TNQ’s Kim Jernigan on the Future of Books


Kim Jernigan, editor of The New Quarterly in Waterloo, ON, answered our standard questions early in April, by email.

1)  We all know that Dan Brown and his tribe can sell product in any form, ebook, pbook or other. But what do you think will be the impact of e-books and e-zines on literary publishing in the near term?

Well, I think most magazines and publishing houses will begin to offer digital editions, to give readers the option  and then watch which way the numbers go. There’s not been much rush to TNQ’s digital edition so far, but that may well change as e-readers get better. Reading is a private activity for the most part, and I’m not invested in which mode of delivery readers choose. What I do care about is literary culture, about keeping alive venues for serious fiction and poetry and essays.

Of course, when I say “serious” I don’t mean sober—some of the most serious work in these genres is playful, tells a good story, gives pleasure. But it is serious in that it takes the craft seriously, is respectful and inventive in its use of language and all the devices of narrative, strives for nuance and complexity of insight, or to delight in unexpected ways, tries to deepen our (and the writer’s) understanding of whatever its subject may be. I don’t see any reason why such work can’t be published electronically; my concern is whether readers can give work so published the sustained attention it sometimes requires. There’s so much jostling for our attention in the electronic media we become restless and impatient, easily distracted. I’m as guilty as anyone.

I’m also concerned about the economics of e-publishing, whether it can provide enough return to sustain a literary infrastructure. Everything is so freely available online, a virtue in terms of the dissemination of culture, but it means publishers have few ways of deriving revenue. The revenue that is produced goes mostly to those who manage the delivery of electronic culture (be it music, literature, the visual arts) less so to those who create it—though perhaps that’s been ever the complaint!

Still, by nature I resist the increasing (and homogenizing) pressure from funders to move publications online. The logic is that it’s more bang for the buck: digital magazines can access a potentially greater and more geographically diverse readership at less cost—and everything is quantifiable, something else funders like. But a “hit” is not (or not necessarily) the same as a reader. For writers there’s still a certain stature to print publication, to the fact that someone cares enough about their work to invest in ink, paper, postage.

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

For one, it’s become a lot more work. When TNQ was launched, we were only expected to produce a magazine. Now we’re expected to produce a magazine, maintain an interactive website , publish an electronic newsletter, keep up a blog, tweet! I’m run ragged by e-mail, have less and less time to devote to reading and evaluating manuscripts. And it’s not just a problem for editors: writers are increasingly called upon to promote their own work, though a terrific writer is not necessarily an effective marketer.

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

No, I’ve not, though I have friends, and even fellow editors, who are keen on them. I spend my whole day in front of a computer; it’s not how I want to read for pleasure, nor where I do my most effective, most concentrated reading.

I do love, though, how nothing is ever lost in the electronic age (at least until the technology changes!)—I can often turn up a loved and lost poem by entering a slip of a line, even one imperfectly remembered. But the flip side of that is the feeling of being overwhelmed. And manipulated—the more traffic to a site, the higher it goes in the google rankings, the more likely readers will find their way to it; it’s a reinforcing system, not always to the good.

I also have environmental concerns. Anyone who’s driven past a paper mill knows that it’s a smelly process, with many undesirable byproducts. But trees are a renewable resource, and books & magazines biodegrade. In contrast, electronic media consume a huge amount of energy (Google, I’ve read, is a bigger user of fossil fuels than the airlines) and computers are full of toxic, non-biodegradable components. And because the technology changes so rapidly, we tend to discard and upgrade long before the hardware has worn out. I’d be interested to see a study of the environmental as well as the economic impact of e-readers.

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

Robert Atwan, the general editor of Best American Essays, speaks interestingly to this in his foreword to the 2010 collection: “There can be no doubt that the Internet has dramatically changed the way we read. People want information delivered faster, in smaller chunks, and with more visual accompaniment; one needs only to examine the changes in student textbooks over the past decade to see the impact Web design has had on reading and learning, and once these print textbooks evolve into ebooks the opportunities for more embedded features will further alter reading skills—creating, I believe, learning patterns that will be less discursive and more discontinuous. In a few years American-literature students may be reading an enhanced e-version of The Great Gatsby, with background music from the early 1920s, colorful advertisements for the luxury cars of that era, photographs of mansions along Long Island Sound, clips from various film adaptations, appropriate multimedia links to the book’s historical background, and interactive responses from readers eager to exchange insights. The effect would be like reading a novel, enjoying a movie, watching a documentary, and entering a classroom at the same time. All in all, it would be a far different literary experience than opening the classic Scribner paperback and starting with ‘In my younger and more vulnerable years ….’”

The suggestion is that all this richness is also a distraction from the richness of the words and the imagined world they evoke—he attests earlier to his finally having learned to read, to read seriously, which meant to read slower, and to reread, the text absorbing his whole attention—none of which is encouraged by the sensory overload possible in an electronic forum. And yet he’s sanguine in the end about the future of literature, if not of books.

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

Our love for, indeed need of, stories has survived many transformations in the form of their delivery. Television didn’t lead to the demise of radio; a film will often fuel the sale of a book. I’m not someone who is comfortable with change, but I believe in the pendulum’s swing. There will be challenges to literary culture as we know it, but just as there’s been a turn back to old “technologies” in, say, the production, preparation, and preservation of food, I’ve seen the young people in my life, all computer savvy, learning of their own volition to operate a letterpress and hand bind books, listening to vinyl records, making their own instruments. What’s old is new again.

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Kim Jernigan

Kim Jernigan is editor of The New Quarterly, one of Canada's leading literary magazines.