Only about four hands went up when an audience was asked on Friday how many owned an e-book reader.

To the questioner on the dais, the response was reminiscent of an occasion fifteen years ago when only a few hands were raised when he wanted to know how many in the audience owned a mobile phone. It is only a matter of time before the e-book reader became as ubiquitous as the mobile phone and publishing BPOs are reaching out for their survival guide into the digital age.

Not surprisingly, the rallying call for companies at a CII meet on sustaining India’s pre-eminence as an e-publishing hub was to cooperate wherever it was possible to and compete wherever they had to.

“The BPO business as we know it is dead,” declared Peter Maquera, CEO, Spi. The way forward is for firms to reposition themselves as platforms that mash up process skills and IT acumen to provide a holistic solution for customers.

Anu Sriram, co-founder, Integra Software Services, told The Hindu that BPO contracts to India had moved from data entry levels to other key domains in the publishing value chain such as copy editing and project management.

“We now have 80 per cent of our predominantly educational project work available on XML versions for digital consumption,” she said.

For large companies like Pearson Education in the U.S., the challenges lie in minimising business relationships with vendors across the world. “The industry, as a whole, realises the need to consolidate vendor assignments and leverage volumes,” said Bruce Johnson, senior vice president, Pearson.

The focus is shifting to an integrated workflow where a single purchase order delivers all print and digital products, he said.

According to AVR Venkatesa, CEO, Tax Tech, the “digital disruption” of content in the publishing sphere has led to a consolidation across production lines, vendors and workflows.

“Coopetition” is the way forward where BPOs cooperate to increase the market size and then compete for bigger slices of the expanded pie, he said. Offshoring in publishing is tipped to cross $1.2 billion in 2012.

Offshore contracts have changed from typesetting work with BPOs engaging in other critical publishing domains from content creation, production and packaging, said Kapil Viswanathan, Co-CEO Pre Media Global.

Pointing out that the printed word may no longer be printed Mr.Viswanathan said the future of the publishing industry was very much linked to the future of content itself.

The open source philosophy is redefining the entire publishing value chain, from creation to consumption. Comparing the music industry with publishing, he pointed out that the missing link in BPO sector was the killer ipod, he said.

“In times of technology flux, stay nimble” was the recommendation of Samir Kakar, Chief technology Officer of Aptara Corporation.

From Amazon’s Kindle to Barnes and Noble’s “Nook,” reader devices reflected a fundamental change in the way content was delivered to users-on iPhone, mobile or as subscription web feed.

Gayathri Sriram, chairman, CII Chennai, Sriram Subramanya, conference chairman and Abhaya Kumar, CII Chennai vice chairman also participated.