Saturday, June 24, 2006

They're books, Jim, but not as we know them ...

So there I was lying on the settee yesterday, reading the latest copy of The Author and feeling all my optimism and positive energy drain away to be replaced by a flood tide of doom and gloom.

Article after article talked about the shrinking book market, the death of the midlist author (or indeed any author not already a best-seller) and the impossibility of making any kind of living from writing for any but the most successful celeb.

Here’s a little selection.
(Warning – unless you’re feeling irrepressibly upbeat, look away now!)

‘The midlist author has already become an endangered species … a healthy literary culture depends on book buyers being able to find a wide range of good quality affordable books. It also depends on authors being able to afford to write those books.’ Andrew Taylor

• Discounting is ‘driving readers to different books, for example to discounted new books in preference to full-price backlist and to discounted bestsellers in preference to non-discounted midlist … All retailers … promote pretty much the same titles.’ Tim Hely Hutchinson

• Nicholas Clee writes re a novelist whose first 2 books attracted a £75,000 advance. 18,000 copies of the first were sold – more than the first sales of many authors who have gone on to become bestsellers, but not enough to cover the advance.
‘The publisher has already written off the investment. It is giving no promotional support to the second novel … The current publisher will not throw good money after – in its view – bad; other houses, noting the author’s record, will stay away.’
This author’s agent is quoted as saying, ‘The author’s at work on his third. I haven’t the heart to tell him not to bother.’

‘You can get a high five-figure deal, or even a six-figure one, and still find your career is over in the time it takes to read a BookScan print-out. Still, winning a publishing contract remains preferable to not winning a publishing contract – the fate that is befalling an increasing number of first-time writers, as well as experienced ones.’ Nicholas Clee

‘Leading publishing houses are cutting their lists … (one) UK company has reduced its annual output in the past five years from about 600 new titles to about 350. That scale of reduction is common.’ Nicholas Clee

• ‘In fiction, if a book is not likely to be on the front tables (of Waterstones), publishers don’t want to take it.’
Clare Alexander, Gillon Aitken agency

‘You’re either going to get £100,000 or zero. No one’s going to say, “This isn’t bad: I’ll give you £15,000 for it.’ Jonathan Lloyd, Curtis Brown agency

• ‘No one wants a midlist. An author is either on the way up, or on the way out.’
Helen Fraser, Penguin

‘The number of novels selling more than 10,000 copies has been dropping like a stone for the past three years.’ Ursula Mackenzie, Little Brown

‘If you are an author … you should be aware of the trends. You might produce lead title after lead title, and be a darling of publishers and agents. If that happens, you will become very rich. If it does not, you will certainly need a more lucrative day job.' Nicholas Clee

‘Yes we would all like to make money out of writing and selling books. But we might also like the moon to be made out of green cheese.’ Robert Cole

There’s more. Much more.

I felt swamped by negativity. Yet again, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or the right place at the wrong time. Either way, any hope I may have been harbouring about making a (modest) living from my writing was clearly an illusion. Who the Hell did I think I was?

But then, just before I drowned in self-pity, there was this other article … At first, in my negative state of mind, it seemed like even more bad news along the lines of ‘I’ve seen the future … and there are no books in it.’ Or at least, ‘There are some – but yours ain’t among ‘em, baby.’

It was about the advent of the e-book. New products are coming onto the market, Sony Reader for example, that are set to revolutionise our reading habits. The size of a small paperback with a display that ‘looks like paper’, these little devices can store up to 80 books downloaded from the internet (a la iPod), 100s if you use a memory stick or similar. The current sales price is £200 but this will come down as demand increases and the technology improves.

After I swallowed down the initial instinctive distaste bordering on horror, I started thinking …

Let’s take a step back and look at the pros and cons:

• For all those of us who love the feel, smell and sight of a Real Book, the thought of its possible demise is little short of catastrophic
• The advent of the e-book will be disastrous for the already beleaguered independent bookshops
• We’ll have less and less face-to-face contact with Real People
• There would be huge job losses in the printing and associated industries

And now the advantages
• No more deforestation to produce paper
• Think of the costs to the environment of producing a book – from tree to wood mill to pulp to printer (remember the machinery involved, the ink etc) to storage to truck to distributor to truck or train or plane to more warehouses to bookseller to reader. Think of the drain on the earth’s dwindling resources … the pollution …
• No more shelves groaning under the weight of books both read, not yet read and never likely to be read. No more teetering piles of books gathering dust in every corner of your home
• A full library of books of your choice – fitting into your pocket
• Because of the savings in production costs, downloadable books will cost a fraction of a Real Life book
• Due to all the above – wait now – this is The Big One for me – publishers will be in a position to sign up a truly diverse range of books and authors. Far more than now. The costs will be smaller, the risks correspondingly less …

It’s going to be a matter of adapt or die. If the advent of the e-book is inevitable, it’s no use doing the ostrich routine. There are advantages. We either concentrate on them and go with the flow – or wallow in misery and self-pity.

