Here’s a truly Canadian tale.
First, let me preface this piece by saying I’ve been on the fence about ebooks, hung up mostly on the fact that they’re not books in the physical sense. I’m not morally opposed to ebooks, but after playing with Kindle, Nook, and Kobo in-store as well as Kindle for PC and Kobo for iPad, etc., I’m just not convinced that — for me — they could ever replace the reading experience a real book gives.
However a recent chain of events made me realize how utterly perfect ebooks are for a country like Canada.
Canada is an interesting place, literaturely speaking. I suspect that we have more novelists per capita than any other country in the world. Much of that might be thanks to the great support of things like the Canada Council for the Arts grants and the Ontario Arts Council.
We’re likely near the top for readers per capita too. It’s just that our capita cap is less than 35 million. Even lower when you factor in kids and non-English readers. It’s simply not enough to support our writers fully. The result is that except for the Atwoods and the Couplands, publishers usually do small print runs.
Another important aspect of the literary scene is that Canada has a very award-centric readership. The difference between winning the Giller Prize, in one case at least, was the difference between the 800-copy initial run, and at least 30,000 after it won*. It’s like the Canadian version of the Oprah Book Club. I guess it’s not surprising – in a country with so many writers and so (relatively) few readers, any direction as to what is the crème de la crème would be pounced upon faster than Margaret Atwood at a book fair.
But when the Giller Prize long list came out a couple of weeks ago, I found the problem is much more profound than I even realized. One book in particular jumped out at me: “My Life Among the Apes” by Cary Fagan. So, I went down to my local Chapters on Thursday night – the day it was announced – but no go. I searched the racks, then searched the computer. Out of stock. The same was true in every Toronto location, not to mention Chapters Online. (Amazon.ca had it listed, but I wasn’t entirely convinced…) Now, it is possible that there was a big rush on them in the hours after the announcement. But not bloody likely on a work day. Besides, it’s just the long list…
Now here’s the thing that makes me nervous as a writer: this isn’t Cary Fagan’s first rodeo. Here’s his bio from Cormorant Books, his publisher:
Cary Fagan began his career writing short stories before moving on to novels as well as numerous books for children. Yet he has never given up his love for the story form. Here are ten new stories whose characters are funny, serious, peculiar, and absorbing — as only Cary Fagan can write them.
Covering a wide range of human experience with humour and grace, My Life among the Apes is a testament to Cary Fagan’s mastery of his craft.
If this accomplished writer can’t get his latest book noticed – even stocked – without being nominated for an award, what chance does the average writer have?
Answer: about the same chance – maybe less – as becoming a writer on a hit TV show. (Which, I’m thinking, might actually be the way to go…)
Just out of curiosity, I took a look to see what other hard-to-get books were on this year’s Giller long list. As it turns out, a lot. Of the 13 titles, six were not immediately available for purchase. Almost half. The longest wait was “3-5 weeks” to order.
That’s why ebooks are perfect for a country like Canada. All the challenges with printing, distribution, and other barriers are not a concern. It is there, immediately. In your ereader. The publisher gets instant cash, the writer gets another sale to his or her name, and the reader gets immediate access.
Not only that, these same benefits open up new international markets – it is much easier to sell an ebook to someone in South Africa, for example, than to send physical books there.
Except here too there is a hiccup. Publishers, especially in Canada, seem to be a little slow on the ball when it comes to ebooks. Initially, I couldn’t get “My Life Among the Apes” in ebook form (not sure if it was available and I missed it, but I couldn’t find it), though it did pop up as an option that weekend. I downloaded it, and was reading it Monday evening.
That’s what I think the greatest glory of the ebook will be, in Canada anyway: instant availability, instant scalability, instant portability – especially when it comes to distribution. Now, for the first time, there will be a seamless wait time between demand and fulfillment, between wanting a book and getting it. From the publisher’s point of view, between successfully marketing a book and actually selling it.
But will Canadian publisher embrace the ebook? Publishers around the world have shown themselves to be somewhat cautious at the very least to enter the realms of new technology. However, I think it’s inevitable that they’ll have to start doing a better job of making ebooks available and even promoting them as ereader popularity grows.
There will be a lot of people – me included – who will still prefer the solid heft of a real cover-and-pages book. But given the choice between an ebook and not reading a book at all, the ebook will always be the clear winner.
*I talked about The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud here previously, and the difficulties of getting that book into the hands of readers after it won the Giller Prize in 2010.