August C. Bourré -- writer, editor (Vestige, The Wooden Fish)
CBT: When I started this interview series it was already clear that publishing -- especially of literary fiction -- was in dire straits. At that time, one explanation that was fashionable was 9/11 was the reason people weren't reading as much literature (or as much anything) as they used to. Now we are living in a time when the long-term repercussions of 9/11 are still with us. But using 9/11 as a primary explanation for what ails literary publishing simply doesn't work. For one thing, we are now in the midst of a particularly serious recession, and for another, it is clear the general decline in reading is a widespread -- and possibly unstoppable -- phenomenon that has roots which go back decades.
What is your take on the current depressed state of literary publishing? Is it a passing phase? Or is it an intractable problem -- in other words, it is the new normal? And if the latter, what can be done to counteract it?
AB: I honestly hope that it's a passing phase, but I very much doubt that it is. There are so many factors involved in how the industry got into its current state -- a lot of which I'm no doubt not even aware of, since I've largely stayed isolated from the business end of things, my background being academic -- that it may be impossible to fix it without just burning it to the ground and starting over. (I'd rather that not happen, but if wishes were horses, etc.) If the last few months are any indication, market forces may be doing that for us.
Guy Gavriel Kay wrote a great essay for Queen's Quarterly back in 2001 ("Privacy and the Ethics of Literature", 108.1, Spring Issue) about the ethical dilemmas involved in what we've come to call "appropriation of voice". His central argument, if I recall it correctly, is actually quite relevant to this discussion, or at least part of it is. He suggests that because we've let mainstream media get away from its role as a place for serious, moderated, and most importantly, heavily scrutinized (by editors and other professionals) information and art, and let it become instead a place for short-term cash grabs, with celebrity gossip on CNN and countless hours of voyeuristic reality programming on nearly every channel, we've become a society of entitlement. A remarkable crassness and selfishness has entered our cultural consciousness. That's not to say that those elements weren't always there; of course they were. But they were, if nothing else, things that helped us set limits, things that we were properly ashamed of when we took them too far, when they took control over us instead of being tools with appropriate circumstances for application. That's not so anymore; we want everything, and are ashamed of nothing. Reading, and literature in particular, has in my opinion always been, as Harold Bloom said in How to Read and Why, "the search for a difficult pleasure" (p. 29). But with our beefed-up sense of entitlement, we no longer see that sort of thing as a challenge or an adventure. It's just another thing that stands between us and our demands, our requirement for instant and total gratification. If I had a dollar for every time I've seen someone I know justify horrible attitudes and behaviours with the words "I want" or "I'm bored", I'd never have to work again. It's that sort of thing that allows people like Judith Regan to not only have careers in publishing, but to rise to positions of power and authority. If nothing else, we've proven, as an industry, that we're capable, and even willing, to behave as poorly as the vicious sons of bitches who demolished the housing and money markets for short term gains. The stakes just aren't as high for us. It may bring in more money in the short term, but flooding the market with celebrity trash, barely-edited thrillers, and ghost-written novels under the names of long-dead "franchise" authors, and then ignoring the literary efforts of nearly anyone not named Atwood, Ondaatje, Updike, or Roth, can't be healthy.
Of course that's just one factor. While the industry seems to have embraced crass commercialism (massive corporate consolidation doesn't help) with a vengeance, it's been stupid about new technologies. Publishers, for the most part, ignored the lessons they could have learned from other industries (from the music and movie industries in particular, and even the web design and development industries), and ignored the opportunity to develop intelligent, reasonable standards for digital formatting, distribution, and pricing. Instead they stuck their heads in the sand and behaved like the notorious luddites they're reputed to be, and only acted when they finally felt backed into a corner by pressure from Amazon and tech-savvy independent authors and houses. The resulting over-priced mess of conflicting hardware, encoding formats, and DRM (here's a hint: the lesson you should have learned from music and film is that DRM does nothing but piss off your customers) will take us years and a tonne of cash to sort out, and in the meantime will cause no end of headaches for publishers, distributors, and readers alike. Melville House in the US and House of Anansi here in Canada both seem to be doing a good job of balancing quality, commercial viability, and traditional publishing with digital distribution and promotion, though I don't think either of them have figured it out entirely. Coach House Books seems to be pulling it off too.
