Thursday, October 15, 2009

Transition to books as digital media?

Over my oats & coffee this morning, I read an article in the Walrus about the (imperiled) future of the publishing industry. Written by Noah Richler, it detailed the recent decline in book sales, and the increasingly reliance on bestsellers to fund the rest of the "long tail" of the publishing industry (the middle-of-the-pack authors whose books will probably not break even for their publishers).

The article discussed next steps for the industry. For a while, people hoped that the internet would help spread a wider net -- that readers, having access to so much more than they would at Chapters -- would start buying up publisher's backlists. Maybe they'd buy the first work by an author whose second work had been short-listed for the Giller. Or maybe word-of-mouth would lead them to try out a middle-of-the-packer they'd never heard of before.

Instead, it seems the opposite has happened.

Richler posits that the people who buy bestsellers buy them to join a conversation. They want to be have impromptu book club chats over dinner with colleagues or family members -- get in on the ground floor when Oprah offers up platitudes. So the internet's not exactly gonna spur them in the directions that the rest of us bookgeeks were hoping for.

So. What next? Digital book readers? We'd eschew the process of shipping lovely middle-of-the-pack books to massive retailers only to have them shipped back for destruction; this'd save heaps of pulp & paper. We'd fork over fistfuls of cash to the electronics companies making the readers, and then we'd be able to download books like people download music on iTunes.

Now comes the part where I'm supposed to offer an opinion, I think, but I'm a bit baffled.

I've lovingly made zines for years, distributing them at cost. The artists' collective I was a part of in Guelph never made any money. Extra earnings covered later losses, the tides of running shows and putting on festivals. Here's the catch: we all had day jobs. Some more interesting, some better paying than others, but all day jobs.

I love the feel of paper, too. I'm a tactile person -- aren't we all? Isn't there something to be said about feeling the book as you read it?

That said, I don't want to be a curmudgeon at the age of 25. And, funnily enough, I'd llooooovvve to be one of those middle-of-the-pack authors. The view seems great from down here.

Thoughts? I'm still digesting this breakfast. I don't have any tidy conclusions quite yet.

I did start thinking about how we'd discussed the possibility of digitizing our anthology. I did start wondering about where we saw it going. I am so invested in creating something that is nice to look at and nice to handle and functions like a piece of art. There is a large part of me that'd rather have 200 people find space on their bookshelves for our lovely linen-covered anthology, than have 800 people read three lines from six different pieces after accessing our anthology online. Hmmm....


  1. I totally want to be middle-of-the-pack.

    Are the two things -- anthology as physical objet d'art and digital compendium -- mutually exclusive? Can we not have both? We in the general sense, not specifically as far as this class. I like free online literary and artistic content but I'm not dragging it to bed with me like I would an anthology. But I like the idea of exploring new venues and interfaces and respecting the change in North American culture (well, world culture in general, but to be specific). There doesn't have to be a war. I'm tactile but I like pretty in either form.

    I'm not sure that books are ever going to go away. People like objects, we like to hold things and show off things and share things. But digital media and venues for publication need to be explored in concert with traditional methods (zines are great, for example! I was thinking of making zines out of postcard story night results) to maybe bring a greater audience? Done correctly the two streams can feed off each other quite nicely. New business models need to grow.

    Re: day jobs. Artists have always needed day jobs. Regardless of the changing market I don't think the need is actually new by any stretch, as you say. Arts funding is getting cut and we're living in conservative times--which is a challenge, it's always been a challenge, for us to create even better, more transgressive, aggressive, powerful works. While being waiters and library clerks and working in offices and hating, hating, hating our day jobs.

    People are often prone to flailing about the Death of Print, etc. It's hard to see the end result of a shift like this until afterward.

    That Unconference on the Future of Print Media is tomorrow at SFU Harbour Centre, by the way. Chris, Melissa and I are all going -- I expect we'll be putting up reports on the blog over the weekend.

    Wow, that was terribly unformed as a comment. Blah.

  2. Hi Ben,

    I think you're right about both things: the fact that print & online formats don't need to be mutually exclusive, and the fact that people will always be flailing about the death of print.

    I think, though, that publishing industry trends are saying something more about the progression of culture in North America. The article said that 20% of books used to support the production of the other 80%; now we're looking at 10% of books supporting the publication of the other 90%. I think that says something about the homogenization of culture. -- I think it's really, really interesting that things like the availability of information on the internet and the broadening of choices on television are not making people diversify their cultural choices.

    You can see it in language, too. Over time, television has smoothed our accents and dialects in Canada & in the States.

    I can rationalize my way through being a curmudgeon and flailing about the death of print, but I find the idea of the great cultural homogenization a bit more difficult to manage.

    I'm interested to hear more about the Unconference!!

  3. Is there really a vast cultural homogenization, though? I thought we were moving in the direction of greater and greater niche-life (although, with all those niche things being killed by arts budget cuts...)...

    That was way too much ellipsis.

    Two comments that came up at the Unconference (which I'll post about in a minute) that seem relevant is that the niche of physical books (specifically, the example was hand-bound ones) is becoming *more* of a thing now (and consequently the issue becomes "How do we accentuate the 'bookness' of this book?") because we *want* physical objects that are special and artistic, BUT ON THE OTHER SIDE, the other comment was that the idea of being a "tactile/physical book person" might not be a relevant statement to make in, say, twenty years. Someone stated that a lot of the discussions about eBooks not being as satisfying a reading experience are predicated on eBook readers as they are now, not taking into consideration that there will eventually be a "sexy object" move starting with later generations of the tech. A physical object person might not have the same experience when suddenly books are antiquated and expensive, or when eBooks are seamlessly attractive and elegant as reading experiences, which is always a possibility as design and technology advance.

    Which is not to say that I don't prefer to read from books, but it was an interesting point.

    Anyway! Unconference!