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Getting a read on the future of publishing Add to ...

Crises spawn innovation, and despite regular headlines portending doom, the 21st-century publishing industry is bubbling with new ideas made possible by digital disruptions (and the odd hand-printing tool). Some will evaporate into thin air, while others change everything. But the level of activity today in Canada and the world strongly suggests that whatever the future brings, it will arrive in the capable hands of former book publishers. Herewith, seven trends to watch.


One of the country's most ambitious digital publishing ventures began when the staff at Vancouver's Douglas & McIntyre asked a simple question: Why is there no iTunes for text? The soon-to-be-launched Bookriff is the result. The service is "a technology platform that allows customers to repackage, repurpose and even resell content from existing copyrighted publishers, from the web or from their own content, and mash it all up together," according to Bookriff CEO Rochelle Grayson. The result is a kind of textual mix tape. "But what's really important is that we ensure the copyright owners all get paid for their piece of micro-content in that mix tape," Ms. Grayson says.


While some lament as digital technology drives down both production costs and potential remuneration to "content providers," others see new opportunities. Not long after creating PressBook, which allows users to easily create their own books, Montreal digital innovator Hugh McGuire introduced Iambik, a site that commissions and sells low-priced audio versions of literary fiction from independent publishers, an innovation made possible by revenue-sharing agreements among authors, publishers and narrators. "There are many thousands of fabulous books that are not in audio, and we'd like to change that," Mr. McGuire says. "We do that by having a different cost structure because of our distributed model."


Everybody knows that what we call an e-book today will evolve into something quite different as text sheds its Gutenberg-era shackles, but nobody knows what that is or what to call it. Neither do the Goggles, the Vancouver duo of Mike Simons and Paul Shoebridge (creative directors at Adbusters magazine), whose recent hybridized whatzit, Welcome to Pine Point, is currently playing on NFB.ca. It's not a website, it's not an interactive documentary and it's not a "vook" (video-book hybrid), according to its creators. Instead, they have taken to calling the production, which explores memory through the story of a small mining town erased from the map, a "liquid book." It's a format that allows "exploration within the narrative," according to Mr. Simons, "but channelled exploration."


One reason the Espresso Book Machine failed to change the world when introduced four years ago is that chain stores wanted no part of a technology that would allow any independent bookseller to print and bind any book imaginable in a matter of minutes - more than matching the bulging yet burdensome inventories that build traffic to the big boxes. But the machine has become a fixture at many university bookstores and is slowly appearing on the premises of surviving independents, helped by the Xerox Corp.'s decision to include the machine, developed by On Demand Books, in its own catalogue of products.


Old technology never dies, it just becomes craft - and no form of production is more ripe for such genteel retirement than printing books on paper. Tiny Gaspereau Press of Kentville, N.S., showed that at least part of the future belongs to the past last year when it snared a Giller Prize for Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists, hand-printed in a tiny edition, and resisted industry pressure to commercialize the win with a mass-market reprint. After centuries of innovation devoted to doing the job ever faster, slow publishing has arrived.


No literary phenomenon is more often predicted - nor persistently elusive - than the "short story revival." But hopes for short fiction have reached a new pitch with the dawn of the e-book, promoting a number of adventurous online experiments. One of the most successful is Joyland, a "hub for short fiction" created by Emily Schultz and Brian Joseph Davis of Toronto. Recently Joyland partnered with Toronto's ECW Press to create and market e-book-only story collections - an experiment publisher David Caron hopes will ultimately decide the question of whether or not short fiction has an audience in the 21st century.


How do you make "a ton of money" offering a $250 limited edition of a book riddled with no fewer than 123 typographical errors? Simple, you start out as Cory Doctorow, Toronto-born author, blogger and information activist, who finds a new way to upend the rules of conventional publishing with every foray. Documenting the self-publication of his latest book in many different formats in a regular column in Publisher's Weekly, Mr. Doctorow has discovered that giving the book away for free - his initial inspiration - doesn't pay nearly as well as selling it for big bucks. Another Internet myth destroyed.


Books are made to be borrowed and lent, but most e-books are made with digital locks that can severely restrict the rights of readers - or licensees, as they are known in the fine print - to share the books they thought they owned. It's not the hackers who are rebelling, however, but public libraries and ordinary readers, the latter empowered by online retailers competing to attract trade by loosening lending restrictions. But it is the librarians who are currently most active in the fight for digital rights, many threatening to boycott titles from publishing giant HarperCollins, which is attempting to limit the number of times the books it sells to libraries can be borrowed.

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