Can anything be done to counteract those things? I think so, but it's not going to be one single thing. Publishers (by which I mostly mean large, corporate houses) need to take a good, long hard look at how their acquisition, promotion, and distribution systems work, and why they've made the choices they have. Long-term strategies need to be developed and implemented for dealing with the new technological end of the market, and their over-reliance on a stable of aging "blockbuster" authors needs to be adjusted to properly develop new and interesting voices. I think the biggest thing that will need to be done is to change attitudes: what we need is a healthy industry, and healthy doesn't necessarily mean "making as much money as possible right now", it means being supple, making reasonable profits in an environment with a long-term plan for stability so that there's room to explore new opportunities when they present themselves (ie. don't be so focused on short term profits that you ignore new developments until they run over you like a cement truck).
I haven't said much about book sellers, but I thought the next question was more appropriate for that.
To be honest, thinking about some of these things gives me a bit of a headache, and I'm not sure that I have the necessary background to give my opinions any real validity. I'm very much just an industry outsider who would rather be a participant. The problem with that, is that it makes me look maybe a bit too hard at the thing I want to be involved with, and I sometimes think that I lose perspective. It's one of the reasons I stick to writing about individual books on vestige.org.
CBT: How much potential do you think the Internet has as a vehicle of publishing? It's clear that there is a place for online criticism; the lit-blogosphere is dominated by it. The blogger Dan Green has even coined a phrase for this form of critical writing: the crit-blogosphere. But the crit-blogosphere's logical partner -- the fic-blogosphere -- is marginalized. Not many people read short stories or novels online.
Will the Internet really become the medium in which serious people both publish and read fiction? Or is this a technological pipe-dream, and is it more a question of using the Internet as an effective means to sell and distribute printed books?
AB: My first response was very Bill Clinton-esque. I wanted to say "yes, and no", and "it depends on what you mean by 'effective'". The Internet is a big place with a great many aspects. When we say "the Internet" like this, it's most often a shorthand for "World Wide Web". But "the Internet" isn't just the hypertext protocol, it's email, bittorrents, IRC, Telnet, Hotline, FTP servers, the iTunes Music Store, the Amazon Kindle, ATMs and Debit/Credit point of sale systems, SMS and other alternative forms of telephony, and a tonne of other systems and protocols. I think at some point we will see fiction take hold on the Internet, as it seems to be doing in the US with the Kindle. I just don't think it will happen on the World Wide Web. There's a variety of technical problems that would need solving to make WWW distribution feasible as a major player (as opposed to, say, PDF downloads and what not). There's a tonne of issues with browsers, monitors, typeface reliability, mobile devices, and so on that make print-quality typography impossible on the web (though Web typography is no longer the nightmare it was even five or six years ago). I think that if digital distribution (or "the Internet") does become a major part of how people read fiction, it will more likely be though a platform like the Kindle or the iPhone than through the Web. In part it's because there's too much going on with the Web, so much more than there is with a dedicated reader (or a portable device like the iPhone). There are issues of comfort, of course, like how reading on a screen can be hard on your eyes, and on your back, if you've got a desktop unit. But fundamentally there are things you can do with a portable reader that can't be done through a browser, or can't be done easily, anyway. I know that there's a lot of early-adopters and dedicated people out there who are crying the "death of print!" and all kinds of nonsense about the superiority of their favourite format, reader, or site, but the best technology and the early adopters don't determine who or what will control the marketplace. There's whole warehouses full of Betamax VCRs, mini-disc recorders, and HD DVD players to prove it.
