We’re overdoing the gloom about books and publishing

"We're doomed. Doomed!

Sometimes, it’s good to have your head in the sand. It stops you hearing people cutting themselves to pieces.

I’ve just finished reading Ewan Morrison’s extraordinarily gloomy offering from the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The Guardian are running an extract from his speech, Are Books Dead and Can Authors Survive, on their website. Go and read it. Then (if you’re an author) go and shoot yourself.

Or maybe: wait, and think for a minute. Let’s look at what Ewan is saying – and let’s wonder if he really has made his case.

Warning: I don’t know Ewan, and haven’t read his books. But I do have a book coming out next year. I am therefore professionally obligated to affect a cheery disposition when it comes to the future of the novel as a commercial entity. Ewan may or may not be in the same boat. He certainly doesn’t seem to be very optimistic. I may also quote selectively for the purposes of argument. And I’m not saying the book has a bright future (well, I sort of am, but let’s leave that for later). I’m just saying that Ewan hasn’t demonstrated that it doesn’t, and I am using his speech (rather unfairly) as an example of the kind of apocalyptic language which I think is wrong and unhelpful across all the creative industries, not just books and publishing.

So, here we go:

The printed book will go within 25 years:

On the paper front, depending on whom you listen to, statistics vary wildy. Barnes and Noble claims it now sells three times as many digital books as all formats of physical books combined. Amazon claims it has crossed the tipping point and sells 242 ebooks for every 100 hardbacks, while Richard Sarnoff, CEO of Bertelsmann, admits that the future of the paper book is tied to the consumption habits of a generation: the baby boomers. Generation Y-ers (the children of the boomers) already consume 78% of their news digitally, for free, and books will follow suit. Interpreting Sarnoff’s calculations, the paper book has a generation left.

First of all, the Barnes and Noble stat is for bn.com only – in other words, it’s only online sales. And the B&N announcement actually emphasised that the increasing popularity of ebooks had grown the company’s overall sales by 20%, while in-store sales (of, presumably, printed books only) fell by 3%. A decline in one sector more than offset by growth in another. Of written books that people are paying for. Hardly the end of the world.

And yes, it does appear that in Amazonland Kindle versions are dramatically outselling hardback versions. But hardback has been a shrinking market for years – long before the Kindle came along. And is there not another view: that people are paying relatively high amounts for books a year before their paperback release, because they want them now on their digital devices. Isn’t this a good thing?

Which leaves us the final point in this section: that there is something inevitable about “Generation Y” demanding their book content for free, because that’s how they’ve come to think about content. But where is the demonstrable link between people’s attitudes to news and people’s attitudes to novels? And doesn’t this ignore the stark reality that one sector has grown more explosively than any other in fiction in the last decade: the young adult sector? If all those kids are downloading books for free, how do we explain the bank accounts of JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, Anthony Horowitz and Charlaine Harris?

It may be a naive view, but it seems to me that people are buying as many books as they ever were; perhaps even more than before. And they’re paying pretty handsomely for them too, by and large; the price collapses experienced by the music and home video industries have, to date, largely been avoided by the publishing industry. Whatever you think of agency price agreements and the like, it seems clear that people are still prepared to pay pretty well to get hold of books. In any format.

Publishers are no longer paying advances

With the era of digital publishing and digital distribution, the age of author advances is coming to an end. Without advances from publishers, authors depend upon future sales; they sink themselves into debt on the chance of a future hit. But as mainstream publishers struggle to compete with digital competitors, they are moving increasingly towards maximising short-term profits, betting on the already-established, and away from nurturing talent. The Bookseller claimed in 2009 that “Publishers are cutting author advances by as much as 80% in the UK”. A popular catchphrase among agents, when discussing advances, meanwhile, is “10K is the new 50K”. And as one literary editor recently put it: “The days of publishing an author, as opposed to publishing a book, seem to be over.”

Ewan might be right about this. It’s certainly something I’ve read and heard a lot recently. But here it is all rather anecdotal: a Bookseller piece from two years ago, a popular catchphrase, a tidy aphorism from an agent. Advances may be declining, and that is presumably a direct result of publishers changing their approach. But publishers may only be reacting to market signals, and in this case it is writers sending out those signals. In a world with ubiquitous tools of creation, more people will create. More people are coming into the market with works, which means more submissions to agents and publishers, more self-publishing, more stuff. At the same time, mass-market publishing (which is still barely a hundred years old) has become more business-like and a good deal more corporate, possibly as a response to big publishing houses being absorbed into larger entities. In that world, with more books being made available and more of a focus on the bottom-line, it doesn’t surprise me that advances would come down. It’s at least as plausible an explanation as the one that says the bottom has fallen out of the book business.

