlinger of the European Commission, brought an unexpected and cheering message: although the EU was carefully scrutinizing the Time Warner-AOL merger, it was not about to scare new technology off the continent by overbearing regulation.

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