I want to be on a train somewhere, going to meet a lover, reading a paperback copy of Winterson and crying

September 1, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Jaime Woo had an idea to get a group of people with similar interests together over drinks and record their conversation. The project, called “Overheard,” is meant to capture unedited, unscripted ideas and passionate engagement around a specific topic. For his first podcast, he recorded novelist Stacey May Fowles, blogger and author Julie Wilson, and yr. humble correspondent talking about publishing, CanLit, the influence of new media, and Seth Godin’s disavowal of traditional books. The results are online, for anyone who is interested.

TSR digitization roundtable

July 31, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

For anyone who cares about literature these days – writers, publishers, booksellers, readers – the subject of digitization seems to be inescapable. The book, a technology that has been around since Johannes Gutenberg invented his printing press in 1440, is often seen to be in jeopardy, prey to the whims of a new technology that has only really been available to the public consciousness in the last two decades. The Internet is changing the way we do business: literally. E-books, podcasts, wikis, and print-on-demand – all relative newcomers to the literary scene – are changing the way books are discussed, read, and conceptualized. The pace of this change can sometimes seem staggering, and there’s no precedent for it: the road ahead leads into unmapped territory.

Always aiming to be at the forefront of public service in the area of literature and literary discourse, TSR has gathered together three experts from various backgrounds to discuss the subject of where this brave new world of digital reading may be taking us.

The participants in this special roundtable are:

Pasha Malla, author of the short-story collection The Withdrawal Method.
Mark Medley, editor of the National Post’s literary blog, The Afterword
Julie Wilson, digital goddess, and the brains behind Seen Reading

Acting as curmudgeonly traffic cop is yr. humble correspondent.

SWB: Hey, guys. Thanks for agreeing to participate in this special roundtable on the changing landscape of literary culture. The future of reading and publishing seems inextricably connected to the subject of digitization, for good of for ill. (Maybe, for good and for ill.) In a Globe and Mail article from June 26, Marina Strauss pointed to statistics from the Association of American Publishers stating that e-readers accounted for 2% of U.S. book sales to that point in 2009, an increase from less than 1% the year before. That would make e-readers the fastest-growing segment of the book market in the States, where sales of physical books seem to have plateaued year-over-year. (The one segment of the industry that does seem to be doing improved business is graphic novels, which grew 5% in 2008 according to an article that ran in USA Today at the beginning of this year.) In the same Globe and Mail article from June 26, Strauss paraphrased Indigo CEO Heather Reisman, who apparently made the jaw-dropping claim that she expects a 15% erosion in book sales to the digital world over the next five years.

This new environment obviously provides the potential for a vastly expanded readership, but there are still issues that need to be worked out. Payment for content is a big one. (How much are each of you getting paid for participating in this roundtable, for example?) Digital rights management (DRM to the cool kids) is another. And the essential soullessness of the new technology, a subject that is often sniffed at by digital evangelists, is a third. In a recent New Yorker article about the Kindle 2 e-reader, Nicholson Baker, who once waxed rhapsodic about the virtue of the library’s paper card catalogue, bemoaned the coldness of the new hand-held reader this way: “A century and a half of evolved beauty and informational expressiveness is all but entirely rinsed away in this digital reductio.”

The proponents of digitization ignore this argument. Many go so far as to say that even making an argument for the printed book – a technology that has existed relatively unchanged since the 15th century – is futile: the future is here, they say, and it’s digital. Adapt or die. This ahistoric approach treats the advent of digitization as a fait accompli: there’s no point in arguing against it, or even in expressing melancholy for what might be lost in its wake. To do so simply renders you a crabby, elitist dinosaur. Is there any validity to this approach? Do we risk losing more than we might potentially gain in the coming sea change? Does anyone really know for sure at this point? These are the questions that are preying on my mind as we move forward into an untested, uncertain future.

