Nerys Parry on the Future of Books


Nerys Parry answered our questions by email on April 18.

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 ebooks on literary publishing in the near term?

I asked my husband, a hands-on kiwi-bloke who reads two novels a year at most, what he thought e-books would do to our capital-L Literature, and he surprised me by giving me one of the few literary references of our marriage:  “If there had been ebooks way back when,” he said, “there would be no Great Gatsby.”  He was referring, he explained, to Gatsby’s infamous book collection–all those important works up the man kept on his nouveau-riche mansion’s bookshelves to impress others. They were for show only, since everyone knew by the untorn pages that he hadn’t read a word of them.  In an e-world, there would be no bookcase, and no way of knowing what Gatsby read or did not read.

Besides, were Gatsby alive today (and he probably is, somewhere on the Jersey Shore), he could have downloaded all those Homers, Virgil’s, Proust’s and Aristotle’s, for free with the purchase of an e-reader—any pretension to owning a classic is long-gone.  But the question remains:  would he have ever finally gotten around to reading those books he’d so long collected, now that they were so easily obtained? Maybe one day while he was stuck in an airport alone with nothing but his i-pad for company?  And if he did, if he really didn’t succumb and download the latest Dan Brown, but instead persevered through the Greats during those long waits in airport terminals and between coffee breaks, would doing so have changed him, or anything else for that matter, in the end?

What I’m trying to get at is this: I believe it’ll always be harder to sell literary fiction than popular fiction, whether it’s on paper or on screen.   Literary content is meant to be challenging, and unfortunately not everyone, (certainly not the Gatsby’s of this world), wants to be challenged, at least in that way.  So making a book easier to download is not necessarily going to get the public “slicing” the pages of more literary books, at least in the short-term.  And, by the same token, I don’t believe that people who love literature will stop buying Giller-prize winning novels just because Dan Brown’s e-book is one click away.

Still, as the technology becomes more widely accessible and ebooks, for sheer convenience, become more acceptable and popular, literary publishing will have to adapt as it has always had to adapt to the advent of new technologies and products: the penny presses, the harlequin romances, book bannings, Chapters and other big-box stores. In the short-term, the challenge will be to determine how best to use the new form, in a literary sense, whether the technology can enable publishers to better sell literary works, and reach out to more readers, or whether the small literary presses can best serve their market by offering what an ebook will never be able offer–a more distinctive, tactile, unique product, an “art” book.

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

The buzz word of the moment, and I keep hearing it everywhere, is ‘the story’. I don’t know where exactly it’s come from, or if it’s infiltrated other industries besides the bureaucracy, but here in Ottawa, not a week goes by when someone doesn’t turn to me and say, “but how are we going to tell the story?” (and it’s always ‘the’ story and not ‘a’ story).   This story could be about anything, a shortfall in the budget or a nuclear meltdown, but in the end people are really asking the same thing: how are we going to explain how we got in this situation, and what are we going to do to get out of it?

That’s always how I’ve seen the writer’s role: as a storyteller, and I don’t see that role being drastically changed in this electronic age, except that, if anything, it appears to be becoming more important as we daily have to absorb more and more information.  There appears to be a universal human desire to try to explain the world we are living in, to try to make sense of all the bits and bobs we’re bombarded with on a daily basis, be it the You Tube sensation of ‘talking babies’ or Princess Kate’s likeness appearing on a jelly bean only a few months before her wedding.  The more factoids that hit us on a daily basis, the more we want to understand what they mean, and I believe this desire, which is so intrinsic in who we are as people, won’t change or disappear just because the stories we create are increasingly housed in computers instead of books.  In fact, in my recent experience, my role as a writer is being sought out in areas I never would have thought would have been on interest before, in the sciences and technical fields, in ways I wouldn’t have anticipated a decade ago.

That said, I do think the role of the writer in the public imagination is changing.  This is an age of connection; gone are the days of writerly recluses.  Now more and more readers are expecting authors to be available to their audiences in one way or another.  Through websites and other social media, readers want to hear how writers write and why they write. They want the recipes referenced in the book, family photos, and blog postings they can respond to and dialogue with.  The writer, along with other artists and office workers and stay-at-home moms, is expected to be more connected, and more personal.

