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Time to Lead

No e-books without authors, Atwood reminds us Add to ...

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.

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?

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.

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