While attendance was down from some of the shows in the 20th century, the "Publishing in the 21st Century" convention, held April 18—20 at the Library of Congress, featured digital publishing's most influential players offering their views of how the print and digital worlds will coexist in the coming years.

Sponsored by the University of Virginia, the conference is regarded as a barometer of electronic publishing. Despite the sector's problems, the mood was relaxed. In a culture that weathered a period of hype and then of defensiveness, issues such as e-rights, distance-learning, customer acceptance and interoperability were discussed with a balance of optimism and realism.

Some of the speakers, such as B&N.com digerati-turned-consultant Ken Brooks, came wearing a new hat, while Larry Brewster of Lightning Source arrived with his old one. Warner CEO Larry Kirshbaum cited Arthur C. Clarke's maxim that we tend to overestimate technology in the short term and underestimate it in the long term. Nothing seemed more emblematic of the current e-publishing vibe.

There was Rosetta COO Leo Dwyer, who painted a pretty picture for electronic classics and continued to criticize Random House for spending money on litigation instead of titles. Association of American Publishers veteran and technical expert Carol Risher outlined the trickiness of a world where anyone can cut and paste existing content, and with only slight improvements, create a new right.

3BillionBooks' creator Michael Smolens was also on hand. Smolens and partner Jason Epstein have a plan to make on-demand titles available to developing countries. It is one of the most closely guarded, and according to some observers, one of the most promising ideas to hit electronic publishing. E-content founding father Scott Lubeck discussed the pitfalls and potential of redistribution; ebrary CEO Chris Warnock talked about his company's still-evolving model; and Anne Rollow of distance-learning firm Fathom described the challenges of making a direct-to-consumer model work in education. The University of Virginia's David Seaman spoke about the success of the eText Center, an online library service that has commanded six million downloads since its inception. The conference even included a topical reference to used books—one panelist noted how the Net created a "much better used bookstore" in its ability, for good and for ill, to obliterate the one-user-one-book model.

Organizers Beverly Jane Loo and Ralph Eubanks geared the discussions to the bridge between electronic and print publishing, and much of the conference evidenced this theme. At the keynote, Kirshbaum talked about how his company had improved its print division as a result of its digital efforts, as he talked about the lessons learned from iPublish.

"We tried to create the perfect five-legged horse, when we should have been riding the four-legged one," he said of Warner's decision to start the operation. Kirshbaum also talked about how the entire print company has benefited from the digital experiment. More integration and more technology is always a good thing, he noted.

"We had a series of databases that didn't talk to each other, because they were put together by a series of executives who didn't talk to each other," he said to hearty laughter, and went on to recall how Jack Welch once told him that rather than separating the Internet and traditional divisions of a company, it made sense to roll them into the same departments.