The relationship between writers and readers is a grand love affair. But hell hath no fury like a reader feeling cheated. Authors recently saw their star ratings decimated as readers, furious at the hike in e book prices, posted a slew of one star reviews on Amazon in protest. Authors were left wringing their hands but not able to do much else.
The fact is, writers have zero say in the pricing of their books. In fact, authors have zero say in pretty much anything to do with their profession. In addition, the paperless world is squeezing the life out of writers.
Allow me to start off by saying that readers are all-important to us needy scribes. Readers pay writers the ultimate compliment: you pay us attention. In a world where there are so many, many things clamouring to be heard, this is treasure indeed. On top of that you help us make a living by spending your hard earned dollars to read our work. No wonder we hate to disappoint you and want you to be happy. But slapping a one star review on an author's page for anything else than an evaluation of the book's artistic merit, is not fair.
This is what a writer's finances look like. Once you sign a contract with a publisher (usually after many years of rending your clothes and strewing ash on your head because of cruel rejection letters) you are paid an advance. Happy day!
You don't get all the lolly immediately, of course. The advance is normally paid out in two instalments: when you exchange contracts with the publisher and then when you deliver the final edited and rewritten manuscript, which can be a year later. Your agent takes about 15 percent of your all your earnings. In addition, the author needs to “earn out” the advance - in other words sell as many books as needed to match the upfront money - before she can start earning royalties. Sadly, even though the advance money is usually modest, many authors do not earn out. Studies on the income of authors show that the majority of writers - at least here in the UK - earn little more than minimum wage. And if you don't start earning out by the second book, chances are you will not get published again. An author's existence is precarious. Just because you managed to get published once, or twice, or five times does not mean you can count on getting your next book accepted. Even if you earn out, you also have to show increase in sales. Needless to say, one star reviews on Amazon is not a great way to up your sales.
There used to be one piece of good cheer to spur the author on his journey. The hardback! The royalty authors earn on hardbacks is higher than on paperbacks and publishers usually wait a year before bringing out a soft cover, which allowed writers to make a little money.
But then came Kindle. Cue ominous music and the clashing of cymbals. Will any-one still be willing to pay $28 for a new novel if they can download it for less than a tenner? Publishers tried to persuade Amazon to either hold off making the Kindle edition available until the print arrival of the paperback, or to keep to a higher sticker price. Amazon liked it not. A pitched battle ensued between some publishing houses refusing to budge and mighty Amazon, which retaliated by blacklisting the books published by these publishers. Imagine how an author feels waking up one morning to find all his books on Amazon displayed without a purchase button.
I grew up in South Africa where we used to receive new releases much later than the rest of the English-speaking world. Maybe this is why I find the idea that one is automatically entitled to get the latest releases now, immediately and at cut price, a little odd. I also grew up in a single parent family with two siblings where money was tight. I loved books but I was never able to afford the hardback edition and had to either borrow it from the library or muster my soul in patience for the twelve to eighteen months it would take for the paperback to release. I didn't feel hard done by and neither did my friends who faced the same reality. It certainly never occurred to us to photocopy the hardback edition on the sly, or to walk into a bookstore and slip an unpaid for book into our bags because the publisher dared to make us wait and the book was expensive.
True, those were more innocent times when the world wasn't ruled by binary code. But if the world has changed, surely the idea of fair play, should not. As is well-known, JK Rowling has been hesitant about releasing her books in ebook format because of piracy concerns. I recently read a highly eloquent blog post in which the author of the piece asked Ms Rowling to reconsider her position. With great charm the blogger explained to Ms. Rowling that he does not want to steal from her, but she would only have herself to blame if he does. He is perfectly willing to pay for an ebook edition but as there is no ebook edition available, he finds himself with no choice but to visit a torrent site and take her book for free.
Maybe it's just me, but there is something wrong with this logic. If I understand his argument correctly, the blogger is expecting Ms. Rowling to protect him against his own baser instincts. I'm not a bad person, I'm willing to pay but you have to make it easy for me. If you don't, tough cookies, and I'm going to rip you off.
My own personal view is that Ms. Rowling would be wise to go the ebook road but it is not for me - or anyone else -- to tell her how she should make her work available to the public. As for the blogger: my advice to him is to go buy his Harry Potters in print or wait for Ms Rowling to make up her mind on the issue (she's apparently thinking it over). Yes, printed books are big and clunky to carry and yes, the blogger probably feels he has paid a lot of money for his Kindle. And yes, the print edition is likely more expensive than an ebook edition would be. But access to novels in ebook format, at cut-to-the bone-prices, immediately upon their release, is not a human right.
Since Amazon's blackballing exercise against some writers, the balance of power has shifted again. Amazon has now backed down to accept the “agency-model”, which means publishers have the right to set prices. But Amazon has made readers used to those lovely cheap books and consumers don't want to go back to old times. Hence all the muddy one star reviews.
