When Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists won the Giller Prize for Fiction in Canada in 2010, temporary havoc followed. At the time, the novel was being published by a boutique firm that is one of the few in the country to print and bind its own books, using “an unusual mix of traditional and contemporary technologies.” I immediately thought to myself, as any supply-chain-analyst-and-book-enthusiast would, what does this mean for the availability of the novel that just won the highest-ranking award for literature in the country? Predictably, due to the unique and manual nature of the printing processes involved, the publisher could support a production run of fewer than 1,000 copies per week, a number certainly much smaller than anticipated demand. After a hefty amount of discussion, negotiation, and (in all likelihood) intense pressure from a number of sides, the rights to The Sentimentalists were sold to a more conventional publishing house and the book was made widely available in major bookstores. (The boutique firm still retained the rights to publish the novel in its original, aesthetic form, in its small batches.)
In the week-or-two that the book was unavailable in stores, eBook sales for the title predictably picked up. However, demand for the paper copy of the book was still there: consumers waited to get the real thing in many cases. Would the same hold true today – would we wait? Perhaps not, because attitudes towards eReading have changed in these short four years between 2010 and 2014. At the time of the Giller Award in 2010, the Sony eReader has been around for four years; Amazon’s Kindle has been around for three; the Nook (Barnes & Noble) has been around for only one; the Kobo (Indigo) was around for half a year. I still remember the initial resentment towards eReaders at their introduction to the market, at least from a substantial portion of the readers I spoke to; the passive-aggressive comments we indulged in – “Well, personally, I prefer reading real books.”
Today, I believe selling rights to The Sentimentalists to a larger publishing house would be unnecessary. There may be enough demand for the electronic copies alone – if not for Kindles or Kobos, then for iPads and Samsung Galaxies. The image of electronic reading has turned itself around in the public’s eye. There are still purists around, myself included, who will read exclusively on paper – even if the book is as bulky as War and Peace. But these individuals have lost much of the hostility towards eReading. Some of us even recognize that it is a more sustainable model of reading books, objectively speaking: less space taken up by books, less trees needed to print books, and less unnecessary industrial activity if the content is an electronic file.
What if we are one of the last generations to enjoy and demand paper books? Emotionally, this would be sad, and I feel prematurely nostalgic for today just thinking about it. However, environmentally, objectively, factually – this would be the best thing.
What, then, is the role of publishers in this new eReading world? The publishers should not suffer so much in years to come because their main medium is the book as information. Information can be distributed and controlled in electronic form much like in physical form.
And what of bookstores? With a heavy heart I watched my two favourite Chapters locations close earlier this year – one of which I am lucky to have previously worked at. However, despite the rightsizing, I believe bookstores will remain essential to our communities and to our lifestyles.
Here are some of the good things that the book industry is doing:
(1) There is no resistance to eReading. The major chains are creating and innovating and improving eReaders. If they get those right, they can retain the same consumer base that once purchased Mass Market Paperbacks.
(2) There is no shame in diversifying. Books are about stories, but the idea of books also relates closely in our minds to culture, the home, comfort, inspiration, and creativity. There are entire gift and décor sections in bookstores now, and while I have heard some people complain about “how bookstores have changed,” there are literally no drawbacks to a lifestyle-type store. The books are still there, but the strategy is to remain profitable using a product mix of related items that appeal to the target market segments.
(3) Books are still beautiful. Right now I am reading a copy of The Goldfinch by the stellar author Donna Tartt. I am reading it in hardcover because I simply couldn’t wait another month, nevermind seven, until the paperback’s release. I don’t usually read hardcovers, but I’m finding that I like being reminded of the little rituals: finding a nice bookmark, removing the dust jacket before reading, noticing the ingrained letters on the cover. Also, besides novels, nobody dislikes receiving a beautiful coffee table book on a subject they love, whether it’s fashion or photography. Paper books are still a form of art, in a way that electronic books cannot quite be.
Before the written word, we shared stories by memorizing and retelling. Now, we write, which increases our ability to share and preserve stories. Stories are an integral part of humanity – from dreams, to art, to photography, and children’s play – we create and spread them with such ease that it’s almost involuntary. For this reason, I remain optimistic about the future of the book industry. There will be a change in the medium of how we consume stories (as there are changes to mediums in many other aspects of our lives), but the essence of what a book is will stay the same: in its physical form, as an memento, as well as its social form, as a narrative.