It's no secret that the print industry is in trouble, and has been in trouble for years. Printed publications--from magazines to encyclopedias to novels--have been steadily losing readers. People now go online for news and information, but what about reading novels? Where does the digital revolution leave the world of literature? Is the novel doomed to disappear from our cultural landscape, become an artistic relic like Ancient Greek sculpture?
Well, ebook lovers say "no". Not with devices like Amazon's Kindle, Sony's Reader, and Apple's iPad gaining popularity. These "ereaders" let you read digital novels on handheld devices, mimicking the experience of printed books. The Kindle was released in the US back in 2007, and millions of Americans have already embraced it. Its recent arrival in Canada, coupled with the release of the iPad, heralds a new frontier for the country's lesser-known publishers and novelists. Underpaid and obsure, these booklovers have been struggling to find readers--or to publish books period--as the world of print fades.
But watch out. The game has changed. We've just entered the post-Gutenberg age.
For the past generation, a handful of coglomorates had dominated Canada's book industry. Small, indie presses found it near impossible to get into bookshops and find readers. Thousands of Canadian authors--from teenagers writing sci fi epics in their parents' basements, to English teachers crafting masterpieces in stolen moments--found no publisher who'd even read their manuscripts, let alone publish them. Celebrity memoirs covered our country's bookshelves, alongside novels by a handful of well known (and sometimes well connected) authors. Smaller names stayed in the dark.
Ebooks are changing this. More and more Canadians are buying reading devices, whether dedicated ereaders--like the Kindle or Reader--or gadgets like the iPad, which include reading apps. Canada's indie publishers, or even self-published authors, can now upload their titles directly to electronic bookstores and reach millions of readers. This digital frontier is open to everyone, from the teenager in his basement, to the old English Lit teacher chipping away at his magnum opus.
In fact, the indies now have an advantage. While the larger publishers often sell their ebooks for $10 or more--necessary for maintaining their overhead--smaller publishers and authors can sell their books for cheap. A browse through Amazon's Kindle store reveals thousands of novels costing $5 or less. Not a bad deal for hours of reading.
"The ebook industry will face some struggles," says Daniel Arenson, a Toronto author whose fantasy hardcover was recently re-released as an ebook. "For years now, publishers would reject over 99% of manuscripts. Many of these rejected novels will now flood the ebook stores. Certainly there will be a few gems among them, but many will be of poor quality. How will we find the good books? Will it be like finding needles in haystacks?"
However, Arenson is quick to affirm that in the long run, readers will still find the books they love. "Ebooks will rely more on word-of-mouth, less on the word of editors and critics. In the traditional model, most large publishers refused read manuscripts by new authors; there were simply too many submissions. So many great novels never reached us. But ebooks give readers the power. The mediocre books will sink into obscurity. The great books will receive great reviews, word-of-mouth will spead, and they'll find readers."
Arenson is a good example of an old-school author who resisted ebooks at first, but is now taking tentative steps into the digital world. "For a while, I didn't like the idea of ebooks," he confesses. "For me, books meant paper. Print is what I grew up with. For me, ebooks seemed somehow less 'real'. But like all booklovers, I'm realizing that the medium is not what matters; it's still about the words."
Three years ago, a small American publisher picked up Arenson's fantasy novel, Firefly Island. It was released in hardcover--a good old heavy book with rustling pages, a dust jacket, and a proud place on the bookshelf. Arenson waited for ebooks to become popular enough, and for good ereaders to reach Canada. Finally this April he uploaded Firefly Island to the Kindle store. His redesigned website, DanielArenson.com, still offers writing tips, free stories, and an author's bio, but instead of promoting his hardcover book, it's now geared toward ebook lovers.
"I've turned cloaks and joined the revolution," he jokes. "And so far, I love it. I especially love how affordable ebooks are. My old hardcover cost $26. The ebook costs only $5. It's a new challenge, and I'm still learning the digital ropes, but I'm hoping to reach more readers than ever before."
As print fades, where is this new world of literature heading? Arenson is optimistic. "In ten years," he says, "most authors won't even bother with print books. Booklovers will all have ereaders, and we'll reach them without the overhead of printing, shipping, and stocking physical books. Most importantly, we'll have more books, more talent. Indie publishers and indie authors will be able to compete with the big guys, and I'm excited to see what new novels--new worlds--we see."