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Notes from BNC’s tech forum

About 225 industry people crowded into a Toronto conference room on Thursday for BookNet Canada’s annual technology forum. The theme of this year’s conference was evolution or revolution, though most of the speakers seemed to opt for the less radical of the two options: the event was focused on the brass tacks of adapting to the digital marketplace, with idealistic Web 2.0 barnstorming kept to a minimum.

BookNet has posted slides from the day’s presentations here, and it will also be posting videos of the talks to YouTube in the coming weeks (to be kept up to date, subscribe to BookNet’s mailing list). Below is a recap of some of the key themes addressed at the conference.

  • The rise of mobile devices. It was less than a year and a half ago that the Kindle first hit the market, but already the notion of a dedicated e-reader “ even with e-Ink capabilities “ is starting to look dated. Several speakers addressed how the increasing ubiquity of mobile devices “ especially the iPhone “ is creating what Indigo chief technical officer Michael Serbinis described as a billion dollar opportunity to provide digital content on the handheld devices people already have. (Indigo launched its downloadable e-book application Shortcovers two weeks ago, and according to Serbinis it is already being used by readers in 124 countries.) One of the most surprising successes in this emerging market is Stanza, an application that allows users to read e-books on their iPhones, which already has 1.5-million users in 60 countries and has sold over 7-million downloadable e-books since its launch last year. According to Stanza spokesperson Neelan Choksi, There’s enough technology out there right now to make e-books a good reading experience. The challenge is to make more content available to readers, and to inform them of what’s already available in digital formats.
  • Collective opportunities for Canadian publishers. One question on the minds of many people in the room was how to make sure that Canadian content, especially from small- and mid-size firms, is easily discoverable on the Web. Several speakers argued that this would require collective action among Canadian publishers, whether it be using the standard EPUB format or, as Craigs Riggs of the consulting firm Turner Riggs Workspace suggested, consolidating distribution in the digital realm. When pressed about including more Canadian content on Shortcovers, Indigo’s Serbinis said it would be working with more publishers in the coming weeks, but that the company would likely deal with smaller firms through a distributor in order to speed up the process. (Indigo’s chief merchant Joel Silver, responding to questions from the crowd, noted that smaller publishers can also upload their content to Shortcovers using the create function, and then hustle sales through blog posts and other marketing initiatives.)
  • Innovative new products. Several new products were demoed over the course of the day, including an overview of Shortcovers (currently available only to iPhone users), the new Sony e-Reader (which will include search, annotation, and highlighting features, as well as a touch screen, a built-in LED reading light, and the ability to display colour photos), and the new version of Stanza (which will include a built-in dictionary, customizable toolbars, and increased search capabilities). However, one of the most innovative new products on display came from none other than Harlequin Enterprises. The veteran romance publisher, which turns 60 this year, began offering several e-book-only programs in 2007. Since then, the company has also begun offering enriched editions of e-books that include extensive hyperlinks, full-colour photos, authors’ notes, etc. As the day’s closing speaker, Andrew Savikas of O’Reilly Media, noted, publishers need to begin thinking of e-books as more than just digital copies of print content. E-books should not be print books delivered electronically, Savikas said, but should actively take advantage of new capabilities offered by the Web.