Correction to This Article
This article misidentified the chief marketing officer of the Perseus Books Group. He is Rick Joyce.

At BookExpo America, the Future is Digital

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009

NEW YORK, May 31 -- If you wanted to think about the future of the written word, the publishing industry's annual convention, held at Manhattan's Javits Center, was the place to be over the past few days.

There was a problem, though.

BookExpo America was almost guaranteed to make your head hurt.

This was especially true if you were a traditional publisher or bookseller, a late-adapting lover of physical books, or just someone inclined to wrinkle your nose at the mention of the word "twitter."

Take the road map to the world of 20 years from now offered by Mike Shatzkin of the Idea Logical Co.

A publishing lifer who's turned himself into one of the industry's most respected digital futurists, Shatzkin gave his BEA talk the unwieldy title "Stay Ahead of the Shift: What Product-Centric Publishers Can Do to Flourish in a Community-Centric World."

Key word: "flourish."

He'd been encouraged to change it from "survive."

"It's not going to be about how you flourish," Shatzkin said. Then he introduced a complex vision of why there might only be one big trade publisher left in 2029 by pointing to what happened to other industries over 20-year spans: network television between 1968 and 1988, newspapers between 1989 and 2009, and the crash-and-burn scenario most frequently cited in discussions of the book business, the music industry between 1980 and 2000.

Nobody knows what's going to happen to publishing, Shatzkin emphasized, except that it will change. But "you have to have a view of the future in order to know what to do in the present." His involves vertical specialization, "format-agnostic publishing" and an extended period of frantic Darwinian experimentation during which "costs are going to go up and revenues are going to go down."

As for that thing with printed pages and a binding:

"If you read a book on paper, you're going to be definitely stamped as retro," Shatzkin said. "This is not going to be a fashionable thing to do."

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