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!

TSR smackdown: Steven W. Beattie vs. Pasha Malla, Part two

July 20, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

tyson_wideweb__470x364,0This is part two of TSR’s coversation with Pasha Malla about the culture of literary readings. Part one can be found here.

PM: Have you had experiences at readings when hearing a writer you like read has been disappointing? Has the text ever been ruined for you?

SWB: Oh, sure, you copped to the Peter Carey thing, so now you’re putting me on the hot seat. I get it.

I’m not sure that I’ve had an experience where a text has been ruined for me, but I have sat through many readings in which the author never once looks up and recites the text in a kind of robotic monotone. Those are particularly painful. By and large, I find the younger the author, the more comfortable he or she is in front of a crowd. That’s a huge generalization, of course, but it’s true more often than not. I think this may have something to do with the fact that younger authors today have grown up in a culture of celebrity and attention, where fewer people are reticent to expose themselves in front of strangers (think Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., to say nothing of American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance.) I remember reading about Graham Greene, who couldn’t fathom why on earth he’d want to meet his readers, let alone interact with them. These days, of course, it’s expected.

But to get back to your original question: while there haven’t been any authors I admire who poison their work for me by reading it aloud, I have been surprised by authors when I encounter them in the flesh at readings. I once heard Joyce Carol Oates read from her novel Zombie, which is a fictional account of a serial killer, told in the first person, and loosely based on Jeffrey Dahlmer. When I read the book, I found it terrifying, muscular, and slashing. Then this tiny woman ascends to the stage, with huge glasses that make her eyes stand out like an owl’s, and begins reading in a thick New Joisey accent (she pronounced “zombie” to rhyme with “Bambi”). To say I was startled would be an understatement. But, I can still read that book and feel the same frisson I did the first time, so the disconnect was clearly not sufficient to turn me off the writing.

Then there are those times when an author’s idiosyncratic delivery actually augments the material. On the new Criterion release of John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, there’s a rare audio track of O’Connor reading her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Hearing that story in O’Connor’s heavy Georgia accent gives the writing a cadence that it doesn’t necessarily have in a reader’s mind, even despite the fact that her writing was so steeped in the rhythms of the Southern dialect.

PM: I totally have to watch that movie! I love Wise Blood (the book) so much. And I do want to add that I still really like Peter Carey: I understand that touring can be exhausting, so having a go-to bit makes it that much easier.

I think that the expectation for writers also to be performers can be unfair. It seems counterintuitive to a career based in solitude and the much more contemplative, private practice of typing, thinking, editing, retyping. I know a lot of writers who loathe the idea of getting up in front of strangers and performing; if they wanted to do that, they reason, they would have been actors – or maybe politicians.

How integral are readings, really, to a writer’s success? I mean, if you’re not particularly good at them, isn’t it likely more helpful not to do them at all? Maybe, in our “increasingly wired age,” or whatever people are calling it, the mandatory public performance will start to phase out, or at least become more of an option, rather than an obligation.

Here’s (what I hope is) a relevant example: recently I went to see a band that’s benefited almost exclusively from huge Internet hype. They went from basically one guy recording a bunch of stuff in his bedroom to, thanks to a bunch of glowing Web reviews and blog posts, indie rock’s Next Big Thing. Now, the record is actually pretty solid, and I think actually does live up to the hype. But their live show, at least when I saw them, was horrible: sloppy, amateurish, boring.

In the past, bands used to have to tour small clubs and gain a following that way; these guys had generated interest from Facebook and Twitter and their Myspace page, and had already MADE IT in a lot of people’s minds before anyone had ever seen them play live. That might sound critical, but I’ve realized that this is just another option for musicians, and maybe that’s okay. Why toil as a shitty live band when polished versions of your music are so easily accessible to anyone with broadband access? And, to get back to writing, maybe it’s possible that writers will be able to harness the Internet in a similar way, rather than having to go out on book tours or do the festival circuit or whatever, especially if that’s something they don’t feel comfortable doing and might even be detrimental to their careers.

This is not to say it’s something I want for myself. As I hope I’ve made clear, I love the face-to-face interaction of readings. But some writers don’t – and, as you point out, those are the folks who aren’t particularly captivating performers, and so their “live show” rarely gains new fans. It’s maybe nice to think that the web offers another alternative for writers to get noticed beyond reading out loud to strangers to get them to buy your books.

