Saturday, January 23, 2016

Shannon Culver - ebook consultant, industry analyst


March 15, 2014

1 Since the beginning of the 21st Century, the publishing industry has existed in a state of tumult. The industry has contracted, sales have fallen, and, now, in part because of the ripple effects of the economic crisis of October 2008, the industry is faced with dual the challenges of a depressed economy and changing reading habits, as people spend more and more of their leisure time social networking with smart phones and tablets.

But are the problems faced by literary publishing really simply the result of a few bad years? After all, some of the problems facing the industry go back much further: the cutting of the mid-list, beginning with what Adam Bellow called the "Great Midlist Contraction of the 1990s," the ascendancy of the deal, new generations with reduced interest in reading for pleasure, and the "TV-ization" of popular culture.

What is your take on the current depressed state of literary publishing? Is it nothing to worry about? Is it just a passing phase? Or is it an intractable problem -- in other words, is it the new normal? And if the latter, what can be down to counter-act it?

There are pros and cons to the proliferation of smart phones and tablets. On the one hand, it's true that people have more options as to how to spend their leisure time, and time that might be spent reading may instead be used on social media sites, or playing games online. On the other hand, though, if people are reading digitally and have their account loaded onto their device, they have potentially more opportunities to read than in the pre-digital era as well, because they are more likely to have a book on hand when stuck in a waiting room, or on transit.

Literary publishing is undoubtedly in a period of flux right now, and it may be less viable now for an author to make a living from writing alone, or to receive a six or seven figure advance for a book, but I don't think that the industry is in crisis. Great writing is happening, and new publishing initiatives are starting up all the time to bring that work to readers.

The multi-national houses are cutting their mid-lists, but in a lot of cases, independent publishers are snapping up the authors dropped from the bigger houses, and the work is still being published.

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. But 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 think serious people already are reading and publishing fiction online. Sites like Byliner and The Atavist are publishing original, digital-only pieces of long-form journalism and fiction, and having considerable success doing so. There's an opportunity to publish work on the web that falls into the grey area between the short story and the novel that authors are embracing.

In an international context, growth in the ebook marketing may be slowing in North America and the UK, but there's still a lot of room for growth in other parts of the world. Distributing print books internationally can be difficult, but as smart phones become more common in Asia, South America and Africa, there's a potential to reach new readers through the internet that wasn't possible with print.

There's also a whole generation of children growing up right now who are being raised on screens, and who may not have with the same sense of cultural attachment and nostalgia related to print books that previous generations have. Those digital natives may be more willing to publish and read digital texts, and to view them as equal to printed works.

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.

E-books are now accepted in the industry. However, how much potential do you think e-ink and e-book technologies have? Will they ever replace print? Or will the two co-exist from this point on?

I believe that the two formats will continue to co-exist for some time. I think we're at a point where it's clear that digital books, and publishing of literature online, aren't going to completely overtake printed literature (in the next few decades, anyway), but they're also not going away. Digital sales still remain a fairly small piece of the pie for most publishers, but the number of people reading in digital format is growing.

On the other hand, it's clear that there is still a desire for print books in the current market, and many studies I've seen recently indicate that digital adoption rates among adolescents are not as high as was anticipated, so it seems that the demand for print will persist.

Aside from transmitting stories and information, printed books are also cultural artifacts that hold special meaning to people as objects, and that aspect of the printed book is hard to reproduce with digital. I personally do most of my fiction reading in digital format, but I still buy printed books occasionally, if it's something that I know I would like to have on my shelf, and be able to lend to friends, and re-read.

There's room for both formats in my consumption of literature, and I think a lot of people feel the same way.

4 In the past few years, articles and blog posts have appeared criticizing the pricing of books. Are books (particularly in Canada) too expensive? Has this been a factor in reducing the size of the book-buying audience over the last twenty or so years?

Book prices in Canada are higher than in the U.S. or the UK, and that's becoming more apparent as the market becomes more international through digital sales.

In the digital realm, self-published authors with low overhead costs are driving prices down, and traditional publishers are in some cases being forced to lower their prices to compete.

There's certainly more demand for inexpensive books, but the cost of producing and disseminating them has not reduced significantly for publishers, so the reality is that lowering prices leads to lower margins for publishers, in what is already a pretty low margin industry.

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?

In some ways, I think that digital is replacing the pocket-book. If people aren't concerned with acquiring the hardcover or literary paperback as an object, digital is a good alternative to the pocket-book or mass market paperback. I'm not sure there's a need for the return of the literary pocket-book.

6 What is your view of print-on-demand? Do you think it will ultimately be adopted by the industry to the degree e-books have?

There are a lot of exciting opportunities afforded by print-on-demand. Publishers can resuscitate backlist titles on smaller scale, or produce new texts in smaller print runs. It also enables international sales more easily.

The technology involved in POD is still prohibitively expensive for most publishers to own and operate their own machines, but more presses are taking advantage of the POD services supplied by digital asset managers like Lightning Source. I do think that we will see an increase in the number of books created through POD machines in the next decade.

7 When we met, you mentioned that right now there is a struggle for primacy between task specific e-readers and more general usage tablets. Is e-ink technology more in the "interest" of the publishing industry since e-ink allows for sustained reading? Or is this factor something the marketplace alone should decide?

This will likely be something that the marketplace determines. Right now, there are more opportunities to create illustrated, complex and enhanced texts for viewing on a tablet than on an e-ink device, and those texts are viewed by some as a way for books to compete with other digital media, so I wouldn't necessarily say that e-ink is more in the interest of the publishing industry.

8 Are e-titles perceived as a threat to print? Or is it a question of snobbery, with publishers instinctively viewing e-titles as artistically 'lesser”?

Digital is still perceived as a threat to print by some publishers, but most of the ones that have incorporated digital texts into their catalogue have found that it's just another piece of the puzzle, rather than the overtaking force it was originally anticipated to be. Digital texts are still most often created and treated by publishers as a secondary, lesser product, but in part that's because they still only account for a small fraction of sales.

9 Or is it a question of arts council funding, with arts monies allowing Canadian publishers to keep producing primarily in print, whereas in the (for better or worse) more capitalistic and competitive U.S., small presses do not have the same degree of luxury?

Grant funding does make it easier for Canadian publishers to continue to produce in print, but it also enables them to participate in the digital marketplace through initiatives like eBOUND. Their American counterparts have less funding for both print and digital.

10 Or -- in a twist on this theme -- is the arts council funding that is available to Canadian publishers earmarked for print production, so that Canadian houses do not have enough monies left over to build an e-book base?

Federal and provincial governmental bodies have begun earmarking funds for digital production and distribution over the past few years, which has helped a lot of smaller Canadian publishers to digitize their catalogues. I can't speak to the exact breakdown of funding that publishers receive for print vs. digital, though.

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