In spite of feeling unspeakable sadness at the losses implicit in the changes that are ahead, I know which I want to do …

Sorry this is such a long post. I'm really looking forward to hearing other people's thoughts ...


Unknown said...

In my dreams, the e book is completely electronic (a kind of hologram thingy), but is a facsimile of the printed book, so for instance if you were reading a 600 page book it would shape itself into 600 pages, if it were 200 it would shape itself into 200. Eventually it will even feel and smell like paper and you'll be able to stick your nose in it and sniff.

Anonymous said...

As someone who hasn't benefitted or is likely to benefit from the traditional book publishing model, I don't really give a toss about the effect all this has on publishers.

I have the greatest sympathy for authors though, it must be tough to get that book deal and then find out that it is probaly not the beginning of a glittering literary career.

Perhaps e-books are the future, backed up by limited edition, high-quality hardbacks to satisfy the bibliophiles,

Anonymous said...

As paid up, book lover with two book cases groaning with books I love due to people buying them for me, to remind me of places and because I love the stories in them, the thought of a 'book free future' fills me with gloom. But hang on, technology love it or loathe it is here to stay, but is not the great where withall or the equivalant of the Holy Grail it's meant to be. From my small experience of the technical age, I work in the NHS, with the computer 'revolution' it's not all what it's cracked up to be. It generates frightening amounts of paperwork and the amount of storage space for this paper free age is a total phenomenon.

Ok, I might be fighting a bit of rear guard action hear, but I think that we should encourage reading as a relaxtion for a feeling of well being and mental improvement. We started a small book club at work and our aim is not to read 'Waterstone 3 for 2's',
but mid listers and real writers. Hope it's a glimmer of sunshine Nirvana Bite and Trading Tatiana are amongst our top reads.

If e-books are the future all well and good, but they should be part of the future with traditional books and perhaps (in my dreams) break the stranglehold big publishers have on the retail book industry. Sorry for rambling on.

Anonymous said...

As a book buyer and reader, I loathe the thought that I might one day, find in my hands something made of plastic, smelling of plastic and with words viewable through a screen. Hell, it might even have a voice prompt: "Turn the page" and "Go straight to chapter two" and up comes the next set of words.

It'll see the end of book signings; author events will be digitised and viewed anywhere in the world; people will definitely have less face to face contact. Living digitally esentially means living remotely.

From a commercial point of view, how would the copyright and fee be managed? How many times could a book be passed on once it has been downloaded and paid for just the once?

And, LOL can you imagine the waiting room at the doctor's/dentist's? There'll be a screen showing this week's Hello mag or similar, with a neverending parade of "celebrities" you've never heard of.

We'll be living in a world of screens!

Maxine Clarke said...

I am a lifelong reader and willingly pay £5 per paperback -- I'll pay up to 10 on occasion. I will, as a reader, probably never make the switch to e-books as I value the screen break and worry about the effect of a nanosecond-timescale flicker effect on the ability of the visual/nervous system to cope, cumunlatively.
Having said all that, I work for a science/technology journal, and the people there who know all say ebooks will be in soon, everyone will use them. They will be like books in terms of weight, and will be designed to have the "look and feel" of books. You'll be able to download or read online. So although Sony did not get good press recently when they tried to market a model, it will probably happen in a year or three.

Of course the same is happening to the film/movie/TV industry -- soon we'll just be able to download what we want when we want to watch it, bliss. Maybe even without adverts!

It is all good news for readers and viewers, but not such good news for authors. I believe as you probably know, that the technology is cheap so authors will be able to publish (which they couldn't before. Only a few years ago what Skint is proposing, and what other authors do, would be far too expensive and technically cumbersome to be economically viable for an individual).
The challenge for the author is not publication per se, but in the marketing, to get readers. So they'll have to learn to manipulate Amazon et al (cf Val Landi and the Woman from Cairo), Google book search and other similar, blogging as you do, Debi, podcasts, vodcasts, etc (all cheap and can be put on a blog or website) and all kinds of innovative types of marketing. (I believe that Wandering Scribe is probably an example of Web 2.0 marketing. We've seen it in Belle du Jour. A lot of this type of thing will be happening by inventive authors).

