Thistledown’s Allan Forrie on the Future of Books


Veteran literary publisher Allan Forrie of Thistledown Press answered our questions by email on April 14.

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?

The impact of ebooks in the near term is significant. But whether or not the new digital delivery systems are really building new reading cultures as some claim remains to be seen. Certainly the big players in the book publishing industry seems to think so as there has been several years of continuous pressure on all publishers to address digitization of their lists. For smaller literary publishers like Thistledown this can be a heavy burden as the development path of digital “products” has not been simple or cost-effective. We can see how such developments may serve us – for example, they likely allow us to reissue well-written backlist titles that didn’t have much exposure when they were initially released. This would allow us to develop an extensive list of “new” books that are ready for market and can now be delivered outside the restrictive traditional supply chain. But as said, the process is demanding and seems just as much geared to keep “tekkies” employed throughout the next decade as it does to offer publishers more sales.

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

Until format issues are resolved and the tablet readers become standardized, I think the publisher’s role will be to put out two programs each year: one in traditional print and the other in digital. For small publishers without dedicated tech staff this is going to cost them both time and money.

It’s a dangerous development time, but not without its share of dreams that ebooks will increase profitability and enhance small press survival.

3)  What do you think the value of a conventional book is in terms of a collaborative process between editors, publishers, designers, printers, marketers, and retailers? How do you think that collaboration will change in the era of ebooks?

The collaboration of writer, editor and publisher in producing a book will remain unchanged. The naive writer may occasionally become the publisher, but most writers do not want to do all the work that the publisher does. Essentially I cannot see the nature of the collaboration changing very much if the desire is to produce a quality book. Their roles may expand somewhat in the desire to produce enhanced “products,” but the essential work remains the same. In the examination of activities like  manufacturing, selling and distributing, not much will change here either. As for their set purposes it will be a matter of “different trucks – different drivers” but what they bring to market to sell will be much the same as their present counterparts.

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 or the short story 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 McLuhan’s thinking would apply more to how people who read are altered by the change from paper to tablet and to that end I think we have to wait to see if the ebook becomes as ubiquitous as the technology that spawned it. As for the evolution of genre forms, I believe that they are changing all the time anyway if the intent of the writing carries artistic genetics.  Whether or not the delivery systems morph dramatically to change, enhance, liberate or enrich the experience means less than the writing’s primal mandate. “In the beginning was the Word” carries as much weight on a scroll as it does in paperback as it does on a Kindle screen. Whether it is accompanied by a biography of the Apostle John, pictures of the King James Bible, or a sound sample of the National Lutheran Choir singing it, doesn’t change the fundamental purpose that sparks when a reader reads this line for the first time or rereads it for the twentieth. Modifying or amending reading formats does not alter primary purpose in this situation.

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

The traditional book will not change in the next few years other than the way information about it is prepared, collected, reported and used. This process of creating “informational data” will be primarily used for supply chain and sales reasons. It is also likely that as publishers grapple with the marketing possibilities of social media that they begin to work towards different marketing approaches for their authors and books. Although not a direct change in the book will occur, programs may change to accommodate marketing. I think the real publishing magic will be how intelligently ( and profitably)  publishers adapt and incorporate their traditional understanding of literary culture into their audience development schemes. Literary work may not easily translate into accessible literary taste as some of the digital prophets suggest.

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Allan Forrie

Allan Forrie is the publisher of Thistledown Press in Saskatoon.