Stephen Henighan 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!

3) Do you use or have you tried using an e-reader? What is your impression of them?

I have no interest in reading on a screen. If I receive an email that’s longer than a couple of paragraphs, I print it out. I sometimes glance at some of my favourite newspapers online, but even here I’m skimming more than I do when I hold the newspaper in my hand.  There seems to be an element of conspicuous consumption in the purchase of e-readers.   I’m aware of  numerous people who have bought e-readers, but the only person of my generation I’m acquainted with who actually uses his device is an administrator at the university where I teach, a rather fusty man who makes a great show of being up to date. He tries to demonstrate this by downloading his administrative files onto his e-reader and scanning them over lunch in the cafeteria. His use of an e-reader is seen by others as a pretentious habit, and a cause for merriment. This activity hardly counts as literary or pleasure reading. Even among my students, who are in their late teens and early twenties, users of e-readers are scarce and tend to be guys who like computer games and take advantage of their e-readers to get access to large quantities of sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels more cheaply than they could in a bookstore.  I may be utterly mistaken. It’s possible that ten years from now nobody will read a physical book. But I think that what is happening is far more complicated and fragmented than a quick flip from one mode of reading to another.

4)  How do you think the McLuhanism that equates medium with message will apply to ebooks? That is, will artistic forms such as the novel, the short story, and the poem actually change because of the new delivery media, including e-readers, iPhones etc.? What about the impact of so-called enhanced books that include video and music?

Ah, the elephant in the closet! This is the key to the future: we are heading into an era defined by what I call Divergence. This is a reverse thrust on what media people in the late 1990s dubbed  Convergence: the idea that your newspaper, your TV station, your radio station, your books, etc., would all soon be one. Over the last decade, we’ve seen that Convergence is a fitful process that faces severe obstacles to its complete implementation.  Divergence will see different literary cultures develop online and on paper. The divergence in delivery formats makes this virtually inevitable, just as the 17th-century pamphlet produced by a local printer, the three-volume Victorian novel and the 200-page mass-market paperback murder mystery of the 1960s were bred by their respective delivery formats.

Online literary culture will be informal and dominated by punchy brevity. The blogger’s polemical rant, the Facebook post and the tweet, are merging before our eyes into a fast-moving, hyper-linked new form of opinionated, ironic, self-centred self-expression that mingles fiction and non-fiction, narrative and information. We don’t have a single name for this form yet, but we will soon. In this online environment, the barrier between “published” and “unpublished” writers will vanish (as it is already vanishing) and no one will expect to be paid when the content they create is read on-screen or streamed through an iPhone, or whatever the next trendy gadget may be.  No doubt some book writers will try to cannibalize the language generated by electronic literary culture, just as novels, in particular, have always cannibalized language from other spheres of life, but in the medium term,  print literary culture may in fact distinguish itself from the electronic rabble by reinforcing its use of traditional forms such as the novel, the short story and the poem. Readers who prefer the online world will become consumers of ebooks that include hyper-linked videos and graphics.  In this way, e-books will not only fragment the book market; they will also fracture internally into different types of e-books: with or without hyper-links, with or without videos.

Since 1914, as new audiences have been brought into the literate world, we have seen the perpetual and increasing fragmentation of the literary market. Modernism, for example, was one of the first reactions to  mass access to literacy: an attempt to create a tier of literature that would not be accessible to every halfwit who learned to read.   New technologies and, as the school systems on those continents improve,   the incorporation of huge, diverse new readerships in Asia and Africa–where, in countries as different as the Philippines, India, Singapore, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, literacy usually means literacy in English–will accelerate this diversification of material, literary language and delivery formats, with a concomitant fragmentation of artistic forms and readerships.

5) In what ways will paper books change in the next few years because of ebooks?

Here, too, we live under the sign of fragmentation. I foresee two contradictory responses to ebooks. The first is the generalized adoption of print-on-demand as the preferred production mode of, at least, literary publishers. In the current financial environment, small presses cannot continue to print 1,500 copies of a book, sell 400 or 500 (after returns) in the first year, then pay to warehouse 1000 copies of a book that might sell between 10 and 50 copies a year for ten or fifteen years.  No other solution works as well as print-on-demand. With my last short story collection, A Grave in the Air, the publisher was worried about massive returns, particularly from Chapters-Indigo,  and for this reason decided to reduce the print run to 500 copies–one-third the initial print-run of my previous book with the same publisher–then bring out an ebook.  This wasn’t very satisfactory because it curtailed the impulse to promote the physical book. When good reviews came out, or when I was invited to give readings or attend festivals, there weren’t enough copies of the book available to meet demand. I gave readings at which there were no books to sign.  On the other hand, nobody has bought the ebook. The result is that the best book of my career has had the fewest readers of any of my books. Print-on-demand might have provided a partial solution. The technology has improved dramatically, and POD books can be produced and shipped at least as quickly, if not more so, than pre-printed books.  In a sense, of course, POD books are ebooks; they are saved and preserved as ebooks and printed when demand arises. They represent the ebook becoming the primary form and the physical book becoming a spin-off.  But this doesn’t mean that they won’t play an important part in the survival of physical books.

The other tendency that I think is bound to become more salient is what the marketing people call product differentiation.  Printed books will appeal to their market niche by advertising their unique qualities, their artisan-like workmanship.  This will take both high culture and low culture forms. We will see hand-sewn signatures, woodcuts  and zephyr laid paper;  we will also see garish paperbacks with embossed lettering on the covers. No individual kind of book will disappear, yet the market for each–even, eventually, for the mainstream text-only ebook–will shrink as forms diversify.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan is the author of six books of fiction, most recently A Grave in the Air (Thistledown, 2007), and four books of non-fiction, including A Report on the Afterlife of Culture (Biblioasis, 2008). He has translated novels from Portuguese and Romanian, and is a contributor to Geist, The Walrus and The Times Literary Supplement.