There was plenty of digital activity at this year BookExpo America, starting with the IDPF Digital Book 2012, which emphasized what IDPF executive director Bill McCoy said was the results of the “experimentation” and the “doers.” IDPF featured such “doers” as marketer and publishing maverick Seth Godin, once again hectoring the industry about its priorities. Godin lampooned traditional publishing for continuing to compete for “scarce shelf space,” instead of “the connection to readers that a company like Amazon has.”

Much like the discussion at other digital conferences these days, IDPF 2012 featured much talk about connecting to readers, or to “passionate” communities. Publishing is in a transition from being a “product lottery,” at the mercy of shrinking physical shelf space, to a “services” industry. There needs to be an unbundling of all the services and support that publishers do for their authors—the better to attract new revenue streams as well as remind authors that publishers provide value beyond warehousing and shipping, according to the speakers at IDPF’s publishers’ roundtable, Madeline McIntosh, Jane Friedman, and Richard Charkin. The three were unanimous, asserting that their primary “customer” was not necessarily the consumer, but authors. “Most publishers spend a lot of time talking to retailers,” Charkin said. “They are not our real customers.”

It’s not surprising that this focus by publishers on servicing their authors comes in the wake of the rise in self-publishing (see “Book Boom,” p. 7). As if on cue, e-book retailer Kobo announced its much-anticipated self-publishing platform Kobo Writing Life, a self-service self-publishing portal much like services offered by Amazon and B&N, but with distinct wrinkles. The program is currently in beta (with 50 writers), but will go public at the end of the month with more than 1,600 self-publishing writers. In an invite-only breakfast and an interview with PW, Kobo CEO Michael Serbinis and Kobo executive v-p Michael Tamblyn outlined the features in the Kobo self-publishing platform. KWL will publish using the EPub standard; authors get 70% of the list price if it’s under $12.99 (or they give them away if they choose). Pricing, marketing, and data analytics will be delivered through an author portal. Serbinis and Tamblyn highlighted Kobo’s ability to sell e-books globally, selling in more than 200 countries, and Tamblyn pointed out that unlike traditionally published books, self-pubbed titles usually have world rights. Tamblyn said 10% of Kobo’s sales of self-published books come from Africa and 11% from the Middle East. He added: “These are English-language books.” And while not all countries respond to self-pubbed titles well (the Dutch like them, the French less so, and Germans even less so), Tamblyn said they are studying the “cultural differences and looking for ways to help promote self-publishing in international markets.

There were also several interesting vendors in the Digital Discovery Zone, a growing section of the exhibition floor devoted to digital ventures. One of the more interesting technology launches was by digital services vendor Imago and iBiblios, a division of the company that’s releasing iSee Guides and BookLooks, visual recognition software, according to Imago president Joseph Braff. The iSee Guides, aimed at the museum market, and BookLooks, at publishing, are “like QR codes,” said Braff, “but there are no barcodes. The software can recognize natural images.” The software allows anyone with an iPad or iPhone to download a free app that turns the device into a scanner, which, when pointed at an image of a painting or a book cover that has been “hot linked” by Imago, will immediately call up any kind of content the publisher might want. When the app scans the image, the software can activate an author profile or a book trailer, or send the user to an online retailer to buy the book. “It can retrieve information very quickly,” said Simon Rosenheim, managing director of iBiblios. The software was recently launched in the U.K., and Imago is releasing it in the U.S. now. “It’s very effective and a great marketing tool, ” said Braff.