Emily Gould on e-bookselling, the futility of DRM, dollars versus retweets, and memoir aftermath

There are few who have experienced the agony and the ecstasy of our hyper-networked century more acutely than Emily Gould. After a whirlwind stint at Gawker during the years of its meteoric rise from New York gossip blog to what might be considered the international Blog of Record for news about media and culture, Gould resigned in 2007 and published a widely-read New York Times Magazine essay recounting her experiences at Gawker. Her very personal 2010 memoir And the Heart Says Whatever gained her another storm of not-entirely-welcome publicity; since then, she’s been writing a new book and occasionally blogging, as well as sharing kitchen time with literary notables for her online show Cooking the Books.

Gould’s newest venture, in collaboration with longtime friend Ruth Curry (above, right), is Emily Books: an independent bookseller that doubles as a sort of book club, with Gould and Curry planning to host IRL events for their NYC readers and online events for the rest of us. This afternoon, I spoke with Gould by phone.

How has the response to Emily Books been since you made the announcement?

We feel like we’re learning things we couldn’t possibly have known before we opened our virtual shutter. Every day, every minute—it’s like your brain is expanding exponentially. I don’t want to complain right off the bat, but one thing that’s been frustrating is that we thought that once we started, the big publishers would say, “Oh, now we understand what you’re doing! You’re going to provide all this publicity for our books! We’re sorry we said no [to letting you sell our books].” That hasn’t happened so far, but we still live in hope that we’ll eventually be able to collaborate with one of the big five publishers, maybe with a book that’s still coming out. It’s not that we don’t love working with independent publishers—we do—but there are all these great books that we want to share, but [that we can’t sell]. I had an experience with one publisher who said, the author wants to [make a book available for sale via Emily Books] and we want to, but we can’t because we don’t want to jeopardize our relationship with Amazon and Apple. That’s been the subtext to a lot of our conversations, but to have someone say that out loud—that’s mind-blowing. To have the publishing industry so under the thumb of big companies is not good for anyone, so we’re doggedly doing our best to try to change the situation.

How did you decide to make No More Nice Girls your first selection?

I think I had read the book for the first time around this time last year, and I was just so surprised. That book, and her book Out of the Vinyl Deeps, more than any books I’ve read since college just made me feel differently about every aspect of my own life. Not just my political life, but being a woman in the world—they’re just so relevant to everything. Obviously men should read them too—they’re not just for women—and even though they were written so long ago, they speak so clearly to everyday experience. I hadn’t felt like that about nonfiction in so long, and it’s so hard to get a hold of that book and a few others I hope will be selling in coming months. That’s basically the reason I wanted to starte this business: the very fundamental fact of the books being so hard to get hold of. I’m a big recommender, and it’s hard to [recommend a book] when you have to say, “Borrow my copy, but you have to give it back.” That’s one of those things about e-books: it’s like, one click and done. So hopefully now people will be making more use of these mind-altering, life-expanding books.

Have you considered publishing original books, in existing to selling existing books?

Well, it’s weird. We kind of accidentally ended up publishing [this edition of No More Nice Girls]—because it’s not available as an e-book, so technically we published it—but there’s a big difference between that and taking a raw manuscript and editing it. I believe in the project of publishing, and I want current publishers—well, most current publishers—to continue to exist. I’m so much more interested in being a bookseller. I’ve worked in publishing and publishers are great, but I don’t want their job, which they do quite well. This is really just a different kind of project, but a lot of people want to become e-book publishers. That’s cool, and it would be great—but it would be even greater if existing publishers could get better at making their books available electronically. That would be my dream. I want to give the existing system more of a shot before we think we can rebuild it from scratch. I don’t think it needs to be rebuilt from scratch. I don’t have a grandiose vision of starting my own publishing house; I have a slightly less grandiose vision of starting my own bookstore.

You’ve said that you’ll keep reading print books, but e-books are “here to stay.” Do you have any thoughts about what it means for reading and writing generally that so much of it—now even book publishing and retailing—is moving online? How will the books of the future be different?

I’m not a big predictor of what things will be like—it’s way too easy to be comically wrong. I have definitely thought about this a lot, though. As a technology, the print book is pretty solid: it does such a good job of what it’s intended to do, except that it’s hard to pack up and transport when you move. Other than that there’s nothing wrong with it, and I think it’s going to continue to exist alongside reading on a screen. I really, really think and hope that people will continue do do both. All of the people I know who have e-readers still read print books too. People’s reading habits are weird and idiosyncratic, and it’s hard to predict, but there are starting to be studies aout what it does to memory and cognition to read on a screen versus a page; I personally don’t remember things as well when I’ve read them on a screen. I know that others have had that experience too. I really think there are some great things about reading on a device, but I don’t like to read on a device that has other purposes, because for me, those purposes will always win. If I’m reading on a device that has e-mail, I’ll always check my e-mail. I’m making a good case for print books, which is probably not what I should be doing—but I just want to acknowledge that this is a form that’s become co-dominant with print books. I want to make sure the books I love still get to exist. It’s shocking that so many great backlist titles, because of rights issues, are not available as e-books.

