Redefining traditional notions of the book was a recurring theme throughout this year's O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conference, held last week in New York City. The panelists of the CEO roundtable—which brought together the heads of traditional publishing houses (Mike Hyatt of Thomas Nelson and Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly Media), self-publishing companies (Eileen Gittins of Blurb and Bob Young of Lulu) and a distributor (Clint Greenleaf of Greenleaf Book Group)—sounded that note again and again on a number of specific issues. All five CEOs made it clear that old publishing models are almost obsolete and that they are now looking to communities beyond traditional authors and to various kinds of social networking tools on the Internet to find new writers and readers. They also indicated that self-publishing is one of the industry's main areas of growth.

The pursuit of non-authors as writers of new books was a surprising theme among several of the panelists. Gittins said that Blurb (a self-publishing company with a Web platform that allows authors to design a book themselves using Blurb's software, then upload it for printing and ordering) has “not gone after authors, we've gone after folks who have stuff,” meaning people who want to create small runs of custom books for a limited audience—such as scrapbookers and amateur photographers. This is, she said, “work that you typically wouldn't approach a traditional publisher with because it doesn't have market value.” For Blurb, it's been a successful strategy: “I'm stone-cold amazed at the rapidity of our growth,” said Gittins. Similarly, Young said, at Lulu, the popular self-publishing platform, “We've seen a huge increase in authors who were thinking about publishing books, and we've seen a huge increase in people who meant to write a book and now are unemployed and are writing the book.” O'Reilly echoed Gittins and Young, and extended their ideas to traditional publishers, noting that there is an audience who thinks “a book is a souvenir.” “We have a new opportunity,” he said, suggesting that big publishers could publish books specifically targeted to communities of just a few thousand people.

All five CEOs discussed various ways the Internet and social networks have become essential tools for publishers to discover new authors and for readers to discover new books. Hyatt described Thomas Nelson's blogger review program, through which anyone with a blog can receive a review copy of a Nelson book in exchange for writing a 200-word review of it to be posted on their own blog and on Nelson's Web site. After writing up one book, bloggers are eligible to receive another. Gittins talked about the communities of writers, editors, copy editors, translators and other skilled professionals who offer their services through Blurb—what she calls the “Blurb Nation.” While she said Blurb gets no money from transactions between these users, when user-communities around a platform like Blurb's encourage sales, “those people become your ambassadors and your cash register rings when theirs does.” According to Young, Lulu has also “made a huge investment” in its reader/ writer community platform, We Read.

The panelists offered refreshingly specific takes on the place e-books are coming to occupy in the book market. Talking about the revenue potential of books on phones and reading devices, O'Reilly said, “I really believe it could be 20%, 30% or 40% of our revenue in the next few years.” Greenleaf agreed, saying the old publishing model “is on its last breath. There is a really, really big shift that's about to happen.” Hyatt went as far as to say “we're one device away from” when e-books will sell more copies than paper books.

On a related note, conference attendees also got a glimpse at a prototype of the Plastic Logic e-reader, which, as reported in last week's PWDaily, is about the size and weight of a glossy magazine, has a touch screen and displays eight shades of gray. The device will be on the market in 2010, but the company will begin trials with the media and partners in late 2009.