Delivering worthy content to receptive audiences remains a cornerstone concept in the publishing industry, but it’s almost the only certainty left. Keynote speakers at this week’s Publishing Business Conference & Expo in New York City tried to identify additional strategies for staying relevant, compelling, and profitable in a game where digital alternatives to the older models write new rules every day.

The event, produced by Book Business and Publishing Executive magazines, is an annual review of solutions for producing and marketing magazines and books. This year, it featured three days of conference sessions and a two-day tabletop expo that drew about 70 vendors of conventional and e-enabled publishing services.

Samir Husni, an academic known to many in the publishing business as “Mr. Magazine,” sounded the conference’s main theme in his turn as the moderator of a panel of magazine executives. “We’re still in the business of creating quality content,” he said, “but is that enough anymore?” In one way or another, speakers in the open sessions answered that content by itself is no longer sufficient—publishers who want to survive must also use technology to devise new experiences that will keep their readers engaged.

David Granger, editor-in-chief of Esquire, said that he had just this kind of epiphany five years ago as he looked back on the progress of the men’s title that he joined in 1997. He realized, he said, that “I’ve been here for nine years, and it’s still a magazine.” This prompted a rethinking of everything that the Esquire staff understood about publishing magazines—a reevaluation that led them to make to some striking departures from the norms of editorial planning and publication design.

The Esquire team never forgot, Granger said, that “the first experience of a magazine is still a tangible one.” That was why the magazine’s reinvention began at the level of the printed page with novelties like “marginal fiction”: short stories running entirely in the whitespace of page margins, sometimes throughout the entire folio. Tables of contents included diagrams showing article length. Some pages might offer “sculptures” made of fragments of visual elements from other parts of the issue.

But for creative audacity, nothing comes close to what Esquire has done with some of its covers. First came design experiments such as dense “walls of type” in place of traditional cover lines. But eventually, Granger said, the team began to ask, “Why doesn’t a magazine cover move?” The answer was that with the help of advanced technologies and cleverly applied conventional production methods, covers could come to life in unexpected ways.

The animated E-Ink cover for a limited run of Esquire’s 75th anniversary issue (October 2008) remains a landmark in magazine production. A different but equally impressive kind of shape-shifting was seen in the “origami” cover of May 2009, with perforated windows that let readers create mix-and-match collages of celebrity faces. Esquire also has built augmented reality experiences into the covers of its December 2009 and February 2011 issues.

“The whole time that we were doing these things,” said Granger, “we were trying to make paper important.” The quest to surround the printed publication with high-tech complements continues with Esquire’s iPad app, games for that platform, and the planned August launch of “Clad,” Esquire’s new e-commerce site for men’s fashion. Granger said that Clad, undertaken in partnership with a major national retailer he didn’t name, would “close the gap between inspiration and action, based on the desire we’ve created in our pages.”

Granger said that as digital technologies break down old distribution barriers and let new players in, Esquire can be among them, ready with new products to beguile “some kid sitting in a garage somewhere”: the archetype of its future audience. Disintermediation by digital media, feared in some channels, doesn’t have to be a bad thing for magazines, he concluded.

Steve Hannah, president and CEO of The Onion, directs a satirical multimedia publishing company that claims to have 3.6 million readers of its weekly printed publication. The network—started in a college dorm room in 1988—also boasts television, radio, book, and online properties and recently entered into franchising agreements with a number of local newspapers.

The object of diversifying in this way, said Hannah, is to “never again be caught with our pants down when the ad market crashes.” Through thick and thin, he added, “the beating heart, and the center of gravity, is our writers” and the barbed humor that they serve up across multiple publishing platforms.

“There is a future for print, as long as the content is good,” said Hannah, who also mentioned that “20% of our traffic now comes from mobile devices of one sort or another.”

David Aldea, a strategic consultant in digital transformation and digital innovation, advises McGraw-Hill on monetizing its digital content. Part of his general advice to publishers on the subject of digital content is that it can be hard to protect—and perhaps shouldn’t be protected to impractical extremes.

Digital piracy exists, Aldea said, but he questioned the wisdom of combating it as the music industry has tried to: with lawsuits against its own customers and digital countermeasures that hackers always seem able to defeat. It would be a better idea to look for solutions capable of turning each instance of unauthorized sharing into a “qualified sales lead.” This might be accomplished, he said, by embedding the file with code that “phones” the new recipient with an offer to buy the book or a related product.

An even better strategy for publishers and authors, according to Aldea, is to be proactive about managing the interactive conversations that spring up around published works that have found their audiences. “It’s going to happen with or without your participation, or your permission,” he said. For content owners, therefore, hosting and curating the conversations can be the best way to protect rights and future sales. Being prepared to do this in advance of publication, Aldea said, has become as important as the editorial process itself.

(To be continued)