PM: Well, I have to admit that I’m pretty clueless as to what the stats and public discourse around this stuff have been, but from my perspective, as someone who hopes to be making books (in whatever format) in this “digital age,” here’s my take:

I love books. I published electronically long before I ever had anything in print, and it might just be my anachronistic way of thinking, but the print publication felt so much more real – it was something to hold in my hands, something tangible that existed in physical space because of me (and, you know, some other folks, too). Same thing with my book: I saw the PDF long before the hardcover, and it wasn’t until I felt that weight, smelled those pages, tasted the glue (no, just kidding) that it seemed like a legitimate achievement. I could club someone to death with something I typed! Try doing that with a Kindle; you’ll break your Kindle.

That said, I think authors shouldn’t be resistant to new technology – this stuff could get pretty exciting and liberating, if you allow yourself to think creatively and go with it. Right now, what the Kindle is capable of is very basic (and I use that as my go-to example because it’s the only e-reader I’ve used), but the potential for digital books to do all sorts of things that print can’t seems limitless. Think of an annotated Ulysses in digital format, where each of the references and allusions leads to a little explanatory video or mini-lecture, or what David Foster Wallace (who I think might have been a huge technophobe, but work with me) could have done with a hypertext version of Infinite Jest. If anything, e-books open up a universe of creative possibilities to any writer who’s open to putting some thought into it. Robert Coover is a huge proponent of electronic literature; I’d love to hear his views on all this.

One thing I’d like to see, in a more practical sense, is publishers starting to offer free downloads of e-books if you buy the hard-copy – just a one-time-use code that dumps the file onto your computer. Some record labels are doing this with their vinyl releases, since they’re difficult to get onto your iPod without fancy technology. I think it’s a great idea, as it honours both the history of analog and the future of digital formats. I love having a record to listen to at home on my turntable and the files to take with me when I’m traveling – free of charge, but also completely legal.

MM: I’ve long been a proponent of that same idea – the customer receives a free digital copy when they purchase the book – but something tells me publishers will prove resistant to giving e-books away for nothing, considering the stats Steven mentions. Publishers aren’t just going to start giving away the one sector of the industry that’s growing. It’s been established that people will pay $9.99 or whatever Amazon is charging these days for a file. It’s too late to go back now.

I want to touch on this issue of “realness” that Pasha mentions, because I think that’s going to be the real battleground between print and digital. It reminded me of an interview Salon did with Dave Eggers a couple of weeks ago. Eggers – who’s become one of the leading champions of the printed page – mentions that one way they motivate the students at their 826 Valencia (the non-profit writing centre Eggers founded) is by printing the kids’ work: “That’s the main way we get them motivated, that they know it’s going to be in print,” he says. “It’s much harder for us to motivate the students when they think it’s only going to be on the Web.” I think back to my time in j-school, not too many years ago, when students were given the option of studying print, magazine, broadcast, or online journalism, whatever that is. Few students were interested in the online stream – the thinking was that if your work isn’t printed, it doesn’t count. (Funnily enough, the students who studied online journalism are the ones with jobs.) I think many authors feel the same way.

I’ve always maintained digitization doesn’t scare me; I read this blog on a screen and as far as I can tell that doesn’t decrease my enjoyment of it. Would I like it more if it was printed? (Get to it, Steven!) I don’t know. I’m more concerned with the content then the format. A good story is a good story, whether on the page or on a Kindle. And yeah, e-books will probably usher in some really cool stuff. I really want to see a Mark Z. Danielewski e-novel.

JW: Alongside stuffing our novels into handheld devices, I’d love to see publishers acquire authors who know how to write for smaller spaces. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if a few years from now, someone printed off a title that had previously only been available in a digital format and it will be 150 pages long. We’re slaves to the signature, designing books to come in at cost-effective page counts. There’s an opportunity right now to acquire texts that remind us all, and the reader, that people will pay for quality content, not just a quality container. I say this as someone who dislikes reading online, but I recognize the advantages.

