Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

In The Digital Driver's Seat, with Julie Wilson

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In The Digital Driver's Seat, with Julie Wilson

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 panelist Julie Wilson in the final installment of our interview series, In The Digital Driver's Seat.

Julie will participate in the session "Look at Me! Look at Me! How to use Social Media to Market Your Work!" at 4:00 p.m.

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?

Julie Wilson:

My main focus is on online marketing, social media, and how authors, booksellers, publishers and readers can expand and enrich conversations around books that at one time were deeply internalized—one person/opinion per book—into something really quite remarkable, literally millions of conversations, even if it's just one or two comments, all which act as little digital footprints leading a path to, potentially, a destination that results, blissfully, in the sale of a book. That's a lot of hope and work to peg on just one sale. But if your print run is 200-2000, or 500-5000, it should be a key part of a book's business and publicity strategy. I'm a champion of the small press, and think this is a great opportunity for niche publishers. The challenge, of course, is to find the resources to hire a person dedicated just to this task.

That said, I champion the place of e-pub in an industry that, really, had already invented the perfect technology in the paper book. All the above gets even more exciting when an ebook is available for purchase from an online vendor. It's Pied Piper all the way. Or Hansel and Gretel with less cannibalism. Point being, we can appropriately direct readers to places in which conversation and consumerism meet and it's not a dirty thing. It's a leg up for the little guy.


How has your involvement in e-publishing changed the kind of work you do?


At we throw around ideas, comment on trends and generally take the piss out of things with what I hope is a lot of high-energy, creative thinking. We're all passionate about books and reading, but we're all, in some way, invested in the future of our own careers. None of us has a clear cut job description. And most of us are dancing as fast as we can to remind the industry that to have unique personalities on your team is just as valuable to your business strategy as it is to a publisher's search for the next great novel, memoir, poetry collection, graphic novel, and on and on and on.

All to say that when I left the last thing I had that was close to a full-time job (as Online Content Manager at House of Anansi Press), it was with the caveat that I let my “freak flag fly.” So I created the Book Madam Book Club, which invites authors to submit to a live-to-chat, where we get online and conduct something similar to a Paris Review interview. Because it's all captured in a live chat window, I'm also able to bring in images and video, effectively creating an embeddable electronic press kit. I'm sure others are doing the same thing, but spin is everything. I see these chats as invitations to get to know an author so that you want to read their book. We know people buy books, when they buy books; but we don't know of the 200-100,000 consumers who actually read it. I like to play with that assumption. And you can't do that in-house. You need an outsider who comes at the author from a completely outside perspective.

So I see a lot of opportunities to create content that is helpful to all tiers of publishing. I also do a lot of other things, esoteric little projects such as SeenReading, a literary voyeurism blog, and The Miraculous Bench Writing School and Retreat, which lives on Foursquare and is all but impossible to explain in writing. In short, if you and I are Foursquare friends, and you show up at “the bench,” you'll be treated to a piece of microfiction or a writing tip or a reading recommendation. I know what you're thinking: “She's either going to be fabulously rich one day, or toothless.” I can't disagree with that.


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


Unfortunately, while I'm excited about all the new avenues in publishing, my greatest fear is that we'll become inundated with paid content to the point that we don't trust any message. For instance, the “bench” thing. It's nice and sweet and simple and perfect in its own way. But let's say I was persuaded by a bookstore to pay to play in this space so that any time a person checks in they'll get pitched a book. Ingenious. And something I'd think to do if I was a bookstore. Cough. Especially the Book City on Danforth. Cough. But do we want that? Do we want our art to shout out at us with a call to buy something, even if that voice is safe and familiar? I worry about these things. Will everything become co-op, placement, face out, spine out, Staff Picks, no matter where you go online? I expect we'll go through a phase in which it is.

Which is why it's more important, now than ever, for people to support bloggers. You know what I'd love? I'd LOVE for someone to look at Book Madam and think, “We need these people to stick around.” And then gift us. For real. “You go on with your bad self, and no one ever need know who gave you this money.” A granting system for lit and book bloggers. I'm in the clouds, I know. But it's my hope.


Do people feel differently about online publications versus print publications? Do you expect this to change at all as we adapt to new media?


Sure they do. But a print book and an ebook don't have to perform the same task. In some cases, I can see how embedding text with hyperlinks, images, video and audio could reinvent a book into something even better than the original. But we have to ask ourselves if it's necessary or just a make-work project. There are exceptions. We've seen this in print. Take Anansi's Massey lecture, A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright that went on to become An Illustrated Short History of Progress. Can you imagine what that book would look like on an iPad? But this is as Pie in the Sky as my little bench when you have to pop out a full list each season and, and, and. As much as I'd love to see that evolution, I'd rather see all the Masseys as ebooks. Or all the poetry. Or all the short stories. Or. We have to keep our eye on the ball and not get distracted by bells and whistles. (But I'd totally buy that ebook if it existed.)

Ultimately, the ways in which online works best is behind-the-scenes and it's not as sexy. Well, to some it's sexy. And I'm lucky enough to know some of the nerds who are pioneering this front. I'll leave this to the experts, but metadata, how publishers tag their electronic files so that the information contained within can be better utilized by booksellers, librarians, etc, is the biggest evolution in digital text. To my mind, it's the difference between sending your book out into the world in the hope that everyone who buys in will read it, make tireless notations about it, transcribe those notes, and then disseminate them to anyone and everyone. Metadata is the publisher doing that work in advance of sale. They know the work better than anyone, so they're able to give the next person in line all they need to do their jobs better.

As for adapting, this is already a done deal.


Tell us about your blog, Seen Reading. What will happen to your project if we’re all on e-readers?!


Seen Reading will live on as much as the books will live on, in part because if you're like me, you've yet to read 80 per cent of the books on your shelf. I'm also easily distracted and prefer the focus of one book at a time. Interestingly, the people I see reading on e-readers in public aren't necessarily the readers I've come to recognize over years of observing people reading on transit. E-readers are introducing whole new demographics to reading, I expect. If anything, it's mp3 players and podcasts that will cut into my sightings. Interestingly, I read more on my iPhone than I ever thought I would, and it's because I'm already plugged in, listening to music.


You manage the publicity agency Book What is the most common complaint or concern your clients have about going digital?


I'd describe more like a creative hub, a safe place I created for a handful of people I admire (the list is growing) where they can post whatever they want. It also serves as calling card for all of us, me, in particular. Out of it, I've secured a few clients who challenge me with rewarding work, everything from traditional publicity, to basic education, to a publisher like Brick Books who brought me on to create what we hope will be a truly magnificent (and huge) podcast archive of poetry performance from Brick poets over the past 30 years. I may well be the only person in this industry who gets to boast that poetry pays! But I also get to go into people's homes and they read to me. How cool is that? I'm getting paid to have people read to me. That, in a nutshell, is how online communities work at their best, when they lead to person-to-person introductions that will change in both big and small ways how we do business.

Julie Wilson is the curator of the online literary voyeurism project; founder of Book Madam & Associates, a hub for creative thinking in publishing; past guest host of the CBC's online book club; and co-founder of The Advent Book Blog. See her on the Digital Drive stage at 4:00 with Nina Lassam, Mark Leslie Lefebvre and Anita Windisman. Visit the website for more details.

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

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.

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