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 who 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 5-10
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 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
says, on stage in a library that dates back to 1828. Anyone with Internet
access already has access to far more books than are in this building. “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 content
in English all over the world.
French-language publishers in Canada should be celebrating,
Shatzkin suggests. 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.”
Shatzkin’s appearance in Montreal was organized by the publishers’ association AELAQ and the Quebec Writers’ Federation, with the support of the Canada Book Fund.
[Posted on the Globe Books site "In Other Words" on April 7,2011.]