Friday, 4 February 2011


overcast, windy, light snow temps minus 10

One of the largest publishing companies in Canada - HB Fenn - declared bankruptcy yesterday. It wasn't a massive publisher, though it did do some fine original publishing - but it was a massive distributor of books for American and British publishers. Including my next three. I only mention my connection because it meant I'd gotten to know some of the Fenn people recently. Faun - their rep who lives in Ottawa. Rob Howard - their VP. He came to Montreal a couple of weeks ago today to meet and discuss strategy for A Trick of the Light.

I feel terrible for the 125 employees...and, of course, the few I actually knew. Spoke to Rob this morning to see how he was doing. It was a shock to everyone - except probably the president. That's what makes this all the more tragic in Canadian publishing circles. Fenn was started by Harold Fenn. And is still owned and run by him. A gracious man now in his 70's - he knew all the employees and cared for them all. And, I suspect, kept Fenn afloat longer than others might, for them.

There aren't very many family, privately owned 'old world' publishing houses left. By old world I don't mean old fashioned. Fenn hired young and dynamic people. but I mean that sort of personal touch and relationship that matter to Mr. Fenn. This is a terrible time for him.

But I suspect, not to be a doom-sayer, that this presages fundamental changes and re-structuring in publishing.

Mr. Fenn said it was many things, but one specific he mentioned in a statement was the increased popularity of e-books. I know they're very popular - obviously. You'd have to be a fool not to realize that. But I'd held a hope that a balance might be found, to make room for e-books, but not to sacrifice 'book' books, and the people who publish them. And the stores that sell them.

Who knows what this year will bring. It's clearly crucial to embrace change and not try to sabotage it. Not be someone who laments the passing of the 'past'. And yet...I can't help but wonder if the brave new world is a better one. I feel a bit like the owner of a horse and buggy, looking at the horseless carriage. And feeling dread. And sadness.

I have no desire to stop progress - but I sometime wonder if we really know what we've created.


Silverdunes said...

Nothing will replace the pleasure of reading a book, turning a paper page, holding and smelling that old familiar odor…this comfort feeling. Progress may offer more practicality and for sure…I do not want to miss discovering it and growing older with it. However I still cannot imagine my library without shelving and books, and more books, in paperback, in hard cover, in soft cover, coffee table book…

Liz said...

Perfect timing. Bill, my husband, bought an e-reader for himself last fall. Not being very tech-savvy, he gave up on trying to get it to work. Then, just this week, I downloaded something I wanted to read that wasn't available locally, and bingo, I've become a fan. And it's true, the price of the book was a lot less in the e-format. I won't use it for everything, but it's a nice option, especially for travel.

MargaretJ said...

You wonder about the future of the book, but I'm worried about the future of libraries. They've been a source of calm and refuge for many over the years, and who will fund these big old buildings? They are becoming and going the way of museums.

In Boston, there was a piece on the news this morning that a local city will be buying their high school students iPads instead of textbooks.

There are some of us of a certain age who will die with a real book in our hands, but we are the last generation to do so en masse, I think.

Linda said...

No, I don't think we really know what we've created. So much "progress" happens simply because we have the ability. It's like a runaway train, the rush to get something new out there. I don't think the downside is ever looked at. Until later, when it becomes all too clear. I feel for the Fenns of the world. It is a sad day.
As for libraries, I work in a small one and we have to constantly re-invent ourselves in order to survive. That means offering ALL formats, among other changes. We all need to be flexible in order to survive, or we risk being left by the side of the road.

Linda said...

One more thought... maybe there's nothing wrong with being left by the side of the road. I'd certainly like to be sitting in The Bistro in Three Pines right now!

Cece said...

One of my favorite quotes seems apropos....
"There is an architecture of books as surely as there is one of buildings. When you read a book, you enter by its cover, but you live within the spatial environment that its pages throw up around you. You inhabit its margins, whether commodious or cramped; you ambulate among the serifed glyphs of the typography; you respond to the climate of the page, pure white or mottled beige, and even negotiate the textured terrain of the paper itself, whether it be the alabastrine smoothness of bible stock or the porosity of wood pulp." ~James Gardner.

Robin Agnew said...

Obviously I hope there will still be a place for books, but you are right Louise, things are changing fast and I am firmly in the horse and buggy school of thought. I hate to hear a story like this, because I think small publishers and small bookstores shape what people read to an extent. I think some of the breadth of material and some quirkiness will be lost.

Jodi said...

