I'll get back to writing about the UK and London soon (in particular when I discover whether I have 'won' any tickets in the rather bizarre lottery system employed to allocate seats for the 2012 Olympics) but first I wanted to tell you about a rather intriguing conversation I had with someone I know well, on the subject of e-books, which is all we writers discuss these days isn't it? Plus I've never blogged on the subject before, and I'm beginning to feel left out.
Anyway, the conversation made me recall a comment Tim made in blogs past about the impact of ebooks, and how publishers might have to fear the reaction of authors, should they take off. I think we can take out that qualifying clause now. Ebooks, like or loathe them, are here to stay, and will continue to grow and expand, while sales of print dwindle. It's a given. I get ever so slightly annoyed when I hear fellow writers in discussion recommending to prospective writers they should still try the traditional publishing route. Ladies and gents, it's dying. You might as well recommend people learn to type on manual typewriters. It's nice but ultimately pointless. In a year's time it will be a no-brainer - self-publish. Make sure you hire hire an editor, a proof-reader too, but self-publish. If it does well, you may get an offer to publish a print edition from whichever publishers have been canny enough to weather the storm. If it's still worth it, or if you want to see your books in glorious print. If not, you've had a go.
Anyway, back to my conversation. The person I was speaking to is a crime writer's and publisher's dream. She must read two or three crime novels a week. If she likes your book, she will go and buy the whole of your backlist, and snap up your latest on the day of purchase. I spoke to her last year about ebooks and she pulled a face. She loved books. The feel of them, the look, all the stuff you hear from book lovers, the sort of stuff I have said in the past. Why do I need a portable book reader when books are the most portable things in the world, she added? Fair point.
Spin a year on and you can guess what's coming. She has a Kindle. What's more, she loves it. Loves the feel of it, the look etc. She loves the way you can get a book instantly. I saw an article in which Amazon said one of it's biggest-selling ebook time slots is between 9 and 10pm at night when people are preparing for bed and realise they have nothing good to read. It's a feeling most of us probably know well. The book you have isn't doing it for you, the TBR pile is uninspiring, the shelves full of books you have already read and don't wish to re-read. If you had the power of transmogrification, and could click your fingers and instantly be in a bookshop with a choice of thousands at such moments, who wouldn't take it? That, my friend said, is another reason she has fallen in love with her Kindle. The immediacy. We can moan all we want about the 'We want the world and we want it now' nature of the modern world, but the bald truth is there are people out there who want to own goods with the least possible hassle and fuss. I love browsing in a bookshop, so do many others, but we're in a shrinking minority.
Then my friend came on to the big question - price. I think I have read a million blogs and articles about ebook pricing and quite frankly I'm bored stupid. I'm sure I won't be when it's my books that I'm pricing - in which case I will be writing here about it and boring you stupid - but it's a debate I hate. It's simple: ebooks released by traditional publishers are overpriced; some of the prices charged by self-published authors are so low as to be unsustainable. I don't go in for the precious guff about there being a difference between price and value. I think there's a reasonable, fair price to charge for ebooks, but certain publishers can't charge it at the moment because they can't afford to lose money. A senior editorial director confessed to me that the book business is in big trouble, 'major irreversible decline' were the words he used. The whole unwieldy publishing infrastructure is geared towards producing, storing and distributing masses and masses of paper. And flogging books to supermarkets and knockdown three-for-two deals to boost flagging sales have already eaten into profits. They were struggling before ebooks came along.
However, my friend, who isn't wealthy but neither is she poor, said the pricing of ebooks had completely changed the way she bought books. The crime authors she loved previously - Billingham, McDermid, McBride, James - she no longer read. Or at least she hadn't bought their new ones, simply because of the what she deemed to be the exorbitant cost. Not when she could buy books which she believed to be just as good if not better by other authors for considerably less money. Now we can argue until the cows come home about whether this is right, and whether the works of Billingham et al is worth the extra cash, but it's pointless. She won't be buying them until the price is reduced to a more realistic level. End of story. Nothing will change that view.
I suggest my friend is not alone. Which gives publishers a real problem. Not just with loss of sales. As Tim suggested, they also have their authors to fear if this pattern is repeated. The authors they value most, the cash cows and guaranteed best sellers. Because if those big sellers begin to see their sales dwindling because of readers migrating to the Kindle, and then not buying their ebooks because they are way overpriced, you don't have to be a marketing genius to work out what will happen. Those authors will hold on to their ebook rights, and start to self publish their own ebook editions and set the price at a reasonable level to win back the readers they have lost. And that's a whole chunk of money the publishers won't be able to afford to lose.