There was standing-room only this afternoon as members of Montreal's English-speaking writing and publishing communities crowded into the auditorium of the Atwater Library and Computer Centre for a talk on "The Future of Books" by New York publishing industry observer, consultant and blogger Mike Shatzkin. His message? We are living through an extraordinarily dynamic period of change from which no one will escape unscathed.
The publishers that will have the most difficulty, Shatzkin argues, are those that continue to concentrate on a single format, such as print titles, while covering different subjects ranging from cookbooks and children's books, say, to science fiction, literary fiction and computer books. Publishers who have perfected the art of publishing books and getting them on to book shelves across the country are going to be in trouble, because in five to 10 years "there will be no shelves anymore."
The disappearance of shelves will have a catastrophic impact not only on publishers, but on bookstores. "A bookstore used to be a good place to browse," Shatzkin says. "That is no longer so true. A bookstore used to be in my neighbourhood, just 10 minutes away. That's not true any more. It takes me 30 minutes to get to the closest bookstore now."
Shatzkin's advice to publishers is to go vertical, focus on a very limited subject area - and milk it for all its worth. If a publisher publishes books on gardening, he can develop his public, and he'll be better off also selling fertilizer than books on a different subject.
Will the relationship between authors and publishers change? It already has changed, says Shatzkin. Writers are building their own audiences. If you have a brand, and if you have readers, you don't need a publisher anymore.
Will the percentage of electronic books plateau? No. "In 20 years it will not be strange for a kid who sees someone reading a book to ask, 'What is that?'" Screens are going to be "ubiquitous."
And libraries? "Libraries make no sense in the future," Shatzkin said on stage in a library that dates back to 1828. Anyone with Internet access already has access to far more books than were in that library, he pointed out. "There is no need for a building." There will be an ongoing need for librarians, however; their skills will continue to be in demand, as will those of editors.
For, daunting as this brave new world of books is, it presents opportunities, as well. This is especially true of anyone working in English, so long as they go global. English is the biggest second language in the world at present, and it is now both cheap and easy to deliver your content in English all over the world.
French-language publishers in Canada should be celebrating, Shatzkin suggests, for they now have access to the entire francophone world, including the huge French market, in a way that they have never had before. "In the global world it doesn't really matter where you are, unless your content is purely local. You have the world to play in."