It may also be true that writers now, on average, earn less. But how many published authors are there now? I don’t know the answer, but I’ll bet that there are more titles available today from more authors than at any other time in history. So, even if people were buying as many books today as they were a decade ago, the average writer’s income would be falling. Now, that may not be good for the average writer – but does it mean the end of the business? Surely not.

The long tail is inevitable and will destroy livelihoods

The long tail is Amazon and iTunes, Netflix, LoveFilm and eBay. It is, arguably, between 40% to 60% of the market, which was hidden and/or simply unavailable before the advent of online shopping.

As more consumers come online and chose to select content for themselves, the long tail gets longer. It also starts to demolish the old mainstream system of pre-selection, mass marketing and limited shelf space for “bestsellers”. Amazon is a successful long-tail industry: it has forced publishers into selling their books at 60% discount and driven bookshops out of business. As the long tail grows, the mainstream mass market shrinks and becomes more conservative. The long tail has created this effect in all of the other industries that have gone digital.

Ewan doesn’t give a source for his assertion that the long tail is “40% to 60% of the market”. 40% of what? Revenues, volume, profits? I’m not sure. And it’s worth saying that the long tail theory, now some seven years old, has itself taken quite a battering in recent years, not least in the pages of the Harvard Business Review. I’m not sure you can use a partly-discredited theory and some asserted statistics to prove very much at all.

Also, I think you’d need to prove something else: that people were buying “long tail” titles (hard to find, impossible to stock in traditional retail) instead of new, mass-market releases. Is there any evidence for this? If there is, I haven’t seen it.

Everything tends towards free

Ewan asserts that every medium in which digital networks have intruded – music, home video, porn, newspapers, telecommunications, photography – has witnessed massive piracy and aggressive price-cutting in a downward march towards zero:

In all of the cases above, digital industries have been pushed towards zero price by two factors: (1) mass piracy and (2) the consumer demand for massive discounts. Book piracy has only just begun but it is now very simple to break through the DRM protection systems set up by publishers and to illegally download books in less than 60 seconds.

Yes, there has been massive piracy since the advent of digital content. And I don’t want to make the argument here that “books are different” (although I think they are, a bit, but not enough to make a case that digital copying won’t have an impact). But we’re only hearing half the story here. The other half of the story shows that businesses can be sustained in this new environment, if costs are cut, but it’s a painful transition – it’s expensive and tiresome to maintain a business which publishes both CDs and MP3s, but while people are still buying CDs you’ve got to do it. It also shows that convenience is more important to people than cost; when systems make it easy to pay for content, as iTunes has done, piracy declines (not to zero, mind). And it’s not at all about DRM – you can’t stop people copying through technology. You can stop people wanting to copy by making it easier to pay.

And there’s a category error here, that people always make. It says that a decline will always result in a collapse towards zero. But that is not the case. The big corporate names in the entertainment business today look awfully similar to the big corporate names in the entertainment business a decade ago. It’s perhaps worth wondering why that is.

The need to protect writers

Ewan concludes his offering with an apocalyptic vision of content sweatshops and the “culture lords” of service providers and advertisers. Needless to say, I don’t have the same vision. I’m much, much more optimistic. I think people will continue to be willing to pay for novels. I think the networked world provides endless opportunities for writers: to sell their work, reach out to readers and find new things to write about. But I also believe the days of living high-off-the-hog on advances are long behind us, just as the days of record company jaunts and newspaper lunches are behind us. The industries we work in are smaller, more competitive and fiercer than they were – but that is true of all industries, not just the creative ones.

And I firmly believe that by locking ourselves into a narrative of inevitable collapse we will miss opportunities and engage ourselves in battles and arguments which are essentially pointless. I don’t know if the printed book will survive, but then nor does anybody else.

Ewan’s closing argument is this:

The only solution ultimately is a political one. As we grow increasingly disillusioned with quick-fix consumerism, we may want to consider an option which exists in many non-digital industries: quite simply, demanding that writers get paid a living wage for their work. Do we respect the art and craft of writing enough to make such demands? If we do not, we will have returned to the garret, only this time, the writer will not be alone in his or her cold little room, and will be writing to and for a computer screen, trying to get hits on their site that will draw the attention of the new culture lords – the service providers and the advertisers.

Is he asking for some kind of regulatory device which protects writer’s income? Without knowing exactly how that would work one cannot argue with it directly. But I instinctively feel it would be wrong because it would have to work by limiting output in some way. I go back to my earlier point: there are more people writing and publishing today than at any time in history. That may be a bad thing for individual writers (but by no means as bad a thing, I believe, as Ewan argues). But it’s a very, very good thing for people as a whole.

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