The death knell of Canadian culture sounds again

I read this week of the shuttering of bicoastal Canadian publisher Douglas & MacIntyre with the sadness many other writers and readers did. But immediately afterward, and for not the first time in recent memory, parts of the media announced that the great and noble dream of a Canadian culture was dead. And of course, and with reason, some folks replied that such rumours were exagerrations. (To wit, a warm and well-written reply by Anansi’s Matt Williams to John Barber’s endtimes article in the Globe.)

When local or national cultural concerns go down, it does make you shake your head. But in some ways, it shouldn’t. I’m sad D&M will not, at least in its current incarnation, continue to find authors and make books in some form. But I have no illusions that their demise in any way is a sign of general rot or decline in my or anyone’s ability to read, write, or publish.

A lot of realities have contributed to what happened to D&M, but any one of them could have resulted in a failure to thrive: globalisation, the Internet, the state of international economies, a sea change in technology, the shifting nature of literacy, the corporatisation of publishing the world over. So it can’t come as a surprise that the tenderest shoots may die off or change. But while it’s happening, something else is happening as well, and to view the closure of a publishing house, no matter how dear, as a sign of the apocalypse is (I think) a mistake.

We’re in the midst of an evolutionary shift that is affecting not only how we create and consume culture, but even the materials of it. The terms “virtual” and “digital” only begin to contain the nature of the change. Remember how much hand-wringing there was over NAFTA? NAFTA was going to destroy culture. Doesn’t it seem quaint now compared to the Internet, though? The Internet has taken our borders away much more significantly than any free trade agreement could have. It’s convinced us we ought to talk about our feelings in public, with strangers. It’s convinced us to buy eyeglasses without trying them on. It’s turned us into readers and writers much more than books and magazines and newspapers ever could have. Just as significant as the gradual decline of books and book publishing is and will be, think about the push-and-pull of the Internet on literacy and the gradual outcomes of digitization, and imagine what that will mean for what gets read and how it gets read in the future. Then answer this: is the disappearance of publishers, the decline in physical book sales, and the difficulty of making a living as writer tragic or inevitable?

Already it seems clear to me that self-publishing is the most important advance the Internet offers, and making it possible for anyone to have a voice is its greatest contribution to cultural democracy. It’s been fun buying old comic books off of eBay, but the fact that almost anyone at any time can tell their story (and get readers) has already changed the game for good. Maybe some stories will only have three readers, but they will be readers all the same, seeking readerly pleasure: to hear a human voice, to be told a story, to have an emotion. Despite its coldness as a technology, the Internet was built for feeling and it is remarkably good at not just providing a forum for it, but for storing emotion as well.

One thing I find especially interesting is that flood of commerce on the Internet has had no meaningful effect on this layer of it, where all this storytelling is going on. In blogs, in the comments sections of gazoolions of websites, in forums, through Twitter (where the ancient art of aphorism has been reborn), and through ancillary avenues of expression, like Facebook and YouTube. Much of what you find is raw and rough, much is autobiographical or terse or truculent, but there are human voices out there in a quantity we have never known in the history of human society. And it is changing publishing, as much as it is changing what reading is, and what an author is. This change is not on the level of one technology displacing another. Books vs. Internet ≠ horse vs. car. It’s closer to lizard vs. bird. They are not the same in just about any way it matters, except one evolved into the other.

We see the closure of D&M and we wonder: what’s next? But we already know, even if those of us who depend on that infrastructure are afraid to say it out loud. We know that within fifteen years books and publishing books will be a boutique business. Someday awful soon, the people who really don’t want to give up books will be offered something almost identical to them, with pages that turn and all, but they’ll still upload text. Maybe you’ll buy different sizes to upload different kinds of things to. There’ll be a coffee-table book device, a pocketbook device, a comic book device, and so on. For those of us who like the feel of the analog reading experience—two carbon life forms curling up with each other—the virtual book will make your Kindle seem like a grandfather clock. But publishing houses? Sprawling bookstores? Um, I don’t think so.

So whither publishing houses? Whither books? More of what is happening right now. Small, regional, expressly literary, risk-taking, or specialist publishers like Anansi, Coach House, Cormorant, Pedlar, Playwright’s Canada, Gaspereau, Brick, Wolsak & Wynn, Annick, Biblioasis, Cocteau, Dundurn, Raincoast, and so on are going to keep doing what they do: finding and publishing and trying to survive. Some will make the leap fully to virtual publishing. A few, or many, more will die. Amazon is going to be a part of it all whether you, Author Currently Published by a Non-Virtual Entity, like it or not. There will be more paroxyms. But even as we brace ourselves, we shouldn’t be waiting for the sky to fall. We need to brace ourselves the way Johannes Gutenberg’s countrymen—the ones who were decrying the end of the scroll—prepared themselves for what was to come.

Thank you D&M, because publishers like you carried on what was nothing less than a thankless, ongoing act of citizenship. Who could expect you to live forever? But no books have died, no ideas have died, and the new, in all its forms, is ceaselessly arriving. The only death knell is for yesterday.