Maisonneuve’s Drew Nelles on the Future of Zines


Drew Nelles of Maisonneuve answered our questions by email on April 13.

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 and e-zines on literary publishing in the near term?

In the very near term, I think the impact of e-readers on literary publishing will be minimal. There are a few reasons for this. First, in Canada, the grant system means that small magazines, literary journals and presses are slower to innovate; there’s simply less pressure to adapt to market forces. I’m not knocking the grant system, at all—Maisonneuve and other publications depend on that support, and grants are an important way to support Canadian arts and letters—but it does mean that there’s less incentive for magazines and publishers to experiment with new forms. Second, there is a certain culture of print fetishism in literary publishing. We love physical things; we love the tactility of the book or magazine. E-readers are totally inferior in that respect.

In the long term, however, I don’t doubt that e-readers will have a much larger impact on literary publishing. Eventually, as e-readers and digital publications become something closer to the new norm, small presses and magazines will simply have to adapt. They’ll just do it much later than the big guys, the same way established small publications were slower to innovate online in the first place. (There are lots of innovative online start-up magazines that are way ahead of the curve right now, but that’s because they didn’t have to shake off any established operational culture.)

Last year I actually wrote an article on essentially this topic that’s here on the Maisonneuve site. In it, I argued that the recent history of the music industry provides a telling model for publishing. Even as mp3s have destroyed CDs because digital files are more convenient, vinyl albums are selling in record numbers. In my mind, this proves that neither the digital futurists nor the Luddites are right. Competing technologies that offer similar products but different experiences have always coexisted; there are advantages and disadvantages to both mp3s and vinyl, so why not use both? I think the same thing will prove true for the publishing industry. Plenty of people who love books also love the entire experience of reading: the feeling of the pages, the smell, the beauty of the book’s design. But there’s no denying the convenience of an e-reader. So, just as a music lover might own both an iPod and a turntable, why can’t a book lover own both a filled-to-the-brim bookshelf and an iPad?

2)  How will your role as an editor and literary magazine change as a result of the increasing adoption of ebooks and ezines?

Eventually, Maisonneuve will have to develop a proper digital edition in addition to our website and print product. I’m looking forward to doing that, but we’re not there yet. We’re a small magazine, and there certainly hasn’t been any outcry from our readers to create a tablet edition already. Also, once e-readers become more and more popular, maybe we’ll stop receiving mountains of books from review-hungry publishers, which will probably make the trees happy.

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

I’ve played around with an iPad. For me, it was interesting to see how the major US magazines were creating iPad-specific versions, and there’s no denying that Wired looks kind of cool in tablet form. There’s no way I’d buy one of those things, though. I came very late to the iPod, and I’ll probably be the same with tablets.

4) How do you think the McLuhanism that equates medium with message will apply to ebooks and ezines? 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 they probably will change, though I’m not entirely sure how. Some critics have argued that the Internet and blog culture changed the primary form of pop music from the album to the individual song. I’m interested to see whether something similar happens with short stories. We generally consider the short story the stunted, less-worthy cousin of the novel, but we forget that the novel has been literature’s dominant form for a relatively brief period of history. The growth of online-only literary journals is testament to how new technologies can revitalize less-popular formats. Maybe, in a few decades, old folks will complain about how kids these days have no attention span, because they only read short stories instead of novels.

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

See my answer above.

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Drew Nelles

Drew Nelles is editor-in-chief of Maisonneuve magazine in Montreal.