Seeing Through Digital Eyes At The Biggest Book Expo In The Country

It’s impossible not to wander around the Book Expo of America and wonder: How are these people going to save themselves? A few brave technology startups have shown up too–we run through the cast of characters here in the hopes of discerning what’s next for the country’s most staid industry.

Seeing Through Digital Eyes At The Biggest Book Expo In The Country

Book Expo America, BEA, used to be the place to go to get your hands dirty with printer’s ink–all the books were hot off the presses. Now the annual industry gathering at New York City’s Javitz Center has been increasingly invaded by geeks.


I’m one of these geeks, despite the fact that I’ve been employed in publishing almost as long as BEA has existed (it used to be called the ABA, American Booksellers Association Convention). My professional interests lean heavily (in a distinctly walrus-like way) toward all things digital.

The show floor has the usual suspects, including all the big five publishers sued by the U.S. Justice Department for alleged e-book price-fixing with Apple (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster). There are 1,000 other publishers, as well: university presses, independent publishers, literary publishers, religious publishers, and in the one segment of publishing that’s growing, there are e-publishers.

It’s a shift that started in the Fall of 2007, when Amazon dropped the Kindle 1 on an unsuspecting industry, that’s five BEAs ago. Publishers have been in Chicken-Little Mode ever sense, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!” Amazon’s presence at the show includes Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and CreateSpace, its digital self-publishing platform and tools–it’s all software services, no hardware.

The Business of Selling E-Books to Readers & Writers

I find it telling that neither Barnes & Noble nor its Nook subdivision, Amazon’s #1 eBook-selling competitor, will be present. Perhaps this has to do with the rumored Nook buyout by Microsoft. Apple is also absent, which is no surprise, though combined sales of e-books through the iTunes and iBooks stores put Apple at #3 in e-book sales.

Meanwhile, the quiet Canadian, Kobo, is #4, and appears to be the most active of the e-book/e-reading device sellers at BEA. Unlike Amazon, Kobo is a completely digital operation–e-books only! Kobo sells its own e-readers: KoboMini, KoboTouch, KoboGlo, KoboArc, and their newest, the KoboAuraHD.


The free Kobo Instant Reader app, available for all major device types and operating systems, is not limited to reading e-books purchased from Kobo. It’s an open platform that allows you to import e-books from anywhere–a distinct advantage over the Kindle apps and a good reason to favor the Kobo platform, generally.

Kobo also provides Reading Life and Writing Life from its website. The former is a social reading platform for customers. The latter is Kobo’s self-publishing platform. Amazon and others have similar platforms, but not with such openness.

Perhaps the stealthiest, though it’s no secret, aspect of Kobo’s business model is that they have a more widespread e-book presence internationally than Amazon. This is partially due to their Canadian roots, but also to the fact that they are owned by the giant Japanese online retailer (and Amazon wannabe), Rakuten.

Publishers Remain Digitally Wary (and Ignorant)

There aren’t many big-name software or hardware companies at BEA, which is a shame. There’s a lot of mistrust between the publishing world and the tech world. I’d certainly welcome more cooperation along these lines, but I’m the trusting sort.

At the same time, while e-book consumption may be a consumer activity, BEA isn’t a consumer show. The digital publishing service and tool companies present divide into two categories, neither of them particularly huge (though the dollar figures can be large).


Higher-end digital services for publishers:

In the future, we’ll talk about some of the companies providing these services. They aren’t exactly household names, but a few major players are beginning to emerge, including Aptara, SPi Global, OverDrive, Ingram Content Group, INscribe Digital, Integra Software Services Pvt Ltd, and the Perseus Book Group, the only one of these that is also a publisher.

Publishing remained a 19th century-style manufacturing business until Amazon started eating up all the ink. There are very few publishers with any sort of digital expertise, making this a consultants’ paradise. There aren’t a lot of companies in this category, but the number is growing rapidly, as are the services available.

What are they servicing? Well, publishers have to worry about things like digital copyright management (very different from the odious DRM copy protection schemes). Digitizing print backlists for electronic distribution is hard enough for most publishers, but figuring out what royalties to pay authors has turned into a logistical (and legal) nightmare. And these business concerns have little to do with the new editorial and production workflows required for dual digital and print operations.

These companies tend to fit into the status quo of publishing, offering help to bring old-fashioned methodologies into the digital age, but without upsetting established business models. Working with these vendors is like hiring IBM to build mobile banking apps: Big Banks don’t mind spending big bucks, though I’m sure we all know half a dozen sharp developers that could do the same thing faster, cheaper, and probably better, too! (Contact me on Twitter, @HisWalrus, if you’d like to sign up.)

Lower-end tools and services for self-publishing:

This is the realm of startups, and a number of these have booths at BEA. But BEA isn’t a technology show, and as such, there don’t seem to be any major technology announcements planned during the expo. Here’s a sampling of a few more well-established publishing startups at BEA:

  • Bluefire Productions–Best known for their Bluefire Reader Apps, which may be the most widely distributed free e-reading app available. Bluefire has turned their free app into a white-label e-publishing platform using the Adobe Content Server. (Adobe is not at BEA.) For publishers who want to sell content on mobile devices without a digital middleman, like Adobe or Kobo, Bluefire will build you a custom-branded app.
  • BookBaby–An independent, self-publishing platform for authors who aren’t able to set up direct accounts with Kindle, Nook, Apple, or Kobo, or who need an easier way to produce e-publishable content. You can also set up print books for traditional distribution through BookBaby. Essentially, it’s publishing without a publisher, but with the benefit of the BookBaby blogging platform, which is quite active.
  • Flipick–A downloadable plug-in for Adobe InDesign that converts InDesign documents into HTML5 with CSS3. You need to follow the Flipick design guides, but it’s a fairly powerful tool for creating fixed-layout e-books (as distinct from e-pub formatted content, which reflows to fill your device’s screen, regardless of size).
  • Vook–Originally a publisher of “Video Books,” but now a full-featured publishing platform for multimedia e-books, aka rich content. In addition to their online tools for assembling e-books, Vook offers a slew of publishing services–Cover Design, Copy Editing, Book Scanning, Proofreading, Creation, Distribution, and Marketing–aimed at individuals and enterprise publishers, a new and potentially lucrative market.