I’m very interested in what this all means in terms of rights. If I, as an author, can sell world rights in English to a publisher, where does that leave our acquisitions editors? I think that beyond the death of the book, we should be paying close attention to the future of publishers, period. Not unlike Richard Nash leaving Soft Skull, I feel like the next steps are going to be taken not by an industry that works together, but a rogue editor who breaks from the pack and goes it solo. I also wonder where this leaves indie pubs who rely on granting bodies to support their programs. If a publisher is in the position to acquire world rights to a text, will they remain eligible for funding? I just think there are a lot of big chances that individual industry members will have to take to really make a dent. We’re trying to be Cirque de Soleil, but we’re still running on the hamster wheel, in so many ways.

One other note. I often ask people what they’re reading on their e-readers, etc. Far more often than not, I encounter people who may be reading, but haven’t purchased. No offence to Bram Stoker, but when I see someone holding Dracula, the book, I know someone dropped some cash. When I see an iPhone, I know that Apple made a few hundred bucks. A publisher doesn’t get a cut of a reading “experience.” Read the aforementioned thoughts on acquiring smaller texts. Once the consumer is used to reading things online in a pleasurable way, especially once transit systems get up and running with wireless, you’re going to find more readers adapting to the idea of short reads in short distances.

Finally, publishers have a remarkable opportunity with digitization to take back their backlists. Limited resources aside, why not hire someone to design a monthly magazine that makes your backlist fresh again? Excerpts. Author catch up. In the news, etc. We spend a lot of effort trying to get other people to do the talking for us. A $2.99-per-month subscription. I’d buy that, and I’d read it. If you included a link to where I could buy the books, you’d have me in the palm of your hand.

Just some thoughts.

PM: Yeah, that’s a good point, that different kinds of writing work in digital and print formats. I can’t think of the last humour book I read, for example, but basically all I read online is humour. And the news! I haven’t bought a newspaper in a couple years, but I check the BBC and New York Times websites pretty much every day. Also the potential of digital archives is huge: I’d never read Fitzgerald’s 1936 essay, “The Crack Up,” until today – and only then because it was linked to from a piece in the Economist. How else would I have come across it? The accessibility, as Julie was saying, of back catalogues and lost classics might be the most encouraging thing about this whole e-book business.

SWB: Funny you should mention humour (oh ho, see what I just did there?) vis à vis online writing. In that New Yorker article, Baker talks about reading a passage of Robert Benchley, which he found humorous when he read it on the page in a Common Reader edition, but humourless when he read it on the Kindle 2. Maybe that’s just a matter of personal taste, or maybe there’s something deeper going on there in terms of the way we relate to texts onscreen vs. on the page.

But, Julie, I’m interested in what you have to say about using the digital environment to inject new life into a publisher’s backlist. “[W]hy not hire someone to design a monthly magazine that makes your backlist fresh again? Excerpts. Author catch up. In the news, etc.” Isn’t this one of the things that blogs were supposed to do, for free? A lot of literary blogs have spotlight features on neglected books, or books that other media outlets aren’t covering, and they give this material away. Do you really think people will be willing to pay $2.99 a pop for something they’ve been told they should be getting for free?

JW: It would pertain only to one publisher’s backlist. And if it’s run like a magazine, maybe acquiring one-time digital rights to a new short story by an author who’s in between books would work. I would pay $2.99. It’s access to the authors you already have a relationship with. Pasha, for instance. (Not to rope Anansi into this, because these are my own thoughts.) But, Pasha, for instance. You do a lot. In between nominations and wins for The Withdrawal Method, a staff writer could catch up with you and do an interview, or create a podcast, something that doesn’t get in the way of the media’s job, but only enhances your appeal to them, and to the reader. And if a link was included to your book at the Anansi online bookstore, it’s a great opportunity to make a sale.

I should have also mentioned that such a magazine would run advertising. Additional forms of revenue could be created. I suppose what I’m proposing is a high-quality advertisement for your product. Something more interactive than a catalogue. Something your authors might even want to participate in. Sure, you can start up a blog, but why compete with your publisher’s efforts to promote you at the point of sale? They could work together quite nicely. And it’s a chill read when you’re on the streetcar. Or when I’m on the pipe.

