Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

In The Digital Driver's Seat with Brian Joseph Davis

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In The Digital Driver's Seat with Brian Joseph Davis

On September 26th visit The Word On The Street's newest venue, the Digital Drive Stage, where you can expect a lively discussion on the future of reading, writing and publishing. In anticipation of the event, Open Book: Toronto checks in with some of the panelists with a new interview series, In The Digital Driver's Seat.

Brian Joseph Davis, author of Ronald Reagan, My Father (ECW Press), will take part in the panel "The Big Issue: Magazines and Comic Books in the Digital Age." Visit the website for more details.

Want to hear more about publishing's digital revolution? Check out the CBC Book Club, where this month's topic is The Future of Reading.

Open Book:

You are among a group of writers and publicists that has fully embraced electronic publishing. What made you decide to “grab the wheel” of the industry’s digital revolution?

Brian Joseph Davis:

In my other life as media artist I was doing work primarily online since the start of the decade. My fiction career didn’t really intersect with that until two years ago when Emily Schultz and I started Joyland. Even in 2008, much of publishing wasn’t interested in what we were doing. We’ve had a bit of a head start and we are launching an ebook imprint with ECW this fall, but the goal is to keep Joyland fun and a place for writers.


How has your involvement in epublishing changed the work you do? Have you adapted your creative process?


As a writer maybe I’m a special case. My work has always been informed, in a way, by data (especially my more experimental work that’s classified as art). It couldn’t exist without the Internet. Even now, in writing longer narrative pieces, I still need to be networked. Here’s a funny story: Last year Emily and I went to the Mojave Desert to write and not be around the Internet for two weeks. Between our freelance work and running Joyland we had digital fatigue. What Emily ended up writing up was brilliant. What I wrote was crap. I needed the information and input and distraction and what I’ve written since is all the better for not being written in a desert. Is either the better way? You can’t choose. For writers those two states of being—isolation or immersion—go back before the Internet, before mass media.

The fashion of writing—long novels versus short novels, contemporary work versus historical work, narrative versus experimental—will always be in flux, but writers will always either be responding to themselves or the world. That won’t change.


What aspect of publishing do you think will change the most as a result of the digital drive?


I think for the most part publishing is publishing no matter the final format. Presidents number crunch, editors and writers clash and collaborate, publicists pitch, reviewers review. I think the strata of publishing will always be the same, i.e.: most of publishing consists of vital information like textbooks and manuals, followed by low-cost, enjoyable, simply written stories that people like. The smallest wedge is literary fiction that publishers publish at a loss because they like it and writers like it. Out of all of the above, the readers will always find what they want.

What will change most is the debt load of that system. While publishers won’t go bankrupt, no one is going to get rich off this. The media storm over epublishing will fade. I know when it started, right around the time of the iPad launch. Before that, digital publishing was relatively genteel.


Do you feel differently about online publications versus print publications? Do readers have different expectations?


As an arts journalist off and on for the last decade I know that every print publication is a different beast with different historical advantages and disadvantages. Newspapers are low cost and turn around content fast. Magazines have always been slowly made through long editorial processes. As both newspapers and magazines migrate fully to digital, that dynamic will stay the same.

Questions of “quality” with these new low-cost work habits seem to be asked a lot lately, but the phrasing implies that money spent and debt accrued equals quality. Which is absolutely absurd.

Print books, by the way, will be around for awhile. Paper is still the most durable storage medium. Stop worrying.


Okay, I'll try. Tell us about the website you run, How does it differ from a standard print journal? (Other than the obvious!)


The three things that Joyland does differently (and for the time being makes us pretty unique) are: our editorial structure, schedule, and specificity. Our editors are in eight different cities and are on their own. Emily and I do some guiding and we manage the submissions, but the editors have autonomy. Everyone has absolutely different tastes. As for schedule, we post material weekly, sometimes daily, which is a rhythm native to the web. We have a budget, mind you, and a limited number of posts, but an online “issue” structure wouldn’t work with Joyland and it won’t work for other places for much longer.

We only do short fiction. The definition of that form is really, really open (we’ve done essays and metered prose) but people know what they’re getting at Joyland. That specificity limits our audience, but it also defines our audience. Much of the Internet is focused on going big, and getting hundreds of thousands of hits. We’re happy being the Velvet Underground of websites.


One of the effects of the digitization of the music industry has been that we often purchase our music song-by-song, rather than by album. Do you think we might see the same thing happen with collections of fiction, poetry, and essays? As a short story writer and author of Ronald Reagan, My Father (ECW Press), how do you feel about this?


It’s a bit of a myth that popular music has been anything other than singles-focused for its entire existence from 78 lacquer LPs to mySpace and 99 songs on iTunes. Albums were a brief side effect of singles.

In literary publishing it’s always been the opposite: novels sell. In that regard, we have to stop comparing the music industry and publishing industry. But it is true that in practice short stories are made for this medium. Most of Ronald Reagan My Father is available online at various journals. I’ve adapted several stories with performers and those recordings are available online. This has been great for my sales, I hope, but nothing that negates the dominance of the novel form.

People will always play guitars, because the sound is great. How do you listen to that guitar being played? Live is best, but a digital recording is fine and no less authentic than a tape recording. Someone who can write will always write novels. A digital copy of her words isn’t too bad, and no less authentic than a print copy.

Brian Joseph Davis is a co-founder of Joyland, a hub for short fiction. For five years he wrote a book review column for EYE WEEKLY and has written articles for The Globe and Mail, Utne, Toronto Life, Border Crossings, and C Magazine. Davis is the author of Ronald Reagan My Father (ECW Press), which was longlisted for the 35,000 Euro 2010 Frank O'Connor Short Fiction Prize. See him on the Digital Drive Stage at 2:00 with Matthew Fox, Colin McCreery and Emily Schultz.

Buy his book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

The Digital Drive Stage is launched with the support of the Ontario Media Development Corporation. The stage is hosted by Stuart Woods, editor of Quill & Quire, and Quill & Quire book review editor Stephen W. Beattie. Read more about it at

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