Alanna Wilcox - novelist, publisher
1. Literature is in trouble -- that is, more trouble than usual. Why do you think this is? The increasing prevalence of TV? The distractions of increasingly narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? The Crash of 2008? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?
Well, I don’t believe in the ‘death of literature’ by any means. Look how many people are eager to commit to reading long, long books like Twilight. I am more concerned with the homogenization of what it is that people are reading, and the fact that while we may spend more hours per day reading, that reading is not in the form of books but of blogs, etc., which don’t do much to further prolonged and substantive thought or good writing.
2. Reports of declines in book sales have become widespread. How bad are the delcines? And do you think they are only a cyclical phenomenon, or do they represent a permanent, negative change for print book sales?
That’s not strictly true, I don’t think. Last year saw our biggest sales ever, for instance. The ‘long tail’ theory of book retailing is exactly right: sales are down in the mid-list, the majority of titles that get published. But they’re up for those few bestsellers, and for the niche titles at the other end of the graph.
But it is true that our culture values books less and less, or is at least less willing to pay for them, in the same way that we’re less willing to pay for any culture, which we have come to expect for free. I’m not sure what we can do to fix this.
3. What area of book publishing is suffering most? More specifically, are novel sales suffering more than other kinds of books?
I don’t know — I only know our little corner of publishing. Poetry has never been huge, so no palpable difference. We notice declines in fiction mainly when we try to sell foreign rights to our novels and everyone else says fiction is not selling.
4. Are the declines linked to woes in the bricks-and-mortar retail sector, for example, bankrupt/near-bankrupt independents and teetering chains like America's Borders, or are troubles in the retail trade the result, not the cause, of declining book sales?
For us, yes, the loss of bookstores is a huge problem. Pages in Toronto accounted for a very substantial portion of our sales, so its loss is tragic — and tragic for me as a reader, too, as browsing a well-curated bookstore is the best way of amassing a fine library.
As a publisher, it means we have to work extra-hard to find other avenues of sales: more events, readings, web sales, etc. Which takes up an enormous amount of extra time.
5. Are online retailers like Amazon taking over so much market share that they are driving books-and-mortar bookstores out of business? Or does Amazon, with its discounts, simply create more book sales for itself, and are the books-and-mortar stores suffering from their own structural deficiencies?
I can’t really imagine how to begin answering this one. There’s no baseline, and everything is in flux, so there’s really no way of knowing.
6. The publishing industry suffers from retailers' ability to return unsold books. In the current environment, is reversing this policy possible?
No bookstore would ever agree to return to a world without returns. The risks would be too big. And as much as we hate returns, it’d be worse without them, because odd books like ours would simply never get ordered in the first place. Returns used to be handled really responsibly: smart ordering, frequent reordering and careful attention meant that they were reasonable. But the big chains changed that by using returns as a way of forestalling payment and then reordering, or ordering ridiculous quantities, or ordering carelessly across their outlets. There’s maybe no understanding there what impact giant returns have on publishers, whose margins are so close to zero anyway.
We all joke that the only people making money in publishing are the shipping companies.
7. In your opinion, do e-books -- with their lack of printing costs and ease of distribution -- represent a golden opportunity for publishers to reverse the trend of declining sales?
Right now, no. It’s simply an additional cost and administration burden for publishers, with no discernable sales at this point. If they catch on, sure, it could be fantastic for publishers — if they end up adding to the number of books sold. But if they simply take over some of the print sales, it won’t make much difference, as the money saved on printing is offset by the expenses of making the e-book. But if the total numbers can grow, that’d be great.
8. Or are e-books -- with their vulnerability to piracy and untested popularity with the bulk of the reading public -- over-rated?
Well, I don’t know any ‘book people’ who actually LIKE reading e-books. I use a Sony Reader to read manuscripts, and it’s not exactly enjoyable. I’ve not yet read a ‘real’ book on it.
As for piracy? For us, that’s not an undesirable outcome. It happens with print books all the time: people lend them to friends or take them out of the library. So, if a few e-files get passed around, it’s not a bad thing — it all serves to get the book READ, which is the most important thing.
9. Does the Google settlement, allowing Google to scan books as it wishes, represent a form of piracy? Or, as Google argues, will its planned scanning of the world's books strengthen book sales and reading culture?
It’d be great if we could all work together to make this something good, which it well could be. How amazing to have an archive of the world’s literature, great for scholars and readers and authors, and anything that reifies the importance of books is not something we can afford to reject. But yes, permission from all involved is essential.
10. Is the Kindle model of fixed prices for e-books but a relatively piracy-free sales/distribution system (and, sometimes, sound profits for publishers) one that you are happy with? Or does it lend Amazon too much control over pricing?
I’m not sure how I feel about this yet.
11. Is the "agency model" of, for example, Apple's iBooks better?
12. How much potential do e-book sales directly from a publisher's own site have?
Who knows? But sales of print books from publishers’ websites seem to cap out around 5 percent, so it might be the same. Still, it’s an important service to offer, I think.