The other day you tweeted, “can’t even tell you how good it feels to have DOLLARS as easily checkable rubric of website success/failure rather than views, likes or RTs.” Are you just personally burned out on counting pageviews, or do you think this is a larger challenge of the creative economy on the Internet? Should we all be thinking more about dollars and less about pageviews?

I don’t know about all of us—people use the Internet for all different purposes. I’ve been struggling for years with a completely unhealthy relationship with the Internet in all its forms—it’s a real struggle not just for me, but for other people, to use the Internet as a tool and not abuse it as a drug. The whole [phenomenon] of people’s response to whatever you put online being quantifiable and instantaneously visible—that’s part of what makes it addictive. I’ve felt for years that a lot of literary blogs—not yours!—have a weird pointlessness to them. There’s this echo chamber of people writing about books they haven’t read, and rumors floating around…making a bookstore instead of a book blog is my way of putting my money where my mouth is. Instead of just saying, “You should read this book,” I’m saying, “It’s so great that you should buy it—from me!” I’m trying to find a way of making the whole system not feel so empty and meaningless. Likes are great. Retweets are great. Pageviews are awesome. But I can’t go to my landlord and say, “Will you accept 100 retweets for the rent this month?”

I share your frustration with not being able to share e-books as readily as print books. But though you’re selling books without DRM protection, you’re also asking readers to please not share their Emily Books subscriptions with all their friends. How do you think this experiment in non-DRM retailing will turn out?

We’re really just asking people to be decent about not stealing. It’s hard to imagine that any of the books we’re selling are going to be anything people would torrent, so it seems like a non-issue for us—but I understand why it’s an issue for publishers. The model here is probably having some kind of digital watermarking like J.K. Rowling has done for her Pottermore thingy, whatever it is, because it makes it obvious where a file is coming from and works to deter piracy in that way—whereas DRM doesn’t work, and it’s also super-expensive. It’s only function is to prevent anyone who isn’t Amazon or iBooks from selling e-books. I’m very confident that this will not be an issue in a year. This will be resolved because it has to be. Someone with more leverage than me will decide to open an e-bookstore and will say to publishers, “I can’t have DRM,” and publishers will say, “Do we alienate Amazon or [for example] Sarah McNally?” Whereas alienating me is not really an issue.

You have your own book out, and according to Twitter hints, you’ve been working on another.

Yes, I have to finish it; my big goal right now is to finish writing that fucking book! It seems like it’s been a long time, but I have to keep reminding myself it hasn’t even been two years yet. I’ve heard talk of people taking far longer.

Now that it’s been about a year and a half since And the Heart Says Whatever came out, do you have any reflections on how the experience of publishing that memoir has been?

I’ve had so many different feelings about it. I didn’t have a very clear perspective on it when it first came out, and that’s exactly when you get to talk about it. It was this defining event in my life, in mostly bad ways. I was so lucky to have had the opportunity to publish a book, and I would never trade that. But in so many aspects—the process of publishing it and the immediate response and how it was reviewed and that photo of me in a bathing suit inBookforum and that condescending review that accompanied it that set the tone for so much that was to come—I felt so vulnerable and shitty. And on top of that, the book alienated me from my family! We’ve just been reconciling after not speaking to each other for several months. That sucked, obviously, and now I just feel so distant from the person in that book. That sounds ridiculous, because I didn’t write it very long ago—most of it was written between two and three years ago—but man, I read snippets now, and I’m like, “Who the fuck wrote that? It’s crazy!” Saying that I don’t regret anything—how can you say that? On a good day I still believe in that way of living your life, but wow, it’s easier to say than do. The difference between being 30, which I am now, and being 26 or 27 is just, like, vast, vast, vast, vast—and I was not capable of understanding that when I was even a little tiny bit younger. I hope to continue to work and write more books, and maybe in 25 years some person will do the equivalent of what I’m doing now and be like, “Remember that forgotten little Emily Gould gem, in her juvenilia before she wrote all those really long novels? No one reads thatany more!” I don’t want to dis my book so hard, though. I’ve probably said too much—but I’m, like, the patron saint of saying too much.

Jay Gabler

Photo by Lisa Corson, courtesy Emily Books