SWB: I find it interesting that you use the word “fans” to describe the people who attend readings. As part of her Twitter meltdown following a (slightly) negative review in the Boston Globe, Alice Hoffman snapped, “I don’t have fans, I have readers.” I’m fairly certain this is not an isolated attitude among writers, particularly writers of a certain age. Now, you’re a pretty affable guy, and you genuinely seem to enjoy mingling with your readership. But, do you think it should be incumbent upon writers to be expected to do this? I guess this touches on the cult of celebrity: to what extent do you think public appearances (readings, signings, etc.) have become a necessary part of the process for writers these days?

PM: Hey, whoa, I’d never call anyone who attends my readings “fans.” Ha! More like “people trying to have a quiet drink/browse a bookstore and unwittingly stumble on something disruptive.” Maybe that’s a little harsh …

Anyway, no, I don’t think writers have to engage with their readers at all. It’s just something I like doing, and has nothing to do with selling books. I gave a reading at the Toronto Public Library last year as part of the Luminato Festival, and there was an elderly guy in the audience who got up during the Q&A period and really laid into me – said I wrote about nothing, that I believed in nothing. I thought it was great. We chatted afterward and it turned out that he was a Dachau survivor, a Hungarian war orphan, a genuinely fascinating guy and definitely worth listening to – someone who’s lived it, you know? We exchanged e-mail addresses and maintain an ongoing correspondence, though that faltered some when he dismissed last year’s Greyhound bus beheading as a “psycho-homosexual quarrel.” Anyway, he’s definitely no one I would have had the chance to engage with had I stayed sequestered in my apartment with my laptop.

But that sort of experience definitely isn’t for everyone. I’m not really sure how the culture’s developed, either, to the point where authors are such public figures. I have to admit that my history on that is pretty shaky – I don’t know whether it’s a new phenomenon or something that’s always been part of the job. Though I would differentiate between the “cult of celebrity” that exists around someone like Philip Roth and a Canadian small-press author who does a reading at an independent bookstore in Guelph (I’m thinking of The Bookshelf, here: a truly awesome little spot). I suppose readings and touring and festival appearances are all part of the gig once you have a book out – that is, if your publisher has the funds to swing it and genuinely wants to push you.

I do think that authors are sold to the public as much their books are – and, again, I don’t know if that’s a more recent trend or not. But there’s an undoubted branding that happens at a bunch of levels. A number of people have told me that the Canadian version of The Withdrawal Method “looks like a Douglas Coupland book.” That floors me, that an author can be associated with (and monopolize) a certain visual aesthetic, especially when the covers of books are so much about marketing and sales. And I think the more known an author becomes, the more obvious this sort of branding is.

To deny that books are commodities is naive. But to start to feel like you, yourself, are becoming commodified – that’s pretty creepy. I certainly don’t exist at anywhere near the level of success and celebrity as Coupland (and I feel bad picking on him; he’s just one useful example), but any book – and, accordingly, its author – is advertised and sold to the public. I imagine that could be a disheartening process if a writer isn’t as fortunate as I’ve been to have a publisher and publicity team as conscientious and considerate as the good folks at Anansi. I’ve never once felt compromised, just allowed to be myself, and that’s been amazing, and a huge relief.

Feel like I’ve derailed the conversation somewhat. Sorry. Back to readings, right?

SWB: I don’t think you’ve derailed the conversation, actually, since readings are part of the way publishers “package” their authors, which I believe is a relatively new phenomenon. Not so much the “branding” of authors: that’s happened for a while. In the introduction to Different Seasons, for example, Stephen King talks about his publisher’s nervousness at the prospect of King being “typed” as a horror writer (something that didn’t bother King at all). But we have come to a point at which an author is expected to take a more active part the marketing of his or her book.

When I was working at Stoddart, we had this author’s questionnaire that we gave out to writers who signed with the house. One of the questions was, How do you perceive the author/publisher relationship? My favourite response to this question was: “I don’t know. I write the books and you sell them?” Which sounds like just a funny quip, but there was a time when that was precisely the relationship. While the house was busy selling an author’s book, the author was in his garret writing the next one. Now it’s expected that the author get out there and actively promote the book, by giving readings, going on the radio, appearing at in-store signings and book festivals, etc. Houses are no longer likely to sign authors who are averse to putting themselves in the spotlight, which, again, seems counterintuitive for a group of people who spend most of their time alone or operating on the periphery of society.