But that's not to say that there won't be some success with offering fiction through the Web. Emily Schultz and company have done good work with Joyland.ca, and a friend and I ran an online journal called WoodenFish.ca for three years, up until 2004 or 2005, I think (I'm fuzzy about dates sometimes). In fact, I announced a few months ago that I'll be reviving Wooden Fish some time soon. I've postponed making a call for submissions until I've sorted a variety of technical, aesthetic, and "vision" (ugh) issues to my satisfaction. But I do think that part of Joyland's success in particular is the connections Emily Schultz has; I've seen maybe two names I don't recognize published there. Wooden Fish was always (and sadly, must remain) a "nobody gets paid, not even the editors" venture, and so without those connections it was always difficult for us to attract the kind of submissions we were looking for (I mean, we got some great work, but it was difficult and time consuming to find enough work of the right calibre, so publishing regularly was virtually impossible).
As for an "effective means to sell and distribute printed books", it really does depend on what you mean by "effective". Amazon seems to have done a really good job of dominating the market for online sales, but have they been healthy for the industry as a whole? I'm not so sure. Amazon is famous for its discounted prices, but those discounts come from carving a hunk of flesh from the flanks of the publishers, who in turn have no choice but to make cuts. That means that the industry's problems with marketing only get worse, and it's also less likely that a publisher will take a chance nurturing a new author, or continuing to publish a solid mid-list author, or even continuing to publish a mid-lister who has the potential to move up in sales. Hell, to hear Harlan Ellison tell it, author advances haven't been adjusted for inflation in nearly fifty years. Big Box stores follow Amazon's lead, because they have to compete somehow, and then you get quick-buck assholes like Judith Regan making decisions at major houses, and book stores dropping like flies.
Which is not to say that I think stores like Amazon or Indigo or Barnes & Noble or other chains with a significant online presence are bad for the industry per se. I actually think they offer a lot. Amazon's commenting system, which has migrated with varying degrees of success to other retail sites (like Indigo's, for example) has been very good for readers. It can be a great way for people who aren't as hardcore about book culture as, say, you or I, to feel like they're engaging with not just other readers, but with the industry, since it's clear that people in the industry do pay attention to what's said by those commenters. The big box stores in particular, because they have the budget to throw at these kinds of projects, have the potential to do great things online in terms of reader participation. Actually, Indigo has started making an effort to go beyond a simple commenting system into something more social and community-oriented. It's not all the way there yet, but it shows potential, and I think it's great that they've decided to make the effort. I even think their brick and mortar stores contribute something. In a city like Toronto or even Winnipeg, it can be difficult to imagine going to a bookstore and having no real selection, but in the town where I grew up, I couldn't find most of what I wanted in my local bookstore. It was (and still is, actually) run by great people, but they had to be extremely conservative, commercial and populist in what they carried, and their selection was extremely slim. Stepping into a store like Chapters for the first time was revelatory for me. The selection! I couldn't believe it.
Of course that doesn't mean I want them to edge out my local indie store. I've made some tremendous finds through local retailers who take the time to get to know their customers and the demands and tastes of their particular neighbourhood, and really, for a bibliophile there's few things as fun as browsing through a thoroughly curated selection of books. Book selling is an ecosystem that I think has room for players of all sizes, but right now it's out of equilibrium. I'm not sure what could change that to anybody's satisfaction.
CBT: It is arguable the Internet isn't effective as a medium for publishing long works of fiction because very few people can stand looking at regular screens for the necessary length of time. But e-ink provides a solution to this. It eliminates eye strain.
How much potential do you think e-ink and e-book technologies have? Do you see e-books catching on with the public? And do they provide a reasonable business model?
AB: I think I may have inadvertently answered this question above. I think e-ink and e-book technologies have tremendous potential to catch on with the public, though not to the degree that some people think. (I've heard some people suggest that printed books will become elaborate and expensive object d'art, if they survive at all, and I think that's a remarkably foolish idea; print is an extremely robust medium.) The current business models still need to be tweaked, however. Right now there's a great deal of emphasis on DRM, subscription based services, and purchasing agreements that are actually licences. That's more head in the sand behaviour, I think, and those things will have to change before digital readers become household technologies.
