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Before 2009, e-books were novelties. By year’s end, the $260 Kindle e-reader had become the bestselling on Amazon.com. (Mark Lennihan)
Before 2009, e-books were novelties. By year’s end, the $260 Kindle e-reader had become the bestselling on Amazon.com. (Mark Lennihan)

Books 2009

News flash: the book isn't dead - yet Add to ...

2009 could be remembered in publishing circles as the Year of the Vampire, and not just because of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books for young readers - outstanding sellers in one of the few genres that grew over the year. The real demon of the book world is a pasty little device whose name begins with K, as in "Kapow!" and which now threatens to suck the remaining lifeblood out of traditional publishers already weakened by recession.

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But that's their problem. For readers, 2009 was a year of miracles that brought massive price cuts on popular titles, and unprecedented choices in how to consume them. It was not the year the book died - not yet. It was the year "long-form content" finally threw off its cellulose shackles in lieu of dozens of intriguing new forms - in cyberspace, and even on cellphones.

Before 2009, e-books were novelties known to most readers only because of the amount of ink spilled in condemning them. By year's end, the $260 Kindle e-reader had become the single most-requested and bestselling item in Amazon.com's massive online catalogue. Competitor Barnes & Noble had sold out of its new Nook reader, and dozens of other companies, including Canada's Indigo, were rushing to market with new devices to tap vast new libraries of digital content.

"At first, we thought the whole e-book revolution was for kids, and people over 40 were never going to use those devices," says Sara Nelson, books director of O, The Oprah Magazine and former editor of Publishers Weekly. "But anecdotal studies suggest it is in fact people 40 and up who are buying Kindles."

The big sell: "On all of these devices, you can adjust the font," Nelson says. "That makes reading easier for a lot of people."

As e-books explode in popularity, garden-variety Internet browsers are discovering even larger repositories of material produced by such efforts as Google Books, an electronic library of 10 million scanned titles, many available for download free of charge. In November, the company reached a settlement with authors and publishers that will permit it to make millions more copyrighted but out-of-print volumes available.

There was little joy in Inkville as traditional publishers struggled against the unwelcome visitors in the dugout. The past year was "truly lacklustre," marked by significant sales declines, Simon & Schuster president Carolyn Reidy bemoaned in a letter to employees.

"Books from many of our continuing authors, as well as our higher-margin backlist, are selling at levels well below their peak," she wrote.

With Twilight beginning to fade, traditional publishers relied on such stalwarts as Dan Brown ( The Lost Symbol ), James Patterson ( I, Alex Cross ), Michael Crichton ( Pirate Latitudes ) and Stephen King ( Under the Dome ) to get them through the long night of recession. Non-fiction lists were dominated by largely conservative politics - with Sarah Palin's Going Rogue at No. 1 - and books celebrating human resilience, including Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea and Mitch Albom's Have a Little Faith .

One positive result of the upheaval has been to "democratize" the industry, according to Nelson, giving smaller publishers a chance to bid on promising titles once monopolized by the majors, whose acquisition budgets have gotten smaller. And the gloom that suffused the publishing capitals of New York and London is far from universal. Many Canadian publishers surprised themselves by thriving in 2009. "After the U.S. meltdown, the fear was that people just wouldn't buy," says Yvonne Hunter, vice-president of marketing and publicity at Penguin Canada. "We were all holding on to the thought that, historically, books have been recession-proof. And in Canada this year, I think that proved to be true."

"That old saw didn't seem to be working in the States, but it seemed to be working in Canada," agrees Anne Collins, publisher of the Knopf Random Canada group. "Overall, we've had a brilliant year."

Author Meyer remains the sales hero of Canada, with three Twilight titles among the Top 5 bestselling books of the year, according to BookNet Canada. But Canadian author Lawrence Hill earned a place with The Book of Negroes, an ongoing publishing phenomenon. Other Canadian novelists enjoying success this year include Joseph Boyden, whose Through Black Spruce sold 90,000 copies in hardcover before being published in paperback this fall, as well as such old reliables as Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, both of whom brought new titles to market this past season.

Novelists Annabel Lyon ( The Golden Mean ), Kate Pullinger ( The Mistress of Nothing ) and Linden MacIntyre ( The Bishop's Man ) enjoyed breakout success this year, helped in large part by lively competition; all three titles won prestigious literary awards.

Shrinking newspaper coverage of new titles and e-book cannibalization remain major challenges on both sides of the border, according to Collins. "But I found, time and time again this year, that readers in Canada are still passionate about ideas and about stories," she adds. "It's hard not to feel wildly optimistic when people have actually been liking and buying your books."

Independent publisher Kim McArthur echoes the optimism - despite having begun the year by losing the Canadian distribution rights to books published by Britain's Hachette and cutting her Toronto office in half as a result. "I was really bracing myself for disaster," she says, adding that she was delighted to discover that sales of titles published by McArthur & Company fell by a mere 10 per cent in 2009. "What I'm hearing is that 10 per cent down is the new flat," she jokes. "We made it through, and we are sticking to our company motto: Happy to be here."

Canadian publishers are also buoyed by what Collins describes as a "very strong, very viable" retail chain in the form of Indigo Books & Music - a sharp contrast to the well-publicized difficulties of the Borders chain, which is bankrupt in Britain and struggling in the United States.

The difference emerged clearly earlier this month when Borders turned to Indigo to launch and manage a new e-book service, called Kobo, with plans to produce its own reader and make two million titles available for sale electronically. Like the Sony Reader, the Nook and upcoming devices from countless Asian manufacturers - and unlike Amazon's market-leading Kindle - Kobo will use an open standard that allows customers to shop anywhere and to trade books with relative ease.

That will permit smaller publishers to get in the e-game at nominal cost, according to McArthur, while potentially providing relief from the cut-rate pricing policy dictated by Amazon, which sells almost all e-books, even new titles just out in expensive hardcover editions, for less than $10. The Kindle is the "eight-track of e-readers," according to McArthur, who applauded Indigo's Heather Reisman for developing a Canadian alternative. "Wouldn't it be divine if she ended up taking over Borders?"

 

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