Thomas Trofimuk on the Future of Books


Thomas Trofimuk responded to TWR‘s questions on April 27, by email.

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 best answer is: I don’t know. But I do have some ideas. Some say ebooks will save the literary publishing industry. Others see an end-of-days scenario. I think there’s a lot of confusion and speculation going on in, and around, the publishing industry. There’s a lot of talk about shifting business models and so on. But the publishing industry has always had a business model that’s wonky. The idea of a book business is in many ways oxymoronic. If a book doesn’t make money in the first six months, it’s a failure. A couple bad reviews and that’s it, it’s a flop. But some books take time to catch on. Sometimes they have to be found, discovered organically. They go “viral” in their own sweet time.

One pitfall of the ebook form is the assumption that anybody can publish a book. Self-publishing has never been easier! It’s awesome!! Except, it’s not. Having just judged a literary competition in which almost half of the submitted books were in fact self-published, I am a firm believer in gate-keepers. I want publishers and editors and agents to gate-keep for me. I want the gate-keepers. There are too many great books that I don’t have time to read and now we’re adding self-published ebooks? God help us! Not one of those self-published books I read (AHHH!) was good enough to make it to a top-ten long list. It was painful to read them. They needed editing, and some of them needed to be rejected outright. But you asked about the impact of ebooks on literary publishing. Well, if there was a business model before, it’s going to shift. Or at least, shuffle over and make room for a new player. I don’t think paper books are going away. But I also think there’s room for a new player.

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

What is my role as writer? Teller of stories? Does this mean being a spinner of lies and mysteries? Someone who shines a light on the human condition through narrative? Someone who titillates, entertains, educates, with words? If these half-definitions are true, then my role as writer is unaffected by this shift. An e-reader is not a book. It’s a tool. A book is paper and ink. A book transcends technology. I open a book to page one and begin to read. Paper and ink is still the superior medium. It requires no power to read. It is not a computer screen. It is not electronic paper. It can be archived. I have books that are over one hundred years old. I doubt I will be reading my Kindle in ten years, let alone a hundred. My Kindle will be dead and gone in ten years. That hardback copy of In the Skin of the Lion will still be around in fifty years.

Bottom line? My role will not change. Great stories and wonderful narratives will continue to be written, and it’s the really good stories that will find homes – electronic or otherwise. I really don’t care how you read my books – just so long as you’re reading them, and I’m getting a fair cut from the sale of my book.

Something that is circling in the back of my mind is the trend toward human beings having shorter and shorter attention spans. Fewer and fewer people actually stop and sit and think about things – about anything! Do I break my stories up into smaller packages – chapters? Do I write smaller books? Is there an ever-greater need to create narratives that will draw readers in immediately? Perhaps the answer to all these questions is yes.

I hope authors have the option in coming years to opt out of e-publishing – to stipulate that their books are only published as actual books. That would make me very happy.

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

Yes. I have a Kindle. My Kindle is not a book. My first impression is that an ebook is not a book (see above). I thought I would be annoyed by the fact I could not see where I was in the book. If I open up a real book to page 77, I can see and feel the 76 pages prior to the one I’m on and I can see the remaining block of pages that will get me to the end on page 456. There is a past, and a present and a future, and I can touch these things. Not so with ebooks. So I thought I was going to be irritated by this. Not so. I was aware of this missing element but it didn’t really get in the way. However, I was annoyed that it wasn’t easy to flip back a couple pages and scan for a section I might want to re-read, or re-visit. At the end of the day, the good stories stuck with me. The great characters stuck with me. The crappy books were still crappy. No amount of technology will solve bad writing or sloppy story-telling.

Listen, here’s something kind of interesting I found by reading on my Kindle: an ebook is actually a highly disposable form of “book.” I don’t know if this disposable element of ebooks is something the publishing industry wants at the fore. Unlike true books, an ebook does not have a second life in used book stores, or loaned to a friend. It does not have a physical presence on a shelf. It’s disposable.

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 new delivery media, including e-readers, iPhones etc.? What about the impact of so-called enhanced books that include video and music?

If the medium is the message, then this does not bode well for print books. Because the medium is temporary and disposable. But, I think the novel, and the short story and the poem will adapt. These methods of story-telling are constantly evolving and shifting.

Enhanced ebooks? Video and music? Really? Again, this is stepping away from what a book is. While embedded videos and music would be cool – it would be farther away from the experience of “book.” Just as television is removed from radio, enhanced ebooks would be removed from books. Each enhancement – while admittedly cool – removes an opportunity for imagination. Each so-called enhancement makes it easier to be “asleep” while sort-of-reading. One of the things I have always loved about books is that you have to be awake when you read. You have to bring your mind, and imagination, and you come at it from a quiet, sometimes contemplative place. But you must be awake. I imagine the scene, as suggested by the author. I either imagine music, or I get off my lazy ass, walk across the room and I play what I think is appropriate music.

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

Perhaps initial print runs will be smaller. The hardback book may go the way the way of the dodo – or become a boutiqued and beautiful hand-crafted work of art. And ultimately, these boutique books will be more expensive.

I don’t see paper books going away any time soon. Paper is still the preferred way to archive. It lasts. It prevails against the changing technologies. There is a beautiful simplicity to a paper book. There’s a tactile relationship with the paper and heft of the book, and even the smell of the book.

One Comment

  1. Terence Harding
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    I think Trofimuk has a good handle on the future of books both electronic and paper. Odds are there will be those who prefer a paper book just as there are those who prefer black and white film photography to digital photography. But in the end, anything that gets one’s work in the hands of a reader is of value to the writer. Writers don’t write so they can create “books” per se, they write to be read. I suspect how someone reads their works is of little concern.

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Thomas Trofimuk

Thomas Trofimuk’s last novel, Waiting For Columbus, has been published in numerous countries and was nominated for the 2011 IMPAC Dublin literary award. He lives in Edmonton.