Rage Against the Machine – the Rise of E-Book Debate

The Rise of E-Books debate at the EIBF: report by Janette Currie

Literary agent, Maggie McKernan, publisher Peter Burns (of Birlinn) and General Secretary of the Society of Authors, Nicola Solomon brought their collective book experience to what was a wide-ranging and, at times, lively, evening of debate around the question of ‘How Will the Rise of E-Books Affect Writers and their Works?

In this unsatisfactory and muddled event, which was chaired by author Angus Kostam, so many threads were opened and left dangling that, in the end, no single issue was debated fully. And, as no one was there to represent self-publishing e-books, which is what was largely taken to be the major threat to writers and their work, the discussion became circular: if writers can’t make money from their work they won’t write – if books are devalued to 99p, then no one will make any money from them and no one will want to write them. Most worryingly, if too many e-books are produced readers will not know what to buy.

Of the panel, Peter Burns was most positive about e-books, which he considers another tool to display content. When deciding whether to publish a book, he explained, publishers now have to consider multiple formats—hardback, paperback, trade, e-books, enhanced e-books and apps—giving the publisher a headache but giving readers exciting choices.

The discussion turned particularly lively when the question turned to Royalties. Why are they set so low for e-books, everyone asked the representative publisher, when the overheads, costs and financial risks are small compared to traditional publishing? After all, they argued, publishers didn’t do a lot to promote books—all agreed it was never enough. Defeated by the sense of their argument, but unbowed, Burns swiftly turned to the question of quality. Costs remain high with e-books, he argued, because they still need to be edited, typeset etc. While they agreed such work could be handled by freelance editors, in the end, Maggie McKernan insisted that Royalty rates were due for a change.

By now, it was three against Burns, publisher turned e-book cheer-leader. Burns vaunted new advances which could “unleash imagination” in “exciting colour” with “phenomenal technology … Apple’s fixed page layout was good for zoom-through books” and talked about how e-books would probably replace paperbacks in years to come. The other panellists moaned about the inability to “gift wrap an e-reader” and warned that, as “you don’t own an e-book”, “they might take them back” at any time and niggled Burns about his promotional record: “how many author tours had he organised?” Maggie McKernan quizzed.

All agreed that by 2020 publishing would be different: neither bookshops nor traditional publishing would exist as we know them. Everyone, it seems, is under threat from e-books, although agents, publishers and editors have more to fear than authors. New strategies are needed to provide a way to bring books to readers. Not agent-publishers—all agreed that the role of the agent was to protect author rights not to publish books. If this all sounds depressing, it was. Mostly. Maggie McKernan admitted to enjoying the convenience of e-reading and Nicola Solomon spoke up for the exciting opportunities for those authors who could reclaim out-of-print titles and self-publish them as e-books. The question remained, however, about how to find readers for these books.

The argument perpetuated within a circle of despair: how do readers find e-books amongst the “dross” and “sea of e-books”? The main problem with the rise of e-books was saturation and quality. According to Peter Burns, with “up to 30k new self-published books appearing every month” the market was “awash with content”. For him, the role of the publisher was to highlight the best, to “separate the wheat from the chaff”. Most agreed and the conversation turned to poor quality e-books v. professionally edited books, the quality of book covers and how and where to advertise, publicise and physically sell e-books—consistently, Amazon was the major baddie in the drama. Amazon provided good opportunities and marketing and great after-service but it had changed the nature of publishing forever.

While Nicola Solomon asked, “what are publishers for”, in the end it all came back to the role of the publisher in promoting the author’s work. Unless the author was Neil Gaiman, J. K. Rowling, or someone with an extremely large following [tens of thousands] they all agreed, social media for promotion, such as Facebook, Twitter, Blogging, websites, etc was probably a waste of effort. According to Peter Burns, not surprisingly, the person best placed to promote an author’s work was a publisher who knew export markets, territories and niche markets, where to send ARCs and who would want to stock which title.

Books are sentimental objects—e-books are convenient content management systems; the future is challenging and worrying—according to these publishing experts. In this wide-sweeping, general discussion issues such as, pricing, VAT, writing, reviewing and the rise of the self-published author weren’t touched on. No one considered whether self-publishing was good or bad for writers.

Sadly, not one of them considered why, in the era of cheap e-books, hundreds of adolescent boys [those customers who never read] bought copies of Derek Landy’s latest best-selling Skulduggery Pleasant book, at £12.99 each.

The Rise of E-Books: How Will the Rise of E-Books Affect Writers and their Works? was held in association with the Society of Authors at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Wednesday 17 August at 18:45pm

4 thoughts on “Rage Against the Machine – the Rise of E-Book Debate

  1. Dan – alarmed? I was positively seething with shoutyness but held back in the presence of so many ‘experts’ in the publishing industry. The bookshop at the festival is heaving with book-buyers, teenage boys are buying books, people are buying multiple hardback books – all of which goes against everything so-called experts are saying. It’s hard to change to new models and hard to accept that to have books [which I need and love] traditional models will need to evolve to include new ways of reading but I think reverting to the dual mode – traditional = good [sentimental] e-book= dangerously bad is wrong-headed. As you say, multiple platforms and formats will actually expand reading opportunities, not close them down.

  2. Simon – thanks, yes it was interesting but infuriatingly so. Such a missed opportunity, especially as it was organised by the Society of Authors who [presumably] made up most of the audience.

  3. I’ve been following the Edinburgh ebook discussions on twitter with interest, and I have to say it’s quite alarming how retrenched a lot of the positions on all sides are. I rarely see the point in basing a strategy wholly on being defensive – it’s much more interesting, and productive (for morale if nothing else, and I think that does have knock-on effects), to see what the opportunities are in something and then figure how you can use them. And that requires flexibility – and not being frightened of getting it wrong. Aside from anything else, ebooks (for the phone especially) offer an incredible chance to find new markets rather than simply trying to carve up existing ones.

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