Freehand’s Robyn Read on the Future of Books


Robyn Read of Freehand Books answered TWR‘s set of 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?

I think the phenomenon to which you’re referring when you state “Dan Brown and his ilk” is a name, an author’s name, existing successfully as a brand. The impact for us as a small publisher, without Dan Brown’s name on our products, is that we are not selling based on name alone; so, while first and foremost the impact of the entrance of ebooks onto the literary scene is that we have to consider producing them to stay competitive, as we are selling the individual literary integrity of each of our books the objective for us in ebook publishing is to ensure that literary integrity isn’t somehow compromised by the digital format—that we don’t rush a text into electronic form at the expense of its intended style or presentation. We’re developing our ebooks patiently, with designers, to ensure the production of our ebooks reflects the consideration we give to the production of their printed selves.

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

Our role, as a publisher, changes insofar as our books now have two saleable forms, print and electronic. The potential features for a given ebook (in terms of additional prefaces or afterwords, or eventually hyperlinks, audio, or visual material) certainly open new areas of discussion that enter our editorial board meetings when we consider a manuscript. However, my role as Acquisitions Editor has not changed in terms of what we are considering and soliciting in the first place: good, compelling Canadian literature.

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?

As a team, Sarah Ivany (our Managing Editor) and I work very closely and collaboratively throughout the production of a book, and then we both work closely with a designer (for example, Natalie Olsen of KissCut Design, who is designing our three fall titles). In terms of the “value” of producing a work of literature this way—by an imprint with a select list and a small staff—the collaborative dedication and multifaceted considerations a manuscript undergoes by caring and critical readers at every stage of production might be difficult to match when one can skip any of the current steps. We at Freehand happen to believe that the thoroughness of this collaborative labour of love is reflected in the overall quality of the published books we produce. In turn, I suppose, the “value” to the author lies in the dedicated attention and heartfelt enthusiasm their work receives on its way to market, and the “value” for us lies within this very rewarding experience itself.

That said, this is how we have tended to collaborate on all our books (in all forms) so far, and it has not so much to do with the printed form as it does our infrastructure as a publisher; we’re working hard to ensure that our ebooks are receiving the same benefits from this collaboration as the texts we sell in printed form. Our hope, for the time being, is that the actual and digital versions of the text look and feel as similar to one another as possible regardless of the medium. I say for the time being because the question of how this collaborative practice might change if we were to just produce a book as an ebook remains to be seen, and the possibilities that the electronic reading experience might hold within it—what it might legitimately add to the literary experience—have yet to be fully explored.

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?

In some ways they already have, as we’ve witnessed text message and Twitter writing contests. I hope the medium, at the very least, will spread the message: if the iPhone can seduce more people to read some of the exceptional short fiction published in this country, that would be great. But in addition to the equation of medium with message, there is the dialogue between old medium and new medium. With e-readers or the iBooks app, the screen having a paper matte appearance or its page being turned with the flick of your finger is a digital impersonation of the physical book, with a little bit of a tease—I look like you, but I can hold more content than you; you can change my font size; you can change the colour of my paper, at your whim.

But literature has its postmodern retaliations; where adding electronics to the printed book would be either a farce or a mess, we see a response in the content of contemporary, literary, “science” fiction that questions what might become of our advanced, faster, yet also fragile era: Darwin’s Bastards, edited by Zsuzsi Gartner, and Douglas Coupland’s Player One come to mind. We’re launching our own “apocalypse” novel right now with Michael Murphy’s A Description of the Blazing World.

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

I hope that paper books continue to change because they’re provocative, interesting paper books, not because their electronic versions are breathing down their necks. My favourite designers always catch me with a gorgeous book-as-art-object, to which I then have the pleasure of opening the cover and finding—well, of course, C.S. Richardson, he’s done it again.

We have to push ourselves as publishers of printed books because there is still value in this market, if not more value than ever, when finding quiet, peace, and a screen that does not flash or advertise before your eyes (note the new Kindle with a lowered price at the cost of ads to the reader) is such a rare thing. Where there may be advantages to how ebooks can change and develop, with links and features, I am hoping that while paper books are always changing—there is no template for the guaranteed bestseller; publishers are using more eco-friendly materials; and while you maybe should not judge a book by its cover, one needs to consider a book carefully before designing that cover—I hope that the good read we all long to hold in our hands, once there, can essentially stay put.

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Robyn Read

Robyn Read is acquiring editor for Calgary's Freehand Books.