Publishing’s dark clouds and silver linings

I side-swiped the .99c price point for ebooks in last night’s snark, and it’s something that does concern. Fortunately, I found this morning that someone else (that would be Patrick O’Duffy) has freshly minted what I was going to say. And more besides.

I’ve come across so many people with Kindles who only use them to download free books – and then almost never read them, because it turns out they don’t want to read Moby Dick, they just want to feel like they own the book

O’Duffy also links to a discussion at Terrible Minds about the pros and cons of the .99c price tag and how it can be used as a marketing tool.

For my bit, I can understand trying to make a swag through throughput, but I can’t help wondering what pricing a book at less than a cup of coffee says about the product. I realise that you can by dross from a mainstream publisher priced at over $20; that in books, quality is in the eye of the beholder; that you can find favourite authors languishing in the remainder bin for the price of an espresso. But don’t you just want to save them from that? Don’t you say, oh man, that is worth so much more!

Thing is, books aren’t like tables and chairs; they aren’t purely functional products. They’re art, and nowhere more than in the art world does the adage that, something is worth what someone is prepared to pay for it, hold true. For me, a book is worth a damn sight more than .99c (especially one that I myself have spent months and years honing), but I guess if I was e-reading and saw something I liked in that particular bargain bin, I’d be saying ‘score’ and downloading it.

So I’m not preaching or even protesting, really; just conflicted.

O’Duffy has also linked to two items that caught my eye arising out of the Edinburgh Book Festival but I hadn’t got around to pondering. One, a dire prediction from Ewan Morrison about the future of publishing (to my mind, a dire future for publishing is a future without editors), and the other, an analysis of the uncertain times from Lloyd Shepherd.

An example from Morrison:

The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.

And from Shepherd:

So where does this sense of authors being squeezed come from? It could simply be a sign that publishing, as an industry, is becoming more commercial, more competitive, more efficient. You may not like that. You probably don’t. There is a profound queasiness which breaks out at the conjunction of art and business. But the pressure is definitely there.

I’m quite tired, already, of the ‘death of the book’ scenario. We’re talking semantics, splitting hairs between paper and pixels, and I think that people such as myself who prefer the reading mode of a paper book will always be catered for, though perhaps at a price. As e-books, with their non-tree and space-saving advantages and the extra functionality that comes with being essentially a website (see, I learned something at Bookcamp), fill the middle ground now occupied by mass market paperbacks, paper books are likely to become objects of desire: beautiful stories beautifully packaged.

I’m not even that concerned by the rumoured death of the author. The industry has always been a crap shoot, in which some crap sells gazillions and some truly talented writers get crapped upon, languishing inside their niche of true believers. If anything, e-publishing means more crap to sift through now that the established publishing filters are being broken down — new filters will arise — but those niche talents will have a more accessible audience. At least, those who can harness the potential of the new publishing reality, whatever that turns out to be.

2 thoughts on “Publishing’s dark clouds and silver linings

  1. One of the best things I’ve heard recently on this whole topic (& it is a huge) is for the writer (& in turn the readers) to realise the creative proportion of what is being paid for (aka IP) must be taken into account of costing. I think the ease of uploading new and very long term pre-existing work can sometimes negate this aspect.

    Not just the nuts’n’bolts, or rather digital codes, of creating a product to hold (on e-reader vs paper).

    Still wish I could be a time warping fly on the wall to see the “Hark, the End is Nigh” between the scribes and use of Guttenberg technology…bet it was similar (just slower in transmission).

    There were stories before charcoal, papyrus and wax and there will be stories told well after the current technological changes.

  2. I think writing suffers because there’s a broader perception that is an easy thing to do. Most everyone writes, right? As you say, the creative industry that goes into the final product isn’t understood, let alone appreciated.

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