Coteau’s Nik Burton on the Future of Books


Nik Burton answered TWR’s questions by email on April 7.

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 think that ebooks will have a smaller impact on literary publications than on the obvious trade books with bigger-name authors and larger audiences. In other words, even though literary publishers will be paying lip service to the ebook factor to varying degrees depending on their available resources, the actual sales return on this investment will be quite small for quite some time. The biggest concern for us in this area, frankly, is the extent to which institutional markets — libraries and schools — move their acquisition budgets to electronic resources.

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

Despite all the hot talk about no printing or inventory costs, it is actually an expensive process on the file-preparation, file-maintenance and digital rights management sides, to get into the ebook market. The sheer labour costs to proof all those files to make sure that nothing has been lost in the conversion is a pain. And yet the expectations of lower prices for ebooks have nothing to do with these costs, and put enormous downward pressure on the price of books. This will result in dedicated ebook publishers needing an even greater volume of sales to make any money on these slimmer-margin copies. A lot more mid-list authors are, in fact, likely to find themselves out in the cold because of the ebook phenomenon. Part of our role as literary publishers may well have to be to keep a tight grip on our mandate and our vision of what we’re in existence to accomplish, in the face of a small, or large, wave of manuscripts that would formerly have been very tempting for us to publish, but which may now sell about the same as the short story and poetry collections that we have been producing as literary publishers.

3)  What do you think the value of a conventional book is in terms of a collaborative process between editors, publishers, designers, printers, marketers, and retailers? How do you think that collaboration will change in the era of ebooks?

I really don’t see the conventional book as a collaborative process between all those players you mention. Literary books are primarily a collaborative process between the author and the editor. The rest of the elements you mention — designers, printers, marketers, and retailers — are essentially contracted services to deliver the book to its reading public. There are, obviously, books which require much more of a design contribution to the finished package. These aren’t usually published by literary presses (although they are increasingly published by Coteau). Still, that’s as far as it goes. Except for the difficulties still being faced in delivering a design-heavy publication to the ebook market, I don’t see this collaborative matrix changing significantly in the ebook universe.

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 or the short story 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 definitely think that there will be new forms of literature generated by the delivery mechanism of ebooks. Some have already started to appear. Will they be meaningful changes? Who knows. Will they be durable, will people be revering some ebook-inspired literary creation in a thousand years, the way we continue to revere book books today? Who knows.

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

Paper books likely won’t change. There are paper books coming out now that won’t appear in paper any more — MST (medical, science, technical) sector for sure — but paper books will carry on. There is a chance that the boutique publisher of small runs of superbly crafted books-as-art-objects (hello Gaspereau) will flourish, but any significant change in paper books will be a generational thing if it happens at all. In other words, it will be a post-boomer phenomenon.

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Nik Burton

Nik Burton is managing editor at Coteau Books in Regina.