MM: I’d pay for that. Have you guys ever read Five Dials? It’s an online book store/literary mag produced by Hamish Hamilton U.K., and it has a very similar aim, in my mind anyway, to what Julie describes: “At this site you can read more about us, learn what’s new, meet our authors … browse our titles and download our monthly literary magazine, Five Dials.” The best part? They don’t charge $2.99.

I’d like to make a confession: there’s a part of me that feels discussions like this are a bit premature. E-book sales, according to the figures Steven provides, still account for only 2% of all book sales. I’d imagine in Canada, where Kindle still isn’t available, that number is drastically lower. While I know lots of people in the industry who own one, I have never, ever seen someone reading an e-reader in public. Never. While I’m sure e-book sales will rise, I think all this talk of Kindle being a game-changer may be more hype than reality.

I’m more interested in the impact something like the iPhone is having. What struck me about the Nicholson Baker essay wasn’t that he disliked the Kindle, but that he fully embraced the iPhone: “Forty million iPod Touches and iPhones are in circulation, and most people aren’t reading books on them. But some are. The nice thing about this machine is (a) it’s beautiful, and (b) it’s not imitating anything. It’s not trying to be ink on paper. It serves a night-reading need, which the lightless Kindle doesn’t.” And he says it makes books funny again, to boot!

JW: I’d like to make a confession, too. I actually like the yellow Lifesavers. But, I digress.

I’m with Mark and the iPhone. Funny, though, I sat beside a fellow this morning on the way into work who was reading on an e-reader. He saw me watching Web Therapy on my iPhone and we had a moment. I said, “I don’t want to know what you’re reading, I just want to know if you paid for it.” And he hadn’t. Just a bit of market research.

I don’t mean to sound antiquated when I talk about the digi-reading experience as only existing on a handheld, but what’s the point of me putting my whole life into a palm-sized device just so that I can carry around an additional toy that’s the same size as a book? If it’s going to come down to the container again, I like my books to be floppy. I do like a nice storage device, though, which is why I’ll buy books for my iPhone to have on hand when I’m stuck at an airport.

Now, if a publisher wanted to partner with Kindle to load a reader up with their whole fall list, that would be a nice one-time purchase that incorporates both container and content, and eliminates at least some of the competition while the consumer works her way through it all. Kind of like Trent Reznor’s model. What is it? He makes the content available for donation, but also sells limited-edition merch that runs hundreds of dollars. While we’re figuring out whether consumers will pay $2.99 or $9.99 or nothing at all, let the consumer who is willing to drop a bundle do so.

SWB: Kind of like Scribner’s idea to sell a limited number of signed copies of Stephen King’s upcoming novel, Under the Dome, for $200 a pop. In addition to making up to $300,000 for the publisher and its author, Scribner publisher Susan Moldow says, “This is fighting back against the disappearance of the book as an object.” Unless it’s just a blatant cash grab.

PM: Right, and the book has to be a worthwhile object: well designed and laid out, printed on good paper in a nice font, etc. Houses that don’t put a lot of thought into their book design should really start to consider why anyone would want to sink money into something that isn’t more worthwhile on an aesthetic level than the electronic version. Concerns about fetishizing the book as an object are totally stupid – there was some backlash against McSweeney’s for this at one point, and they do run the risk of being precious sometimes, but at least they’re trying stuff, having fun with what books can be.

This, to me, is the main disadvantage of the e-reader or iPod: the artwork in digital format doesn’t really cut it. When I was a kid, I loved (and, to be honest, still love now) the tactile experience of something like a Graeme Base or pop-up book – imagine pop-ups on a computer screen? No fun. Without resorting to gimmickry, the physical experience of a book has to be something that publishers pay attention to. I mean, as you say, if they actually care about books, and not just sales.

JW: There are two streams of publishing: culture and commerce. ECW is a good publisher model for producing cheap and cheerful pop culture titles that sell well in an effort to support smaller-run first novels and authors, etc. Perhaps this is applicable to a new model of publishing in which only some of your titles go to print. If poetry, for instance, is already a niche market, why not truly invest in its container as a thing of beauty and ask the hard question, does this “other” book really need to exist on paper?

