How Publishers Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the E-Book

BY Arts Desk  June 5, 2009 at 3:00 PM EDT

To “e-read,” or not to e-read? That was the question on the minds of publishers, authors and librarians gathered in New York City last weekend for the industry’s massive annual trade show, BookExpo America. Discussion over whether electronic books will save the struggling book industry (or kick publishers while they’re down) dominated the show.

“I didn’t hear wailing or crying or gnashing of the teeth, but certainly it’s been a hard year for everyone,” said Lance Fensterman, spokesman for BookExpo America. “I think they find themselves fortunate they’re not in the auto industry. Besides that, they’re feeling kind of beat up right now, but the thing about a big trade event like BookExpo America is it’s the opportunity to come together as a community and almost always when you walk away from one of these gatherings you feel better. You feel hopeful because you see what’s being done in your industry, in your community, that has promise.”

Indeed, there’s an abundance of technological promise in the book industry: there’s the new frontier of portable reading devices, with models from Amazon, Sony and reports of a competing product in development by Apple; technology that lets you read on your cell phone or laptop; and a Google plan to sell books. The rapid change of pace has authors experimenting with their copy (some have tried writing pieces using Twitter and Facebook), and has publishers scrambling how to figure out how to best market their latest titles, which could mean a shift back to the days of Dickens when books were released in serial excerpts.

For the first time, BookExpo created a “new media” zone this year to address the evolving technologies. The panels, e-book demonstrations and unofficial chatter in the passageways of the convention gallery did little to settle the debate, but did provide some food for thought.

As publishers pray for a happy ending, at least bookworms get to watch the story unfold. What tech giant will emerge victorious, Amazon, Google or Apple? Are the booklovers who won’t give up the feel of a dog-eared novel just quixotic dreamers, refusing to face reality? Or will the e-reader skeptics be right? Art Beat spoke to some in the cast of characters on the final afternoon of BookExpo.