But wait, I hear you cry. Isn't it outrageous that publishers sometimes price the ebook edition at a higher price than the paperback edition? Isn't this typical greedy behaviour on the part of rich, bloated, fat cat publishing enterprises intent on parting the reader from his money?
Let me immediately make it clear that I am not an apologist for publishers. I have had many a run in with publishers over the years and I am not happy at all about the strategy of some publishing houses trying to make a grab for the digital rights of their authors' backlist - those novels published before the advent of new media. Publishers can indeed be greedy. But publishing houses are also in deep financial crisis. People tend to base their argument for lower ebook prices on the reasonable assumption that as there are no printing costs involved, that these savings should be reflected in a lower sticker price. I agree. They also want to be able to share - after all, if you buy a book in the real world, you are allowed to lend it to someone without turning yourself into a criminal. Again, I agree and I think the Nook, as well as Amazon's proposed lending feature, which will allow the lender to farm out books once for a 14-day period with the lender unable to read the book while it's loaned out, is a step in the right direction.
All in all, a lower price on ebooks is only fair. But note that I'm saying “lower” - not rock bottom. Publishing a book is not just about ink, paper and warehousing. A published book is something amazing: it is like a handmade Italian shoe - or a great opera performance - or a crafted Persian carpet. It is labour intensive and very expensive to produce. This is not like posting a manuscript on the internet and asking Facebook friends to purchase it on your website. A published book requires the skill and attention of many individuals. First, you have the author who spend months -- if not years -- writing his book. Second, an acquisitions editor has to pick this book from among thousands of submissions and then assist the author to hone that manuscript to get it into the best possible shape it can be: a process that can take up to eighteen months. While the editing process is underway, the art department is working on the jacket for the book and the marketing and publicity people are trying to position the book to allow it maximum exposure in a crowded marketplace. We're talking big bucks. Publicising a book is not cheap. It is wholly necessary, though, because an unpublicised book is a lost book.
In the world of bricks not clicks, the publisher also has to grapple with the bizarre tradition of book stores having the right to return unsold books. This is why an author doesn't really know for quite some time how many copies of her novel she has sold. A writer may ship 100,000 copies but after about six months half of that number of books could be returned to the publisher -- who has to eat the loss. This is why publishers are deeply dependent on their star authors who keep the boat afloat. And this is why they'll fight to keep the prices of their bestsellers as high as the market will allow. That expensive Stephen King ebook is probably subsidising the promotion costs of a new writer who has no following, just starting out.
How do I see the future?
The future will be determined by one question: How much does society value books -- and is it willing to pay for them? Or very simply put: what is the value of a book? The sorry demise of independent book stores, which find themselves unable to compete with the slashed prices offered by supermarkets, Amazon and super stores suggest that the answer is: not very much. And the push for even lower prices on books is relentless. The worst case scenario is that at some point, books are going to be so cheap and so easily pirated and shared that it will be impossible for your average writer to make any kind of profit. Writing a novel will become wholly a vanity affair and not a way towards making a living. Many writers will not write any more.
The losers in this brave new world will be writers, publishers and traditional booksellers. The winners will be Apple, Google and Amazon.
What would my wish list be?
- Fair prices for my wonderful readers so they don't feel they are being cheated.
- Fair prices allowing authors to continue making a living being creative.
- A publishing model for internet sales, which will make it easy for readers to download their purchases and share these purchases selectively, but which will still protect authors from having their work stolen.
- Studies show great aversion among consumers to DRM, but if not DRM then what? Please, if anyone out there knows how to protect creative work from being pirated without increasing the hassle factor for the consumer, do please share. The entire writing world will be in your debt. In fact, a gold-plated statue in your image is not out of the question.
- Healthy, thriving publishing houses which are financially sound so that they are willing to take risks with interesting, off-beat books that do not conform to the standard.
- Healthy, thriving book stores that are not teetering on the brink of collapse. Please, can we wave a wand to lift Borders out of bankruptcy and have them back in the UK.
- The continuing welfare of hardbacks. My sense is that hardback copies will melt away, reserved only for brand name authors like Dan Brown, celebrity autobiographies, cook books and lavishly produced coffee table volumes on the reproductive cycle of the Congo Fire Ant. But it would be nice if this doesn't happen.
Right, that's me done with the soapbox. Some of you wrote to me asking about my panel discussion at the Fortean Unconvention. It was such good fun. I got to meet three terrific guys - Nick Circovic, our fearless moderator; Adam Nevill, the author of the tremendously creepy Apartment 16 and Mark Chadbourn, a legend in the world of horror and fantasy fiction. The atmosphere was great and I was also pleasantly surprised by the turn-out for our discussion - especially considering that next door the topic was “Sex and Poltergeists”. Of course, maybe the people in our room were simply staking out their seats in anticipation of the presentation that followed ours: UFOLOGY. Did I mention I had fun?
And that's it! Take care, everyone. Hope you guys are having a productive and happy Autumm - such a wonderful season.