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No e-books without authors, Atwood reminds us

When Margaret Atwood opened the annual Tools of Change for Publishing conference in New York last month, it felt like something of a coup for us publishers. At a moment when our business is being infiltrated by digital "experts" and "innovators," whose interest in (and knowledge of) regular old book publishing can be rather patchy and slightly suspicious, here was a real writer giving the keynote.

Putting aside her reputation as one of Canada's most celebrated authors, Ms. Atwood's interest in technology and the ways in which it shapes civil society has featured in many of her novels, most recently, The Year of the Flood. She has embraced blogging and tweeting and, lest we forget, is the inventor of the LongPen. And in her characteristically direct way, she reminded the audience at Tools of Change that authors matter - that without the words they produce, day in, day out, there would be no e-books or enhanced apps.

As publishers, editors and writers continue to brace themselves for the great unknown, I followed up with her on the so-called digital revolution that continues to ruffle the publishing industry's feathers.

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History has shown us that societies and cultures develop as the means of transmitting and receiving knowledge change and increase. Here we are now, at another "watershed moment" with the onset of e-books.

The intention is the same: that is, to get stuff from here to there, and from then to now. The author communicates with the book; the book communicates with the reader, and e-books are another connection between them. Whether the technology is printing a text on a Xerox machine or reading it in a book or writing it on a wall, there is always a triangle: writer, text, reader.

You and I have talked before about how we don't yet know if the act of reading in e-form is neurologically distinct from the act of reading on the page - but we do know that e-books promote different methods of reading: reading enhanced by video and sound, and apps that invite readers to skip and skim through books. Do you worry that technologies that encourage non-linear reading will affect the way you are trying to communicate with your readers?

Do you know what the very oldest non-linear reading experience is?

I know it can't be Choose Your Own Adventure

The annotated Bible. When you open your King James, or any other Bible, you'll find a whole bunch of cross-references. No one has ever read the Bible "linearly." They've always been skipping back and forth from one mention of something to an earlier mention of it, or ahead to a later mention of it.

But in the same way that a musician carefully curates an album only to find that a thousand people have downloaded just the penultimate track, presumably a writer does not want the reader to poke about in Chapter 8 before reading Chapter 1?

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You don't want that, but many people do read that way, and I have to say that I sometimes do it myself. It's very bad! Paper books facilitate it as well, though; that, and folding down page corners, which I also do sometimes, or scribbling in the margins. I inherited my brother's Pride and Prejudice and it was illustrated with Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, and my brother had drawn voice balloons over them. In the famous proposal scene, he's got Mr. Darcy saying, 'Grr' and Elizabeth is saying, 'Eak!' That impulse to scribble on pages and pictures and walls is pretty ancient. I think anything you find in new technologies is likely to be an expansion of things we do anyway.

Is there a danger, though, that reading will be replaced by - or, even worse, confused with - 'viewing'?

I know you disapprove of e-books.

I actually don't disapprove of them, but I do predict that they will only ever occupy a small percentage of the market, in the same way that audio books, airport or large-print editions do. They will become one more - not the only - platform, and I'm hugely impatient for them to be normalized so that we can get back to talking about what's in the books, rather than the formats themselves.

Every time there is a new medium, people get hypnotized by it: the printing press, radio, television, the Internet. It's certainly a change in the world, which then somehow adapts. A whole section of society was very upset when zippers came in because they made it easier to seduce people in automobiles. You know, I think we've kind of adjusted to zippers by now. Just because you have a zipper doesn't mean somebody has to unzip it … But you're talking about e-books and e-readers and text in electronic form and the reading experience. When we consider "viewing," and look back at it, we find, for instance, the, Bayeaux Tapestry which is sometimes called the first comic book. It's a series of panels with text here and there, and a frieze along the bottom which consists basically of people getting their heads chopped off and their clothes pulled off. It's very non-linear, but also quite linear because you read the panels in sequence; but you also read them back and forth and up and down.

There is a lot of hoo haa, at the moment, about the economic implications of digital books for writers. Is a lower royalty for an e-book fair?

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Fair pricing is a work in progress. With a paper book the author gets a percentage of the list price. With an e-book it's a percentage of the price received by the publisher. When a paper book is remaindered, you get nothing. But there is no such thing as 'remaindered' e-books - so, how is it all going to work out? Suppose I sell 1,000 copies of a paper book and they've printed 5,000 and remainder the other 4,000: 4,000 people get the book; I get nothing; the publisher gets cost. Is that better or worse than 4,000 copies of an e-book for which I receive a smaller amount for each one sold? We simply don't know yet. It's like asking in the early days of motorcars, "Do you agree with eight-lane speedways?" Well, no one had even thought of them. They couldn't imagine them, or visualize them in any way.

