Monday, June 06, 2011

Kevin Peterson -- retired journalist, lit-blogger (Kevin From Canada)

 Kevin Peterson of Kevin From Canada

1. 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 down to counteract it? 

I am one of those who does not think that literary “publishing” is in a depressed state.  More works are being published, some in new formats including electronic.  Self-publishing is exploding.  Particularly in Canada, with various government subsidies, it is far easier now for a first work to get into some version of book form than it was in previous decades.

Marketing and sales are a different issue.  Blockbuster titles are selling more than ever, but after that there is a challenge – which I do think is still evolving.  Experienced readers who know how to browse and shop online have much easier access than they have ever had to titles that even a few years ago they would have never seen.  On the other hand, the second and third tier of authors face severe difficulties as the “major” houses cut back on publishing second, or even third, novels from writers who do not sell well.  Getting a book published is easier than ever – making a full time living from novel writing is an entirely different story.

So, through vehicles such as author’s and publisher’s web pages – and blogs – readers willing to do some research have far better access to many more titles than they ever did when physical book stores were the only source (I can remember waiting weeks to get the Giller longlist from my bookstore – I can now have the books I am missing ordered within an hour of the announcement and they are delivered to my front door a few days later).  The downside is that that group of readers is an aging one and I’m not sure whether it will be replaced by a new, younger audience.  I suspect it will – once you have read one or two books, if you are computer literate at all, a whole new world of options as a reader is open to you.  

2. 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?

I don’t see the internet as a publishing or reading source for serious fiction – there is a niche there but it is a small one and not lucrative at all.  As I indicated above, I think it is already well established as an information, selling and distribution source, not just in the Amazon sense but for smaller publishers (such as Gaspereau and Biblioasis in Canada) as well.  I would also say that it is already the primary information source for those looking for extended information on possible books to read.

3. 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?
I’m not qualified to comment on e-book technologies or e-readers – I don’t own one and doubt that I ever will.  I should note that I am retired, with a bad back that restricts travel, so the e-reader as a commuting and travelling book source just doesn’t fit my circumstances or needs.  From comments on the web and friends, however, I would say that e-books and e-readers have already been adopted by many of the public.  It is still early days for that technology and I am sure it will continue to spread – and become more customer friendly – very quickly.  Just by way of example, immediately before filling out this questionnaire I had a conversation with my sister, who is spending the summer at a remote fire-spotting post in northern Alberta.  We identified about 10 books in  a quick conversation, most of which she can download for free from her library on Vancouver Island to her e-reader to eventually read near Grande Prairie, Alberta.

Imagine what would have been required to get those “books” there in the pre-Internet era. 

4. In the past few years, articles and blog posts (for example, at LitKicks) have appeared criticizing the pricing of books. Are books too experensive? Has this been a factor in reducing the size of the book-buying audience over the last twenty or so years?
Again, anyone who shops on line is paying far less for a book than they did a decade ago, given the retailer discounts.  E-book pricing is still evolving, so any comment on that would be premature.  Certainly, the access to out-of-copyright works is not only far easier, it is far cheaper than it has been for my adult life.

Also again, however, it is the second and third tier of authors who are feeling the brunt of change.  Publishers used to use sales of the “canon” to subsidize these works (in the hope that an author would build a following) – that revenue stream is bound to shrink.

5. 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?

I buy hardbacks as a preference (I’m not price sensitive and prefer the format) and trade paperbacks if that is the only option.  I’ve never bought pocket-books or mass market editions, so I don’t think any comment I might make would be of value.

6. 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 unsolicitied submissions?

I think this question does raise a major issue.  The large houses still have their “A” editors, but they are an aging group and their author roster is full with established names.  The generation that should be lining up to replace them has pretty much been laid off, with the editing function delegated to agents and freelance “editors” (most of whom are not qualified).  The disappearance of qualified editors (with agents inadequately filling part of the role) is, for me, a bigger threat to quality literary publication than any of the issues raised in the previous questions.  While it is easier to get published now, I see far too many books that really miss the talents of a decent editor and suffer badly for the lack. 

