Thursday, April 28, 2011

Stephen Henighan on the Future of Books

Over at the Winnipeg Review, Biblioasis author and Translation series Editor Stephen Henighan answers a few questions on the future of books:

Stephen Henighan responded by email early in April to a standard set of five questions that TWR has posed to more than a dozen Canadian writers.

1) We all know that Dan Brown and his ilk can sell product in any form, ebook, pbook or otherwise. But what do you think will be the impact of ebooks on literary publishing in the near term?

The evidence we have so far suggests that as soon as you switch from paper to screen the gap between the star writer and the midlist or literary writer is amplified. Jonathan Franzen may sell 500,000 hardcovers versus the 7,000 or so sold by a well-reviewed midlist US literary writer. In ebook form, though, Franzen will sell 40,000 and the literary writer will sell two or maybe five units. In paper Franzen outsells the midlister by a factor of 70, but in ebook form this writer is outsold by a factor of 10,000 to 20,000 and ceases to have any readership at all.

There are a number of reasons for this. One may be that the ebook readership, overall, is less literarily sophisticated than the print readership. This could be a function of the transitional stage we're going through where techies have been the first to buy electronic reading devices. In that case, the sanguine view would be that it's only growing pains and will work its way out of the system as everyone acquires these devices. I suspect, though, that the problem is deeper than this, and is related to the kind of category-restricted, non-tactile browsing one does on the web, which is far more limiting than the browsing one can do in a good bookstore. It's also quite difficult for smaller presses to publicize ebooks in a way that enables browsers to be drawn to them in cyberspace, so the ebook world becomes like the movie world: if it's not big-budget, you're probably not going to hear about it. If Heather Reisman is correct that by 2016, ebooks will be forty per cent of the market, then one should anticipate a very substantially reduced market for literary fiction, essays and poetry.

2) How will your role as a writer change as a result of the increasing adoption of ebooks and ezines?

I will make less money. I don't live from my writing, but I certainly appreciate--in a spiritual as much as a financial sense--being paid for what I write and publish. The combination of feeble ebook sales for non-star-level writers and artificially depressed e-book prices is very bad news for writers' incomes. There is a widespread misconception that publishers can afford to sell ebooks for $9.95 because they don't have to pay for paper and glue. The truth is that a large part of the $20 cover price of a softcover novel, or the $30+ price of a hardcover is spent on people: acquisition editors, copy-editors, publicists. The publisher gets a very meagre cut on an ebook, and passes on the hardship to the author.

By definition, the ebook emerges in an environment in which print sales for most writers are declining. As a writer, you get shafted from both sides: minimal sales and very low royalties on ebooks, and declining sales in print. In theory, five of my ten books are now available as ebooks, yet only one of them has generated any income. That was the princely sum of $52.00 a year for three years from a library consortium that made the ebook available to several hundred thousand students and professors. Obviously, I would have made more money if only 30 or 40 of those students each year had been obliged to buy the physical book for the courses they were taking. This selling of e-rights to consortia reinforces the free-for-all mentality that raises young readers to assume that "content" is generated without meaningful exertion and can be disseminated without cost. This is extremely evident if you publish articles in online journals, or journals that post their content online. Not only do people link to the article on Twitter or Facebook, which can be flattering, but other online journals feel no compunction about "reprinting" your article in their journals without the slightest thought of any compensation other than posting your website address at the end of the article. In the early days of my career, when my short stories or articles were reprinted, a second cheque was always in the mail; in the online environment, the writer misses out on that second cheque. And on a lot of other cheques, as well!

For the rest of the interview please go here.

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