Vancouver book scene reshaped by online communities

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      In the boardroom of D&M Publishers’ office in Mount Pleasant, digital assets and foreign rights director Jesse Finkelstein turns the pages of one of the company’s latest digital publications on a Kobo e-book reader.

      The book, Voices of British Columbia by Robert Budd, captures the oral histories of B.C. pioneers. The digital edition is formatted to read like a printed book, but it features enhancements that mimic the experience of using the web. The electronic version, for example, includes links to audio files so readers can hear pioneers’ voices as they read about them. While the print version of the book comes with three CDs, the digital edition condenses the media into one package, catering to readers’ web-influenced predilection for sifting through an assortment of multimedia sources to enrich their knowledge.

      “Our strategy is to enhance the existing book that you have,” Finkelstein told the Georgia Straight at a nearby coffee shop.

      Whereas print-book readers might turn to the web for supplementary information, e-books can provide a more streamlined experience by including built-in bonus material. “It’s a real problem to pick up the printed edition and look at the website and read the book concurrently,” Finkelstein said. “If you’re reading an e-book, all you do is click on the link and you’re taken to the video.”

      Much as digital media have changed the face of traditional news media, the online world is reshaping how books are produced, consumed, and discussed. Vancouver, in particular, is experiencing a literary renaissance after more than a decade of uncertainty that started with the influx of big-box bookstores in the mid 1990s and peaked when Raincoast Books’ publishing arm closed in 2008.

      A new generation of Vancouver literary events and online communities has emerged over the past two years, and they have as much to do with books as they do with the local tech community. The Vancouver Book Club, for example, is a project of local blog Vancouver Is Awesome. Club happenings are posted online, and members gathered for the inaugural meeting at W2 Storyeum on October 2. Cross-pollination between tech and publishing is shaping a new literary scene that embraces digital forms as much as it does print media.

      “There’s an amazing level of enthusiasm for books and for literature, for storytelling—even in this city, even after 15 years of endless stories of woe,” Sean Cranbury told the Straight at a Commercial Drive coffee shop near his home.

      A bookseller and book buyer who has worked for Duthie Books, Sophia Books, and the book department of the Virgin Megastore, Cranbury is the creator of Books on the Radio, a podcast, radio show, and blog that explores new voices and ideas in books and publishing. Since the radio show launched a year and a half ago, Cranbury has been busy organizing literary events aimed at revitalizing Vancouver’s book scene.

      During the Winter Olympics in February, Cranbury organized the W2 Real Vancouver Writers’ & Culture Series, a weekly event showcasing Vancouver authors and artists at the W2 Perel Gallery. The series, promoted solely online, packed the gallery each time. Cranbury also co-organizes BookCamp Vancouver, a literary salon that brings together the tech and publishing communities. BookCamp came to town for the first time last fall, and this year it sold out again. Two hundred and fifty people from Vancouver’s publishing and tech communities registered to participate in the one-day interactive symposium, the type known by techies as an “unconference”, at SFU’s Harbour Centre campus on October 1.

      Recent collaborations between Vancouver’s digital and literary worlds, according to Cranbury, are a sign of things to come. “People are looking for authentic voices, unique personalities, and different ways of looking at the world than are generally given to them by the traditional media,” he said.

      If the joy of literature lies in the new ideas it offers readers, the interactive, curatorial nature of the web makes it a perfect place for books to flourish.

      Monique Trottier has played an instrumental role in the digital growth of Canada’s publishing industry. She formerly worked at Raincoast Books, where in the early 2000s she launched Raincoast’s podcast and blog, firsts for any Canadian publisher. Having left Raincoast in 2006, Trottier now runs Boxcar Marketing, an online-marketing agency. She also co-organizes BookCamp Vancouver, along with John Maxwell, an assistant professor in SFU’s master of publishing program.

      When Trottier started at Raincoast, she was one of only a handful of people in publishing who worked online.

      “Even at that stage, it was clear that the hierarchy of conversation about books was collapsing,” Trottier told the Straight at a Kitsilano coffee shop.

      Publishers—and only publishers—used to engage with media and booksellers, and then media and booksellers would communicate with retail buyers and the public. “The web has really collapsed that,” Trottier said. “The conversation happens between readers and between writers, and then directly between readers and writers and publishers.”

      While social media allow publishers to listen more closely to their markets, Trottier acknowledges that they’re not the silver bullet that will save the industry. “Publishers are going to save themselves when they figure out what their new business model is,” she said.

      Back at D&M, Alison Cairns works as the online manager, a communications position she’s held since February 2009. In the midst of so much online activity, Cairns sees the industry moving back toward offline community building.

      “We’re doing a lot of outreach online, but so much of that is encouraging people to come together in physical space,” Cairns, who was interviewed with Finkelstein, told the Straight. “Even with the opening of Sitka Books [in September on West 4th Avenue]—when was the last time a bookstore opened in Vancouver? People were talking about it online, tons of tweets about it. So it’s this real intersection between having a conversation online, sharing information online, and then discussing it further in person.”