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It's the same old story: publishing is dead

Book sales are crumbling. Many of the companies that sell books – the once dreaded chains – are rushing to avoid insolvency by stocking their shelves with toys and gifts instead. The independent bookstore is all but extinct. The novel is dead and the sky is falling.

So what else is new? The end of traditional publishing is already an old story, and it hasn't even happened yet. Although the events of 2010 forged more nails for its coffin, they also held out new hope for the oldest medium – beginning with the release of the Apple iPad.

Hailed as an immediate godsend by the beleaguered magazine industry, the new tablet computer broke open's looming monopoly in the emerging market and set off a frantic search for content as competitors rushed to follow with new gadgets giving access to vast warehouses of electronic books. Beginning the year as hapless victims, publishers were soon dictating new, life-saving terms of trade to would-be retailers of electronic products. Even the threatened independent bookstores were cheering by year's end, when Google eBooks opened with a novel strategy for cutting them into the burgeoning action.

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With e-book sales in North America breaching the $1-billion mark and e-readers being one of the most popular Christmas gifts, analysts expect explosive growth in the new year.

The fate of one pale young poet's sensitive first novel exemplifies the free-for-all. Printed by hand in a strictly limited edition by an obscure press in rural Nova Scotia, Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists languished before winning the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize in November, only to become notorious when its publisher refused to rush more copies into print as a result. While literati fiercely debated the purist stance, a $9.99 electronic version of the book slowly stole up the bestseller list at online bookstore Kobo – another Canadian upstart, one that emerged from nowhere to take a significant share of the international e-book market in 2010.

With a new print edition finally made available, The Sentimentalists quickly became the bestselling novel in the country, in any form, surpassing even Secret Daughter by Shilpi Gowda. The beneficiary of equally unusual merchandising, Gowda's first novel was the overall bestselling book in Canada in 2010, thanks to Costco's bold decision to sell it by the pallet-load at its warehouse stores.

With more Canadian fiction put out by more publishers than ever before in history, cultural nationalists nonetheless fretted this summer when Penguin Canada abruptly and mysteriously bid goodbye to its rising-star president, David Davidar, and announced that the branch would be run out of New York from then on. Subsequent news that a former employee was suing both Penguin and Davidar for sexual harassment turned earnest concern into mass entertainment.

The ruffled bird recovered by quietly rehiring its aggrieved ex-employee and creating an advisory board of Canadian luminaries to wave the flag while it installed a new British president, reporting to New York, at the misbehaving branch.

The foreign-owned firms that currently publish the lion's share of quality Canadian fiction suffered renewed indignity when the artisans at Gaspereau Press spurned a Random House offer to reprint their Giller winner for wide distribution, partnering instead with Vancouver-based independent Douglas & McIntyre in a stirring gesture of national pride.

No such compunction prevented the literary establishment from embracing Irish novelist Emma Donoghue as one of our own after her 10th book, Room, was nominated for Britain's Man Booker Prize – and Canadians first learned that the author was now living and raising a family in London, Ont. With its author newly embraced as Irish-Canadian, Room went on to win the Rogers Writers' Trust Prize here as well as the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year award. A bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, it was most recently named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times.

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Donoghue was merely the most prominent of a whole new group of hyphenated authors whose 2010 contributions stretched the meaning of Canadian literature to its outermost limits. London-born and -based (but Vancouver-raised) Tom Rachman earned global praise for The Imperfectionists, linked stories about a newspaper in Rome. Miguel Syjuco, temporarily based in Montreal, attempted the Great Filipino Novel in Ilustrado while an itinerant Carole Enahoro, occasionally a resident of suburban Toronto, mined her native Nigeria for laughs in Doing Dangerously Well.

Both Vancouver's Anosh Irani and Toronto's Sarita Mandanna earned a place on the long list of the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize for novels set in their own families' respective native Indian villages.

But none equalled Gowda, the California author who outsold Stieg Larsson in Canada with her own Indian village family saga, thanks in large part to Costco. The other critical boost for the book came from her publishers at HarperCollins Canada, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, who noticed that Gowda had once lived in Toronto and commissioned their own edition of the U.S. novel with a cover flap that identified its author as Canadian.

Other writers with long-established Canadian addresses found inspiration equally far afield – in Tibet for Steven Heighton's Every Lost Country, in Vietnam for Camilla Gibb's The Beauty of Humanity Movement and on a giant allegorical shirt for Saskatoon writer Yann Martel's puzzling Beatrice & Virgil. The most anticipated Canadian novel of the year, for which Martel banked a reported $3-million advance, Beatrice & Virgil was condemned as "misconceived and offensive" in The New York Times and quickly sank from view. In the meantime, Martel's Life of Pi, first published in 2001, continued to bob along as a perpetual bestseller.

Another novelist who spent nine years labouring on a follow-up to a massive bestseller, U.S. writer Jonathan Franzen not only rewarded his publishers handsomely with Freedom, he also emerged as the leading 21st-century champion of the allegedly dying art of long fiction. Celebrated as a Great American Novelist on the cover of Time magazine, while targeted as an over-praised white male by bestselling chick-lit authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, Franzen ascended effortlessly into the pop-culture pantheon when Oprah Winfrey picked Freedom for her book club, repairing a long rift that originated a decade ago when the highbrow author allegedly snubbed the middlebrow queen.

On the same show where she warmly welcomed Franzen back into the fold, Winfrey named a two-for-one volume of Charles Dickens classics – Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities – as her influential book club's reading choice for the new year. But unlike the 64 previous Oprah Book Club picks, the recommended paperback failed to appear on any bestseller lists. The reason: Both novels are available free electronically from any number of sources, including Penguin, publisher of the Oprah edition.

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The same old story.

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