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'The e-book revolution'

By Adam Bromley
25th March 2014

I have a vested interest in e-books, I want you to buy PIQWIQ’s titles. Consequently, this blog is not going to be a lament for the woes of print publishing. Feel free to dismiss all my comments as PR patter, if you are die-hard print enthusiast. But if you are open-minded about books and e-books, I'd like to dispel a few myths surrounding books and the book trade.

Major print publishers tell a lot of tall tales about their industry. Their favourite fairy story goes like this:

A long time ago, before the evil internet, authors were very happy. They were protected by the big publishing knights and the Net Book Agreement, which kept everybody safe from the monsters outside the city walls - like competition and efficiency. Authors got one silver piece for every ten the publishers received for selling their books. Everyone agreed was more than enough, as it's much harder running a big publishing castle with all those copying scribes and executive marketing lords than it is actually writing a book. There were many magic bookshops, run by wise book elves, who knew what a customer wanted the moment they walked in the door. The people agreed that things were just as good as they possibly could be. Then along came a dragon called Amazon, from the sulphurous depths of the web, and set everything on fire. The end. 

Publishers large and small deliberately conflate the business of selling books, with books as cultural artefacts and the art of writing. They are not guardians of culture, the truth is they are businesses, who depend on hawking their products to consumers. Their model relies on a handful of authors shifting millions of books, which in turn part subsidise other less popular writers. Or put it another way, one hundred copies of a novel about a troubled cop who can see into the minds of serial killers pays for a stream of conscious story about the nature of self. It almost makes you believe that publishers are philanthropists and patrons of the arts. What a beguiling fable, if only the numbers worked.

The average earnings of a professional writer in the UK are £28,340 which sounds acceptable, unless you don't factor the extreme variability and riskiness of their income. Of course the average is skewed heavily by the big earners, the ten percent of authors who make fifty percent of the sales. If you take a median income for writers, it's £12,300. Bearing in mind that's the figure that splits your sample in two equal halves, there will be plenty below the £12,300 mark or just above minimum wage. Consider this paradox: the lowliest, entry-level employee in a major publishing concern earns more than most writers. And I'm not talking about wannabe writers who pump out fan fiction. Proper authors with reviews in newspapers and the TLS earn less than the minimum wage.

And no, the reason that writers don't make enough predates the internet and Amazon. It's simple maths, the standard royalty deal for a print book is that the author receives ten percent of the sale price. To match average UK earnings of £26,500 per year, an author would have to sell 30 to 40,000 copies a year, if the typical retail price is £8. That's a lot of books, many never hit those numbers. Remember writing the book may have taken six months or years to complete. They may receive an advance on their royalties - which is just that an advance. It doesn't boost their income overall. If they are a first timer, then there's no income from previous titles and even if their book does well it takes months for those royalty payments to arrive. Meanwhile in publishing, every month people's salaries arrive in their accounts like clockwork. If you want to know where the other ninety percent of the print book's sale price goes, think about all those people employed in the book trade.

Shouldn't writers write for the love of writing, not for money? It's interesting that people who express that opinion tend not be writers, musicians or artists. We don't apply this principle to any other area of life. All the doctors and medical researchers I know are motivated by a desire to benefit humanity, they also get paid proper wages. Same holds true for teachers, it's a vocation with a salary. Money is not an enemy of creativity and it's naive to believe it is. When I met a number of literary fiction authors who were selected for a famous anthology, most of them had day jobs. Now if you like literary fiction, wouldn't it be preferable that writers spent their time writing, rather fitting it around their university lecture schedule? In the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth, most novelists were independently wealthy. I'm not sure we should depend on today's elite for our fiction. Let's say they did write novels, what about the other writers, don't they deserve to make a career from their craft?

So what's different about e-books? The main innovation is the potential royalty share for writers, in some cases up to 70%. Most publishers don't share the vastly higher margins with their authors, then tend to complain about e-books and bemoan the loss of independent bookshops. You'll notice I've not mentioned the quality of the books. The fact is most books are not masterpieces, some have artistic merit, others are base and crude - the same holds true of print. Enhanced royalties benefit all authors equally, which in turn means more writers writing full time - that's something to celebrate. If you are a lover of books, I urge you to buy e-books as well as hard copies.

Now here's the contentious bit: bookshops. I love independent bookshops; personal favourites are Daunts in Marylebone and Salt's Mill's bookstore. They are special places indeed to be cherished. There's something in the air, the smell of books, the rows of titles, the tables of the staff picks - a place where learning and culture hold sway in a world obsessed by celebrity vacuity. Yes, I did get a bit carried away.  As for chain bookstores, like Waterstones, one  is much like another, if they open a new branch or close one I'm indifferent. Yet it's a shame if an independent bookshop closes and many have in recent years. But.. if the advent of e-books reduces the number of bookshops whilst raising the money a writer earns , then that is better situation than before.

There are many pressures on high street retail unrelated to online commerce. Business rates hit small firms on the high street much harder than out of town retailers, as they are calculated on rateable values. Many local authorities ratchet up business rates, keeping council tax down and then watch their high streets wither. E-books may be one of the reasons that bookshops struggle; they are one factor of several. As the MD of a business with nine employees and five freelancers, costs like employers NI and business rates hurt. (Don't get me started on how hard it is to get credit.) Independent bookshops carry the same burdens, which we chose to impose through our crazy tax system. The evidence suggests however, that well-run, intelligently-curated bookshops can survive and prosper. Daunt Books are profitable and growing. Some independents may fall by the wayside, it's not a justification for preserving the status quo.

I've spent much of this blog discussing the vulgar subject of money over literature and the writer's craft, for the simple reason that writers cannot live by goodwill and favourable reviews alone. My evaluation of traditional publishing is the same as the music industry ten years ago. Yes, there are talented, dedicated people working there, that doesn't make it a worthwhile model. To make a crude generalisation, large publishing firms are inefficient, inward-looking, wedded to obsolete practises and prioritise their own earnings over those of writers. Here's a telling example: to celebrate the record sales of 'Fifty Shades of Grey', Random House US awarded every employee a bonus of $5000 dollars. None of their authors received a bonus.

Writers deserve a better deal. Vive La E-book Revolution!

By Adam Bromley


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