Conversations: Emily Gould

Posted by Jason Diamond

Tonight at Housing Works, people will gather to celebrate the official launch of Emily Books, the ebookstore started by Emily Gould and Ruth Curry.  We figured it was no better time to talk to Gould about the last year-and-a-half of her life which included putting out her first book, bringing a popular web series to a close, and becoming a business owner, so we asked her some questions over e-mail.

How are you doing right now at this very moment?

I’m thinking about probably having another cup of coffee and it’s after 7 pm so, yeah, basically that’s how I’m doing! 🙁

Is Cooking The Books really over?  Did your current venture have anything to do with it?

I did feel like having a “cooking show” where I interviewed authors while cooking something related to their books and also having a bookstore/bookclub was a lot of book-related projects to be doing simultaneously, especially when you consider that in theory and occasionally in practice I am also writing a book.  It starts to seem like a displacement activity when you spend more than a certain percentage of your time asking other people about what it was like to write their books, you know?  Plus I moved, and my new apartment has a smaller kitchen that’s not as conducive to shooting a cooking show.  And to be totally honest there are only so many things that I’m not getting paid for that I can work really hard on at any given time.  It’s a lot of things, though. It’s like four or five — but no more!

Emily Books is a really interesting idea.  I’m sure you’ve told the story a few times by now, but how did you come up with it?  Was it like, “We’d like to start a bookstore, but without an actual store, and without any physical books…”

The idea was born less out of a desire to start a bookstore per se and more out of a vehement desire to assign the world a syllabus of the books that have rocked my world and changed my life. Backlist and independently published cult classics as well as books that are overlooked by the big book marketing apparatus.  Ruth and I are both big book evangelists — it’s why we worked in publishing!  We are that friend who’s constantly telling you that you HAVE TO read book X immediately. I thought there had to be a way to professionalize my hobby of caring deeply about books and shoving them into people’s hands that didn’t involve publishing them, reviewing them, or being a book blogger, so this is what I came up with.

We actually, this is kind of a dirty secret, would like to have physical books, eventually.  We totally understand that some of our subscribers want the option of having physical books, or of having both ebooks and physical books. We want to be able to provide people with these books in whatever format they want to read in. The important part, to us, is that they read these books — and that they buy them from us!  But in the meantime, this was a way to start a business with zero inventory, zero fulfillment costs — essentially zero overhead, besides paying our graphic designer and various website-related expenses. This was convenient for us, because we have no money!

What’s the process for picking books?

We started out with a big wish list of our favorite books and we’re working our way through that still, as well as taking recommendations. We’re constantly reading. I mean, duh. The editorial director of NYRB classics Edwin Frank inspires me in that regard. He carries a notebook around at all times to write down obscure out of print books that people mention, I’ve seen him do it!

I don’t see the term “independent ebookselling” used all that often.  Am I not paying attention, or are you guys really getting in on the ground floor of this?

Ha! Well … you don’t see the term used because independent ebookselling doesn’t exist, unless you consider independent publishers who sell their own ebooks to be independent ebooksellers, or independent bricks and mortar stores who sell Google ebooks to be independent ebooksellers.

Amazon, B&N and Apple have a monopoly on ebookselling because they have proprietary ebook formats that are linked to devices, and also because the way ebookselling is set up now, retailers are in charge of putting DRM — “digital rights management,” a fairly meaningless but very expensive-to-implement form of piracy protection — on the files they sell.  We don’t have a signature ereading device, obviously, and we don’t have the resources to offer DRM, even if we wanted to, which we don’t! (I think the people who torrent a book are the same people who in the past have waited 5 weeks on a library hold list rather than shell out for the book they want to read. People will buy books as long as it’s easier to buy them than to steal them. This is maybe the only way that digital books and digital music are analogous.)

A professor named Ted Striphas offered up a plan for the Indies to band together and launch a “platform-agnostic” ebook system. This is a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of independent bookselling, which the future of independent ebookselling is inextricably linked to, like it or not.  Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson linked to it in this blog post, also a useful read on this topic.  Having all the indies band together and also ally themselves with the smart people who are tech people and also book people is a tall order — but it’s what needs to happen.  The Emily Books dream is that we are harbingers of a future in which a thousand indie ebookstores catering to niche and non-niche markets bloom.  I really hope this can happen, and also that the bricks and mortar indies can find a way to really sell ebooks. One first step would be to realize that they’re not — and I hope someone will tell me if I’m wrong about this — doing themselves any favors by selling Google ebooks, even if they do get some cut of the profit. It’s like letting Amazon set up a kiosk in your store.

You’ve held two bookclub meetings in New York.  Are you planning to host events in other cities?   

People in Minnesota and DC and Chicago have made noises about hosting Emily Books meetups.  I think as our “inventory” grows, these events can be less focused on one book and more focused on socializing with other people who read these kinds of books.  As you know, literary events are tricky — how to make something cooler than a reading without making authors feel like performing seals? — and we haven’t quite cracked the code yet.  To be honest I don’t quite know what people want from a book club.  Don’t get me wrong, our book club meetings have been great, but book club in general can either be sort of like school or sort of like group therapy or just an exercise in going around in a circle and dumping on the book and the author — you know,  when people say things like, “This didn’t work for me.”  None of those are really ideal. Our party, on the other hand, is going to be awesome.

Your book And The Heart Says Whatever came out last year.  Do you have plans for another book? 

I am pretty close to being done with a novel, or at least a fuckload closer to being done than I was the last time I said I was pretty close to being done.  I took an internet sabbatical last March and April which was excruciating but I think it rewired my brain. I got more done in those two months than I had in the previous year combined.  If I can do one more horrible month like that at some point in the next six months, I think I can finish. That is my “plan,” although how I’m going to abstain from the Internet and also run an Internet-based business is an interesting question, but probably more something to address in therapy than something to address in this interview.

Now you have a blog called Emily Magazine and an ebookstore called Emily Books.  Is this an Emily media empire?   

Ha! Nah, it’s just a great name. I love my name. There are like a zillion Emilies and we’re all great, seriously.  When I found out the url was available it was like: ok, cool, thank fuck I don’t have to come up with some lame startup name with no vowels.

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