Interview with Eileen Gunn

We sat down with Eileen Gunn, the Nebula-award-winning author, on a Tuesday afternoon at her home in Seattle. We talked about publishers, the future of paper books and the Seattle Library system. We started off by asking her about the changes that are taking place in publishing now, as digital books compete in the marketplace with traditionally published books.  As always, talking with Eileen was like a giant, fabulous, information download.

EILEEN: The situation with paper versus digital books is larger than just the one issue, of paper or pixels. Right now, the entire industry is changing rapidly, and everybody – authors, agents, book designers, publishers, distributors, librarians, booksellers, and readers – is trying to keep their footing as the ground shifts beneath them. Librarians may be the people who have the best perspective on what’s happening and where it’s all going, as they have an immediate and intimate relationship with the reading public – or with library users, anyway, which is a very special subset of that demographic.

FRIENDS: What’s the writer’s perspective? Why would the writer care about whether the book is on paper or not?

EILEEN: Well, most writers, if they’re looking to be published, want their books read, and they want their books to be found by the people who will enjoy them. The question is how to make that happen. Will you, the writer, work with an agent, who will help you sell your book to a conventional publisher, large or small? Will you skip the agent and the publisher, and self-publish the book, or deal directly with a distributor-turned-publisher, such as Amazon? If so, how? Will you hire people to edit, proofread, design, print and/or code, and market the book, or will you do it all yourself? Will you ignore the traditional-book reader and publish only  e-books? Will you hook up with an  e-book marketer, or an outfit that will help you publish and will take a share of the profits? And what about audio books? The decisions just go on and on, and any choice may be the wrong one for you, or for your book. Any of them could lead to disaster or to best-sellerdom. And notice that all this takes place after the book is written,after the writer has finished her traditional task. As a writer, do you want to take that on?

FRIENDS: From what you say, it sounds as though it’s possible for anyone with a certain amount of money to get published.

EILEEN: Well, that’s always been true. What is it that A.J. Liebling said? “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Now everybody can own one, and electronic publishing makes it possible to publish books without concern about the costs of paper, printing, and shipping.

FRIENDS: So, technically then, everyone will be able to call themselves a writer. Does that bother you?

EILEEN: Nope. As far as I’m concerned, people can call themselves anything they want. I don’t actually consider other writers competition. Rather, they’re proof of the concept that, yes, books can be written and people will buy them. Plus, I believe that no one else can do what I do as a writer. No one can write my books but me. Therefore I better get out there and do it.

FRIENDS: Do you think paper books will really go away?

EILEEN: Perhaps not in the next 10 to 15 years, but at some point we’ll only have digital books, or some other implementation than ink on paper. But most publishers, even Amazon, still print paper books as well as e-books. There are a lot of paper books already in existence, and more are coming out every month. It will take a very long time for all of those to go away, though most will rot eventually. She said cheerily.

FRIENDS: Well, just looking around your house, which is filled with books, that’s hard to imagine. With all these books of your own, are you a library user?

EILEEN:  Oh, sure. I love libraries and I love the Rem Koolhaas Central SPL. Over the years, I’ve shifted to doing most of my research at home, but I’ve been using the inter-library loan system to do research for my next book. It’s wonderful to be able to obtain through the library a specific book that I need, such as a small-press or privately printed memoir that may have been issued in a print run of only a few hundred copies and would cost me a hundred dollars or more if I had to buy it. I use to find what libraries have the book I’m looking for, and then go to the SPL website and the library facilitates the loan and sends the book to my local branch. I really appreciate that. I also use it to borrow e-books in areas that I’m researching. I can quickly search them in my e-reader, find the relevant information I need, and return them to the library, all without leaving the house. I wish there were a lot more digital books available from the library.

FRIENDS: What is the book you’re researching? And have you got anything else in the publishing pipeline?

EILEEN:  The book I’m researching is a novel set in the 19th century, a sort of metafictional inquiry into issues of race and gender and creativity. My second book of short stories,Questionable Practices, is due out in March of 2014 from Small Beer Press.

FRIENDS: Well, we can’t wait. Thanks so much for taking the time, Eileen!

You can find out more about Eileen at


Keep Libraries Open – Eileen Gunn

On August 7, Seattle Proposition 1 will be on the primary ballot. The seven-year, $123-million levy addresses four essential priorities: keeping libraries open, adding more books and materials, improving computer and online services, and maintaining buildings. Learn more about the levy and how public libraries help Seattle patrons like author Eileen Gunn.

I grew up in a town that had no bookstore, just a wire rack of cheap paperbacks at the local newsdealer. A block from that store was the public library, built in 1874 with donated money. It was a small wooden building with high, rounded Queen Anne windows on the second floor, and it was filled with fascinating books — the latest best-sellers, newly published science-fiction and fantasy, romance, historicals, everything I couldn’t buy at the store.  

I sampled it all: history, science, archeology, humor, art, and, of course, sexy novels. I discovered Robert Heinlein’s juveniles and read my way through the entire adult SF section.  Left alone to roam the shelves, I formed a very personal relationship with books new and old. I once took out a volume — the speeches of Wendell Willkie, if I recall correctly — simply because nobody else ever had: I felt sorry for it.  
That was fifty years ago. The world is very different now, but public libraries like the SPL, with open stacks that encourage browsing and discovery, and with enticing branch libraries that put books out in the neighborhoods, where kids and passersby can drop in, still bring the world to the people, and people to the world.  
The active presence of the Seattle Public Library, its branches open and accessible to the public, not shuttered and dark most of the time, is essential to the quality of life of Seattle. For the well-being of writers and researchers and people to don’t have easy Internet access, for the enrichment of the children who will be the future of this city and this country, vote on August 7 to support, maintain, and improve the our libraries. Keep the libraries open!