PM: Sure, exactly, and if I’d felt like little more than a marketing tool, having a book out and appearing in public to support it would have been a pretty awful experience. So that’s another reason why I’ve been trying to figure out a way to do readings a little differently: not letting them feel like infomercials for my book. My hope is that the expectation of writers isn’t to unquestioningly capitulate to – or, worse, actively participate in – the machine and mechanisms of the business end of things. Although, with that said, writers also shouldn’t piss off their publishers by being difficult and so staunchly anti-consumerist that they actually end up sabotaging their own book sales.

There’s just got to be a balance. Obviously you want people to buy (and, far more so, read!) your books. This is an industry like any other, and the people who work in publicity and marketing are invaluable to lucky folks like me who are able to write for a living. But, as per your example (and that’s a hilarious, awesome thing for someone to say), marketing should fall on those who work in sales. A writer’s job is to write; if you want to get out and do readings and chat with people, that should be a choice, not an obligation – and a choice based in something beyond moving units (unless moving units is your thing, in which case: god fucking help you). And not to repeat myself too much, though I do think it bears one more mention: in my estimation, a good publisher is one that affords its authors the agency to make these choices – ultimately, as cheesy as it sounds, “to be yourself,” something I’ve been very fortunate to experience with Anansi.

So what about the introvert author who loathes even the idea of interviews and readings? I’d return to what I said earlier about the role of technology: thanks to the Internet, there are other ways developing to get the word out about writers and books. If it takes off (as I genuinely think it will), this e-book stuff could be a huge boon to indie presses, as buzz and attention can now so easily be generated independent of major media outlets and other traditional, highly corporatized channels, such as prime real estate on chain bookstore tables. (There’s a whole discussion here about the possible re-democratization of public space, but this probably isn’t the right forum for that …)

So while I doubt that the public reading will ever die, I do think that these newer models for “selling authors” have the potential to create a more level playing field, both for smaller publishers and writers whose books (and more so, I hope, the books themselves) may not be so easily marketable, and still maintain the integrity and individuality of the people behind the work.

TSR smackdown: Steven W. Beattie vs. Pasha Malla, Part one

July 6, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

tyson_wideweb__470x364,0Yr. humble correspondent has recently been in contact with Pasha Malla, the author of the Trillium Prize-winning debut collection, The Withdrawal Method, who is currently serving as writer-in-residence at Berton House, in Dawson City, Yukon. Malla agreed to participate in an online discussion about literary readings for TSR. Part one of the resulting conversation appears below. Note that the participants in this online exchange may not be exactly as pictured.

SWB: The culture of literary readings is kind of strange: there are apparently grown adults who will pay money to hear authors read aloud from their work. I’ve heard some people suggest that the impulse behind this is embedded in the memory of being read to as children, but I’m not sure that I’d go quite that far. I think for many people, hearing an author read is a chance to get closer to the creator of a literary work, to see an author up close and personal, as it were. For me, if an author is a skilled reader, it’s interesting to hear how she interprets her own work: where she places the inflection in particular sentences, for example, which may be very different from where I would place the inflection while I’m reading. In certain cases, the experience can be revelatory. I remember reading a passage from Infinite Jest years ago, and thinking it was okay, nothing special. Then I heard David Foster Wallace read it aloud, and I was actually crying with laughter. It’s as though a light bulb went on in my brain and I thought, “Oh, now I get it.” I wonder what it’s like for you, on the other side of the podium? Are you conscious of performing your work for an audience that might or might not share your literary sensibility?

PM: Well, to begin with I’ll tell you a little story. A few years ago, on the way to the Ann Arbor Book Festival, I stopped in Windsor to visit a high school friend of mine, Joel. Joel’s a great guy, and we still get along really well, but as adults we’ve come to inhabit two very different worlds. He asked why I was going to Ann Arbor and I told him: for a reading. He didn’t understand what this meant, so I explained that I would be reading my stories in front of people. “Out loud?” Yes. “Why?” Obviously I didn’t really have an answer to this question, or at least one that made sense to either of us.

Here’s another story (somewhat unsubstantiated, though illustrative all the same). A friend of mine was telling me that he knows a Russian author who, back in the most oppressive days of the old USSR, found it impossible to publish his writing, which the state deemed subversive material. Even pamphlets he and his friends produced and attempted to circulate were confiscated and destroyed, and most of his literary circle had spent at least some time in prison. So the only way for him to disseminate his work was through public readings – and even then the KGB would often turn up afterward and kick the shit out of the writers. So obviously you can imagine the immediacy and necessity of reading your work aloud in that sort of climate, how empowering and significant it must have felt to even be in the audience under those circumstances.

