The tech-centric O'Reilly Media is currently hosting its second annual Tools for Change for Publishing conference here in New York. Sadly, even the reduced student fee was way out of my price league--but luckily, the proceedings are sure to be covered ad infinitum on the blogosphere.
There's already news trickling out about some interesting digital experiments being undertaken by traditional publishing houses:
** Tor, the venerable sci-fi/fantasy imprint from Macmillan, is starting a digital book-of-the-week club: If you sign up, you'll get occasional newsletters and a free e-book every week.
** Megapublisher HarperCollins is also giving it away for free: They're currently offering full online access to five titles as part of a program they're calling "Full Access." One of these books is The Witch of Portobello, by Paulo Coelho, author of the omnipresent The Alchemist. Coelho is actually participating in a year-long pilot program with HC, in which they'll offer online access to a new Coelho book every month. Neil Gaiman, author of the awesome Sandman comic book series, is also going to be offering free access to one of his (presumably prose) books--you can vote for which one you'd like to see on his blog. (Motoko Rich wrote about the announcement in yesterday's New York Times.)
** Random House is experimenting with an iTunes-esque model--selling single chapters of a book online for $2.99 a pop. Right now they're only offering this on one title: MADE TO STICK: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip and Dan Heath. If you buy a chapter, they throw in the intro and index for free.
The publishing industry--like all media industries--needs to find new models of distribution and monetization that suit today's digital marketplace. Luckily, publishing isn't in quite the same sinking boat as the music, TV, or film industry. Online book piracy isn't really much of an issue (until someone manages to invent a super-fast, automatic book scanner). But publishing is an industry--like newspapers and periodicals--that's continuously sounding its own death knells, so it's good to see them experimenting, even if they're doing so relatively cautiously.