Jonathan Ball on the Future of Books


Jonathan Ball wrote the following responses to TWR by email on April 12.

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 e-books on literary publishing in the near term?

The basic problem with ebooks is that they result from emulation technology. They act like paper books. To me, there is a place for this kind of emulative tech, but in essence it’s a fundamental misapplication. The publishing industry’s approach to digital technology is absurd in so many ways.

Imagine if, instead of creating television shows, all of the major networks just badly filmed Shakespeare plays (actual theatre performances) and dumped them on TV unedited—and then trumpeted this practice as the future of the industry. That’s what’s happening in literary publishing right now.

In the “near term” things will only get more laughable. They will focus on offering “value-added” content—it’s already happening in paper books, e.g., the Harper P.S. [Perennial Series], and it isn’t a bad idea on a basic level, but here again everyone will fall back on what they know, what seems “safe,” and what’s therefore the most boring, banal, pathetic possible approach.

Click the button to hear/see the author read the book! As if going out to attend literary events wasn’t painful enough, we’ll soon have to suffer through author readings in the privacy of our own homes. Or get to see a picture of the author’s cat—which served as the model for the cat in the story! It will want a cheeseburger, and have atrocious grammar.

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

When the dinosaurs weighing down the industry finally collapse under the weight of their own irrelevance, the writers and publishers who survive will be the ones who realize that it’s no longer the nineteenth century. That they can no longer write nineteenth-century novels, or poems about their gardens and the emotions they grow there.

What’s ironic about the poorly named genre of “literary fiction” is that James Joyce perfected it early in his publishing career, and then abandoned it as dead. But nobody else read his memo, and so most authors today write as if completely unaware of not only Joyce but the entire twentieth century (especially Kafka). These authors will have a hard time transitioning into the twenty-first.

As ebooks and ezines become more dominant, writers will have greater access to publishing venues and publishing itself will lose its cultural cache. Therefore, the writers who are successfully carving out strong, unique, unconventional works—the kind of work that has always travelled farther, has always been more “international” in its scope and ambition—will become more prominent. In most industries, innovators are influential and heeded, while in publishing innovators are marginalized and ignored. That situation is changing, and will continue to reverse.

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

I own a Sony eReader Touch and I love it for what it is: a useful, flawed technology that I can justify as a business expense. I can read the e-dition of my book Clockfire on it—and there’s nothing wrong with these kinds of e-ditions although I may seem to be coming down hard on them.

E-readers are perfect for casual reading, and for what you might call “work” reading (i.e., reference, non-fiction, technical, or academic books). I wish more academic books were available at decent price points for e-readers—some critical books cost hundreds of dollars for a digital copy, it’s absurd. I’d love to have all my literary theory and other critical works, and reference works, in a single, slim device, especially since I have four offices—three university offices and a home office.

It’s even better than I expected for literary reading, as a replacement for cheap trade editions or as a testing ground before purchasing a collectible copy. I’m reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest on my e-reader—I actually sold my paper copy and bought the digital text because I couldn’t haul the damn thing around, it was over a thousand pages and just unwieldy, an ugly paperback too.

Basically, e-readers are good replacements for “disposable” books. Books you wouldn’t want to keep because they are not beautiful objects, and you either read and dispose of, or read and keep when you should just dispose of them but you have some psychological block preventing you from doing so. They are good and necessary replacements for books it’s hard to justify killing trees to produce.

4)  How do you think the McLuhanism that equates medium with message will apply to e-books? 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?

This is where we move away from the “near term” of your first question into “long term” predictions that are harder to make. As I said before, the so-called “enhanced” books I like to call “ruined” books. The idea that you would ruin a book by letting me see the author’s cat in a video as I read Fluffy vs. The Mysterious Ghostie is the level of thinking that the industry hasn’t even risen to yet.

What’s more relevant here is perhaps the McLuhanism that I alluded to above, the notion that new media forms, in their infancy, take the content of old media. When e-books “grow up” they will stop doing this, or rather, they will both remain as emulative digital copies AND split off to develop into their own art form, essentially becoming a new medium as different from print books as is television.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, but when we use the word “book” we really mean “codex.” A “book” in the proper sense is not a delivery medium but a conceptual notion, and only has a historical relationship to print media, not a necessary relationship. A book might take the form of a DVD, or app, or print hardcover, or ebook, or whatever—it might even include various items, as Clive Holden’s “book” Trains of Winnipeg consists of a website, a series of 14 short films, a printed collection of poetry, and a CD. Those items, collectively, can be meaningfully considered a single “book”—as can Christian Bök’s Xenotext project, which is a single poem in a microbe, but also arguably a complete “book.”

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

Any smart publisher will endeavour to establish and develop a difference between its paper and digital books. Right now publishers want you to see ebooks as exactly like paper books—you read them on e-readers, but they’re the same ol’ books! This is precisely the wrong approach. We should emphasize the difference between paper books and ebooks, in order to grow both media as different, though interrelated, industries.

Ebooks may remain emulative to essentially replace trade paperbacks, but at the same time should develop into their own medium, one which develops their potential, potential that goes to waste due to the current, exclusive, emulative approach. Meanwhile, paper books should become rarer, more beautiful, and more collectible. I’d like to see all books released as ebooks, and only a handful of those books—the best, most ingenious, most necessary—produced in alternate, treated, special editions, or at least well-constructed trade editions. Paper books as fetish objects.

The fact is that only people like me care about paper books. Most people don’t even understand the concept of having your own home library. Why should they? It’s an idea that belongs not to the subculture of print culture, but to a subculture within print culture. The future of Canadian publishing rests with companies akin to Coach House Books and Gaspereau Press and your own Enfield & Wizenty, all of these excellent presses doing a small amount of titles, with a definable or at least consistent editorial vision, producing well-crafted books.

Once such presses move more firmly into the ebook business, and develop it as a publishing stream connected to but distinct from print publishing, then we will finally begin to see the start of a vibrant, viable industry. Essentially, paper books will and should become a specialized imprint of a general program of publishing that is digital en masse, whose major players in cultural and I think eventually financial terms will be mid-range, independent publishers with definable identities.

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Jonathan Ball

Jonathan Ball, Ph.D., is the author of Ex Machina, Clockfire, and The Politics of Knives, which was recently shortlisted for a Manitoba book award. Visit him online at