with Nathan Whitlock
The HLR presents a topical exchange between two individuals connected to the Canadian writing, reading, and publishing scene.
“The Book World in 2015: Hope on the Horizon, or to Hell in a Handbasket?”
Two longtime booksellers tell us how they think the book world is trending. Ian Elliot has been an independent bookseller for most of his career, and is presently the owner and manager of A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Ontario. Ben McNally has been a bookseller in Toronto for more than 40 years, and has operated his own store on Toronto’s Bay Street since 2007.
There’s been much discussion of the future of the book, which in my opinion largely depends on the future of the presently fraught book trade.
The book industry in Canada—The Perilous Trade, as Roy MacSkimming aptly called it—has just seen an especially tumultuous half decade, distressed by economic pressures, less served by media attention, and unsettled by technological change. Too many dedicated, long-serving people have lost their employment as publishers, distributors and booksellers have had to adapt to the new retail landscape.
Booksellers dealing in print have benefited in ways unimagined by the changing technology: database cataloguing, electronic ordering, and shipping traceability all save time and reduce margin for error. Accessibility and searchability of online images, audio and text content help us to remain usefully knowledgeable, and print on demand mechanisms extend the availability of many titles.
But today’s bookshop battles with heavier competition and pressures more profound than those faced by our predecessors. Online vendors and large chain stores constantly discount titles, placing independent vendors in a pernicious double bind of feeling pressure to sacrifice margin while coping with yearly increases in overhead.
At A Different Drummer Books, we’re extremely fortunate to have a group of patrons who recognize our contribution to local community and culture. Many also recognize the essential function of independent booksellers in maintaining publishing diversity and connecting authors and readers. As Bruce Philp ably elucidates in his 2012 book, Consumer Republic, educated vision in purchasing rectifies and benefits all industries, a tenet borne out daily at our shop.
We’ve observed that the people who visit us read from an impressive array of sources. They patronize bookstores, usually more than one, they absorb newspapers, journals, blogs, and read anywhere the technologies take them. Many conversations with our customers indicate that the printed page remains, despite predictions, the preferred way to read. Retention and ease of handling the object are the most cited criteria.
Taking a cue from ingenious, prodigious and discerning readers, we’re optimistic for the industry and for our community as we stock our store and continue to engage our customers with great literature.
There are several trends from the world of books that I find encouraging.
I think the most important trend, and the one I hope maintains its trajectory and velocity, involves the increasingly assertive voices of women. Old and young, women are trying to seize the initiative and upend the tired expectations of a male-dominated culture. Our basic assumptions need the occasional shake.
It was great last year, for instance, to talk about writers such as Rebecca Solnit, Roxanne Gay, Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham and their efforts to make sure women’s stories are told, heard, and respected. This year, I await with interest Sarai Walker’s forthcoming novel Dietland, in which a group of women take guerilla action against the worst indignities of our popular culture. I’m encouraged that young women have contemporary role models in the literary world.
A most interesting development has been the number of young female novelists taking on the prospect of the world after a cataclysmic end to civilization as we know it. They are not, apparently, concerned so much with technological breakdown as they are with sudden medical catastrophes that bring devastating results. Technological collapse occurs only as a secondary effect. Emily St. John Mandel’s brilliant Station Eleven was the high watermark from last year, but Sandra Newman, Louise Welsh, and Laura Van den Berg have female protagonists wandering around in a blasted landscape, as human as ever.
Another trend that pleases me is the return of the long novel. A prodigious page count has not been an impediment to success, and there are more 600 plus page novels on the way. Our writers are finding that they have a lot to pack into the confines of the novel, and readers seem willing to go along for the ride.
Going forward, the Internet, and connectivity in general, remain a matter of continuing interest in the publishing world. While we seem to have reached a saturation point on books that would have you increase productivity, success, personal growth and anything else you can imagine by plumbing the possibilities of social media, there is still an abiding interest in the digital world. Opinion remains divided on whether the increasingly connected world is good for us or bad for us, individually and collectively, but there seems finally to be some serious examination of what we stand to lose. I suspect that there will be a considerable number of books written about “the internet of things” as more and more common household items become connected to the digital grid.
On the downside, I see more and more books that seem designed to reinforce predetermined positions. The bookstore then becomes ever more critical as a cultural meeting ground for competing points of view.
I’m also consistently surprised at how willing publishers seem to be to assume that successful bloggers, whatever that means, can translate into successful authors, or that writers who’ve had a lot of e-book downloads will be able to convince people to buy physical books. Fifty Shades of Grey has a lot to answer for.
In general, though, I am thrilled at the increasing care and artistry that are going into publishing books, and I’m hoping that trend will continue. More and more, books seem designed to live long and fruitful lives on your shelves.