In no particularly order, three small things—indicating wider trends—that you should have known about in 2009:
- McSweeney’s iPhone app
- Infinite Summer
The standout story in publishing in 2009 has been, obviously, digital reading. Whether we finally have a killer device to bring ebooks to the mass market remains doubtful. The price point of the Kindle remaining prohibitive for many customers and there is not yet an “iPod for books” among the competitors. Moreover customers themselves appear as yet agnostic, many preferring instead to read on smartphones. Consensus has not yet materialized around formats, standards, or, most contentiously, pricing, an issue around which rights and publication schedule are now being mobilized as negotiation gambits.
Ways forward out of these problems may be provided by small publishers and startups who do not need to reframe an established business model or reallocate resources. Many publishers and content providers have taken positive steps in this direction, and McSweeney’s iPhone, designed by http://twitter.com/russellquinn is a compelling example. It is a brilliantly immersive experience which successfully reinforces readers’ identification with the brand, teasers new products, and provides a new monetary stream. Technology will continue to develop; the publishers that are prepared to reimagine the reading experience alongside it are those most likely to be successful.
While noisy debate continued around digital distribution channels, the publishing industry continued to weather radical disruption to its traditional methods of product knowledge and awareness. The Washington Post shuttered its books supplement in February and other newspaper book review sections diminished or disappeared entirely throughout the year. In the meantime book-lovers began to make more use of recommendation systems ungoverned by top-down curation or even online algorithms based on prior behaviour. The most glaring example was the ground-up http://infinitesummer.org/ phenomenon, whereby a loosely organised movement structured a three-month collective reading of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest with astonishing success. I stood at a Chapters branch in mid July and watched multiple copies of this mid-90s postmodern doorstopper novel leave the shelf in the space of a half hour; the sustained commentary—on Twitter, on the blog, and elsewhere—sustained the movement throughout the summer. Reading is and has always offered a collaborative, communal experience alongside its solitary pleasures; new tools of communication will continue to spin off exciting opportunities in this direction.
As Canadian publishing experiences these changes, partly in the backwash of the American economy, it remains reassuring that the industry houses a robust and imaginative community, both within and outside of traditional publishing channels. There are large numbers of enthusiastic people deeply committed to changing the industry to preserve what is best about it and, indeed, to improve the extent to which we all successfully mediate between authors and readers. Standout initiatives in 2009—among many—included Sean Cranberry’s Books on the Radio, Julie Wilson’s Seen Reading, Hugh McGuire and Stephanie Troeth’s BookOven, and Erin Balser’s Books in 140. Collective initiatives from the community as a whole yielded the BookCamp ‘unconferences’ in Toronto and in Vancouver, both of which provided a focus for thoughtful, enthusiastic, contentious, and often inspiring discussion, both on and off the stage. This dialogue continues daily on numerous websites and on, notably, on Twitter. Traditionally the biggest voices sounding from the publishing industry have belonged to authors; as technology and this generation matures, new roles may emerge as we all—readers, retailers, publishers, authors—understand how the experience of reading is changing.