Thursday, June 11, 2009

BookCamp Toronto 2009: Asking the Right Questions

(photo: Steph Troeth)

Last weekend, my colleague Susan and I spent a sunny Saturday at camp... no, not the kind with marshmallows (although there were Rice Krispie squares at lunch, which was provided by BookNet Canada). We were at BookCamp Toronto, an "unconference" put together after the demise of Book Expo Canada.

BookCamp billed itself as "a conversation about the future of books, writing, publishing, and the book business in the digital age," and what a lively conversation it was (links to participants' notes and write-ups have been posted by both Mark Bertils and David H. Burton). Most attendees were from the publishing industry (participant Miette noted a shortage of "publishing outsiders, renegades, and derelicts"), with a few exceptions here and there.

The first step in answering "how will the publishing industry evolve?" is figuring out the right questions. Should authors and publishers be prepared to give away part or all of a book in the hopes of reaching more potential readers, or will that reduce the perceived value of the author's work? Do we need Digital Rights Management on ebooks to protect the author's right to get paid for their work, or will DRM alienate consumers? How can authors and publishers find and engage with the communities who would love their books? (Quote from Hugh McGuire of LibriVox: "What does someone who loves this book want, and how can we give it to them?")

One of the big questions for me, one that I've been hearing a lot lately, was "what is the publisher's role?" Traditionally, of course, the answer was "to publish," since the money required to create and distribute books was a significant barrier for people seeking publication. However, technological advances have lowered these costs to the point that far more people are able to publish their work by themselves, whether that be through a blog, an ebook, or a print-on-demand book. In the session "What is a publisher for?" Dan Wagstaff of Raincoast Books proposed that publishers can be advocates for books, using their expertise to collaborate with authors and produce the highest quality books possible.

Our director Rick Wilks agrees, and explains:
When we’re asked how one becomes a writer our first response is to recommend “read, read and read some more.” A similar adage applies to publishing: the art of producing a book demands a skill set that is developed over years of experience in editing, design, marketing, and an acute understanding of how a literary work will deeply resonate with the reader. It often surprises people to learn that it takes at least year to bring a book to the point where it is ready for production (and frequently much longer). At Annick we don’t release a book until it’s the best it can possibly be – a process that brings together the skills of a variety of people and involves an intense working relationship with the writer.

It would be a misnomer to believe that publishing is simply about access to an audience. A professionally published book is a unique work of art – one that is appreciated by the reader for its excellence.

I'm already looking forward to next year's BookCamp – I wonder which of this year's questions will have been answered, and what the new questions will be.

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