Word on the Street: eBooks a flop!

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By Ab Velasco

Pulp and paper has more weight with book publishers and avid readers than microchips and man-made machines.

At least that was the vibe at last Sunday’s Word on the Street book festival. Seven blocks of Queen Street West were closed between Spadina and University Avenues to house the event, now in its 13th year of operation.

Much of Canada’s publishing industry was in attendance, and most of them said they still prefer to hold and read a good book in their hands than on a computer screen.

The relatively new phenomenon of eBooks offers consumers the chance to purchase multiple novels online and download them to a handheld book reader, eliminating the heavy hardcovers that can weigh down a student’s backpack.

For Word on the Street attendees however, the paperback still rules.

“We are a festival that is very driven by what the public wants to see and what publishers want to promote,” says Trish McGrath, the festival’s executive director. “From the surveys we’ve conducted, there hasn’t been a strong interest in electronic books.”

A survey released this summer by two U.S. websites, eBookWeb.org and KnowBetter.com, found that eBooks have failed to penetrate the mass market.

This was not what the publishing industry has envisioned years ago, when they saw eBooks as the harbinger of doom for pulp and ink publishing.

Ryerson University’s Continuing Education department had a tent at the festival, pushing programs that pertain to publishing and writing.

Brad Horning, who teaches publishing and the Internet at Ryerson, said “The market has not embraced [eBooks], because it is a growing technology that is still in its infancy stages and it’s still quite limited.”

“Looking at the bookshelf and seeing all the books that represent my history is a lot different than going into a palm pilot or a computer and just seeing a bunch of files,” Horning says.

But Coach House Books, a Toronto-based publisher that sold paperbacks from its tent at the festival, is supportive of electronic publishing. It claims to be the only publisher in the world that has its entire catalogue available on the Internet.

That includes more than 60 full-length works of poetry, fiction and drama.

“The world is changing. It is important to think of literature as an adaptable medium,” says Alana Wilcox, an editor.

She says that they do not pay authors additional fees to publish online, but instead provide a pop-window for readers to donate tips if they wish to.

She admits that, in general, Web surfers have not been generous.

Still, many readers are very conservative with how they read their books.

Federica Maraboli, a continuing education student studying magazine publishing at Ryerson, attended the festival for the first time Sunday.

She says she would not touch an eBook with a ten-foot stylus pen. “There’s nothing better than feeling the weight of a book in your hands. You can’t take [an eBook] with you to the bath.”

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