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Virtual world changing the printed word

September 26, 2013 - News

By RANGA RAJAH
Special to SAF
Is the expression ‘That book is a page turner’ changing to ‘That e-book is a page turner’?
Maybe so, maybe not. But with Amazon having expanded Kindle tablet sales to over 170 countries recently, this discussion takes an interesting turn.
Sam Hiyate, president, The Rights Factory Literary Agents, Toronto, says: “The market focus has shifted and e-book is an established format. There is a market for it and though Asian countries are slower at adapting, eventually they will catch up in the next five years or so.”
Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Pakistani-Canadian novelist, who was recently shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize for his novel Between Clay and Dust, agrees with Hiyate and says that the online reading market has not affected the South Asian traditional publishing market as yet. But: “It has affected a great degree in North America and Western Europe.”
At the same time, many in the industry feel electronic book buying and reading has had some positives. According to Uma Parameswaran, retired professor of English, University of Winnipeg, and author of the prize-winning book What Was Always Hers, readership has increased due to Kindle and similar devices.
Parameswaran adds that it had made readers of many people who might never have gone to a library or bookstore in earlier days.
She further adds, “But the younger generation, who live off, and on, electronic devices will take to the new technology because very soon it will be the only medium they know.  Students seldom go to the library books for research — they go to online search engines, and first they go to Wikipedia!  Even my nine-year-old grand-daughter is reading more because of Kindle.”
Marina Nemat, author of Prisoner Of Tehran and After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed, who lives in Toronto and teaches memoir writing at the School of Continuing Studies at University of Toronto, says: “Most readers tell me that they prefer an ‘actual’ book, but I also know that some readers, including myself, are turning to e-books because of practicality and portability.”
The increase in readership, specifically e-reading, can be attributed to the price factor and availability of online materials.
If there are e-readers, then there are also e-writers/publishers. It is true that electronic aids are not only about reaching out there and creating a huge network of readers — the e-route is also helping in bringing out hidden talent. Hiyate and Parameswaran say it is a big support for self-publishing authors as they can get a book published in a day. It is not just about instant gratification — authors are using the e-books and building a market for themselves with the help of blogging tours, virtual connect with readers around the globe, by posting links, etc.
Take the example of the tweets by Justin Halpern, who started a Twitterfeed “@shitmydadsays” that memorable day on Aug 3, 2009 — and by October the same year had already signed a book deal with HarperCollins — and a television deal with Warner Bros the following month itself, to boot — all based on his tweets.
Halpern did not have to wait for years to achieve fame. His book, Sh*t My Dad Says, co-authored by his friend and writing partner Patrick Schumacker, was completed in February 2010 and published in May 2010. In June of the same year, the book topped The New York Times Bestseller List and remained right up there on the top of the standings for a further 11 weeks. Further, it remained on the bestseller list for 50 weeks, eventually selling 1.2 million copies… and counting.
Nor is that the end of the story. The instant popularity also resulted in Warner putting on CBS a sitcom titled $#*! My Dad Says, and starring William Shatner. It won the People’s Choice Award for Best New Comedy.
And it all started with the virtual word.
There are options galore to become famous in the e-world. If your tweets cannot help you reach up the popularity charts, you can turn to Kindle Singles. An author (aspiring or established) can write a short piece and earn up to $20,000. The target word count for submissions is set between 5,000 to 30,000 and it can be on any topic, a novella, memoir or essay. On their author list is the entire gamut — from previously unpublished writers to well established authors like Stephen King.
All one needs in the cyber world to link up is the power-on button. And if a million people hit that button and read your posts, no one can stop you from becoming famous instantly. It doesn’t stop there — you get followers and likes on your posts. And this is exactly what publishers want these days.
“From 2004 to 2013, the market has become tougher and more competitive. People these days have to bring their own audience… (like Halpern, there is) greater focus on the author bringing the audience,” says Hiyate.
There are other benefits too, such as cost: e-books cost the publishers and booksellers very little. Notes Parameswaran, “There are no warehouse and shelf-space costs, no transportation costs, no paper or printing costs. An e-book increases the publishers’ revenue a lot more if a book does well and has very little negative impact if it does not do well.”
Have writers been affected by this shift in the dynamics of printed book readers versus online readers? Did they have to make any changes to their writing styles in order to suit the online readers?
Says Nemat, “No, I don’t feel that the writers I know have changed their writing style… but maybe there are those who have.”
Maybe writers have not compromised on their writing styles — but there certainly have been a few changes in the preferred reading category. In the printed book category, Hiyate points out that non-fiction is slowly disappearing, while fiction which is “artistic theory” is becoming harder to sell. The midlist, typically one that is neither the bestseller nor the non-seller, is disappearing as well.
However, commercial reading, appealing to certain genres, like thriller, romance, which is basically entertainment, is selling.
But overall, the current status and the overall future of traditional book publishing and reading doesn’t seem to suggest the end is nigh. Perhaps even the opposite… or possibly a case of different avenues for the word co-existing in peaceful harmony.
Says Hiyate, “The printed book is not going anywhere, 75 per cent is still in the printed book format. I personally love the printed book and also read online-e-books. I respect and appreciate print.”
Adds Farooqi, “I still prefer reading printed books. But I have no issues with reading on an e-reader.”
Parameswaran, who is also a member of The Writers’ Union of Canada, says readers of her generation who connect with printed (hardcover, leather-bound) books might not reconcile themselves to devices which don’t give the same tactile experience of holding a real book.
Erin Creasey, Sales & Marketing Director, ECW Press, Toronto, says: “We sell a lot more print books than e-books.”
In existence for over three decades, ECW Press has adapted to the changes in the publishing industry by adding e-publishing, besides sending the manuscripts to the regular printers.
On the current status of the print industry for books. Nemat says her first book Prisoner of Tehran was published in Canada in 2007, “and has so far been published in 28 countries and the sales of the print version have been very strong worldwide. (But) it has also sold a healthy number of e-books.”
Outside Canada, Farooqi is of the opinion that in Pakistan a proper publishing industry does not exist because there is no countrywide distribution network. He says there are many small publishers but they have very little reach, and most of these publishers publish religious titles.
In India, according to Farooqi, the publishing industry exists in terms of the infrastructure — but considering that it is a growing industry, it needs to do more to attract the best and the brightest people.
Ready reckoner on e-books and self-publishing
• e-books are digitized versions of printed books
• They are distributed through the internet
• More and more authors are using social media and blogs to promote their works
• Besides the traditional publishing houses, authors are also taking the self-publishing route
• An author can choose to self-publish an e-book, the print version, or both
• Print-On-Demand is a cost-effective option available to publishers/authors
• Self-publishing your book means you bear the expenses for printing, promoting, marketing, distributing.

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