I’m not too thrilled by any of these, with the possible exception of Vook. I don’t see any groundbreaking new ideas that really take on big ideas. For instance, isn’t it time to rethink the basics, like what is a book?! Perhaps that’s more of an ivory-tower sort of question to ponder.

Conferencing with the Digitally Aware Publishing Minority

For the technology minded, the conference portion of BEA includes Digital at BEA: IDPF Digital Book Conference and Publishers Launch Conference at BEA. The latter is focused on “near-term practical and strategic solutions and tips to help manage the digital transition.” Essentially, the experts speak and the industry insiders learn, which is an important part of moving the entire status quo of publishing to a digital-first model. It’s very much a change-from-within approach.

For the uninitiated, it’s hard to imagine an industry as tied to the past as publishing is: Think Gutenberg! Writing tools change, typesetting has become automated, presses have become incredibly fast, but publishing business models are still dictated by manufacturing: raw materials turned into a physical product that must stored and shipped. E-books have none of this legacy of overhead, which is why “the digital transition” is such a challenge.

A lot of publishers still don’t know the right questions to ask, which has a lot to do with the preponderance of old codgers, like me, in the highest, decision-making positions at the largest publishers, not like me. What the old guard does get is the bottom line: fewer print books and more e-books sold, and even more striking: lower print profits and greater e-book profits. (If you want numbers, feel free to get in touch on Twitter @HisWalrus.)

The good folks at Publisher’s Lunch, organizers of the Launch seminars, do a good job of covering this changing world, particularly Michael Cader, of Cader Publishing, someone I’ve known a long time. Cader is a pragmatist in a confused publishing world. As a publisher, do we:

  • Publish all new books in both print and digital versions (which raises all sorts of corollary questions)?
  • Convert some or all of the backlist (older and out-of-print titles) for digital distribution?
  • Charge less (or more, for enhanced digital editions) for the same titles in e-book or print?
  • Distribute digital editions first, since they’re almost always finished before print books are available?

There are no absolute answers to these questions. It’s different for every publisher and even for individual titles within the same publisher. There’s still a lot of trial and error associated with “the digital transition,” but we needn’t fear such experimentation. It’s the only way to establish new business models.

Getting Down to Nuts & Bolts with the Digitally Savvy

The IDPF, International Digital Publishing Forum, is the “Trade and Standards Organization for the Digital Publishing Industry.” In fact, they are to the EPUB 3 standard for e-book files what the W3C is for HTML 5 and all the other Web Standards. For software developers interested in publishing, the IDPF is the place to be. Interestingly, the attendees to this portion of BEA also tend toward the younger end of the spectrum.

Publishing has never had a standards organization quite like IDPF; they haven’t needed one. Book publishing was, and still is in large measure, about custom crafting. This gets us back to that electrifying moment five+ years ago when Amazon created Kindle, and they saw that it was good, though not too many in the industry were watching.

Amazon purchased a company called MobiPocket, which was responsible for the Mobi e-publishing format. Amazon turned Mobi into a proprietary format (shades of Microsoft Word’s .doc propriety format), and it remains the native format for Kindles. However, Mobi has fallen out of favor everywhere else, and the rest of the e-reading world, with near unanimity, has lined up behind the e-pub standard. Take a look at the IDPF’s membership roster, which is long and very complete, though with a single, glaring omission: Amazon.

We’ll talk much more about the IDPF and EPUB as this story expands. For now, it’s enough to know that without a strongly- and broadly-supported EPUB standard, digital publishing could become as easily balkanized as Web Standards in the bad-old-days of browser wars (are the browser wars over, yet?).


For example, there were loud jeers and howls of disapproval when Apple introduced its iBooks Author application. It creates non-standard e-pub files that can only be read on an iPad. Apple claims, with some justification, that it’s iPad is the only device that can support all of the multi-touch features in iBooks Author, but even Apple diehards are troubled by this forking of the standard. It’s too easy to imagine other manufacturers (did I mention that Microsoft is rumored to be buying Nook?) turning what is supposed to be a device-independent standard into a marketing bludgeon for their own advantage.

I haven’t talked about the education market, which is also a large part of BEA and perhaps an even larger part of the digital book market. But many of the controlling factors in educational publishing have little to do with software and a whole lot to do with the way in which textbooks are bought and sold, and it’s mostly not individuals who make the decision. We’ll save this for future discussion, as well.

For now, we can look to BEA and see if there are any discernible shifts or new directions indicated after the four-day gathering. It’s a big show, and most of the focus is on blockbuster authors and titles and the big deals being made for next year’s books. In this way, nothing has changed. Professor Walrus wishes it would!

[Burning Book: Inga Dudkina via Shutterstock]

About the author

Professor Walrus (AKA: Clay Andres) is the Publisher & Walrus-in-Chief of WalrusInk, and a long-time veteran of tech publishing— journalist, author, editor, designer, blogger, columnist, and party host. He lives on an iceberg in the Bearing Sea with his wife and two dogfish