Friday, 1 June 2012

Ebooks, again

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Tom Kasey and Jack Steel)

Most people involved in the world of publishing, in whatever capacity, are worried. Authors are concerned that their contracts may not be renewed because of uncertainty by the publishers over the level of sales likely to be generated. Publishers are eyeing the seemingly inexorable rise of the ebook with something akin to alarm, and probably wondering if there will still be such a thing as a publishing house at the end of the next decade or so. And agents, who are essentially stuck in the middle of this, acting as a buffer between authors and publishers, really have no idea which way to turn. Or what to do. Or what business model they should be embracing.
            My personal opinion, for what it’s worth, is that publishing houses and agents are going to be around for quite a long time to come. Despite the increasing popularity of ebooks, there are a number of book types which will simply not easily translate to the Kindle or to any other electronic reading device. Cookery books are an obvious example. You simply cannot view the pictures on a Kindle in anything like the same detail as you can on the printed page, and pictures are what sell that kind of book. The same applies to what used to be called ‘coffee table books’ – large format and lavishly illustrated books covering a whole range of subjects – and also most books which include detailed diagrams or photographs, such as textbooks.
            An author I was talking to recently suggested that within about ten years it would be the norm that most novels would be published on the Kindle as the principal medium, because novels are essentially ‘read once and give away’ books, and producing them in an electronic format means that no trees have to die in order for them to be read. Most non-fiction and reference books, he thought, would probably continue to be printed as physical volumes. He may well be right.
            Most people will be aware that readers these days have more choice than ever before, but exactly how much more choice is quite surprising. At the Digital Book World conference in January this year, it was pointed out by one of the speakers that more books had been published that week than in the whole of 1950. In America, over three million new printed titles were produced in 2010, and an almost uncountable number of electronic titles. Readers really are spoiled for choice.
            And that is one area which will, I think, become even more important in the future. How exactly does anyone choose a new book to read? My agent likens it to walking into a vast bookshop and seeing perhaps a million books stacked on the shelves, few of them coming from publishing houses that you recognize, and even fewer bearing the name of an author that you have ever heard of. How do you decide which book to buy?
            His point is that the only guarantee anyone has of the quality of a particular book is the name of the publisher. And for a commercial publisher to take on a new author, both the publishing house and the literary agent involved have to be convinced that he or she can write something that other people will want to read. Because unless they are convinced, they won’t issue a contract for the book or pay an advance.
            And that might lead to a kind of two-tier publishing world on the Kindle – books from independent authors and unknown publishers selling for about £1 to £2, and ‘proper’ books from commercial publishers being sold for perhaps twice that amount. That does not, of course, mean that sales of commercially-produced novels will be higher than the independent efforts. Cost is still a factor. A book selling for £1 or £2 is a genuine impulse purchase – it’s less than the price of a cup of coffee, and even if it’s complete rubbish, it really doesn’t matter – but a book at £4 or £5 is a different matter.
            Which brings me neatly to this week’s special offer: as part of a Fathers’ Day promotion, Simon & Schuster are offering the Kindle version of The Titanic Secret for a mere £1.99, instead of the usual price of £4.99, from 11th to 25th June, and there’ll be a marketing campaign as well.

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