Last year, the Department of Canadian Heritage commissioned Turner-Riggs, a Vancouver-based market-analysis company, to study the Canadian book retail market. The resulting report – The Book Retail Sector in Canada – has received considerable attention from both policy makers and the industry as it describes the dramatic change in how books are distributed and sold in Canada.
The shift away from local bookstores to chain stores such as Indigo has been readily apparent to many consumers, yet the report notes that even bigger changes are afoot. Though Indigo retains a dominant share of the market, it is being challenged by the growing influence of major retailers such as Wal-Mart and Costco as well as by online sellers that include Amazon.ca and Victoria, British Columbia's AbeBooks.
While the evolution of book selling in Canada merits careful study, it is the emergence of "books 2.0," featuring new models of book publishing that offer an even more compelling story.
For example, Wikitravel, one of the Internet's most acclaimed travel web sites, was launched in 2003 by Montreal residents Evan Prodromou and Michele Ann Jenkins. Using the same wiki collaborative technology that has proven so successful for Wikipedia, the Wikitravel site invited travelers to post their comments and experiences about places around the world in an effort to build a community-generated travel guide. In less than five years, the site has accumulated more than 30,000 online travel guides in eighteen languages, with over 10,000 editorial contributions each week. The content is freely available under a Creative Commons license that allows the public to use, copy, or edit the guides.
Building on Wikitravel's success, Prodromou and Jenkins recently established Wikitravel Press, which introduced its first two titles earlier this month. Wikitravel Press represents a new approach to travel book publishing based on Internet collaborative tools and print-on-demand technologies that should capture the attention of the industry for several reasons.
First, the books are based on content that is freely available online. Rather than paying $18.99 for a copy of the 469-page Wikitravel Chicago guidebook, users can easily access all the content on the Internet. In this instance, the publisher is convinced that the book version is easier to use and therefore worth the investment.
Second, the books are continuously updated. Unlike other travel books that feature lengthy delays between when they are written and when they appear on store shelves, Wikitravel Press books are updated every month as the publishers pulls together the latest contributions and edits from the website.
Third, Wikitravel Press uses print-on-demand technology supplied by Lulu.com, a U.S.-based site founded by Canadian (and CFL Hamilton Tiger Cat owner) Robert Young. Using the Lulu.com print and delivery system, it delivers books to over 200 countries within a few business days.
Looking ahead, Wikitravel Press plans new titles for Paris, Toronto and Sydney, to be followed by "ad hoc" books that will allow travelers to customize their own travel books based on Wikitravel content.
Canadians are also playing a leading role in reshaping the creation of audiobooks. Hugh McGuire, a Montreal-based writer and web developer, established LibriVox in August 2005. The site is also based on concept of Internet collaboration. In this instance, LibriVox volunteers create voice recordings of chapters of books that are in the public domain. The resulting audio files are posted back onto the Internet for free.
The LibriVox project, which does not have an annual budget, has succeeded in placing more than 1,200 audio books on the Internet, including Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, works from Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and hundreds more.
New technologies are rapidly reshaping the book industry and it is exciting to see how Canadians are quietly playing a leading role in the re-imaging of how books are created and distributed.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.