In 2011, Amazon announced that the sales for its Kindle e-books had surpassed those of their physical books, with 105 e-books sold for every 100 print copies. According to the Association of American Publishers (AAP), e-book sales amounted to $63.9 million in 2008. In 2013, e-book sales accounted for $3 billion—a 47 per cent increase in five years. The past decade has also seen the emergence of e-reading devices in mainstream markets. Prominent models include the Kindle, produced by Amazon; the Nook, produced by Barnes and Noble; and the Kobo, produced by the Canadian company Rakuten Kobo Inc. E-readers are actually seeing declining sales, from $25 million in 2012 to a projected $7 million in 2014, according to analytical group Forrester. However, the digital print culture that e-readers and ebooks compose is having surprising effects on the diversity of work that is both digitized and accesible to the public, in addition to providing new opportunities for publishing.
Blare Coughlin, a Montreal-based author and McGill student, says they publish their work through the e-book format because of the medium’s accessibility.
“It’s just not feasible, cost-wise, to produce something physical,” they said. “Plus, it’s easier to reach a wider audience. If I [was] printing physical copies of my e-books, [they] would only reach the downtown Montreal area, but this way I can reach people all over the world with the right publicity.”
Coughlin is also drawn to the mutability of the e-book medium itself.
“You can put whatever you want in an e-book and call it that,” Coughlin said. “Some people make e-books that are basically digitized zines, [a self-circulated online magazine.] Other people make very slick and design-heavy work that might not even have any writing actually in it.”
Because of their digital nature, e-book production is often rooted in online communities. Coughlin cites this as another advantage of the e-book format.
“The medium allows [...] very quick editing and cooperation that isn’t possible with other media,” Coughlin said. “Since [...] many other people who write online live […] outside of Montreal, it doesn’t even hinge on you knowing the right people. You can just do things with your friends, and not worry about money or possible producers and investors. It’s very freeing.”
Although online self-publishing may be less selective than traditional methods, the variable nature of the e-book medium does not translate into increasing the diversity of products that are commercially available, especially at large retailers such as Chapters, said Larissa Dutil, programming and outreach coordinator at the Concordia co-op bookstore.
“Publishers have paid Chapters to promote one book over another,” Dutil explained. “In those kinds of stores, there’s really only a certain kind of book that’s being pushed to you [...] the best-sellers, or the next big thing.”
Dutil added that this gatekeeping effect is also felt by smaller publishing companies.
“If you go to a Chapters, you’d be harder pressed to find a lot of the […] smaller independent publishers that aren’t a part of, or distributed by a larger conglomerate,” she said. “In a way, that’s making it harder and harder for small presses to get their material out there.”
Dutil stated that she did not discount the services that a publisher provides to authors. Instead, she highlighted the balance between the resources of institutionalized publishers and the freedom of the self-published, e-book medium.
“Almost anyone [...] can turn their written work into an e-version that they can sell on various sites,” she said. “[However], there’s a lot of marketing, publicity, and communication with bookstores that publishers are doing [that] is very difficult in terms of reaching a wide audience.”
Local author Guillaume Morissette, whose novel New Tab is being published by Véhicule Press, also spoke to the balance between resources that publishers can provide and the importance of an online presence, arguing that the latter can be influential for less well-known authors.
“Unlike Stephen King, I rarely get premium placement in large bookstores, so I have to use different strategies to promote and market my stuff,” he said. “I view online as my main opportunity to sell books, and physical bookstores, readings, and touring as secondary, or in support of that.”
Morissette also described the complicated relationship between large retailers such as Chapters and local authors—especially with regards to the selection of works available in print versus those online as an e-book.
“It seems a little terrifying to me to think that only a few executives at Chapters decide which books the entire chain will feature,” Morissette said. “It seems like a lot of writers I know have a kind of adversarial relationship with [Chapters] , in that they feel mostly ignored by it. At the same time, a store like [Chapters] only has a finite amount of retail space, so it makes sense that they carry the books they can.”
Morissette explained that the availability of New Tab as a Kobo e-book through the Indigo website is beneficial for his outreach.
“If Kobo were to choose to spotlight or feature New Tab, it would probably be exposed to an audience that might not have heard of it otherwise,” he said.
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Beyond the creative process, digital culture has also influenced the academic landscape. McGill libraries are currently undertaking various digitization projects—including the retro-thesis project, which aims to digitize every graduate thesis produced at McGill since the university’s inception. According to Associate Dean of McGill Library’s Digital Initiatives Jenn Riley, the university currently spends 80 per cent of its $16 million collections budget on electronic resources.
