Engaging with readers via digital technology was the theme of the semiannual Firebrand User Conference, which drew about 100 publishing executives to Newburyport, Mass., in early October. For the software company's clients and vendors, the chance to network and compare concerns was as much a draw as the keynote by Andrew Savikas, O'Reilly Media v-p of digital initiatives, and the 24 conference sessions.

Company president Fran Toolan kicked off the gathering by announcing that NetGalley, which Firebrand acquired in December, is entering two new partnerships, with book excerpt distributor Dial-a-Book and print-on-demand publisher BookMobile. The deal with Dial-a-Book, which distributes digital first chapter excerpts to retailers, media and search engines, will allow automatic integration of the two services for publishers who use NetGalley's digital galley distribution system. NetGalley will also offer POD fulfillment of print galley requests via BookMobile. Currently, NetGalley has about 2,500 users, including publishers, review media and bloggers, librarians and booksellers. Taunton, one of the publishers using NetGalley, reported at the conference that the service has been an effective tool for reaching special market accounts and librarians, and that 70% of unsolicited requests via NetGalley have come from libraries.

O'Reilly's Savikas played the role of e-book evangelist in his keynote speech, (available on You Tube in two parts: http://bit.ly/27tnRd and http://bit.ly/16ijnH), reporting that the company's e-books outsell print books by more than two to one on OReilly.com. Nearly all of O'Reilly's books on computer technology, manuals and DIY guides are available digitally before the print books, and it hasn't hurt sales, he said. Savikas attributes the company's success at holding e-book prices at 80% of the print book price to the company's DRM-free offerings, which allow users to put a PDF, e-book or Kindle-friendly Mobi Pocket file on any device and to maintain access to updated editions, which are announced via e-mail.

While acknowledging that O'Reilly's success is partially specific to its publishing category, Savikas declared the publisher a “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to e-books for mobile devices, which are already the most popular e-readers, and are likely to be the dominant way people around the world access the Web by 2011, according to some forecasts. Among the mobile market statistics Savikas cited: (1) nearly three million people are already reading books on iPhones now; (2) in the App Store, books are the #2 category after games; (3) by the end of 2010, as many devices are expected to have Google's Android operating system as there are iPhones now; and (4) by 2011, there may be one billion Web-enabled cellphones in worldwide use. To date, O'Reilly has created 300 e-book apps for iTunes, where the challenge is to make books friendly to new media devices that can display pictures in color, play audio files, link to the Web and respond to touch.

O'Reilly authors are also using e-publishing technology to collaborate with their readers. The authors of The Django Book solicited real-time comments from readers as they wrote the book and received 7,500 comments—making the book one of the most heavily vetted titles O'Reilly has published.