Yet publishers and booksellers are allowing themselves to imagine a nightmarish world in which they are irrelevant - where technology companies which distribute e-books, such as Amazon, Sony, Google and Apple, also take over the choosing and the selling of books. Gail Rebuck, the chief executive of Random House in the U.K., recently described her "idea of hell" as a website 'with 80,000 self-published works on it' - a world where publishers and bookshops are replaced by a sort of online, super slush pile. Despite these fears, many smaller, independent publishers have had a few very profitable years, perhaps as a result of concentrating their focus on the books themselves and allowing the hyperbole of the yet-to-come iPod moment for books to simply see itself out.

Well, it's the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. Everybody moves round a place. So the Book of the Month Club disappears and something else takes its share of the market. And then big publishers get in trouble and cut back, and that creates space for other publishers to acquire books they otherwise wouldn't have been able to get.

As publishing's obsession with the digital revolution grows, do you think there is a forgetfulness that it's actually the writer who keeps this business going?

Sure, people sit there putting words on the page, and some of them make a lot of money for their publishers and others create huge losses because the publishers placed their bets wrong. When people say publishing is a business - actually it's not quite a business. It's part gambling and part arts and crafts, with a business component. It's not like any other business, and that's why when standard businessmen go into publishing and think, "Right, I'm going to clean this up, rationalize it and make it work like a real business," two years later you find they're bald because they've torn out all their hair. And then you say to them, "It's not like selling beer. It's not like selling a case of this and a case of that and doing a campaign that works for all of the beer." You're selling one book - not even one author any more. Those days are gone, when you sold, let's say, "Graham Greene" almost like a brand. You're selling one book, and each copy of that book has to be bought by one reader and each reading of that book is by one unique individual. It's very specific.

What are your thoughts on paywalls and the decision that many newspapers have taken to make their content free?

This is a big topic, but let's just say that in nature there's no free lunch so somebody's paying for it somewhere and the question is, 'Who?' If I do some writing and I put it on the Net and everybody else reads it for nothing, then I have actually paid for it, because it's my time, my crappy little lunch that I've eaten to keep myself alive, my Internet communication - I've paid for that. It's actually not free. How the primary creators are going to get remunerated - that's the issue, and music has already hit that wall. I think people are more inclined to pay for a book, though, because they're more likely to think it represents work - work by them, because it takes longer to read a book than it does to listen to an MP3.

Much of the discussion surrounding ebooks tends to revolve around emotive issues, such as not being able to read them in the bath, get them signed, or showcase them on your bookshelf, and the cosmetics of electronic versus paper text, but a lot what you've said about them has to do with their wider, social implications and you've speculated that the availability of e-books is actually increasing reading.

Well, you can't do much on the Net without being literate. One of the good things about e-readers is that kids are more likely to think they are "cool" and may actually find it easier to isolate pieces of text and read them, especially if they have learning disabilities of certain kinds.

One very interesting - and refreshingly unsentimental - argument that you've made for paper books is that they make it more difficult for people to track what you've been reading.

Security agencies worry about libraries. They tried to target U.S. libraries - make them hand over the list of who had borrowed what at the library. But the thing about online stuff is that it is very spyable. It is extremely spyable, despite all the security precautions and whatnot. Where there's a lock, there's a key.

And reading has always been an inherently political act. Do you think e-books will make certain texts more available to readers in places where those books are perhaps censored? Or banned?

Maybe temporarily, but what I mean by "censored" is that you cannot buy the book anywhere in the country, or it has to go past a censor who removes or changes material, and that was the case in many countries for a very long time. Or, they burn all your books, or they put you in jail, or they shoot you or hang you or exile you. Does total freedom of expression mean that you can say and do anything you like? The law limits that, so it's just a question of where those legal bars are set and how permeable they are.

Yes, the flip side is that just as technology may facilitate the movement of otherwise unmovable text, so too can it wipe it - the permeability factor - and presumably it is easier to put blocks on people's e-readers than it is to go around and raid everyone's house searching for blacklisted books.

It certainly is. E-texts can easily be hacked and wiped. We users are not in total control of our own electronic media: Somebody somewhere may be pouring in code or fooling around with stuff that we have no idea about.

What social and artistic change - if any - would you predict from a society of people who no longer read paper books?

I can't even speculate about that. It depends very much on what kinds of e-books and online newspapers they might read. It's not the e-function that is going to determine that - the e-readers only make things more readily available. We'll be "thinking" in relation to what we take in over these media. Newspapers, of the kind that do analytical pieces, and things like the London Review of Books - you can see thought at work in those, and if e-readers are spreading the reading of London-Review-of-Books-type articles, then you are making space for thought, and if people are reading such things on their e-readers - people who wouldn't have read them otherwise - you're actually increasing thought.

Will the world be worse off if e-books fail?

Well, first let us picture what kind of event might lead to that: 1. Solar flares, which melt all the e-communication services. 2. Widespread plague, which is going to kill anyone running the companies that make them. So that being the case, I would say yes! That the world will be considerably worse off if, the next morning, you wake up and nobody's reading anything on e-readers because the event that will have caused that is horrific!

Rosalind Porter is the co-author of Four-Letter Word (Knopf). She and Alex Clark, her former colleague at Granta magazine, are just about to launch a new, literary imprint in Britain.

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