Maxine Clarke said...

"cumulatively", sorry!

Anonymous said...

tut tut maxine - edit before you publish ;)

Marie said...

There's nothing like a real book. It's tiring reading on screen, I've got enough eyestrain as it is so there's no way I'd like to read an e-book.

Actually, I blame all this on the 'celebs' who are are getting publishing deals because publishers know their books will sell. What chance does an unknown author have against that?

Unknown said...

Dreams power reality.
My phone used to be stuck to the wall, then I had a mobile phone that used to resemble a brick, now I have a dinky little pink make-up compact!

Now,as a science fic/fan writer would you all please slow down because I'm making notes!

And if you don't want this to happen - stop thinking about it!!

Debi said...

Interesting range of responses here.
Verilion - you get the prize for being the most positive!
Skint - I totally understand your point - but as a reader, I'm sure you'd want diversity. Although the current state of affairs saddens me as an author, I know I'm only a tiny pebble. It's what it says about our world and the way books are seen and creativity is (under)valued that I find really upsetting.
I spoke to an independent bookseller friend yesterday who said if they were starting out now they'd only stock achingly hip glossy coffee table books.
Kath - you're an inspiration. It's people like you who provide the steady drip drip that can eat away at stone!
Crimeficreader - oh I know, I know! I feel like that too but I think it's going to be a case of embrace or die. Copyright etc and the possibility of illegal downloads are going to need to be tackled - but that's up to the techies. Anyway, Real Life books can be - and are - loaned. And check out Amazon - only 3 copies of Nirvana Bites are available - but there are 38 (!!!) used copies from .01p each! Many of these are probably review copies etc. These won't be included in sales figures. Readership is always going to be higher than sales. I wouldn't care in the slightest - obviously I love to hear people have read my books and wish it was completely irrelevant how they got hold of them ...
Maxine - good points as ever.
Marie - not sure if it's the celebs themselves we should be blaming. Can't blame them for taking the ridiculous advances they're offered. But it says a lot about our culture - and none if it good!
Minx - sorry, no chance!

Anonymous said...

As an independent bookseller who stocks and sells quality books in a very small Somerset town, I can't help thinking that you are believing too many prophets of doom and not making the rounds of the indies.

Doom and gloom, piffle. A dying market, twaddle.

The indies have their shelves and tables over-flowing with interesting books : forget the rascals from the corporate world making mischief, you will not get any "end of the bookworld is nigh" talk from the indies.

Amazon, Tesco they will rape and pillage to suit their long-term interests : however, I can assure you that in my discussions with other indies that "we" are regaining our share of the market. The independent bookshops will always ensure that there is a place for decent well written books.

Unknown said...

Mr Keeble, you have just acquired at least (oh, how many of us are there guys?) umm, well, lots of new friends and I personally will vote you my 'man of the day'.

Now, have you got a a few copies of Debi's book in stock and I also know of a really good novel that has just come out called 'The Three Bears' - Derec Jones (Skintwriter blog).......

Anonymous said...

LOL, Minx! I just hope skintwriter is not offended... No, he's been here long enough to make "man of the millennium", I'm sure...

I followed Mr Keeble's link and saw something of great interest. A book "Mabel Lucy Attwell - An Appreciation" at £9.99. I love the illustrations of MLB and Jessie Willcox Smith. Just that one book puts Keeble Antiques on the mark for me. Now, I need to be in a position of more disposable income to feed my book buying desires, though. I hope that day will come shortly.

Good to know that indies are finding a renewed niche in this everchanging world, Mr Keeble. Tides turn, but we're never absolutely sure in what direction... The death of the indie is certainly not a good thing.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read through everybody else's comments so you'll have to forgive me if I repeat what anybody else has already said (forgive me or else!).

What bothers me about the idea of this ipod like thingamy taking over is where will it leave those who just buy the occassional book? My mother reads on average a book a year. She's highly unlikely to want to invest in a gadget in order to do that, and at 70 isn't keen on all this new fangled stuff anyway. What will she do? Accept that she'll have a very limited choice (possibly only those books available at the local Oxfam shop) or what?

