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Last week Book Expo America 2012 took place at Javits Center in New York City. According to a press release, this year the show boasted over 1,300 exhibitors, including 200 new companies, an 18% growth in new exhibitors from 2011. It may surprise some to learn that despite advertising’s higher profile, United States Bureau of Labor Statistics for May 2011 show publishing ahead as an industry employer of graphic design, employing designers for content such as books, magazines and newspapers as well as related collateral.

Though this wasn’t my first time at BEA, it was my first time covering it from a graphic design news perspective. To be honest, I didn’t go in with much of a pre-set agenda but rather a general topic idea. The idea was to ask industry professionals their thoughts on the place of designers in the shifting publishing landscape.

While the increased drive towards greater degrees of templating and automation due to technology changes combined with economic and business pressures has led many to believe the creative role in general and design in particular is contracting that may not entirely be the case. In fact, based on what emerged from conversation with various exhibitors it appears to be more of an evolution rather than dissolution.

Recurrent themes in all the conversations were challenges of going digital for latecomers, creating a compelling analog to print experience and the continued need for digital asset creation for sales, marketing and promotion in addition to the publications themselves.

BEA2.jpgAttendees crowd the BEA show floor

Going Digital

Conversion of legacy content to digital platforms in addition to creating new content presents a real challenge for publishers. Commenting on this, one exhibitor said “Some publishers late to the game are not sure where to begin.” The expansion of BEA’s Digital Discovery Zone and related programming spoke to the increasing demand for digital publishing solutions, especially for latecomers or those publishers who lack the infrastructure or desire to handle their own implementation.

Examples of companies stepping in to fill the demand were full service providers such as Qbend, who offer eCommerce solutions, branding, digitization of archive content, new content creation and maintenance or SPi-Global who also provide content management solutions in addition to an array of other services. One need that was also noted was for services migrating Flash content to HTML 5.

Creating an Analog for Unique Aspects of Print Book Experience

A central topic in my conversation with Kat Meyer of leading technology publisher O’Reilly and community manager for O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing (TOC) was the importance of exchange between web designers and publishers to “create the same aesthetic in digital books as in physical [ones].” Meyers explained that although it is a “really scary time for publishers” she thought that publishers “do still value design and illustration.”

When asked what one piece of advice she would give to designers, Meyers responded, “Understand what you’re trying to achieve, constantly monitor trends and be aware of what’s going on” and “think about how designs will translate digitally.” She cited Craig Mod’s essay “Hack the Cover” on whether or not book covers were still relevant in the new digital space and writings from content strategist, Erin Kissane as examples of thinking on the topic.

BEA1.jpgRevamped and expanded Digital Discovery Zone

Meyer’s sentiments were echoed at the Baker & Taylor booth where one industry professional described the “major challenge of, maintaining look and feel of the original book content (fonts and visuals) and quality control without becoming cost prohibitive.” Also mentioned was the importance of bringing the “fully immersive experience” and “visual richness” seen in print to digital mediums.

When asked about digital book jackets and online presentation she stated, “branding is still really relevant” and “book jackets still carry weight.” Also described were the technological challenges of device/platform neutrality, quality control and logic of content movement on small screens.

Print Book as Part of Larger Content/Entertainment Ecosystem

Another theme I noticed was physical books as part of a larger content/entertainment ecosystem, for example American Girl’s publication of books as companion products to their toys, online games and television specials. Pixel Entertainment spoke with me about their new children’s book “The Global Game Changers” that will have its initial release as a physical book followed by subsequent chapters released online, along with an accompanying app, game and social component.

We want to hear from you. What do you think the future role of design and designers will be in publishing? Share your thoughts by posting a comment below.