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Jun 1, 2009

eBooks at Book Expo 2009

I visited Book Expo America in midtown Manhattan earlier today to check out the ways in which technology has seeped into the publishing world. From all the reports I'd heard leading up to the event, I expected something of a subdued gathering--a quiet mourning for the last days of paper publishing. It's a testament perhaps, to the bubble that those us in the tech world live in that the show was anything but quiet: Registration lines snaked up and down the halls.

I'd heard talk of there being something in the neighborhood of 20 percent fewer exhibitors this year as well, but the large convention hall upstairs was packed to the walls with exhibitors, with industry attendees clogging up the aisles between booths.

Finding ebook readers was an entirely different matter. The vast majority of companies showing off these devices were segregated to a small piece of carpeting dubbed "New Media Zone." Amazon was there with the Kindle, and Sony was showing a variety of its devices, but both companies were relegated to small tables in what couldn't really pass for full booths.

A couple of smaller ebook manufacturers were also on hand. One was Cool-er, showing its iPod nano knockoff devices and a faux beach setup complete with bathing suit-clad employees and blender-mixed frozen drinks. A company called BeBook was present we well, with a prototype of a device it claimed was the first ebook reader with international 3G connectivity. While checking out that device, I watched as one attendee became really excited at the prospect of looking at a Kindle close up, only to discover that it wasn't in fact an Amazon device.

Also present in the "New Media Zone" was a company called Aptara, whose sole purpose is converting books into ebooks. I asked a rep whether the conversion process was so difficult that publishers couldn't just do it in-house. It's not, apparently, but a lot of the larger publishers (such as Random House) just can't be bothered with such things.

In the end, the message was clear: Books still rule Book Expo, in a big way. The question, I think, is whether the relative lack of emerging technologies at the show was symptomatic of marketshare or of an industry that's still incredibly nervous about a technology that may ultimately cannibalize a good chunk of book sales. My guess is that it's some combination of the two. Ebook readers are still a relatively young technology, and the devices won't be supplanting book sales any time soon.

Still, it's in publishers' best interest to embrace the world of ebooks as swiftly as possibly. As we've already seen in the world of music, it's really easy to let technology pass you by.
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