Do Problems in the Publishing Industry Have a Technical Solution?

While paper books are still the norm, e-books now account for up to 20 percent of book sales in categories like romance and sci-fi. The shift in publishing isn’t just about going digital on the iPad or Kindle instead of killing trees; authors now have the options of self-publishing e-books on Smashwords, posting research materials on Scribd, connecting to readers on Facebook and Twitter, and transforming the experience of a book with the web and multimedia through Vook. Experts from the tech, business and creative sides of the publishing industry gathered today for a broad discussion of disintermediation as part of our GigaOM Pro Bunker Series (video and analysis available to subscribers).

Mark Coker, Nathan Bransford and Simon Wood

Two key conflicts between attendees were apparent to this watcher, one on the platform side and one on marketing. In our first session on the technical platforms for digital publishing, our own GigaOM Pro head Mike Wolf queried panelists from Adobe, Vook and Scribd on the future of an ePub standard, and whether it might wither on the vine considering the fast and splintered pace of e-book adoption. Scribd SVP Business Development Rob Macdonald replied that his company is betting on HTML5, which (eventually) should be universally compatible across browsers and, as such, will offer accessibility from nearly any web-enabled device.

Audience member Peter Brantley of the Internet Archive, who sits on the board of the International Digital Publishing Forum, urged participants that the IDPF is well aware of the pace of the industry, and said an ePub 3.0 release candidate will be ready next year.

As might have been predicted, Adobe (s ADBE) wasn’t quite as ready to hop on the HTML5 bandwagon. Zeke Koch, the company’s director of product management for digital publishing, spoke to the fact that HTML5 has yet to be fully deployed, and said the pace of software development is too fast to conform to any single standard. As long as technology companies can legally bind together software and hardware experiences, they will push forward what’s possible, he said. “Technology companies have a vested interest in making things that make you go ‘That’s amazing.'”

Vook CEO Brad Inman described his company’s efforts to translate rich layouts made in Adobe InDesign into digital form, and to format e-books for the variety of readers they must be accessible to today. He pitched competition in the device market as a good thing, rather than a chafe, and said his company would help publishers translate their books to various formats.

Later, on a second panel with publishers, an author/agent and an author, the conversation turned from the specifics to the implications of disintermediation. Mark Coker, the CEO of Smashwords, which has published 18,000 e-books, spoke of the promise of democratization. Of course, it’s not all happy-go-lucky; “We’ll sell more books and reach more readers, but the overall size of the pie will probably shrink,” he said. He also pointed out that many authors aren’t in it for the money, which is good, because they won’t make much.

So will ease of self-publishing e-books along with cracks in traditional publishing’s marketing, review and brick-and-mortar machine create a mess of poorly-written, poorly-edited books, and make the gems harder to find? Yes, said Coker.

We publish a lot of that dreck. I’m actually really proud of that because it should not be the publisher’s job to determine what should be published and what shouldn’t. The publisher is making decisions from a narrow myopic prism of potential. The power of curation is going to shift from the publisher to the crowd.

Literary agent Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown (and his popular blog) agreed. “I think people underestimate the extent to which the era of dreck is already here,” he said.

“Dreck is in the eye of the beholder,” replied author Simon Wood (who recently wrote a guest post for us about e-books). He said to expect the rise of powerful established bloggers who readers trust for book recommendations. His advice to Amazon (s AMZN) was to create an online review magazine to replace the traditional ones that are fading away. John Warren, marketing director at RAND Corporation Publications said that he looks at social web apps like Goodreads and LibraryThing as another emerging, cheap way to get the word out.

For further analysis, please see analyst Paul Sweeting’s write-up on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): As E-book Sales Grow, So Does Disintermediation