Margaret Atwood on the Evolution of Storytelling and “Transmission Devices”

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Bestselling and award-winning author Margaret Atwood spoke to hundreds of booksellers, librarians, publishers, and journalists at the closing plenary session at ABA’s Day of Education, sponsored by the Ingram Content Group, at BookExpo America. Her engaging talk ambled from her first fiction characters — a couple of superhero bunnies — through a brief history of the evolution of books and language, illustrated with hand-drawn pictures on vintage computer punch cards, to a look at the future of the book and bookselling.

Introducing Atwood, ABA CEO Teicher cited her many awards,which include the Booker Prize and Trillium Book Award, and he noted that, as the book industry reevaluates industry practices, he was honored to present “someone who has been at the forefront of rethinking and reimagining the role … that authors have in this changing world.”

Atwood’s lighthearted overview of the evolution of storytelling began with cavemen following an animal trail and moved to the use of tin cans and string. She noted that, through the ages, the storyteller and listener have remained pretty consistent, but the string, or “transmission device,” which is the publishers, printers, and booksellers, “has changed a great deal during my lifetime,” she said.

Regarding future change, she wondered how the medium might affect message. “Does the transmission device change the way the story is told?” she asked. “Can you still be immersed when you’re online?”

Acknowledging that there are no easy answers, Atwood opted to talk about the future, and noted that if one’s predictions are questioned, “you can always say it hasn’t happened yet. Unless you’re foolish enough to give a specific date,” she added, referring to recent predictions for the Rapture to occur on May 21.

Would the changes in transmission devices and the way people read make books disappear? “The short answer is no,” she said. But things would inevitably change. “They always do.”

Atwood outlined some of the recent developments: “serial publishing is back, reviewing is shrinking in some places, but expanding in others, oral storytelling is coming back as performance art.” She also noted some “new ways of dissemination,” such as the U.K.’s World Book Night, where on one day, one million paperbacks were given away to hospitals, prisons, and to people on the street, and possible plans for a similar event in the U.S. Atwood also invited attendees to drop by the Ingram booth on the show floor (#4338) to see LiveSign™ demos, a new technology for the signing and personalization of readers’ e-books.

Atwood concluded by sharing some of her thoughts on why booksellers should remain part of the transmission stream. “Bookstores, first and foremost, provide the gateway for new work,” she said. “They provide serendipity for readers. They provide an informed service, thus they can handsell. They know their customers.”

For more of Atwood’s thoughts on the book industry in flux and what happens when the “oldest human technology” is filtered through the new, read BTW ’s May 11 Q&A with Atwood.