Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Dickens and Digital Publishing

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Charles Dickens circa 1860s (source: Wikipedia)

What would Charles Dickens, whose 200th birthday we celebrate on February 7, make of the publishing industry in 2012?

No doubt he’d be amazed at the speed and volume in which books can be physically produced. He might crack a smile or even shed a tear to see that his books remain in print, in both inexpensive paperbacks and beautifully cloth-bound editions, and at the discovery that he has become an inescapable part of the school curriculum. He’d marvel at our eReading devices, which, given that he has been dead (sorry Mr. Dickens) long enough to be out of copyright, come pre-loaded with his tomes. As for what he’d think of current copyright laws themselves, well that’s a question for a SOPA column, which I may or may not write another day.

Once Mr. Dickens had recovered from these initial shocks, however, and picked his bearded chin up off the floor, I wonder if he might sagely point out to us that there are many similarities between the established publishing practices of then and the new publishing practices of now.

Prior to the ebook, one of the last major technological advances in the way reading material was produced was the industrial printing press: a product, like Mr. D himself, of the Victorian era. With this new press came periodicals, and with periodicals came the serialization of fiction. With installments that ran in popular magazines and newspapers over a period of months or even years, these serials reached audiences never before exposed to reading material in such volume. Their affordability and accessibility meant reading was suddenly a pastime for those beyond the upper classes: more people could get their paws on improving things to read, and more people did.

On the Victorian practice of serialization, Wikipedia, that other modern-day beacon of the democratization of information, says this: “A large part of the appeal for writers at the time was the broad audience that serialization could reach, which would then grow their following for published works.”

Sound familiar?

For my money, one of the major publishing trends to watch in 2012 will be the production of chapter-length content in digital format. On the one hand it will be as a marketing tool — a serial-style taster of the finished product designed to entice you to buy — on the other, it will be the delivery of complete content, either free or for a small fee. This second trend is ultimately a marketing tool too for the writers whose work, thanks to this new ePrinting “press,” will find its way into more hands than ever before.

In the first category, authors self-publishing in the e-arena may choose to drip feed their book into the public domain a chapter or even a page at a time, perhaps partnering with a website that woos similarly minded readers — a women’s fashion website to launch the next The Devil Wears Prada, for instance. On this very website, Brian Panhuyzen is currently serializing a portion of his novel Night is a Shadow Cast by the World. Of course, lacking the patience of Victorian readers (40 weeks to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and a mammoth four years for Anna Karenina) but also having the option not to need it (Dickens was writing in synch with his serials) it is the authors’ hope that we will read the first chapter, like it, and then just jump in and buy the whole thing.

Where publishers have often printed samplers for business-to-business promotion of books (a single chapter that goes to sales reps and booksellers), now they can offer free downloads direct to the consumer. This spring, Coach House Books, which was an early pioneer in the digital publishing arena as long as 15 years ago, will publish Mad Hope, a collection of short fiction by Heather Birrell. By way of promotion they’ll be making one of the stories available as an appetite-whetting free download. Try before you buy.

The offering of whole feature articles and short stories is not serialization as such but is nevertheless reminiscent of the Victorian model of producing inexpensive, mass-produced reading matter for as wide an audience as possible. Long-form journalism as ebook shorts is increasing in both popularity and prevalence. For a buck ninety-nine a time you can stuff your electronic reading device of choice with work by all your favourite and most inspiring writers — either original content or work that may already have appeared in a newspaper or magazine – which is the perfect length to digest on your morning commute or lunch break.

In the past year we’ve welcomed Kindle Singles, The Atavist, and The Byliner, producing (in Byliner’s words) “Great writers. Great stories. Readable in a single sitting.” On the Canadian front, Derek Finkle of the Canadian Writers’ Group has an ePublishing project in the works about which we can hope to hear more after the spring thaw.

So where will it head next?

These evolutions create additional marketing and promotion streams for both publisher and author. They are also seeing legacy publishers moving in to the traditional realm of the print periodical, and magazine style publishers (Byliner et al) presenting their publications as a new form of “book.” When it comes to publishing online the old rules of space, format, promotion and distribution disappear and the traditional lines of who does what don’t always apply.

Dickens was, and remains, one of the most important figures in English literature, but he was also a creator of content. The methods of delivery and consumption evolve over time but the beginning and end goals remain largely the same. Who will be fulfilling each function by the end of this digital shuffle of the deck?


Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One, a bookseller and events and communications coordinator for Type Books, a member of the communications committee for the Writers' Trust of Canada, and the author of a monthly column about Toronto's literary scene for Open Book: Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs


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