I dunno... technology's all well and good and I agree with saving the trees, but nothing will ever take away the pleasure of holding a proper book, or browsing shelves full of proper books.

Anonymous said...

Sharon thanks for what you said in your last paragraph, glad I'm not alone in this.

Debi said...

Welcome, Clive. Great to see you here - we have writers, we have readers - and it's a brilliant logical extension to have booksellers too.
Thanks for being so upbeat. I'm a huge supporter of the indies (just ask Jon and Justine at the Crow) and yes, Sharon, Kath et al, a huge lover of Real Books.
I hate to rain on everyone's parade though - I still feel that if things carry on this way, there will be fewer books for them to sell. The ones that do get published will be the ones widely available at massive discounts elsewhere.
And Sharon - I'm afraid they don't give a damn about your mum and other occasional readers - they're not the people who fill the corporate pockets and that's the harsh reality.
Am I being too 'doom and gloom'? I thought I started that way but then saw a glimmer of light.
If I am being over pessimistic - I'm delighted and can't tell you how much I hope to be proved wrong!

Anonymous said...

Agree with what you say Debi, that the big corporates don't get a stuff about what people want and filling pockets with as much as possible, a sad inditment of the 'loadsamoney' eighties. BUT if people don't put any resistance up then they will get away with more and more easier and easier and galls me even more than it actually happening. If people use Oxfam or discount books shops and pick up an author fairly cheap and like them then they will go to the bigger or independant bookshops to try to get copies of other works, it's all adding to the scheme of things, so I feel it's all in the circle of books and the buying of. Yes, the coporate book sellers are trying to make it hard for genuine reader and book lovers and Sharon's mum, but we have voices and legs and if we can't stop them lets make it as hard as bloody possible for them!!!!

Anonymous said...

Kath makes an interesting comment about the "loadsamoney 80s". I heard Oliver James on the radio last week, he has a book coming out next year called "Affluenza". He believes that our current state of unhappiness in seeking what we want rather than simply need, is as a result of the burst in capitalism in the 80s.

Anonymous said...

But don't a lot of avid readers start as occasional readers? They're cutting their nose off, if you ask me (but nobody ever does).

Anonymous said...

Sorry, to wonder off the point a bit, but I think I'll try and have a read of the Affluenza book. As have found most of the genuinely unhappy people I know are the ones with the most material possessions. If I had a TARDIS I think the 1980's would be the decade I would try to eradicate, as I think a lot of todays problems are rooted there.

Your're dead right Sharon and have hit the nail on the head, have a friend who did'nt read a book since she left school and I lent her a couple of books last year for when she went on holiday and am still reeling on the amount she has read since then.

Debi said...

Unfortunately, Sharon, they DON'T ask you - or any other of you wonderful people. If they did, we wouldn't be needing to have this discussion at all ...
But you're right, Kath - we shouldn't go down without a struggle.
And who knows, maybe we won't go down at all and there's an alternative future beckoning ... one in which we jettison the culture of greed and move to a time when altruism will be considered the best and most logical and healthy way to live this life ...
See? I'm not all bitter and twisted and cynical ...

Unknown said...

No, just a warrior!

Anonymous said...

Yepp, that's the bloody problem. The bigwigs at the top always think they have the answers without consulting those who actually use the products. Except if it's deodorant. I'm always being sent surveys to find out what kind of bloody deodorant I'd like. "Would you be attracted to this packaging?" - "Would you prefer a spray or roll-on?" F**k off and let's think about something worthwhile, eh? Like how it affects the environment!

Sorry... needed a rant and your blog happened to get it :)

Debi said...

Sharon - my blog had asked me to tell you she's delighted and honoured that you feel comfortable about using the space she provides for you to rant.
We - my blog and I - can think of no better use for her!

Anonymous said...

'Like other developments in the book trade in the last thirty years, corporate ownership and accountability are not going to go away, but it's possible that the corporate structures have become so immense there's enough space for a cottage industry to establish itself in the cracks. Eccentricity always seems to find a way.' Lewis Buxbee, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop.

I'm very fond of a music magazine called The Wire, it's pages are full of ads for music you can buy, listen to, or download, made by people most of whom, none of us will have ever heard of - they do it because they can, and the technology they need has caught up with them.

Gradually and then quickly, I think that this will happen to publishing to.

Debi said...

Thanks for joining in, Jon. (Check him out, guys - another wonderful indy bookshop owner and my personal fave!)
Lateral thinking, that's what we need.