CBT: In the past few years, articles and blog posts (for example, at LitKicks) have appeared criticizing the pricing of books. Are books too expensive? Has this been a factor in reducing the size of the book-buying audience over the last twenty or so years?
AB: Again, yes and no. I think hardcovers are incredibly over-priced. They're large, cumbersome, inconveniently heavy, often not very well made (there's a special place in hell reserved for people who make books with tight binding, narrow margins, and deckle edges), and can cost more than my phone or Internet bill. There's something not right about that. I once figured out that I could rent close to 60 movies through one of those online subscription services for the price of a single hardcover book. Besides, if you can discount it to $4 two years after the release date, there's no earthly reason for me to pay $37 at launch.
Mass market paperbacks, which are horrid little things anyway, are also over-priced, but only by a little bit. I was looking at one today, actually, and it was $10. That's not terrible, but considering how poorly made they are (tight binding, narrow margins, cheap stock, poorly printed with tonnes of errors, and rivaling the Porcupine's Quill for ugly covers), I feel like $7 or $8 would be more appropriate. I know that's not much, but sometimes not much is just enough.
Most trade paperbacks are priced just right for me ($15-$24 range, depending). I'd like to see more closer to the low end of that range, but I'll come right out and say that it's because I make very little money, probably less than you think, and I can't afford to buy much of anything at that price. But for most folks, that strikes me as perfectly reasonable for a well-made TPB (remember, book designers, deckle edges will earn you eternity in a lake of fire).
The problem is that people have unreasonable expectations, for some of the reasons I've mentioned above. We feel entitled to everything, and if we can't get it free then we want it cheap. On top of that, Amazon's deep discount policy, which as spread throughout the marketplace, has made us expect prices that are lower than they ought to be. Believe it or not, that's actually how Wal*Mart works; they pressure suppliers and manufacturers to offer them discounts so deep that they can nearly drive those suppliers and manufacturers out of business.
CBT: Staying with the same theme. Literary novels were once publishing in hardcover and then, several months later (and a spot on the best-seller lists willing), they were available as affordable pocket-sized paperbacks. However, in the 1980s this practice ceased and literary paperbacks started being published in North America as pricier trade paperbacks. Only genre fiction retained the pocket-book form. In retrospect, was this a prudent decision by publishers of literary fiction? Or should the literary pocket-book make a return?
AB: I despise mass-market paperbacks. They're ugly, poorly made, don't hold up to re-readings or abuse in my book bag. The only ones I can think of that don't suck are my old Penguin and Vintage paperbacks from the '60s. But if you look at them closely, they're actually made more like modern trade paperbacks, with wider margins, looser bindings, and higher quality stock. If we could do away with the damned things forever, I'd be happy. In fact, if a book is available in any other format, I'll go out of my way, to the point of waiting months or even years, to avoid buying the nasty little things. The only ones to enter my collection in the last seven or eight years have been gifts from friends and family, or books that are no longer available in other formats. I think I would reconsider my stance on mass market paperbacks if they were more like those old Penguin and Vintage books. I'd even pay a little more; poor though I am, I'll spring for quality. As they stand right now, they're just plain shit.
CBT: Agents now have enormous power, effectively controlling which writers get access to acquisition editors at major houses. Furthermore, agents find themselves under enormous pressure, acting as the line of first readers who have to sift through avalanches of submissions. Is this tenable over the long run? Is it good for art? Or should large houses be accepting both agented and unsolicited submissions?
AB: I find it depressing, really. I don't know what the actual effects are, but it feels like there's fewer ways for literature to develop organically in that kind of environment. What you wind up with, I think, is the big houses reluctant to touch anybody but Iron Maggie and friends, and a very adversarial indie scene. I don't mind a little fussing and feuding, and Atwood is certainly entitled to whatever sales she can get, but there needs to be some middle ground, and that means that big houses need to open up their slush piles and take some fucking chances. Give their editors the chance to actually form relationships with their authors (like I hear they did in the old days, and like they still do at, say, Biblioasis).
