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March 11th, 2012

Publishing Talkback: TL’s The “Final” Chapter, Or, Shut Up Jesse Brown

I’m going to start by saying these opinions are my own. They do not reflect those of the company that I work for nor of the industry that I am in — they are mine as a reader and as a blogger.

I have composed this blog post in my mind a half-dozen times over the last few weeks. When I was on mat leave, I mistakenly thought I’d have oodles of free time to sit around reading so, I thought, I’ll subscribe to a number of magazines. Oh, how foolish — they sit, collect dust, the pile mocks me, and then I often read some of them very early in the morning on the weekends while the RRHB sleeps, and the RRBB and I hang out. In the March 2012 issue of Toronto Life, yet another writer, this time technology critic Jesse Brown, is once again proclaiming “death” (or a some version of demise) for the book industry claiming, “Books are good business for everyone but the book business,” as he wrote in “The Final Chapter,” his essay in the March 2012 edition of Toronto Life (I’d add the link to the essay but, alas, it’s not online, you have to buy the print edition, oh, the irony, right?).

Now, I’m going to say something radical. Please, go ahead and disagree with me — there may be issues with the book selling business: independents getting crushed by the chains; Amazon’s heavy-handed, well everything; Indigo’s move into whatever “lifestyle” means; and the fact that we are probably just publishing too many books — but none of that has to actually do with publishing. Publishers, sure, need to evolve as well, and I’ll be the first to lecture on new and improved business models to ensure our survival, but, and this is the important part, so please pay attention: Our margins might be small but our business is profitable.

Why else would everyone in the world want to be a publisher? Why is Amazon in the business? Why is Apple in the business? Why is every single ebook vendor, agent and whatnot trying to do what we do — they are looking outside and seeing a vast majority of people dying to be in a book, to publish a book and seeing the great opportunity to “monetize the sawdust,” (I mean, slush pile). Let’s not forget that Apple, Amazon, Sony, Google, all of the technical giants came looking to be in business with us, the lowly, hard working, purveyors of the written word in all its formats, the book publishers.

Sure, Brown’s point is that the “ideal” of reading might be compromised the minute you put Angry Birds on your iPad, but, actually, that’s not the case. What seems to be happening is that a lot of technical early adopters, people who would not be considered avid readers, decided they might like to try out a book on their fancy new gadget and bought one, two, or several thousands. Apple’s not going to have a bookstore if it’s not profitable, and if it takes selling a gadget to a middle-aged man who hasn’t read a book since university, well halle-flapjacking-lujah, isn’t that awesome.

I know there’s an element to Toronto Life that has to look critically upon the world we live it. They’ve published a number of what I’d consider anti-Toronto opinions over the last few months to broaden the scope of their readership, to challenge the central thesis of the magazine, to, and I’m stepping out on a limb here, ensure their relevancy. It infuriates me — I mean, that ridiculous article way in the way back about the silly girl who just couldn’t stop comparing Toronto to New York and finding it lacking? Honestly, just go home and shut up, you were never going to be happy here anyway.And there’s an element to his argument that’s not irrelevant, there’s a lot happening in the publishing industry, it’s in flux and it’s evolving, we won’t always get it right, and that’s okay.

But I really take issue with the argument that ebooks are “short, loud and cheap,” it’s further degrading the format and actually quite misleading. Right now, the cost of ebooks are completely underwritten by their print counterpoints, at least in traditional publishing in the big houses — the true cost of the editorial, production and supply chain of what we do still remains to be seen. It’s not cheap, delivering files always has inherent problems, as does coding, which is what an ebook is — a piece of code. There’s a level of error there that we don’t see in the printed book. And the whole environmental issue needs to be looked at from all sides, the energy that it takes to create the file, the human resources that are all off-shore in coding, the resources that go into the building of the gadgets, sure we’re not ripping down forests but all indication is that the print side of the business is still very healthy, and that ebooks are simply adding to market, so overall, I’m not sure it’s going to come out a wash.

Anyway, I’m getting off topic. Yes, some of the stuff that’s self-published is cheap and looks terrible, but so what — ebooks have given voice to many, many individuals whose life-long dream is to publish a book. So what if no one reads it, so what if it’s just .99 — that doesn’t degrade what the big six do, it just gives everyone an opportunity to get paid, which is what I say in every single lecture, every single opportunity, every single moment I’m in front of an audience: writers deserve to get paid.

Because that’s the part that you’re missing here, the people creating the content, the ones slaving away for years alone in a room with only their imagination to talk to, they are the ones that need every stream of revenue they can basically cobble together. If that means some shiny bells on an iPad to open up a new audience, so be it. If that means Indigo selling Kobo for a RIDICULOUS profit because the company looks attractive on a global scale, well, so be it, because at the end of the day, many, many, many writers are going to get paid.

Calling out long-form journalism, which, to me, is one of the most exciting new genres to come out of ebook publishing as a format that was “unmarketable format in bookstores,” is kind of short-sighted. Sure, long-form journalism died a slow death in print, but isn’t it excited that we, the publishers, see potential to bring it back to the reader? To celebrate the hours of research and motion a writer puts into a story that would be fiscally unmanageable in the printed format? What’s wrong with picture — more writers are getting paid.

And, please, please don’t take this the wrong way Jesse Brown, because I do understand some of where you are coming from, but I take the TTC a lot. And do you know what people do on the public transit? They read. I see Kobos and Kindles and Sony Readers. I see iPods and iPads and all kinds of other gadgets. I see books and books and books and books and a dear friend has even published her own book based upon the other people she’s Seen Reading. Do you know what I don’t see a lot of? People reading magazines. I’ll say it again — our margins are small but our business is profitable. We are not beholden to advertising to justify our print space. Sure, one successful book can underpin the company so that we have the room to publish a lot of really great books that might never find an audience, but, our business is still profitable. Our lights are still on. And I’m more than willing to do as much long-form journalism as it takes to ensure that the format stays alive, just because I believe in the writing. I believe in writers. I believe in gadgets, and I think books are good business for everyone.

4 Responses to “Publishing Talkback: TL’s The “Final” Chapter, Or, Shut Up Jesse Brown”

  • seenonflickr says:

    Yes, yes, yes to this!!! (And urg, Toronto Life, I used to love it, now it mostly just annoys me.)

  • Zesty says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Technology is not a death knell, just another way of delivering content. The magazine industry is seeing growth in the hundred of percents [one figure I read was 400+] and what’s doing it? iPad subscriptions.

    On the other side, you can’t lend someone your iPad. You can always lend someone a book.

    It gets back to your point that being are ultimately passionate about content, writing and writers.

  • Zesty says:

    *It gets back to your point, that being that people are ultimately passionate about content, writing and writers.

  • Carrie says:

    I love this piece, D. It’s excellent insight and I agree with every word.

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Girl with titanium hip will rock. Girl with titanium hip will write. Girl with titanium hip will read. Girl with titanium hip will battle crazy-ass disease called Wegener's Granulomatosis. Now stuff that in your spelling bee!

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