Richard Cumyn on the Future of Books


Richard Cumyn sent the following response to TWR‘s questions on April 12, by email.

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?

The accessibility of the electronic medium could be a real boon to literary publishing. Unless you subscribe to print journals these days, it’s not easy to find them, and when you do, the cost of a single issue rivals that of a new paperback. I don’t think the core readership–writers, poets and those who want to be published–is apt to grow remarkably with the shift to e-reading, but with the right marketing, and cooperation with book publishers and other periodicals, literary magazines could reach a significantly larger general audience than they do now. Take present costs (paper, printing, shipping, storage), shift even a fraction of that money to online promotion, and the result should be financially revitalizing.

Will the quality of the work remain the same, if it becomes easier to publish a magazine? That will depend on editors, in their role as gatekeepers. Literary quality shouldn’t diminish, unless we stop caring about standards. When I was fiction editor at The Antigonish Review I turned away many stories that I wish I’d had the room to accommodate. Fledgling voices previously silenced by early rejection could find this medium much more nurturing. Nurturing of their creativity and confidence, that is; the number of periodicals that actually pay writers doesn’t appear to be  increasing. And too much encouragement too early might not be the best way to produce a tough, resilient writer, the type who can survive in a world increasingly hostile towards artists and intellectuals.

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

I don’t see myself writing differently, but I suspect I’ll be asked to play a greater role in selling the book or the magazine. Writers are expected to be more available to readers than before, as part of that ancillary function served by blogs and Tweets. As Steven Heighton and Guy Gavriel Kay said in a recent interview with Shelagh Rogers, the more time we spend being available online, the less time we have to write. And not simply to put any old words down but write well, in that state akin to daydreaming from which new work of artistic value arises. It takes a lot of uninterrupted time and the right space to achieve that.

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

I’ve tried two types. I found myself becoming distracted by all the other functions and possibilities of the iPad (which is nevertheless a versatile and attractive device). My daughter and her husband are fans of the Kobo, for its simplicity and portability. If and when I get an e-reader, I think I’ll go with something dedicated to text only. I’ll never stop loving print, the well-made, hand-sewn, sturdy-paper book. I just ordered a Modern Library edition of one of James Salter’s story collections, in large part because I find the binding and overall design of the hardcover so pleasing to look at and hold.

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 newdelivery media, including e-readers, iPhones etc.? What about the impact ofso-called enhanced books that include video and music?

I think it has already had an impact on form and style. Writing has to be shorter, punchier and more direct, with simpler vocabulary and structure, in order to engage and hold the attention of a reader who is one click away from YouTube. Text has to compete with video, a powerfully seductive medium, and it may be losing the battle for mass attention. Reading, for all its considerable rewards, takes work; watching and listening take only the energy required to keep one’s eyes and ears open. But writers won’t disappear. The appetite for dramatized story is voracious. We’ll always need creators of narrative to feed that limitless stomach. Story (and verse) direct-to-tube, then, bypassing text, seems to be the future. Audiobooks will continue to be popular. But text is receding as a means of dramatic presentation. Text (aside from the cryptic telegraphy of personal communication), the full-sentence, complete-paragraph variety I grew up consuming and working to emulate, will become exclusive and specialized, like the architect’s blueprint or the programmer’s code.

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

I see numbers of new, mass-produced trade-paper books falling dramatically. Used bookstores will flourish. Print-on-demand publishers will thrive for a while, until we wean ourselves off trade paper. Artisanal, handmade books will grow in popularity, as a reaction to the flattening effect, the perceived sameness of ebooks. Book-binding workshops will join stained-glass and scrapbook-making in popularity. The print book as an enduring artifact, a physical work of art, will continue to be made, lovingly, one at a time to be collected and cherished.

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Richard Cumyn

Richard Cumyn will publish his ninth book of short fiction, The Sign for Migrant Soul, with Enfield & Wizenty in the spring of 2018. He writes from Edmonton.