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Grey Sparrow Journal and Press, as of January 31, 2018 will move to

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Interview with Nicholas Birns: Editor and Officer of the

Council of Editors of Learned Journals


by Joseph Michael Owens


Joseph Michael Owens [JMO]: It’s been said that, with eReaders and e- books becoming more prevalent, "We’re living in a Gutenberg moment." Do you agree with this statement?


Nicholas Birns [NB]: Well, [Marshall] McLuhan said we were living in a Gutenberg moment fifty years ago. Was that a prophecy that has now been fulfilled? I am wary of dramatic statements about long term transitions in material culture, which can only be truly glimpsed from behind. But, obviously, the rise of e-books is important and has altered the way I pursue my own reading, scholarship, and teaching, and those of many others as well.


JMO: Do you think that e-books might actually limit accessibility,‖ because you have to factor in the cost of e-readers, the software and their upgrades, etc.?


NB: Yes, the cost up-front of e-readers is considerable, and when people see me reading my Kindle on an airplane they are very curious, and excited that so many of the classics are so cheap, but the up-front cost discourages them, and in an economy where the number of the desperately poor have increased and engulfed many of the formerly aspiring middle- class, this is an urgent concern that should be discussed more. In general, we have discussed digital culture as if everyone could afford it; we need to look now at digital culture in the context of a time of scarcity.


JMO: Does the recent bankruptcy and closing of Borders signal a similar fate for independent bookstores?


NB: No. Borders heedlessly and foolishly over-expanded from an outstanding independent bookstore to a meaningless chain that became yoked to corporate values. In New York City, where I live, independent bookstores are flourishing, as they are, at least to some extent, nationwide. Now, all bookstores―including Barnes and Noble, which has closed several locations in New York in the past two years―are facing challenges from the bad economy and the rise of Amazon and e-readers.


JMO: Do you think it’s possible that events like the George Orwell/ Amazon Kindle debacle will become (unfortunately) increasingly more commonplace? This obviously would never even be a concern with print books. Once you buy it, you own it forever.


NB: This episode was very worrisome, but I doubt Amazon will do this again because it would dramatically affect the viability of e-readers which are in truth, a technology widely used, but with which people are still experimenting. It is a cautionary tale pointing out the dangers of the mechanism of our reading being controlled by a potentially hegemonic corporation.


JMO: Mass-market paperbacks once opened the access of publishing to a much less (at the time) literary audience. Now, it’s e-books that are taking the place of the mass-market paperback. Do you think that access to publishing [or the publishing industry] now has caused the readership to change?


NB: Yes. Mass-market paperbacks were the equivalent of the roadside diner or the department store―they were for the aspiring middle class, broadened by prosperity and increased equal opportunity. As our society becomes a binary one, divided between haves who exult in Yuppie complacency and have-nots who are relegated and dismissed by the prosperous, the crucial mediatorial role of the mass-market paperback has gone. E- books are cheap and offer equivalent conveniences, but right now only the truly wealthy have access to them, because of the cost of the devices and because of the way they are marketed only to the prosperous and already acculturated.


JMO: How do you see the roles of agents and editors changing, if at all?


NB: I see them decreasing. The idea of a Candida Donadio or a Maxwell Perkins decisively shaping their author‘s work is gone. I don‘t think editors actively edit, whereas agents have become tantamount to marketers. Probably the general public always fantasizes editors (and agents) did more shaping of the book than they did―books have always been the author‘s, for better or for worse. But authors can no longer―outside academic publishing, and increasingly not even there―count on the editor as someone to guide, encourage, cajole, warn―they want already finished, polished works that they can then seamlessly market. The academic journal is perhaps the only redoubt now where this is not the case, as it is a nonprofit business,


JMO: It seems like Marketing people are becoming more powerful while editors are becoming less so. This all thusly begs the question: "Who then are really the gatekeepers?"


NB: There are increasingly fewer formal gatekeepers. The gatekeepers in literature have become informal and/or structural: the social forces that demine who has money, who lives in favored areas of the country, who has access to Ivy league schools, and so on.


JMO: More and more fiction is moving toward e-books, which some people see as a negative omen. Do you?


NB: Not if the fiction garners responses and excites a critical discussion. If it is just plopped out there to whoever gets it on an e-reader, it will die. I think the answer here is fuller integration of e-reading platforms with the Internet, which now is only wholly there only on an IPad.


JMO: Do you agree that there will always be readers? And these readers will, of course, always read, so authors now simply have to be more creative with the process of getting their book "out there"? What do you think are the best ways of doing this?


NB: Yes, there were readers in ancient Egypt, in the monasteries of the early middle Ages, in the frontier shanties of the early American West. There will always be readers. But they will become fewer and fewer unless they are fully engaged andencouraged, and it is the task not only of authors but also of political and cultural institutions to help assure this.


JMO: Some editors and publishers think that e-books make the publishing process, itself, "more democratic". I.e. it levels the playing field for smaller publishers to keep up with larger publishers. Do you agree?


NB: Potentially, but as said above fewer people have access to e-readers. But I agree that whereas the gap between prestige and non- prestige publishers used to be a chasm, right now it is more of a gulley.


JMO: Sometimes it seems like Amazon is taking over the publishing world. Is it possible that authors will actually be the ones who are going to benefit the most?


NB: Authors may benefit, but in a free-market economy dominated by corporations the corporations will always benefit the most. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though, as long as others, including authors, also benefit.


JMO: Do you think it’s true that the publishing industry will inevitably get smaller, but it will also get better (i.e. just take a look at how good the smaller presses are getting, like Greywolf Press and Dzanc Books)?


NB: Going back to my answer with respect to mass-market paperbacks, publishers may be better, but it will not matter if they serve a smaller and more elite audience, just as the replacement of the roadside diner by the Danny Meyer restaurant and the department store by the exclusive boutique, however much the product has improved, does not portend the enfranchisement of a mass audience with respect to the commodity offered. Publishers will need to find a new mass medium and a new way of reassuring a very large audience that their products are meant for their consumption.


JMO: Thanks again for agreeing to do this interview with us! We sincerely appreciate it!!


NB: It has been my pleasure.