Tristan Demers has been an exhibitor at the Salon du Livre since he was 13 years old, when he used his pocket money to finance a table from which to sell the comics he drew and photocopied by hand.
In the 35 years since, many things have changed — both in Demers’ career and in Montreal’s biggest French-language book fair, whose 42nd edition begins Wednesday.
In that time, the Salon, like its authors, have had to contend with the rise of online giants such as Amazon and a digital shift that has seen consumers increasingly turn to screens and tablets rather than paper products.
“The book no longer has a monopoly as a reading platform, and that’s what forces the fairs and events related to reading to adjust to the new reality,” said Demers, now 47 and one of the event’s featured authors.
From its origins as a trade show, the event has expanded to embrace a host of activities including poetry improv nights, roundtable discussions, children’s entertainment and author events.
“We’re going beyond the idea that it’s a book fair; it’s a meeting place inspired by the stories in the thousands of books published here,” said Demers, a well-known cartoonist, essayist and television personality.
The expansion of offerings doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of reading material on hand. And, for the second year in a row, some of that reading material will be in English.
“It’s like visiting a city made of books, and I think that alone is worth it,” said Anna Leventhal, the executive director of the Association of English-language Publishers of Quebec.
Bilingual events include a “translation slam” — where works are translated from French to English and vice versa, and a literary “cover night,” where authors discuss and read excerpts from works that have inspired them.
Leventhal said events like the Salon du Livre are important for readers — who may not know about the authors living in their neighbourhoods — and for the writers themselves, who get to meet and exchange ideas with their counterparts from all over the world. Her association will also hold its own book fair the weekend after the Salon du Livre.
“Most of a writer’s work happens alone in their room, but at the same time, that’s what makes events like these so special,” she said.
“Writers are getting to go out in the world and present their work and have for creative exchange in what otherwise can be kind of a lonely pursuit.”
Quebec’s publishing industry in recent years has been among the fiercest in fighting back against the rise of online giants, who are seen as hastening the demise of the small book stores and failing to support local talent.
Back in 2013, the Quebec government considered legislation to limit the discounts on new books, in order to protect big-box stores from gaining a competitive advantage over independent sellers. And last year, a prestigious Quebec literary prize decided to abandon a sponsorship from Amazon after writers nominated for the award denounced the online giant’s “inhuman methods.”
Demers said that while Quebec will remain proactive in protecting and promoting its publishing industry, he believes the attitude has begun to change from resisting the new realities to learning how to operate within them.
“Now we accept we can’t be against progress or the way things go. We name the challenges it brings, and the opportunities also.”
As an example, he cites a program that is funded by the Quebec government, which allows children’s and youth authors to supplement their income by making presentations in schools — which in turn leads to sales and engagement.
He said there has also been a renewed focus on making books that are beautiful to hold and feel, as a way to focus on the tactile pleasures of reading a book rather than a screen.
And while people are unlikely to fully ditch their screens in favour of paper, he believes some people are turning back to books for times when they crave a different experience — such as a long read on a beach or curled up on a couch.
“When television arrived, people thought movie theatres would close their doors. But they didn’t; people started going to the cinema for other reasons,” he said.
“(Similarly), the book wont disappear; instead it is retaking its place, differently, and people are re-choosing the book in different circumstances and parts of their day.”