BookNet Canada’s annual three-day tech forum, which took place March 3-6, drew people from across the country's publishing scene, as well as some as far away as Malta, to discuss the future of writing, reading, and publishing.

Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, opened the final day of the forum (following ebookcraft and BookNet 101 events) with some big picture takes on the ways both reading and writing are changing in the digital and interactive era.

The old human urge to talk about the books we are reading with others, he said, has new channels such as highlights and notes written in the margins of a digital text. He described his own experience of giving a 2,000 word excerpt of his 2013 book to Readmill, an app that allows for social reading and social marginalia. “Within hours, there were dozens of people in there marking it up, highlighting passages and talking about it. Then I dove in and started responding to them,” he recounted, adding that in the end there were 8,000 words of commentary on a 2,000 word excerpt.

“Is there going to be a point in time where that conversation could become a part of the book itself?” he asked. Bob Stein, founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book told Thompson he thinks so, predicting that “in 10 years there are going to be people who are so good at marginalia, that you will pay to read their marginalia inside your book.” Stein plans to test his theory by asking a major novelist to read and write commentary on David Wallace Foster’s Infinite Jest. Readers could choose to buy the digital book alone, or pay an extra dollar for the annotated version.

Addressing the question about whether there is a viable market for these kinds of works, Thompson cited research done by Cathy Marshall of Microsoft that showed that students buying used text books want books used by students who received good marks, because it increases the value of the marginalia.

DRM issues remain obstacles to the development of such books, but Thompson noted that there are also issues of privacy. “There are some real dangers about taking our reading and our thinking about what we are reading and making it public,” he said. “The privacy of book reading has long been a centrally established civic right. In fact, librarians are famous for having fought over and over again police and spy agencies trying to get the records of what their patrons have read…. One of the problems we’ve got now is that I do lots of commenting on my digital books for the Kindle and that stuff is all living on a server that Amazon has, so should the NSA ever want to write a national security letter to find out what people are thinking and reading in their books, they can get that.”

Other sessions included a preview of features on the latest update of the Marvin e-reader by Kristian Guillaumier, who traveled from his home in Malta for the event, a discussion of readers and writers in the Internet Age by U.K. writer Baldur Bjarnason, a presentation about experiment conducted by Sourcebooks with Wattpad, and a view of the new skillset required in the industry from Penguin Random House Canada’s director of business development, online and digital sales strategy, Robert Wheaton.

The day closed with a discussion of Publishing Post-Digital: What’s the New Normal? Panelists were Groundwood Books publisher Sheila Barry, ECW Press co-publisher David Caron, Simon & Schuster Canada’s editorial director Martha Sharpe, and Random House of Canada’s president and publisher Kristin Cochrane.

Moderator Jesse Finkelstein of Page Two Strategies asked how the relationship between authors and publishers is changing.

Caron said ECW’s first conversations with authors are not about what the company can offer as a publisher, but about entering into a partnership.

Barry remarked that although some authors are reluctant to take an active and public role in promoting their book, it was not an unfair expectation from publishers. “However sweet, shy, and woodland creature-like they may be, there’s got to be the occasional sighting.”

Caron added that the growth of self-publishing has meant that ECW sometimes has to prove why it delivers something they can’t get by writing the book themselves and publishing with Kobo or Kindle. He mentioned the example of Kevin J. Anderson’s book Clockwork Angels, which was a novel adaptation of a Rush rock album. Initially, Anderson wanted to keep ebook rights himself, but ECW talked with him about the value of being able to market the ebook at the same time as the print book and cross-marketing, and he agreed to give ECW the ebooks rights for 12 months, which Caron said worked well for both parties.

BookNet is a non-profit agency that does research and develops technology, standards and education to serve the Canadian book industry.

Cochrane added that she thought the growth of self-publishing “made traditional publishers really examine what the value is and to articulate that more clearly to authors.”

Finkelstein asked Sharpe, who has recently returned to Canada from the U.S., about the changes she sees on both sides of the border. Sharpe said it seems that the atmosphere of fearfulness has lifted. The industry “feels smaller, but maybe it is the size it is supposed to be for now,” she said. “There was a huge amount of growth during the whole opening up of these superstores in the U.S and then Canada.” She added that she hopes the indie bookstores can make a come back in some way.

Several of the panelists talked about the need to experiment and innovate while still maintaining their traditional business. Barry noted that Groundwood is producing e-books for the future, but so far they don't have a big market.

Cochrane suggested that everyone has to “accept that we now do our jobs against a backdrop of constant change,” but advised against getting so swept up by the new that you drop traditional tools that can still be used very effectively. “One of the most cheering things about reading [the book Hothouse] is really the sense of some of that really strong, crisp print advertising that can really move the needle, getting an author into a bookstore and getting media for that author by being in the bookstore,” she said.

When asked what kind of people they are looking to hire, Barry said she looks for staff with a passion for books and publishing. Caron added that more than looking for a “marketing person,” ECW would much rather hire someone who is “a smart book person and tailor a job to fit them….For me, the key is for that person to continue to be engaged,” he said.