“We have e-book subscriptions to all major university presses for the most part, [and] we don’t get those in print any more,” Riley said. “Almost all academic libraries have made this shift [....] We are very committed to this shift because we get more bang for our buck. A title that would cost 100 or 200 dollars per book is 30 or 15 [dollars] per book in the electronic version.”
To illustrate this point, Joseph Hafner, Associate Dean of Collection Services, explained that the library previously subscribed to 18,000 print journals. Now, McGill provides access to 90,000 e-journals.
According to Sarah Severson, digitization and delivery coordinator for McGill Library’s Digital Initiatives, more resources are being digitized in the humanities than in the sciences.
“We do so much of our work based on user demand, [and] there’s less user demand in the sciences for public domain books, whereas in the humanities, [there are] lots of people studying 18th century literature, which I can totally digitize and provide,” Severson said.
The lower prices of digital resources have affected the scope of both literary and academic writing in similar ways. For literature, customers’ lower expectations of prices have led publishers and retailers to cut costs so that publishers don’t have to take risks on works that aren’t slated to sell well. Riley explained that in academia, most institutions subscribe to identical digital collections.
“It used to be that we all had different collecting areas, different strengths, and that’s evening out a little bit,” Riley said. “McGill is very heavily [STEM focused…] and our collections represent that. However we have some strong humanities departments and they need collections. Different campuses have different academic strengths and libraries to make sure they can provide the resources that those faculties and departments need.”
Riley also spoke to the challenges created by digital culture, such as issues with copyright and accessibility of online media. Although some works can be digitized, their dissemination can be restricted because of copyright laws.
“So many of our vendors introduced digital resource management into the queue so that people can’t copy and steal the books, but this often results in a very difficult user experience,” Riley said. “If a person wants to get an e-book on [a] device, as opposed to reading it off [of an internet browser,] it’s hard. ”
In spite of these challenges, the digitization of collections has afforded researchers novel ways of examining their work, such as text-mining algorithms—where students can search for keywords within papers—that can be applied to many documents.
Professor Tabitha Sparks, who specializes in 19th century British novels, says that the digitization of rare books has changed the very definition of expertise in her field. Before these initiatives, the canon of Victorian literature—the books that are still in print—would consist of 20 to 30 authors. According to Sparks, the number of novels published during that time is closer to 13,000. Recent efforts in digitizing the books have drastically improved the accessibility of these novels, influencing the very composition of the canon.
“If you’re going to be grappling with a field where there are going to be thousands and thousands of books available [...] you can’t just rely on coverage anymore, and you have to ask different questions about how novels have an afterlife, if they become part of the canon, and why they don’t,” Sparks said.
The addition of so many books to the canon of Victorian literature has also highlighted how gender and class has affected what novels were considered to be good literature by later scholars.
“[There are] whole publishing lines, especially of popular literature written by women, that were best selling at the time, but never made it into a third edition,” Sparks said. “And it’s that area [that] I think has been […] most dramatically resurrected [....] I’m really interested in what average people read in the Victorian era and less interested in what the critics thought, and that’s a total about-face from what I [used to] be able to do, even in grad school.”
This influx of novels that are accessible online has also affected Sparks’ classes. Some works are so new that her students are among the first to write critically about them. In the future, Sparks explains that digitization will affect both academics and publishers.
“In the old style with books being published […] in print, I think there was more gatekeeping,” she said. “[It’s] not necessarily a bad thing that that’s going away, and it will definitely change the way we think about things like originality, plagiarism, and access to works that are perhaps officially owned or copyrighted by some people.”
According to Riley, the nature of librarians’ roles at McGill will have to shift from service providers to research partners.
“The idea is that we can help people understand methodologies for doing their research [with software that] can help them find the data, [and] deposit the data once they’re done,” she said. “So we’re a part of every step along the way rather than just providing a catalogue.”
With regards to the future of literature, Coughlin explains that digital publishing has lent a new platform to social issues.
“Right now there’s an intense push towards writing from more feminist perspectives and criticizing patriarchy, racism, and transphobia in culture,” they said. “I’m personally very for this shift: It adds legitimacy to a lot of what people have been saying for years, and now others are actually listening, which is incredibly powerful.”
As for print novels, Morissette argues that although literary culture is evolving away from books—to the form of articles, websites, and apps—regardless of if they are online or in print, they have the capacity to transform a reader.
“I don’t think the novel is going to die,” he said. “I think the novel will probably evolve or change, but there’s still something unique, enjoyable, and necessary about the novel as an art form [....] Books exist because someone gave a lot of mental attention to a series of events or a specific subject matter or something, and a well-written book, I think, can both teach us and entertain us.”