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

I feel like a Luddite, but must confess that outside of a few half-hearted button-pressings on the sample Kobos at Chapters, I haven’t really read anything on an e-reader.  I guess I have a hard time believing it could possibly bring me the joy I find in regular books.  Like Simon, the main character in my novel, I have an intense passion for books. I love the texture of their covers and the smells the emit, of cracking glue and spilt tea, as well as the little bits of life they so often hold—receipts and grocery lists, pressed four-leaf clovers and folded-up pamphlets advertising school recitals.  A book to me, particularly an older one that has passed through many hands and many lives, is a physical manifestation of the story that has been allowed to grow and change as readers earmark certain pages, underline specific phrases, scribble obscure commentary in the margins, and slap ex-Libras book plates in the front, claiming ownership, or at least participation, in making that particular story come alive in their own generation or life.  It is this connection, not only with the author through his or her words, but also to the publisher and other readers, that I will miss.  That, and the ability to take a book with me into the bath.  Until someone makes a fully waterproof Kobo, I don’t think I’ll give up fully on paper books just yet.

Still, much as I would love to, I don’t spend my life in the bath, and that cute little e-reader (no heavier than a paperback!  And you can chose your own cover!), is very, very tempting.

The truth is that I prepare for a two-month trip to Australasia with my family, I have been eyeing the latest Kobo with a little more than casual interest. I feel guilty admitting this, as though by conceding my attraction to the e-reader, I’m cheating on the love of my life (and maybe I am), but it’s the convenience, really.

I remember when I was a junior engineer, and was always on the road.  My bag of books was often heavier than my tool box, and even so, there were a few terrifying times when I was left stranded without a good read in small-town Alberta with only AM talk-back radio for entertainment.  That’s scarred me, I suppose, and already, before I’ve even booked the flights or confirmed the dates for my upcoming trip, I’m drafting the list of books I need to bring with me—and it is way too heavy. That’s where a Kobo, and a spare set of batteries, could tempt even a die-hard book lover like me to abandon my favourites to their safe haven at home while I head into the outback.  I only hope they’ll still take me back when I return.

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?

I happen to have plucked an old paperback copy of McLuhan’s book from a garage sale a few years ago, with full intentions of reading it cover to cover.  Unfortunately, like Gatsby, my purchase turned out to be more pretension than interest and I never got past the introduction.

Still, I feel that as writing and language cannot help but change to meet the needs of its time, neither can the literary forms.  In fact, I feel we as writers have an obligation to do so.  We’re not writing for the long dead, those Victorians with all their hot-house orchid obsessions, but for readers living now, overeducated and maybe slightly overweight, who have spent the majority of their lives in front of screens and are used to instant satisfaction, limitless search capabilities, broad bandwidths and global connectivity. How can our novels and plays and poetry not change because of that?

As for adding video and music, I say bring it on. I say create cookbooks that release the smell of baking bread, and fabric books with textured pages to demonstrate different weaves.  Whatever can be done, should be done, if only for the fun of the form. Some might complain that providing media content will simply stop the reader from imagining on their own, but I think that’s short-selling both the creativity of the reader and the book creators.  Used properly, music and video could add additional layers of meaning, expand on the Leif motif in the text, even bring the reader deeper.

These words we writers use are just one in many tools people use to communicate.  If we can expand our weaponry, as it were, to include other means of telling a story, and it means we can still accomplish the magic, then why not?

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

I imagine that as ebooks become more common, paper books will have to work harder to compete.  This could lead to a renaissance in the book binding art, and we may see more beautiful and visionary books, ones that can’t be easily translated to the black and white of your standard e-reader, like the “1000 Journal” project I recently picked up at Value Village, or the beautiful Parks Canada photo book that came out this year.

Paper books, at least distinguished ones, will have to be more creative, and offer what ebooks cannot–texture, weight, beauty of scale and form.  Unique shapes, added functionality, vivid imagery, scent, the luxury of heavy paper—all this could be put back into our paper books. Perhaps I am an eternal optimist but while ebooks may herald the death of the Penguin paperback, they could also call into being a whole new era of the paper book as art. Or not. This is only what I imagine, and hope.  As a lover of books, I cannot envision a world without them in some form or another.

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Nerys Parry

Nerys Parry’s first novel, Man and Other Natural Disasters, will be published in fall 2011 by Enfield & Wizenty. She lives in Ottawa with her family.