Alison Calder on the Future of Books


Alison Calder answered our questions by email on April 18.

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?

As a poet, my first response is “what is this ‘selling product’ of which you speak?”  Since there’s no money in poetry, at least not in mine, I may not have the same concerns as a novelist who hopes for a lucrative contract.  But if life gets more difficult for Canadian small presses, who publish the majority of poetry books in Canada, then obviously there will be a trickle-down effect for poets as well.  On the other hand, electronic publishing could solve a bunch of distribution problems.  Poetry tends not to travel:  books often stay in the regions in which they’re published.  If they’re available on-line, that could really improve accessibility.  Of course, a potential audience would have to know the book is there in the first place.

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

I think the increasing number of ebooks and ezines might allow more innovative ways of writing and publishing.  Right now I think ebooks and ezines are mainly replicating paper publishing, without really looking at the ways the medium might allow alternative book structures, for example.  So I don’t think going electronic would necessarily be a bad thing.

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

No, I’m not a gadget person.  But, my husband loves his.

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?

I think that at some level yes, the book or genre is changed by the presentation of it in e-form.  One could also argue that the book/genre is always changing depending on reading conditions:  the novel changed when it was possible to serialize it in newspapers.  The fact that people read books in transit (on planes, in buses, and so on) has possibly changed the form as well – or, at least changed the reader’s experience of certain forms.  People are already writing novels, poems, stories and so on via Twitter–so yes, it presents new options.

Books are already always being framed by marketing–particular blurbs, particular cover art, publication in a particular series, whether the author is beloved by particular talk show hosts and so on–so the idea that there is some “pure” content that is accessible via a standard paper book is, I think, a bit naive.

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

One of the presses that I’ve worked with, JackPine, specializes in limited-edition, artist-designed chapbooks.  I can’t see that sort of thing changing because there, the book is the point:  it’s a beautiful object, and that’s what people sign up for.  I think artist’s books will always be around, and that e-publishing may allow for some different kinds of art.

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Alison Calder

Alison Calder is the author of Wolf Tree (Coteau), which won the 2008 Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry. She teaches Canadian literature and creative writing at the University of Manitoba.