April 6, 2010 | 8
If a discussion Monday at a Manhattan bookstore is any indication, book publishers and sellers find e-books threatening, but writers, feeling generally abused for decades by publishers, are gleeful over their newfound digital access to readers—be that via the Web, iPads, e-book readers, podcasts or cell phones.
The event at McNally Jackson bookstore started with two authors reading some of their short fiction, including Jim Hanas who used his iPad to read from some of his work for the Significant Objects Project.
"First fiction reading off an iPad ever?" tweeted Brian Joseph Davis, managing editor and co-founder of Joyland Fiction, a site that publishes short fiction. Davis also presented material from his book Ronald Reagan: My Father at the event.
In fact, Hanas’s iPad drew some attention as the audience gathered. I held out my Kindle for a weight comparison. A McNally Jackson employee teased, "You openly wave that thing around here?" I guiltily purchased a book before leaving.
Today, an e-book is considered a "deprecated version" of a print book, said Hanas, author of Cassingle, an e-book collection of short stories that originally appeared in McSweeney’s, Fence and Twelve Stories. But soon, the e-book will be the "first version," too, and "having it first" is the value that book buyers have always prioritized over the material a book is made out of. "Things that are really good, those will be sold in a store like this," he said, referring to print books at McNally Jackson.
Short fiction in particular is "native to the Internet," Davis said.
For any length of work, digital formats are being embraced by many writers, who weren’t getting paid much for their printed work anyhow and were fools if they were in it for the money. Hanas, who has been published in several respected journals, says he has been paid a total of $250 in 10 years for this body of work. Besides, he said, if you give a writer a choice between $10,000 and 10,000 readers, the writer will always choose the latter.
So if you’re talking about a new business model for publishing the written word, from the perspective of many writers, that would be lovely.
During the discussion, Richard Nash, former editorial director of Soft Skull Press from 2001 to 2007, heralded the e-book for its potential to "end the endless shitification of the book." He said Soft Skull’s first books were printed on 55-pound paper. By 2004, they were printed on 50-pound paper. And in 2009, they were printed on 45-pound paper, which turns yellow within weeks if exposed to excessive sunlight.
"You cannot tell me that that is better than a pdf," Nash said. Digital formats free books from the burden of being a mass-market product, he pointed out, and restores them to a pre-industrial state, that of a "tribal fetish."
Publishing houses today do far too little to connect writers with readers, Nash said, something that digital formats can enable.
"Telling stories creates value and has created value for an enormous amount of human history," he said. "How do we unlock that value?" Degree and non-degree training programs for writers are one way, he suggested.
Publishing books is a "tiny industry perched atop a massive hobby," he said, referring to writing and reading. It’s still a hobby today because people at the top of the publishing industry are "obsessed with controlling access to the hobby," he said. "How do we come up with a new business model for the hobby? Maybe the hobby is part of that business model."