CBT: V. S. Naipaul has declared there are not any important writers anymore, Philip Roth has predicted the novel will become a cult activity, Peter Stothard has asked if fiction writing simply used to be better, Cullen Murphy, David Shields, Lee Seigel, and Geoff Dyer have all stated that non-fiction is superior to fiction. The list of people of letters who apparently have lost faith in literary fiction goes on and on; it is clear that an elementary questioning of the novel is not a passing cultural phase.
What is your opinion? Does the novel have a future? If so, what kind? And will e-technology alter the very form of the novel? If so, how?
TM: I have to agree with you that an elementary questioning of the novel is not a passing cultural phase – I’ve been seeing the question since I was in my teens. The big writers loomed large in front of me, geniuses, while papers I respected, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, The Village Voice and so on, would run these articles asking if the novel was dead. Could it be? I wondered. Had the novel died before I could fully discover it?
I bought into the crisis back then, but forty years later the novel seems to be doing just fine thank you. It’s fashionable to wring one’s hands that the boom in technology adoption will finally bring the great experiment to a halt. I don’t buy it.
People are experimenting with applying technology to narrative fiction. I’m all for the experiments, whether anything comes of them or not. The novel seems to function well – the form succeeds as constituted today. If you embed a 90 minute video in an ebook (which can be done with the new EPUB 3 standard) have you created a movie with an accompanying program, or a book with a movie to illustrate it? Does it matter?
CBT: Are the very significant structural changes taking place in the publishing industry having an effect on novel writing? If so, how?
TM: The structural changes in the publishing industry don’t necessarily impact how novels are written, with the exception of commercial fiction. Perhaps even the most classically literary of authors still keep one eye on the bestsellers lists and so may make some sort of adjustment to the explosion in teen fantasy and adult S&M fiction. But most of these impacts are short-term trends of interest mainly to commercial writers.
CBT. Is the cutting back of mid-lists and a general cautiousness about taking risks on new or relatively unknown writers affecting the caliber of writing that does manage to get into print?
TM: This question cuts to the heart of what I see as a major challenge in the analysis of the future of publishing: acknowledging that the New York and London school of publishing is not the only possible model for the conduct of a successful publishing business.
The “cutting back of mid-lists and a general cautiousness about taking risks on new or relatively unknown writers” refers mostly the “big six” publishers. Small publishers have been chugging along taking risks with mid-list and below authors for years.
I say to my writer friends that the only significant impact thus far on book publishing has been striking fear into the hearts of publishers wed to what has become a significantly more shaky publishing model. If you had your heart set on Knopf publishing the follow-up to your unsuccessful first novel, you may be disappointed. If you stop thinking that Knopf publishing your next book is the only way to validate your talent, you’ve got a whole new world of opportunity.
CBT: Do you have an author's website? Does it help you sell books?
TM: I have an author’s website for my books on publishing technology, www.thefutureofpublishing.com. It does help me sell some books, although that is far from its main purpose. Mostly I use it to publish ideas about project in progress, as a way of connecting my ideas to others in the publishing community.
My books wouldn’t be bestsellers even if I ran ads during the Super Bowl. There’s a limit to what any promotion can do for books with small targeted audiences.
CBT: How do you feel about running an author's website? Do you feel it’s a labour of love – or an annoying imposition? Or something else altogether?
TM: I believe that authors have two choices when it comes to web sites: jump in feet first, or skip it all together. Readers can spot a half-hearted effort a mile away, and it’s more of a turn-off than no site at all. Running a site doesn’t have to be as big a chore as it’s sometimes made out to be. Nor is it effortless.
Ideally authors find ways to blend their online world with their world of writing. It is a natural, but not all writers are naturals. For those writers I say: no blame. Get back to writing.
CBT: Is the selection system for novel and short story manuscripts fair? Should it be made blind?
TM: I don’t really understand this question. What alternative is there than the judgment of professionals within a publishing company? If they don’t select your work, take it elsewhere or self publish.
CBT: According to media reports, e-book sales now represent a significant percentage of overall sales. But small bookstores see them as more a threat to their survival than anything else, and a lot of book people remain print people. Are you enthusiastic about e-books? Do they hold the potential for a renaissance in literary publishing? Or are they over-rated and too susceptible to piracy?
TM: After several years of hype ebooks are settling down for most titles as but one format of several. As publishers we used to fret about the transition from hardcover to paperback. The ebook is the third format in this equation.
For many authors the ease of self publishing of ebooks has made this a viable alternative to a world of painful rejection from brand-name publishers. In some cases books are being published that had slipped through the cracks and deserve to be read. In other cases self-published ebooks are about as durable and engaging as a 3-minute YouTube video. But at $1.99 that’s not a bad thing.
Ebooks are an exciting new format, offering lots of opportunity and very few drawbacks as far as I can see. The big thing is choice, and with millions of books now published every year, added to the many more millions in print, choice is not an issue.
CBT: What do you think of literary prizes? As Jason Cowley has commented, they reduce our culture's ability to think in a critically complex fashion? Do they suggest, “this book is worth reading and all these others aren't?”
TM: I understand the argument regarding the distortion that the prize system introduces into making the public aware of worthwhile books. But it’s not like the alternatives are a smoothly-functioning critical engine.
As far as I’m concerned anything that celebrates books in a lively manner is good news all around.
CBT: What are you working on now that you’re excited about?
TM: After nearly 40 years in publishing I’ve decided to move on. I’m exciting about taking my knowledge of the digitization of information and applying that to the challenges of health care.
I’ve greatly enjoyed working in publishing. It’s a marvelous industry, both challenging and rewarding. But I’ve decided that “the problem of publishing” has in fact been successfully addressed. We’re fretting about very small issues and painting them large just because that’s what people do. They take their small problems and use them to fill the available space.
There is no crisis in publishing. Book sales are holding up well in the West, and growing by leaps and bounds in the Third World and other less-developed nations. Sure there’s disruption to some of the existing players, but overall literacy continues to improve worldwide, and the access to the written word has never been better.
Health care, on the other hand, is a mess. Information standards in health care are probably three decades behind where they are in most industries. Most medical records are still on paper, invisible to the physician currently treating you. I’d love to see more people from publishing take their talents to health care. They could make a far greater difference to the quality of life than publishing the revised edition of Feng Shui for Cats.
Bio: Thad McIlroy is an electronic publishing analyst and author, and president of The Future of Publishing, based in San Francisco and Vancouver, BC.In 2006 he launched www.thefutureofpublishing.com, a Web site nearly a decade in the making, and the most comprehensive source of information on the present and predicted outcomes of all sectors of the publishing industry.
Also in early 2007 he affiliated with The Gilbane Group, and in 1988 he founded Arcadia House, a consulting firm specializing in implementing electronic publishing technology in the graphic arts and publishing industries. In 1990 he co-founded (with Miles Southworth) The Color Resource, a publishing and distribution company devoted to books and training materials on color design, imaging and prepress.
McIlroy’s latest market reports are a 2012 study of the future of Barnes & Noble as well as Adobe’s Designs on Web Analytics: The Omniture Acquisition (2009). He contributed the Composition, Design, and Graphics chapter (with contributions from Frank Romano) for The Columbia Guide to Digital Publishing (Columbia University Press, 2003). He is the co-author of Using Color Management Systems for Push-Button Color (1993: Smart Color and The Color Resource), Inside Photo CD: Market Opportunities in a Leading Edge Technology (1993: The Color Resource), The Color Resource Color Desktop Publishing Product Annual (1992/93: The Color Resource), The Complete Color Glossary (1992: The Color Resource), and eight other books.