Alan Cumyn on the Future of Books


Alan Cumyn responded by email to our questions in mid-April.

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

In the near term I am not sure ebooks will have much of an impact on most literary publishing. The majority of publishers will bring out an e-edition either at the same time or not too long after a print edition, and they will monitor the sales closely to see if the pie is expanding or if one edition eats the sales of another. It ought to be much cheaper to produce and distribute an ebook than a print edition, so if ebooks really take off then literary publishers will face enormous pressures to scale back or eliminate print editions. We might find the market segmenting significantly because of demographics or subject matter. It’s hard to beat the convenience of instant downloads, but the jury is still out for many people on the experience of e-reading vs. print, and people who read literary titles want, most of all, a worthwhile experience. Certainly for textbooks, scientific and academic work it looks like print is rapidly on the way out.

Writers and publishers are also paying close attention to the issue of piracy and file-sharing. What happened to the music industry is on everyone’s mind. Many consumers seem to expect that if they shell out hundreds of dollars for an e-reader or tablet then the books should magically be free. Of course copying and file sharing cuts out the creators; I don’t imagine many writers will be able to go on tour the way bands do now to make up for the lost revenues from music sales. And I don’t imagine many publishers will continue to bother to make e-editions if the work is simply going to be taken. The latest version of an updated Canadian copyright bill, C-32, which died on the order paper when the federal election was called, united writers’ and artists’ organizations across the country in their determination to make sure whatever new law we get protects fundamental copyright even for new technologies. That battle is in hiatus, but the issues are not yet resolved….

Another issue still to be determined is what a fair royalty split should be between publishers and writers for e-editions. Major publishers have played hardball so far and the industry seems to have settled for now on 25% of net proceeds going to writers. But some publishers give much more to their writers and if costs turn out to be fairly low then we can expect splits to be much fairer. For now everyone is watching. The Writers’ Union of Canada is advising its members signing contracts for e-books to retain the right to renegotiate in a few years when trends become much clearer.

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

Writers will remain the foundation of the industry; without original ideas, expressed well in text, there’s nothing for others to read. And ebooks and ezines will in no way make the act of writing well any easier. I don’t expect methods of working will change for most writers. There is, however, a strong pressure towards making things cheaper for the consumer: etitles usually cost less than print, many ezines are free and, for now at least, pay little or nothing to their writers. We could well be looking for a new model for how to get paid. In recent years even traditional print publishers have been minimizing royalty advances, cutting back on editorial input, and requiring writers to do a lot more of their own publicity, especially online. If costs are coming down and more writers have to hire their own editors anyway and do their own publicity, then it’s not such a leap to becoming your own publisher. These are waters that will have to be navigated carefully. I believe that a good publisher still brings a great deal to the equation, and that the craft of writing requires a discipline and devotion that makes it difficult to also be constantly blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking and the like. Readers are demanding much more personal interaction with writers, and to a certain extent that’s great, but as a writer I would prefer most of my effort to go into creating the text so that the book itself remains my main avenue of interaction.

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

I used a Kobo for a while but that particular unit wasn’t working properly and I got frustrated. I now have a tablet computer which I use for marking up manuscripts – I love the stylus! – and for reading things I’d rather not print out. I have even bought some titles to test out the system, but mostly I’m still reading print books. I live within a couple of blocks of a great public library, and I can get my hands on many things fairly quickly. My writer friends seem to be split about e-readers: many swear by them now, but others have said they don’t read in the same deep way on screen and seem to get more pleasure from a printed page.

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?

We have already seen a great shift from the wordiness of the past: Dickens gave way to Hemingway long ago, sentences and paragraphs tend to be much shorter, dialogue is much more prominent and is getting more condensed, even in the movies. Reading habits and abilities are changing too: attention spans are shorter, leisure time is more limited and subject to more competition. So novels, short stories and poems will also continue to change to suit the changing audience. If people are reading on their iPhones, I suspect it will be shorter materials. The short story might make more of a mainstream comeback. Writers will of course try to take into account how their work will look on various screens, and no doubt some artists will experiment brilliantly with “enhanced” books. There is already a trend towards a corporate approach to writing, say, a series for young readers: as in TV, hiring a stable of writers, designers, marketers and others to not only create something potentially lucrative but to sell the life out of it, too. The more complex these projects become, of course, the more expensive and risky and, oddly enough, they will tend to be more artistically conservative. Witness Hollywood pouring millions and millions into what? Recreations of comic books and the like.

I do believe there will always be room for a lone writer to create a text from personal, individual vision, and that this will remain among the cheapest and most powerful ways stories and other texts will be created. TV brought many predictions about the death of radio, yet radio remains a vital and popular medium. Pure text, unenhanced, is a creative partnership between writer and reader that activates the reader’s imagination. When we read a really good book, we feel as if the story is “ours” in part because we have actively created it in our own heads, following the written words but also pulling up our own memories, associations, impressions, pictures, feelings. That’s a powerful dynamic, and that’s part of why a really good book almost always seems better than the movie version. When the reader feels like a co-creator, the experience is amplified.

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

I’m not sure. We will probably see fewer print titles, maybe smaller runs, fewer hard cover versions. We might also see a trend towards some more publishers celebrating the print book by bringing out more beautiful, and expensive, collector editions. Independent bookstores have weathered many storms in recent years, and the best of them have nurtured really strong customer loyalties. But if print sales nosedive then the large chains will suffer, and that will cause tremendous disruptions in the Canadian market for print books. This is an industry that already operates on thin margins….

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Alan Cumyn

Alan Cumyn is the award-winning author of ten novels including Burridge Unbound and The Secret Life of Owen Skye. A new YA novel, Tilt, will be published this fall by Groundwood. Alan Cumyn is chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada. Visit him online here.