13. Do you think the e-book, being a digital form, will eventually evolve into a new form of narrative, incorporating audio and visual elements?
I hope so.
14. Will a movement toward e-books drive a separate-but-linked movement toward audio-books more than exists now?
I don’t know. But maybe the interest in podcasts that the iPod has inspired will help.
15. Are book trailers a valuable marketing tool or a waste of money and time?
I don’t know. The ones we make are free, other than costing a couple of hours of Evan’s time. And they seem to attract attention. Whether that translates into sales, I have no idea.
16. In South Korea, books incorporating pictures and text are massively popular. In North America, graphic novel sales remain comparatively healthy. Will the print book move more and more in the direction of an objet d'art, appealing to book buyers as much with images as text?
Probably. The more the book is an object, the more it distinguishes itself from online ‘content.’
17. Prizes and awards are playing an increasing role in determining an author's career-trajectory. In short, winning a major literary prize can win a writer a large audience overnight (not to mention, considerable fame and financial remuneration). But, as British critic Jason Cowley has observed, what is lost is the the ability for readers to think in a critically complex fashion.
Are literary prizes dangerous in this regard? Do they convey to the public the message that "this book is worth reading and all these others aren't"?
There are two sides to it: prizes bring attention to books and reading, which is a good thing, but they also draw all that attention to a few titles. I guess the optimist would hope that prize-winning books can be a ‘gateway drug’ to more reading, though the pessimist might say that it encourages a kind of laziness (‘I’ll just read whatever they tell me to read’). On balance, I’d say they do more good than harm.
18. Literary publishing has always been a marriage of art and commerce. But in recent years, the Cult of the Deal has become more influential, with agents demanding larger advances and marketing people paying especially close attention to sales figures. Is the "art" side of the business being pushed out?
In the larger houses, maybe. But we still work hard to try and balance the two: making good art while still staying in business. Of course, if the Canadian government didn’t help us out by awarding grants, that wouldn’t be possible. I mean, we still have no money, and so we scrimp and save at every turn — which means no giant advances, which means we miss out on those big books. But we’re more interested in books that are a little more unusual, in any case.
19. Many major publishers now refuse to accept "unsolicited" work; that is, they will not even consider work unless it is agented. Is this a sound policy from point of view of finding the best new literary voices? Isn't there a chance good writing will be squeezed out?
As a smaller publisher, it’s often very frustrating to have no money and to not have access to ‘bigger’ books, and it’s especially frustrating that when a book by an unknown author does well, we lose them to bigger houses, just when they’re in a position to start earning back all that we invested (intense editing, big promo) in the first book. On the other hand, it means that I get to be, for lack of a better word, a talent scout. I love finding something great in the slush pile. So, no. As long as smaller literary houses exist, I’m not worried about good writing vanishing. And, to be fair, the big houses publish some really good stuff!
20. Alternatively, for small presses that do accept unsolicited work, is the problem that the majors are squeezing the small houses at the distribution/retail marketing end? In other words, even when good writers get published by small houses, do they have a fair chance of winning an audience? Or are the major houses introducing an overly corporate, overly aggressive mentality to the book trade?
Our culture thinks bigger is better, so of course people assume that a Random House book is better than a Coach House book. And I don’t think Random House is deliberately squeezing us out or thwarting us — everyone’s just fighting to get space for their own titles. How to fight such a pervasive cultural perception? No idea! We’ll just keep making great books and trying to elbow out a little space for them.
21. Are agents too powerful? If so, in what ways? Or are they a largely beneficial and necessary element of contemporary publishing?
Agents are important for authors with a lot of business stuff to manage. It does make me sad, however, when authors working at our scale end up giving a chunk of the small amount of money they make to an agent when they don’t really need one. Many authors benefit from having an agent, but Canada is a pretty small pond, and I worry that there are a lot of authors who don’t really need one...
As an editor, I do sometimes bemoan the fact that the agent is now involved in what used to be such a tight, intimate relationship between author and editor.
22. Does Canada have too many publishers? Or too few?
I’m not much of a capitalist, but here I’d say the market can decide that. I do find it troubling that this question comes up so often. Every book that has readers can justify its place, and one could argue that if we place so much emphasis on diversity and democracy the same should be true for our reading list.
23. And what role can traditional, venerable institutions such as libraries and English Departments play in reversing the decline in sales of literary fiction?
Libraries need to balance being reactive (blowing the budget on Twilights because that’s what people want) and proactive (considering themselves taste-makers and lining the shelves with books they think should be read). But a little further in the direction of the latter would be okay with me. Ditto English departments. Academics could also afford to take a broader view of what ‘literature’ is — we’re on the campus of the University of Toronto, with its hundreds of English classes, and we rarely have requests for tours of our printing presses or discussions of how publishing works or even visits from authors. It’d be nice if they thought of literature as living, kinetic being instead of simply autopsying it.