I have a small web page which argues that books are better! I won't be rude and link drop, but some of my reasons are:

1) you can read them anywhere (on the beach, in the bath)
2) the batteries never run out
3) you can share them
4) you can resell them
5) the author can sign them
6) they're collectible
7) they're yours - can't be snatched back

etc. etc.

Melody said...

Dear Louise,

Amen to your sentiments. I am also a librarian at a small library. We have recently begun to offer ebook downloads as well, because like your other commenter stated so accurately, that you have to adapt and keep up or you will be left behind.

I don't want to even contemplate the demise of the printed book. That would be too sad to bear. While the ebook has some appeal, it would never replace the feel, heft, smell and pure pleasure of opening a book...the dust jacket, the feel of the paper... I could go on..

I agree with your other commenter, let's go sit in the Bistro at Three Pines and enjoy our books and let the world go by...

Donna K. said...

Along with the electronic substitutions for books, I have noticed that there seems to be a design trend in coffee shops which strips them of all possible comfort or coziness. Metal and chrome abounding with uncomfortable chairs and tables seem to be the norm. I feel as though my voice will echo. They often seem sterile to me.

I have also noticed that young people are talking faster and faster in the work place and retail stores and have noticed this in the television drama and legal shows as well. The dialogue is fast, cold and matter of fact,like technology and recitation. Maybe we are Luddites...ha
donna k

Anonymous said...

It has been a very interesting 24 hours for me. I am one of the 125 employees that worked at HB Fenn. I worked there for a good portion of my life so far. The family was always good to me and I learned a lot in my time there. It is a sad time for all of the staff and the Fenn's themselves, but what is truly sad is that an art form is dying. I am all for technology, but there are some things that should not be tampered with. I agree with many of you that holding a book and reading it is a true pleasure and have many great memories of being a kid and my Mom taking us to the library once a week for our books. We just have to keep it going with the next generations. When my niece found out that I lost my job she said she was sorry and that she was sad for me, but she was also sad because I wouldn't be able to get her books anymore. I said of course we can - we will go to the library or the store - but you will always have books to read. It is our job to make sure that they do. I want to thank you Louise for your blog will stay with me for a long time.

LJ Roberts said...

The issue of books versus ebooks is one I find fascinating. I own ~6,000 books--mostly signed, 1st edition HC for which I paid full retail. They fill my house and make me smile just to see them, not to mention the joy I've gained from reading them.

I also own the original Kindle and love it but for two, very particular reasons. A few years ago, within one month, my car was rear-ended twice. I am fine now, but the damage that did to my back lasted a couple years and made reading physical books nearly impossible. My Kindle was a blessing as I could operate it pretty much with one hand. I also had a job where I spent every 5th week in Toronoto. For me, that would be a 8-book trip. With limitations on baggage these days, my Kindle was perfect.

My back and hands are now 95% fine and I was laid off my job--unrelated--over a year ago. With over 600 books on my TBR shelves, my Kindle only gets used when I go away for the weekend (a three-book trip).

There is another aspect, however. Particularly in this economy when so many people are out of work, which has decimated my book -buying budget, publishers have rather shot themselves, and their authors, in the foot by demanding they control the price. In many cases, the Kindle cost for a book is higher than the paperback cost. Okay, you say, so people will buy paperbacks. Not necessarily. With so many people out of work, self included, I look instead to see whether I can find the book either in my library or for trade through PaperbackSwap. If I don't want to do library and can't find it on PBS, I look for the lowest price, decent used copy I can find. In that case, neither the publisher nor the author benefits from my purchase.

I look forward to the day when I am working again and can, once more, buy HC books. They shall always have a place in my home.

ttop said...

I'm not sure if our printed books will be seen someday as ancient clay tablets or illuminated manuscripts with the advent of the digital age, but I do suspect that without forethought we may become a nation/world of have's and have-not's, where reading becomes an activity afforded to only a few because of electronic access. I, too, love my Kindle and my Droid X, but I also love seeing my students look for their favorite books on the library shelves. It does worry me, as libraries and librarians are seen as more and more irrelevant (no matter how much we embrace e-books and the Internet), that we forget how vulnerable our youngest readers will be as we shift away from an age of print materials. Those without electronic access, without school libraries and children librarians, will not have access to a world of literary richness.

Lori Drouin said...

I'm a devout reader, but a Kindle convert. Older eyes like being able to have large print but not a bigger book. I have nieces who carry book bags that weigh 30% of their body weight to school, and think that e-readers are the answer to some of the expense issues facing the educational system today. But the market for the great stories remains. I absolutely love the audiobooks for long drives and leisure moments when my hands are occupied. So literature will continue, only the medium progresses.