So these are the extremes: total irrelevance and life-or-death urgency. Obviously as a writer/reader you’d like to be on the more urgent end of the spectrum; the problem is that, for me and writers of a similar demographic, there’s nothing really that urgent about reading for 15 minutes from a book that anyone can buy and read themselves. The writer’s life, financial struggles aside (and, that said, in Canada we’re incredibly lucky to have such a strong grant system), is a pretty cushy one; getting out in public and presenting your work is less political victory than marketing opportunity. I’m being facetious, and I’d like to think most writers don’t view readings this way, but it’s hard to argue that there’s much at stake for either writer or reader at, say, the IFOA, at least when you compare it to some grotty basement speakeasy in St. Petersburg being stormed by the KGB.

So my feeling is that it’s up to the writer to raise the stakes. I think your story about hearing DFW read from Infinite Jest is a good one, although that’s what you took from it, and while it definitely has something to do with how well he performed his work, it remains an entirely subjective experience. For me as a writer I feel like it’s on me to make my readings feel urgent – and that begins with feeling myself that what I’m doing is urgent.

SWB: Well, it’s urgent in the sense that it’s another mechanism for getting works of art in front of a public, and given the Harperites’ evident antipathy toward anything cultural, that is itself a political act. True, nobody’s shooting at you while you’re doing it and, unless you’re Ernst Zundel, you’re unlikely to get carted off to jail for reading your work in public. Still, in our current frosty political climate, there’s something almost subversive about standing up in public and declaiming, “I’m an artist: listen to me.”

Still, for publishers at least, readings do seem to tilt more toward marketing than toward art. The measure of how well the writer performs is in how many books get sold afterward. I know I’ve picked up books I otherwise would not have because I was engaged by the way an author read (again, the subjective, effective aspect of readings); similarly, I’ve passed over books because an unskilled reader has made them sound ponderous and plodding.

I don’t want to make it sound like writers are tantamount to trained seals in this context, but the entertainment aspect of a reading is clearly important. Many people avoid readings because they find them boring; this usually has to do with the way authors present their material. Your readings are quite lively, but there are other writers who seem to forget everything they’re supposed to know about tone and rhythm when they step onstage.

In one respect this is understandable: asking writers, who spend the majority of their time alone in a room, to get up in front of hundreds (okay, dozens) of people and be entertaining is contrary to their natures most of the time. Writers perform on the page; actors perform on the stage. They are two entirely different skill sets. As a writer, how do you overcome this apparent disconnect?

PM: I agree with you about the need to entertain, but the way I deal with the disconnect is to treat readings as something else entirely. Generally I’ve gotten a lot less interested in getting up and doing a straight reading from my book. As you point out, it can often feel like the writer is just up there trying to sell a product, and that makes me really uncomfortable. Obviously books are commodities, but I try (with due respect to the good folks at Anansi) to avoid being reminded of that aspect of what I do as much as possible.

What’s great about readings is that writing can be such a lonely enterprise, and it’s nice to be in the same room with, and witness the responses of, actual human beings – and, as you mention, that sort of experience has the potential to feel almost political. With that in mind, I interpret my role in that context – up in front of everyone, presenting creative work – as having the potential to enjoy and maybe even foster some sense of community, or at least intimacy and camaraderie. And that’s something I don’t think can be achieved reading from a published book, which feels a little too polished and as such sort of impenetrable. It becomes didactic, the writer talking at the audience; for me it’s more interesting to think of the whole thing more in terms of a conversation. That’s why I like reading new stuff, often first drafts, or telling off-the-cuff stories, asking the audience questions, making lame jokes, whatever. Essentially I want to seem like a human and not some performing automaton, which I hope facilitates a connection with the people in attendance. Ideally it creates an atmosphere of access and agency and everyone in the room is part of a collaborative experience.

So the danger with this is that there’s an expectation of readings that the writer should be entertaining people – get up there and put on a good show! – and with that is the expectation of a polished performance. I mean, you wouldn’t go to a play to see people flub their lines and miss cues and fall over on stage (or maybe you would, that could actually be kind of fun).

