Beyond Book Burning: A Q&A with Mark Medley

Kindle-Book

Ahead of our “Beyond Book Burning” panel this Friday, March 1, PEN Canada caught up with board member and National Post books editor Mark Medley, who will serve as moderator for the event. As a preview to Friday’s discussion, we asked him to share his thoughts on the move towards self-publishing online, the disappearance of the midlist, and the takeover of traditional publishing houses by media conglomerates.

It seems to be widely believed that online publishing and “social reading” have produced a literary environment in which writers can reach their audiences with less interference from agents, editors and publishers. Why then are so many writers concerned about these developments? Don’t they expand the writers’ creative freedom, and our freedom to read?

Mark Medley

That’s easier said than done. You are right — there are fewer barriers to publication than ever before, but only if you don’t mind going an untraditional route. If you’ve written a novel, for instance, you can upload it via Kindle Direct and it’ll be on-sale on Amazon.ca within minutes. I don’t think the issue is one of publication, but one of discovery. Just because you’ve put your book online doesn’t mean anyone knows it’s there. The number of self-published books that become bestsellers is infinitesimal, and unless you’ve written a bestseller, your self-published book won’t receive a lick of media attention. Here at the National Post, for example, my policy is we don’t review self-published books. And, honestly, most people won’t search out a book they don’t know exists.  

I don’t think the issue is one of publication, but one of discovery. Just because you’ve put your book online doesn’t mean anyone knows it’s there

There is also a concern about the disappearance of the “midlist.” Can you explain what that means for the general reader and what might be done to prevent it?

I know several writers—and have heard stories of dozens, if not hundreds, more—who’ve had two, three, four books published by major houses and then find themselves dropped. In the old days, a publishing house might be inclined to support a writer who hadn’t yet written a bestseller, nurturing their career and waiting patiently for a breakout book. Now, a writer might only get one or two chances to “impress” the publisher before being shown the door. This leaves readers with fewer options—stores will be stocked with bestsellers and little else. I’m not as pessimistic as some of my colleagues about this, however. Canada still has a number of robust independent presses, who are increasingly publishing writers that, even a decade ago, probably wouldn’t have given them the time of day. The problem with the smaller presses is that they can’t offer the kind of advances that will allow an author to write full-time.

To what degree has the publishing industry fallen into the hands of large entertainment conglomerates, and how does this affect the types of books being published?

Listen, publishers—big and small—want their books to sell. There’s never been a time when they haven’t cared about sales

HarperCollins is owned by NewsCorp; Random House—and soon Penguin—is owned by Bertelsmann; Simon and Schuster is owned by CBS. I’m not going to say they only publish a certain type of book—if anything, the larger the budget, the more risks you can take, though I don’t know if that is happening. Listen, publishers—big and small—want their books to sell. There’s never been a time when they haven’t cared about sales.

Does all of this indicate merely a shift in paradigms, or are publishing and literature really in crisis?

Publishing is perpetually in crisis.

Photo credit: amazon.com