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Interview with Alana Wilcox

(Updated on September 18, 2014)

Alana Wilcox is the editorial manager of Coach House Books, an independent publishing house based in Toronto. Coach House Books publishes fiction, poetry, drama and non-fiction to push the boundaries of the book. Besides its own books, Coach House Books prints for several other small Canadian presses and literary magazines.
In the following interview Alana Wilcox discusses the impact of digital technologies on her work.

Interview conducted by Marang N'Douba, Book and Debates Officer - Consulate General of France in Toronto

Coach House is a publishing company which prints its own books and is well-known for the quality of its printing. Given this commitment to print, how did you approach the digital technology?

We approach digital with great enthusiasm. Coach House has always been a place where past and future collide — we have Heidelberg printing presses from the 1960s (and older technology we don’t use anymore, like a Linotype machine), but we were also one of the first publishers to experiment with publishing online. Even in the 1980s, Coach House was involved in early iterations of the internet and of digital typesetting. We know that our readers are a diverse bunch, so we’re happy to provide our books (“our content”) in as many different formats as we can.

How many digital books do you have in your catalogue?

We have about 200 of our titles in digital form. Our total catalogue is about 300 books, but some of them are impossible to digitize because they have complicated formats, like experimental poetry or art books. We digitize every single title that it’s possible to render well in an ebook format, so at least 90% of our list.

How have the digital technologies impacted the way you work?

Technology has certainly made making books easier in some ways — you need only to look at our old Linotype machine or cases of lead type to really appreciate the luxury of being able to change a comma without having to melt lead! Now we lay out our books on a computer, use a different piece of software to position the pages for the press, and run film from a computer — it has definitely streamlined the process. And, of course, our administrative work is all made easier with technology. Email, on the other hand…
A bigger question for me, and an as-yet-unanswerable one, is how technology may have changed our authors and what they write. I look forward to being to track how our thinking has been changed by the ubiquity of technology.

Did you get any funding from Canadian institutions to enter the digital books market?

Yes, there was support from two different programs to help us prepare for the digital world. First, the Canada Book Fund invested heavily in technological infrastructure, helping individual publishers do what they needed to prepare for the sea change in our industry, and then by starting BookNet Canada, which tracks sales — it has made an enormous difference for the better in how we all do business. And then our provincial government helped us directly to digitize our backlist. That’s the challenging part: we all needed to digitize hundreds or thousands of backlist titles that will take years to earn anything back. Government support was invaluable for that.

What is the distribution model for your digital books?

We sell our ebooks a few different ways. First, we sell them directly off our website, — it’s set up to automatically send a customer the file once they purchase it. We also go through two different distributors (eBound and Constellation) to reach all the different etailers, like Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Apple, and countless others.
In the spirit of digital innovation that has long characterized Coach House, we’re also keen to get involved with other people doing interesting things, so our books are available through a variety of digital startups, some selling ebooks, some offering subscription services or rentals: Oyster, Scribd, 0s&1s, for example. Partly this is an experiment, and partly it’s an eagerness to endorse anything that might help keep our marketplace diverse and avoid an Amazon monopoly. Things keep changing so quickly in our industry that it’s important to maintain a sense of adventure!