Anyway, if people do expect polish, my approach could be construed as narcissistic. But I really just want readings to have a sense of immediacy – not just for the reader, though that’s important, but for everyone there. To me getting up on stage with something that’s less than perfect – something that likely only exists on my hard-drive and in my hands – is more generous than a rehearsed recitation of the same published passage, again and again. I remember seeing Peter Carey do a reading in Toronto and then a couple days later in New York – he read the exact same bit, exactly the same way, gave the same preamble, and concluded with the same joke. Your experience of books is so individual, you want the author’s readings to feel the same way – and this just felt like a rip-off.

SWB: The other advantage of reading unpublished material, I suppose, is that the audience doesn’t come at it with any preconceptions. If they’ve read a particular book before, they may have an idea of how it should come across (i.e. the way it came across in their heads as they were reading). If the author strays from this preconception, it can be revelatory (à la DFW), or it can be disappointing. By premiering new material each time, this disappointment is mitigated.

There’s also a sense of an author working without a net by reading the first draft of something, which has the potential to work really well or to fall completely flat. At a reading in Vancouver, Bill Gaston read an early draft of “Freedom,” a story that later appeared in Gargoyles. I got the sense that he was testing the waters, so to speak – gauging how the material would go over with an audience. He told me later that he’s often surprised at what people laugh at (and what they don’t), and at what gets the biggest reaction, and this prompts him to think about the story in a different way. Do you ever experience anything similar when you read new material? (Assuming, of course, it’s stuff you intend to publish at some point.)

PM: Yeah, totally, that can be one experience of reading new stuff, and might have been one of the initial reasons I started doing it. But then that alone started to feel a little self-serving – treating the audience as a sounding-board. Maybe some people would be into it, but I don’t think I have anything even approaching “fans” who are dying for early looks at my stuff. So as I said, it’s more an attempt to break down some of the barriers between author and reader.

Sometimes you need to get away from the conventions of realism a little bit

June 22, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

The Afterword has posted the text of Pasha Malla’s Trillium Book Award acceptance speech, which is well worth reading, especially as it makes a point with which yr. humble correspondent could not agree more:

Lately I have been reading a book by Lawrence Weschler about the visual artist David Hockney. The title, fittingly enough, is True to Life. Hockney’s work is concerned with capturing human visual experience and accordingly addresses the failures of photography and photo-realism. People do not, after all, see in fixed-perspective snapshots and moments, but fluidly, over time. With this in mind, in the 1980s Hockney made a series of collages, inspired by cubism, meant to address not what we see, but how we see it. “Hockney’s collages,” writes Weschler, “are a record of human looking. It is exactly the point that an automatic machine could not possibly have generated them.”

For David Hockney, standard photography fails to capture human experience; if unimaginatively used, a camera is only an “automatic machine,” better to be tossed into the uncanny valley. And I agree: what we really need from art are not mechanistic reproductions of the real world, but more expressions of our experience upon it and how those experiences make us feel. And to do that, sometimes you need to get away from the conventions of realism a little bit.

Malla, Dodds win Trilliums

June 17, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

Last afternoon, at a luncheon at the Park Hyatt in downtown Toronto, the 22nd Annual Trillium Awards were handed out. Jeramy Dodds, the author of the debut collection Crabwise to the Hounds, won the Poetry Award, and Pasha Malla took home the Trillium Book Award for his debut, The Withdrawal Method. Malla’s acceptance speech was notable for using the new Pixar movie Up to illustrate why writers need not cleave to a naturalistic approach in their fiction, and for challenging journalists to come up with the correct spelling of the term “choked-uppedly” (which is how he described accepting the award).

Speaking about the books in the running for this year’s prizes, the National Post‘s Afterword blog quotes one of this year’s jurors, who sounds eminently sensible (and is probably knee-shakingly handsome to boot):

Juror Steven W. Beattie said he was struck by range of work coming out of Ontario. He was also encouraged to see the prizes go to two young writers – Dodds is 34, Malla is 31.

“You hear so much these days about the death of the book, and the fact that nobody’s reading anymore, and the fact that there’s nobody coming up to take over from the old guard of the Atwoods and the Ondaatjes, and I think that’s bollocks,” he said. “I think this award, and certainly the strength of the younger writers who were shortlisted for the award … is really hopeful and a good sign for writing both in Ontario and in Canada.”

The other two English-language jurors for the 2009 Trillium Awards were the estimable Emily Schultz and Meg Taylor.