As for what's good for art, I think that's the writers' job, and the editors' job. Writers need to make art, and editors need to identify it and publish it. I don't think an editor's job should be about brokering deals and making budgets. Editors are about identifying books that have great potential, and for helping writers craft the best books they can, and being passionate advocates for those books. Agents should still try to sell books to editors, but in an ideal cake and unicorns world, it wouldn't be about editors turning to a handful of people whose only agenda is to sell them a book in order to make those kinds of decisions.
But let's face it, right now, with only a few exceptions (André Alexis and handful of others come to mind), if you want art in Canadian letters, you go to a small press.
CBT: Literary prizes have also grown in power. They have arguably replaced the glowing review as a marketing tool. But are they as effective as criticism in building a contemporary canon? After all, critics can express nuance, prizes can't. Do book prizes give the message: this books is worth reading and all these others aren't?
AB: Oh God no. At least, not to the informed. I don't pay any attention at all to prizes. I used to, before I became a more dedicated book person. I did think, "oh, this book won the GG, or the Friends of Margaret Atwood Award (aka the Giller), I bet it's great", and I found a handful of good books that way. And then I started looking at books that would get passed over, or ignored completely, and I realized how utterly ridiculous literary prizes are, especially in this country. Look at Rawi Hage's Cockroach, which got passed over for several awards, and then at, say, Vincent Lam's Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures. One of those books was powerful, energetic, and daring. The other was recommended by Iron Maggie. Guess which took home the prize? I don't know if it's corruption or just bloody-mindedness, but I don't much care. They're becoming worse than the Grammys for sheer irrelevance. They are obstinately meaningless.
So as for building a canon, no, I don't think they do much of anything. Longevity with readers and passionate advocacy from critics will determine that, just as it always has. However, for that short term bump in sales and grabbing the attention of casual readers, sure, they're much better than good reviews. (But not better than word of mouth: nothing is better than word of mouth.)
CBT: Thinking of your own site, what sorts of changes do you foresee in it? Are blogs destined to become the new magazines? Will you start using a format (and possibly working with partners) in a magazine-type way? Or is blogging as it's currently defined how you want to keep posting work on the Net?
AB: Vestige.org is definitely going to stay as close to its current format as I can manage. I like how casual the blog format lets me be. I'm capable of doing serious reviewing, and I'm capable of doing hardcore academic criticism. I've reviewed books for the Globe and Mail, and I was on my way to becoming a professor of English Literature before I ran out of money. The blog format lets me be a little more Zaphod Beeblbrox about things (he's just this guy, you know?). I tried to make it magazine-like when I first built it, and I learned the less focused it was, the less inclined I was to doing any work with it. I prefer to think of blogs as individual columns rather than magazines. The more consistent and defined the voice, the better the blog is.
I've worked in other formats in the past, and with a partner for WoodenFish.ca. I think the only way I'd work with a partner again is if roles and responsibilities were clearly delineated, and that's not likely to happen outside of a professional setting. I can't work without knowing who's doing what and why. As far as working in other formats, I'd certainly be happy to try again; in fact, I'm going to try. Wooden Fish was published as "issues", and will be again, in an altered, smaller format. The only way that's going to work is if it's not about me, though. If the focus is me, my voice, and my opinions, or my fiction even, then it's just going to be a poor variation of vestige.org, and I'm not interested in doing two of those. Vestige.org has been my "home" on the Web for more than nine years now, and I'm very protective of it; I don't even use pre-built templates. I design and code everything by hand because I want to know how and why everything works (well, except my CMS, I use MovableType for that). That being said, I'd be more than willing to work with someone else, on a casual or semi-regular basis on a project of theirs. If it's not my baby, then most of the pressure is off and I can just get down to doing my job.
Bio: August C. Bourré is a rural writer trying to make ends meet in Toronto. His work has appeared in the Globe & Mail, Carousel, and various places online. He is editor and publisher of the soon to be relaunched online journal WoodenFish.ca; he also keeps a book blog at vestige.org.