Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Bloodshed at Harrogate: The E-Book War

I haven’t posted here for a while, but I just have to say a few words about my trip to the Theakstons Crime Festival at Harrogate. This was my second time there, and despite suffering from one of the worst colds I’ve had in years, the experience was a blast. I got to see old friends, make new ones, and finally meet in the flesh several people whom I have been dying to turn into something more than virtual acquaintances for ages, including Ryan David Jahn, Will Carver, and Miles, of Milorambles fame.
There were plenty of highlights for me: Colin Dexter, now frail of body but still razor-sharp of mind, collecting the award for his outstanding contribution to crime writing; Harlan Coben delivering a frank and highly inspirational insight into his path to success; seeing the cast and crew of Luther, a session at which we somehow managed to blag VIP seats right at the front. I could go on. But there’s one other panel that has had me thinking a lot over the past few days, and I need to let those thoughts out.
The panel was on e-books, and already it has become infamous. Almost every other crime-writing blogger has discussed it, or at least mentioned it. If you want all the sordid details you can, for example, find pointers to various summaries on Pamreader’s blog, but in short the hubbub is all about certain comments made by the successful e-book author Stephen Leather, which I’ll come back to in a moment.
Most of the debate centred on the problems associated with offering e-books at ridiculously low prices, with the claims that it devalues books and harms authors. As an author myself, perhaps I should be worried, but actually I’m not. I think that most of the arguments being made against low-priced e-books are simplistic and ignore the larger market forces that are at work. During the session, the fact that e-books can be bought for less than the price of a cup of tea was voiced with some anger, and the complainant was warmly applauded. An example doing the rounds at the moment is the novel Perfect People, by Peter James, available through Amazon at only 20p. Stephen Leather commented that he can spend five days writing a short story, then sell it at 72p, making 25p for himself. At this, one of the panel asked him whether he really believed he should be working for only 5p a day. It seems clear that this is publishing gone mad.
Or does it?
Take the Peter James example. Truth be known, Amazon started selling his novel at 20p purely to compete with Sony, who were already selling it at that price. The publisher was still paid at the previously agreed rate, and Peter James got the full royalty. In fact, both benefited from hugely increased sales of the book. It was Amazon that took the hit on profits, but they were willing to do this for good business reasons. So what’s the problem?
Now take the Stephen Leather example. The accusation that he was willing to work for 5p a day was, when you think about it, totally baseless, and Mr Leather has pointed out the fallacy on his own blog. He might make 5p a day on one copy, but of course that is multiplied many times over by the number he expects to sell. In fact, he calculates that his short story will make him something like £3000 per day of creative effort – not bad by anyone’s standards. So again, what’s the problem?
Perhaps the real problem is about the message that is being sent out. I think the fear is that the availability of some books that are as cheap as chips will persuade readers that all books should be at these prices; this will drive down the price of books to unsustainable levels, and the literary world will fall around our ears. I don’t believe this will happen. The availability of T-shirts for two quid at Asda doesn’t stop Debenhams selling T-shirts for twenty quid. The two can co-exist quite nicely. And there are countless examples like this where people are prepared to pay more for what they perceive to be better quality goods. On the other hand, there is nothing to stop people occasionally selling quality goods at rock-bottom prices. In business these are called loss leaders. You do it to entice customers in, and then you do your best to keep them. Books are often sold in this way for a limited time to augment a readership.
Conversely, there is nothing to say that digital books have to be cheap. All those arguments that retail prices don’t reflect the costs of production are entirely specious. So what if a digital book doesn’t have the same overheads as a paperback? Why does that mean it has to be cheaper? Since when did the price of an Armani suit bear any relation to the cost of making it? We’re back to market forces. Supply and demand. Vendors will sell at what consumers are willing to pay, and it has ever been thus.
The digital revolution and self-publishing have brought us cheap and instantly available books. That’s not going to go away, no matter how much anyone complains. We have to accept that. Actually, no – we have to embrace it. There are opportunities there that have never been present before, and some insightful people have already recognised that. Stephen Leather is one of those people. He has a product and he has a strong consumer base, and all he is doing is connecting the two.
I think what really inflamed the audience at Harrogate was the attitude of Mr Leather, and his admission of business practices that might not be to everyone’s taste. There were at least three issues that raised blood pressures. One was his use of his fan base to edit his digital books, coupled with a remark about the absence of contributions from his editor at the company that publishes his paperbacks; another was his setting up of fake social media personae as vehicles to spread the word about his publications; and a third was his defence of piracy as a means of free marketing. All of these provoked audible intakes of breath and consternation. One even drew the claim that he was a ‘tosser’. It was clear who the bad guy was here.
Or was it?
Was all what it seemed? Stephen Leather later revealed that he had been urged to be controversial in the panel – a claim that Mark Billingham, this year’s chair of the festival, freely admitted to. When I told one of my friends about Mr Leather’s use of fake accounts, she asked not why he would do such a thing, but why he would be so stupid as to confess it in such a public forum. Why indeed? Perhaps the answer is that he is not stupid at all, and that he knew exactly what he was doing. Perhaps this panel session had some of the elements of a wrestling match, in which the moves and the outcome are known in advance, but the audience is entertained nonetheless by being whipped into a frenzy.
There is a saying that there is no such thing as bad PR. It’s not always true, especially for large corporations – witness the effect on BP of the oil spill, or the share prices of Toyota after its call to return faulty cars – but it can be true for relatively unknown individuals. Alan Sorensen, a Stanford economics professor, investigated the effects of New York Times book reviews and discovered that even negative reviews could raise the sales of previously unknown authors by about a third. This debate has certainly put the name of Stephen Leather on everyone’s lips. Could that have been his aim all along? He would not be the first to court controversy for the sake of publicity.
Whatever Mr Leather’s objective, the sad thing is that his approach did nothing to help the cause of other self-published authors, many of whom are nice, good-intentioned people. Most of them don’t make huge pots of money, and the successful ones I have met still carry that dream of one day getting a traditional book deal. It would be a shame to turn this into an us and them situation. Those of us who are authors want to reach readers in the most effective ways possible, and in a manner that provides us with a decent living. For some, that means selling cheaply but in large quantities. For others, it means selling more expensive books in smaller quantities. These are two ends of a rapidly changing spectrum in which we can all co-exist.
The publishing world is in a state of flux at the moment, and nobody knows how or when an equilibrium will be reached. Like the weather, it’s a complex, unpredictable system, with too many variables and unknowns. But however the dust settles, I am convinced it will do so in a way which will be agreeable to most. There will be casualties – perhaps more bookshops will close and some agents will have to tighten their belts – but I think that publishing houses will adapt. I am also sure that authors will be protected, because they are the foundation upon which everything else is built. If they suffer, they will stop writing, and everything will collapse. The market will not allow this to happen. (Cue music for ‘I Will Survive’)