MM: Yikes! I find the idea of physically publishing some books while relegating “others” to online-only status troublesome. Do that, and you risk ghettoizing the whole digital universe; it suddenly becomes a place for lesser writers – those that don’t deserve the paper (they’re not) printed on. It reminds me of what I was talking about in journalism, where stories that appeared only online were seen as less important.

Maybe I’m overreacting. What you need to do is cut the number of books published. I look at the catalogue for a press like Gaspereau or Coach House and think, yes, this is manageable; while I won’t read all the books they publish, I could. I look at the catalogues, plural, from the major houses and recoil in horror. Books and books and more books. Making those extra titles digital-only, as Julie seems to suggest, doesn’t fix the fact that there are still too many. When I eventually get a Kindle – okay, if – I don’t want it to be like my iPod, filled with tens of thousands of songs I never listen to.

PM: Totally agree with Mark here. The beauty of electronic publishing is that it has the potential to broaden the accessibility of books, not create more divisions.

SWB: I’ve always argued that most Canadian publishers would be twice as far ahead if they published half as much. If you’re pumping out 20 or 30 books a season, there’s no way you’re going to be able to give the necessary publicity or marketing attention to all of them, so some titles are doomed to be lost in the shuffle even before they hit bookstore shelves. This may be an advantage of moving to an online environment, but there’s a lot of competitive noise online, too, and it’s not self-evident to me that the digital cream will rise to the top the way most advocates claim it will.

MM: Of course the cream won’t rise to the top. Look at what we read and watch online. Monkeys and kittens and other cute animals. An industry-wide move to e-books will help the Stephen Kings and John Grishams of the world, but I’m not so sure about quieter books. I fear they’ll get lost in cyberspace. (Does anyone even use that word anymore?)

JW: “Yikes! I find the idea of physically publishing some books while relegating ‘others’ to online-only status troublesome.” The author would have to be on board. That’s a matter for negotiation. And I totally agree that there’s too much out there. But not all authors have the dream of ending up in physical pages. I’m certain there are more than a few out there who would choose digital domination over possible pulping. We have to start with them. They are the original creators, after all.

PM: Re: Cyberspace. I’m pretty sure we’re onto reclaiming “Information Superhighway.” Take back the night!

Seen Reading goes national

May 14, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Julie Wilson, online content manager at House of Anansi Press and the brains behind the popular literary site Seen Reading, is expanding her blog’s focus to encompass the entire country. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past two-and-a-half years, Seen Reading is a locus for what Wilson calls “literary voyeurism.” Wilson makes a note of what she sees people reading on her travels, goes to a bookstore and copies a passage from the book, then creates a short imaginative piece based on the book and her impression of the individual reading it. For her troubles, she and her site have appeared everywhere from the CBC to the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail, and elsewhere.

Until now, Seen Reading has been pretty much a one-woman affair. Last year, Wilson instituted a “Readers Reading” section on her site, featuring podcasts of readers (including Rebecca Rosenblum, Mariko Tamaki, and Stacey May Fowles) reading short passages from some of their favourite books. But for the most part, the site has spotlighted readers Wilson noticed on her travels around her home city of Toronto.

Not anymore. Beginning this Victoria Day, Monday, May 18, Seen Reading is expanding its focus to include the entire country, from the East Coast to the West. Wilson has enlisted the help of three writers from different parts of Canada to provide installments for the site each week. The new national format will begin on Monday, with a post by Nova Scotia’s Ami McKay, author of The Birth House. Other new contributors to the site include Montreal’s Saleema Nawaz, author of the story collection Mother Superior, and Vancouver’s Monique Trottier, who runs Boxcar Marketing, an Internet consultancy firm.

Wilson initiated the idea of bringing other bloggers from around the country on board a few months ago:

It had been over two-and-a-half years of collecting sightings and responding to them, and I was unsure of the next step. I confided in Monique who, remarkably, offered to take care of Seen Reading if I wanted a break. Through Twitter, I had learned that Ami and Saleema were both supporters of the site. I simply took the plunge. I admire each of them as writers and their sense of community within the publishing industry. I had the utmost faith that they would be kind to the project, while offering a new perspective from different parts of the country.

