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ebook evolution

A commuter uses a Kindle while riding the subway in New York June 1, 2009.

The morning after Johanna Skibsrud's novel "The Sentimentalists" won the lucrative Scotiabank Giller Prize last month, Nova Scotia-based book blogger Joan Langevin Levack was itching to read it.

Though Langevin Levack lives just 15 minutes away from the book's publishing house, Gaspereau Press, she couldn't purchase it there because the tiny press - which takes an artisanal approach to printing - was woefully behind on orders.

She couldn't buy it in bookstores, either, since most retailers across the country had been out of stock for weeks.

Like most consumers at the time, her only hope of immediately perusing the in-vogue story was to download it onto her e-reader from Kobo, the lone company providing the digital version. And that was fine with her.

"The crux of this whole thing with 'The Sentimentalists' is: what's a book? Is it that fancy artisanal piece that (Gaspereau publisher) Andrew Steeves and company makes, or is it the words she wrote, regardless of the delivery methods?" says Langevin Levack, who has worked in publishing and now writes the blog from her home in Berwick, N.S.

"I still buy physical books too. Sometimes there are books that ... I'm going to want on my shelf. But I'm running out of space in my house and most of the time it's about reading - it's not so much about the physical object, although I love them as sort of fetish objects."

It seems many more readers had the same outlook post-Giller.

Kobo Books - which sells its eponymous e-reader in Indigo Books & Music and Walmart stores and also offers a free application for several other e-reader units - saw an eight-per-cent lift in iOS (iPad/iPhone) downloads of its app in Canada in the week after Skibsrud's Giller win on Nov. 9.

As well, in the three days following the Giller win, Kobo says it sold 10 times as many digital copies of "The Sentimentalists" as it has sold in the previous three weeks. The book has also been Kobo's top-selling title in Canada since it won the Giller.

Kobo wouldn't offer sales figures for its actual e-reader unit, which came out in April, so it's tough to say whether "The Sentimentalists" situation made ebook enthusiasts out of physical-book traditionalists.

But industry experts say there's no doubt that 2010 was the year the e-reader went from being a rarely seen novelty item to an omnipresent device.

"This is the year that e-readers really gained popular traction," says Quill & Quire editor Stuart Woods.

"It's the year when there have been numerous devices that have hit the market, the price point for e-readers has come down, there's healthy competition between inexpensive devices and obviously the iPad has had a huge impact in sort of popularizing e-reading."

Indeed, reports that ebooks for its Kindle unit have outsold physical books in certain categories for several months now.

In July, the company - which also doesn't provide sales figures for its actual e-reader - said sales of Kindle books had outnumbered sales of hardcover books in the three months prior.

And on Oct. 25 it said that in the previous 30 days, its customers had purchased more Kindle books than print books - hardcover and paperback combined - for the top 10, 25, 100, and 1,000 bestselling books on

Amazon also says it sold more than three times as many Kindle books in the first nine months of 2010 as in the first nine months of 2009.

The Toronto Public Library has also seen a huge spike in ebook interest this year - a 62 per cent increase, so far - over last year.

And the market is poised to balloon even further after the recent launch of Google eBookstore, which features three million free ebooks and hundreds of thousands of books for purchase.

Meanwhile, BookNet Canada, which tracks about 75 per cent of the Canadian book market, says Canadian book sales are down by 3.98 per cent in volume this year.

Still, publishers, booksellers and libraries don't feel this spells the death of the traditional book.

"There's no indication that Canadian consumers believe that or that publishers don't believe in the future of the print book," says Kessel.

"It's an alarmist statement that might be good to get some attention but it does not reflect any kind of reality that I think booksellers, publishers or consumers are experiencing."

At Douglas & McIntyre, which bought the paperback rights to "The Sentimentalists" Nov. 15 and has since pushed out mass copies and made the book available to several other ebook retailers, the goal is just to get its titles to as many readers as possible, say executives.

"To me personally, ebook is another format," says Jesse Finkelstein, digital assets and foreign rights director at D&M Publishers Inc.

"It doesn't represent necessarily the death of any other existing format. I hope to see an extension of the market and I hope that books will reach new readers as a result of being available digitally."

It's a misperception that publishers have feared the ebook and aren't engaging with the world digitally, she adds.

"In terms of the conversations I've had with other independent Canadian publishers, I know that we are all thinking about and dealing with these kinds of changes as proactively as we can," says Finkelstein.

Toronto Public Library director Vickery Bowles also embraces the growing ebook market, noting it gives customers much greater and more convenient access to the printed word.

"I think that ebooks can attract readers who may not be so interested in the print format but they're very comfortable with the electronic end," she says.

Mike Hamm, manager of independent bookstore Bookmark Inc. in Halifax, says they haven't seen any effects of the e-reading evolution on sales so far this year.

In fact, this December has been "really, really good" for them, he adds.

"As a bookseller, it's a tempest in a teapot because we're having one of our best Christmases ever," he says. "Even when ebooks and e-readers were even more in the forefront of the news, our customers didn't even broach the subject with us.

"What is encouraging to us is that we've seen the moms and dads come in with their children, and even though they have electronic devices, they're still buying books."

Langevin Levack bought her first e-reader nearly two years ago for her quadriplegic daughter who has trouble turning pages on a book and needs a bigger font.

If Langevin Levack likes an ebook, she'll go out and get the physical version, but she reads mostly digitally as she lives in a rural area and it's more convenient to purchase and download titles from home.

In fact, she figures she buys more titles than ever these days, partly out of convenience and also because ebook prices are typically lower than those of physical copies.

"The sticker shock isn't quite as profound and I'm doing it online so I don't even notice it," she says. "It comes off my credit card; I don't pay attention. I think it's a lot easier."

Douglas & McIntyre has made its books available digitally for just over a year, and Finkelstein says they've seen "a significant increase in sales month over month of roughly 20 per cent."

The fraction of the company's overall sales from ebooks is still fairly low at roughly three per cent, though.

"There are lots of people who are reading digitally, there are lot of people who are not in that world at all," says Finkelstein. "And so as long as that's the case and until we reach that tipping point over to where most people are reading digitally, then I think that there's still a lot of potential for multiple sales."

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