Tomorrow's E-Utopia? [Part 3 of 4]

Here’s the third part of the paper I’m preparing for the Iceland Literary Festival. Click here for part one and here for part two. The last section—the part that’s critical of the e-future—will go up over the weekend.

Now we’re back to e-books: What’s quicker than right-fucking-now? That’s the number one promise of e-books. We tend to get distracted by the devices and our love of the physical book when we talk about the Kindle (or whatever e-reading device you want to talk about) and overlook the fact that this is a purchasing device first and a reading device second. Unless you’re as indecisive as I am and tend to carry three or four books on you at any point in time (and recent NEA studies on the reading habits of Americans points to the fact that the vast majority of us are not the sort who do things like that), the real advantage of the Kindle is that you can buy what you want RIGHTNOW. No walking over to a store, no browsing, no special orders, no shipping costs, no delayed gratification—if someone in the audience names a book, I can download it before I finish this paragraph and start reading before I sit down. That’s the American Dream. That’s the promise of the Internets fulfilled.

And that points in the direction of how literature in translation can be served in an e-book world. Now, I don’t want to bash traditional retail booksellers—I worked in indie bookstores for years and that’s where my heart is—but they face a very real set of constraints that tends not to favor literature in translation. Shelf space in a physical bookstore is very limited, and as a result, stores want to stock books that will sell—and sell steadily. And translations—like the imaginary Bulgarian book above that have almost no marketing effort behind it—tend not to sell all that steadily . . . And if this book is only going to sell one copy every year, why should a store tie up money and space in stocking it when it could use that space for a book on Zombies?

OK, so that’s a bit facetious and what not, but it’s true that there is a bottleneck problem at physical bookstores and the tendency (not uniform: just look at McNally Jackson, Skylight, City Lights, St. Mark’s, and many many other—at least 50!—top-notch independent stores for examples of how to curate an interesting book selection) is to overload on potential blockbusters at the expense of diversity.

A few years ago, Chris Anderson wrote an article for Wired about “The Long Tail.” (This was then expanded into a book by the same title.) The basic idea is that digital retailers aren’t bound by this same space problem. They can list tens of thousands of items that won’t fit in a physical store. Which is obvious. But what isn’t obvious is that all of these items sell. Not necessarily in huge quantities, but they all sell. No matter how many items are made available, there always seems to be at least a handful of people interested in purchasing every one. (For those interested in figures: approximately 25% of Amazon.com’s revenue is from titles not stocked in the largest of the largest Barnes & Noble stores. That’s significant.)

That’s the crux of the e-revolution for translations: Putting Amazon.com aside for the moment, right now, we’re publishing books and working our ass off to get them into a few hundred locations across the United States. If someone happens to walk into one of those stores, they might come across an Open Letter title, get intrigued, and buy it. What percentage of the reading population are we actually reaching? I have no real idea, but it’s nowhere near the number of people who carry cell phones . . .

So it’s now 2020. Every cell phone device in the world has e-book downloading and reading capabilities. It’s common to see every person on a train hunched over their electronic device, scrolling through the New York Times or reading Ulysses. Open Letter books are now available in e-versions to every single one of these people. That’s a huge increase in potential audience. And the distribution costs have shrunk considerably. Rather than paying an employee to call all these bookstores that have managed to lose the catalog, forgot about the appointment, or just can’t find it in the budget to stock Ricardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker, someone posts the e-versions to a few different locations and the magic happens. No more shipping. No more returns. Printing costs are much lower than they were before, because instead of printing 3,000 copies in order to sell 2,000, we’re printing 500 for the collectors and bookstores.

Or at least that’s the dream . . .

In this book utopia, all books are available to all customers—and instead of trying to market your titles through a series of middlemen, the most effective marketing would be directly with the reader. The person who reads an e-mail on their device, clicks a link, and has instantly bought your book . . .

To put a finer point on it: Under this scenario, an independent publisher can finally reach as large of an audience as possible for its works in translation. The bottleneck has been eliminated and distribution is no longer the primary problem. This would break Erroll McDonald’s analogy—whereas foreign films only show in a handful of theaters, literature in translation would be literally everywhere.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems—there definitely are, and I’ll get into those in a second. First I want to take a look at one other major improvement to global book culture that the prevalence of e-books could bring about.

When I was in Buenos Aires last year for an editors’ trip, I was astounded by how much books cost. Argentina’s not necessarily a wealthy country these days (again, thank you, multinational banks and the IMF) and a lot of the books for sale were way outside of my price range. The largest Spanish publishers in the world are located in Spain, and since most of the time they buy Spanish language rights for the world, they publish the books and then export them across the ocean to Argentina. Which costs a fortune, and limits the number of readers who have access to these titles. A horrible situation since Buenos Aires has traditionally been a very bookish city.

The situation in the Arab world is even worse though. With so many countries involved, all with different censorship laws and bookselling traditions, there’s really no way to distribute titles outside of the city/country where they’re published. To get a book from a Lebanese publisher to a reader in Morocco is a) extremely expensive and b) virtually impossible.

The e-book utopia described above could solve a lot of these problems. Simply eliminating all the shipping costs would make a book published in Spain affordable to most porteños. And to be able to download a book from Cairo while living in Iraq solves a host of problems on that front as well. The main idea is that digital is also global. Put this together with the long tail dictum that increased access equals increased readership and our global book culture stands to gain quite a bit from the advent of an e-reading world.

But wait! But wait! I said I was a bit ambiguous about e-books and here’s where the other shoe drops . . .

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