A while back, Peter Darbyshire, author of Please [link] and The Warhol Gang [link] was kind enough to do an extended interview with me. His remarks dovetail nicely with other interviews I’ve done, particularly with those who have strong opinions, either pro or con, about e-books (I’m currently shopping around an article on e-publishing, and ergo my interest in a broad range of opinions on this — this is the right way to put it, no matter one’s feelings on the subject in terms of the potential for negative or positive outcomes — revolutionary technology.) An abridged version of Darbyshire’s comments are below:
CBT: V. S. Naipaul has declared there are not any important writers anymore, Philip Roth has predicted the novel will become a cult activity, Peter Stothard has asked if fiction writing simply used to be better, Cullen Murphy, David Shields, Lee Seigel, and — have all stated that non-fiction is superior to fiction.
The list of people of letters who apparently have lost faith in literary fiction goes on an on; it is clear that an elementary questioning of the novel is not a passing cultural phase.
What is your opinion? Does the novel have a future? If so, what kind? And will e-technology alter the very form of the novel? If so, how?
PD: The novel does indeed have a future, and its future is e-technology. And not just print books simply ported to e-book form, as is the case now. The e-book is going to change the novel as we know it in many ways.
The primary changes we’ll see initially will mainly be creative ones, with a re-imagining of the very form and content of books as they meet digital platforms. Just look at the Alice in Wonderland (link) and Peter Rabbit apps [link] to see how books may become multimedia files and much more interactive. At the moment this change is being driven by indie app makers rather than established publishers. Big publishing houses are still pretty resistant to the digital revolution, no doubt because it’s disrupting their markets so drastically.
But the disruption is going to continue, and I suspect it’s going to accelerate in the coming years. I think as digital books take over market share from print books, we’re going to see a radical reconceptualization of what a book is. People tend to be less interested in reading longer texts on digital displays, so I think that will drive books to be shorter. I think the transition from novels that are hundreds of pages long to something more like a novella e-book will be a relatively straightforward transition. It’s hard to stray from the norm for print books because there are too many costs involved with altering the mass-market machinery. But there are no costs with producing a smaller – or larger – digital file. Or one with embedded video and graphics, or one that links outside of itself, or one that changes names and events in its text as it pulls in information from the social networks of the readers, or even one that evolves as it’s being written according to feedback from readers. Who knows what we will see? But we’ll definitely see something new once people start writing with the e-book market in mind rather than the print market.
This isn’t anything new, of course. The novel has always been a form in transition, whether you’re talking about structure, content or whatever else, because the novel’s role has always been one of social product — with an emphasis on the product. And products are always changing to adapt to consumer demands — or maybe to shape them.
CBT: Are the very significant structural changes taking place in the publishing industry having an effect on novel writing? If so, how?
PD: First, no one in publishing or bookselling was prepared for the surge in the popularity of e-books, and it caught them off guard. It remains unclear whether they’ll be able to adapt, as the reading shift to digital books is accelerating so quickly. Publishers will have to completely change their business model to survive. Some probably will, but I suspect many will fail, including some of the big houses. At the very least, we’ll see more lines shut down, consolidation of departments, etc.
Second, the digital age makes it possible for anyone to easily produce and distribute their own books – at little or no cost when it comes to production. You can create an e-book for nothing, and it doesn’t cost much more to print physical copies on demand through a service like Lulu or Amazon’s CreateSpace. Which gives you much more flexibility as a writer, and the ability to produce many different kinds of texts, because you aren’t restricted the same ways by the demands of the mass-market marketplace. For an example of what can be achieved by writers on their own, take a look at Cory Doctorow’s latest book project, With a Little Help, which includes everything from digital files to custom-bound print editions (http://craphound.com/?p=2360). It’s the sort of thing that works well for an individual but there isn’t really any value in it for a corporation.
Now, it’s very difficult for most writers to make a living with this kind of model, because readers still tend to shop according to their old habits, and still operate under the assumption that self-published writing is bad because no publisher was willing to produce the book. Doctorow’s an anomaly because he’s an Internet celebrity. But that bias is largely a generational issue, and it will change as more people switch to e-readers and abandon physical bookstores, and the bookstores themselves disappear — which they will. It’s just a matter of when.
CBT: Do you have an author’s website? Does it help you sell books?
PD: I have an online base of sorts at peterdarbyshire.com, and I broadcast out from there to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc. I have no idea if it helps me sell books or not. I assume so, but I have no way of tracking that. And I’m not interested in knowing. I don’t really think of the site as a marketing vehicle. Instead, I use it as a parallel creative space to the books – another outlet, if you will. It takes me a long time to write the novels, and that act tends to take place in a sort of social silence, as I can’t really discuss things I’m working on. I often have ideas that aren’t related to the books, though, and the website gives me a place to publish them. Sometimes they’re one-liners that I turn into my Shrapnel comics (http://www.peterdarbyshire.com/cms/?p=636), other times they’re short stories. The longer stories I actually try to publish in journals or magazines. So, the site kind of acts as a place to collect my creative ephemera.
I plan to add more of a store feature in the future, so people can buy the postcard comics I print up (I currently only give them away at readings) or epubs of some of my short fiction. I offer my first book, Please, for sale as a digital file now, and it continues to sell, so I think there is some sort of business model there for all the stuff combined. And hey, if the publishing industry does collapse, I’ll need a place to sell my books.
Equally as important, though, the website serves as a social space where I can interact with other people. Writing’s a lonely business, and most of the conversations you have while doing it tend to be arguments with imaginary people. It’s nice to talk to real people sometimes, even if it’s only online. I envy those writers who have established large discussion communities on their sites, such as Charlie Stross or Max Barry, where readers talk to each other as well as the writers. But it’s hard to create that sort of community now as everyone has turned to Facebook and Twitter instead as their primary modes of social engagement.
CBT: Are you enthusiastic about e-books? Do they hold the potential for a renaissance in literary publishing? Or are they over-rated and too susceptible to piracy?
PD: Of course e-books are susceptible to piracy. Anything digital is. But Apple has already shown with music that digital downloads are a decent business model, and perhaps even a superior business model, if you always think about the customer first. If you make it a pain in the ass to download files, and you cripple people’s ability to use them through DRM and digital locks or whatever, then you drive them to piracy. Not because it’s cheaper, but because it’s more convenient and a better experience for them. Apple has proven that if you make it easier for people to buy songs or rent movies than it is to steal them, they’ll gladly spend the money. I rent movies and buy TV shows on iTunes on almost a daily basis, and every one of them are available online for free. But it’s just easier to pay for them. Now, Apple has worked hard to keep it this way by capping prices, but that’s been a bit of a losing battle for them. You can see prices creeping up on movie rentals, for instance. And I think somewhere there’s a threshold price where people will say, “I can’t afford that, so I’ll watch it for free online instead,” or even, “Fuck you, you’re gouging me, so I’m going to find an illegal copy online instead.” You don’t even need to download them anymore — you can watch anything you want in a browser window. But so far I think the iTunes model is working.