The feeling of admiration is clearly mutual. McKay says that she’s been a fan of Seen Reading “from the start,” and was “thrilled” to be asked to participate. “I plan on bringing a quirky, curious, rural sensibility to my posts,” McKay says. “My sightings will largely be based in the day-to-day of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley: pee-wee baseball practices, doctor’s offices, small-town coffee shops, and grocery store parking lots.”

For her part, Trottier says that she has long admired Seen Reading. “The structured format was fun and flexible and as a fellow blogger I wished that I’d thought of something similar.” And Nawaz admits to a similar strain of blogger envy where Seen Reading was concerned: “Just about every weekday on my way to work, I’d notice somebody reading something fantastic and I would be thrown back into the same wishful reverie of a Montreal Seen Reading.” Nawaz wants to bring Montrealers’ love of reading out into the open: “Montreal readers are keen and passionate. I can’t wait to find out more about them. I’ll be the one on the back of the bus, in the park, in the café, furiously scribbling notes while trying to look invisible.”

Wilson herself plans to continue posting from Toronto, but says that she envisions a time when her role begins to resemble that of an acquisitions editor. “There’s no reason why Seen Reading couldn’t evolve into a true community,” she says. “It will take a larger team, and funds, but the possibilities are exciting.”

In the short term, Wilson plans a three-pronged approach to publicize the new, expanded Seen Reading. She is soliciting the assistance of litbloggers and booksellers to help get the word out, and has partnered with McNally Robinson in Toronto to give away two books per month on Twitter. “People are asked to submit 10 words to describe themselves. Using that biographical information, two winners a month will be picked to have their book needs met by Book Madam,” an alter ego Wilson created for the Twitter venture.

Secondly, Wilson wants to mount a charity event with an evening of readings by authors whose books have been “seen.” The proceeds would go to support a national literacy program.

And finally, Wilson is relying on word of mouth, through blogs (McKay’s Incidental Pieces, Trottier’s So Misguided, and Nawaz’s Metaphysical Conceit), as well as social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In, to reach out to the online community. Calling this “connector publicity,” Trottier expects that the contributors’ various Web-based networks will form the “first line of promotion” for the beefed-up Seen Reading. “It’s very exciting to see how quickly interest in the project has surfaced.”

This focus on Web-based marketing is entirely appropriate for Seen Reading, of course, and each of the contributors to the site is a passionate advocate for the Internet’s potential to spur interest in, and discussion of, books. Says McKay:

Without a doubt, there’s a literary community out there [online] that is just as valid and valuable as the writing in publications such as The New York Review of Books or The Times Literary Supplement. Universal access is part of what makes the ‘Net such a brilliant place for sharing ideas. It makes room for conversation rather than striving to be the last word. I guess I’d say to the critics that I believe our words and our creative selves are like nature, they thrive on diversity.

Nawaz agrees, saying that “writers, readers, and publishers are generally delighted with the way the Internet can expand and enhance traditional coverage, as well as the opportunity it offers for bringing books to a wider audience.” And Trottier points to declining book coverage in traditional print media versus the volume of online coverage, which continues to grow. “Depending on whose numbers you cite,” she says, “60-80% of offline purchase decisions are made after online research or recommendations. In my mind, this signals a huge opportunity for literary blogs to reach an audience interested in books and reading.”

Wilson also points out the creative side of Seen Reading, and emphasizes its function as a repository of what could be termed “flash fiction”:

Seen Reading has most often been discussed as a project that notes reading habits, and less as an archive of creative writing. By bringing in more perspectives, and certainly authors such as Ami and Saleema, my hope is that the site will begin to function more visibly as a publisher, and that contributors will be viewed more apparently as writers.

THIS POST CONTAINS MATERIAL THAT HAS BEEN CORRECTED. Julie Wilson is no longer a publicist at House of Anansi, as was originally posted. Her current position is online content manager. TSR regrets the error.