7. 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?
Prizes undoubtedly produce the best sellers for literary novels – see The Bishop’s Man and The Sentimentalists – and those few books sell far more copies than works of similar quality did in the pre-Prize era.  Shortlist books do less well; longlist books even worse.  On the other hand, all those categories produce more sales than positive critical reviews did in the past.  I also think the prize lists are the first stopping point for book clubs looking for next year’s reads – and let’s face it, book clubs are vital to sales.

I don’t think prizes have much of an effect on “building a contemporary canon”, whatever that might be.  My intuition says word-of-mouth from informed readers and academics will have much more influence than sales in the first year after publication.  And one of the advantage of e-versions of books is that it means they will never go out-of-print, so the shelf life of a novel has been extended indefinitely, to allow word-of-mouth and informed critical assessment to build.

Prizes may reduce sales of non-listed books but I think the kind of readers who create the buzz that eventually leads to a book being added to the “canon” are more, rather than less, likely to be able to find worthy books in this new environment.

8. One of the hallmarks of your reviewing style is that you quote generously from the works under consideration. Is this the result of a critical ideology? Are you trying to promote close readings? Is it simply how you prefer reviewing? Or is simply happenstance?

I always try to include at least two quotes of some length from a work that I am reviewing.  I do this mainly to illustrate the author’s prose style or to indicate how he or she introduces plot or character developments.   My regular visitors (those who read nearly every review) are all extensive readers, so I think they expect those kind of examples for their own evaluation, as well as my opinion, in a review.  Also, I assume anyone who gets to my review through a search engine is already somewhat interested in the book – the quotes are as valuable as my thoughts to them.  About two-thirds of my hits are generated by searches for specific titles from my archives (something that the “old” reviewing sources could not make available to interested potential readers) so I would like those people to get a full flavor of the book – I did not spark their interest, something else did and my review is meant to serve them.

I tend to be more of a “content” than “style” reader so, given that bias, my use of quotes is meant to illustrate how an author handles that.  On the other hand, if the work tends more to style or poetic language (which places it at a disadvantage for my tastes) I like to include enough quoted material so that someone visiting my blog can reject my thoughts and say “well, I sure liked the quotes and think I should try this one.”

9. How do you choose books to review?

1.        About one-third of my reviews are Canadian books.  Two-thirds of my visitors are not Canadian, so in some ways I view my blog as presenting Canadian work to a global audience.  I do read and review all the Giller shortlist and most, if not all, of the G-G list.  I try to get to as many first works as I can (friends at the Calgary authors’ festival, WordFest, are my first screen there and they forward me a number of new works every year).  And I pay particular attention to Quill and Quire’s semi-annual upcoming lists to look for second and third novels from authors whose initial works showed promise.  I should note that I don’t do “negative” reviews of first works except on very rare occasions, so I read (or at least start to read) quite a few more than show up on the blog.
2.       Another third is English fiction from other countries (and newly translated work), with possible Booker contenders or longlisted books (I’ve read and reviewed all the longlist every year since starting the blog) a big portion of that.  I follow the lists of other prizes for other books that look interesting.  Other bloggers are a major source.  I’ll admit that U.S. fiction would be my weakest area – there is just so much published there that it is impossible to keep track.  So my U.S. fiction reviewing tends to be authors I know and admire, ones that other bloggers have introduced to me and prize-listed books that look interesting.
3.       The final third is classics – either in a re-read or ones that I have overlooked – or works published some years ago that have fallen off the radar (again, other blogs are a major source for that).  Once the prize (and new book) season ends in October, it is almost a relief to spend a few months with “old friends” and catching up on some books of high reputation that I haven’t got to yet.

10. And still 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?

I don’t see any changes.  I started my blog as a means of expressing my thoughts about books that I like, or am neutral about, or (less often) books that I think are over-rated.  As I said above, introducing Canadian work to the reading world was an objective and I think I have succeeded, in a minor way, in doing that.  Of the 300+ hits a day that my blog gets, about 100 are from regulars who read virtually every review that I write.  The other 200 come from searches for specific titles or themes (I am sure a lot are students) and, of course, I would like for some of those to make the transition to becoming regulars (and at least some do).  Reading and reviewing the Booker and Giller longlists has produced a significant bump in both the short and long term growth of the blog in both the last two years – it will be interesting to see if that continues. 

So while I might make some minor adjustments, I can’t see any major changes to the way I am currently doing the blog.

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