Friday, 10 October 2008

Books up. Authors Down.

Credit crunch. Recession. Global Economic Collapse. What people need in times like this is good, cheap, entertainment. Don't go down the pub. Don't go to the cinema. Buy a book. It's cheaper and will give you hours more entertainment. If you're worried about becoming a loner start a bookclub - people may even bring you biscuits.

So is this going to be a boom time for the generally downtrodden profession of writers? (Bearing in mind most UK writers currently make around £5,000 a year) Even the publishers, generally the strictest of disciples of the doom and gloom philosophy, are being mildly hopeful. They predict a rise in sales for crime, thrillers and books that tell you how to do things more cheaply - this millennium's making do and mend. Who knows they may even be digging out those old hippy books from the 70s that told you have to grow cress on your windowsill and stressed the importance of sharing baths.  In fact books are so very much the next greatest thing they can even make obese children thin. Sure there's the odd shaky fear that EUK, the entertainment dominant wholesaler, parented by Woolworths might be on a bit of a sticky wicket and that might adversely affect Christmas stock. But then Sir Sugar's just stepped in and scooped up 4% of Woolworths and anyone who's seen the BBC's reality show The Apprentice won't be worrying. 

But if you look a little closer it's not such good news for writers.

Lulu one of the champions of the little people (I mean individual authors not fairies) despite protesting its future is bright has cut a quarter of its employees. Could it be co-incidence that at the same time that publishing giant Amazon launches POD (print on demand)? Now, we all love amazon. It lets us search inside books, offers package deals, gets stuff to us quickly (for a small fee) and while you can't buy milk at the website you can pretty much buy anything else. What most people who buy from Amazon don't realize is that they take a hearty whack of the sales price. Even in the little, growing, hopeful future of ebooks Sony are taking a huge 50% of the sale price of any book bought to download for their ereader. Publishers have no choice but to cut royalites accordingly or lose money on stock - and eventually go bust.

Much as happened in the music industry everyone is taking such a big slice of the pie that the people who actually created the material are seeing an increasing diminishing return for their efforts.

While it's a nice, radical idea to say let's cut out the middle man and (to misquote) self-publish and be damned, the sad fact is self-publication rarely leads to success. (Remember what I was saying about the good, the great, the worthy Lulu above?). But why doesn't it work? It doesn't work because when faced with several thousand single voices shouting for sales your average member of the buying British public (myself included) opts to spend our hard earned pennies with people with we think we can trust to provide the kind of goods we're looking for - in short we go with globally known distributors like Amazon and publishers whose names we learned in our cradles. Sure some independent stuff might be cheaper, but it might also be rubbish and we won't know until we've spent our cash.

What we need is for someone to come along and help with the overwhelming choice of available books - whether that's going to the 3 for 2 section at Borders (where your last free throw is a risk taker) or whether it's doing some radically different.

It would also be good if we could find something that let authors get a decent royalty and stand a chance of making the week's garret rent.

There was another industry that had much the same problem. The music industry. Apple's itunes have on a number of occasions preventing the major music labels from upping their share of the ante.

It's not a perfect answer for the book world, but we need something and we need it now or your average author is going to become the archetypal starving artist in the very near future.


Spinks said...

To be honest, if I was saving money on books, I'd use a library. How do those work out for authors?

Caroline Dunford said...

Hi Spinks,
Well it isn't as good as an author receiving a royalty for a sold copy, but we do receive a fee for each lend is called PLR (Public Lending Rights) and is usually collected by ALCS, who explain more clearly here

Elizabeth K. Burton said...

Amazon plans to offer print on demand in the UK for the same reason they established a policy in the US last spring that any on-demand produced books had to be printed under the auspices of their Booksurge POD service to be eligible for full seller's benefits.

That is, to be sold directly by Amazon, and qualify for free shipping, the publisher or self-published author of a digitally printed book had to sign a contract with Booksurge.

The outcry was horrendous, as all those who had been short-discounting Amazon for the last decade learned they would no longer be able to do that. Dire warnings ensued about Amazon taking over the entire print on demand industry, etc., etc., etc.

The truth is this: Amazon is in the process of building major distribution centers in various of their overseas markets similar to the ones they already have or are building here in the States. I believe the UK one is in Wales.

Instead of taking up shelf space with digitally printed titles or paying to have them shipped by another printer, Amazon will install top-of-the-line digital printing equipment in the warehouse. Their goal is to then have the files for those POD books in a database, so that when an order comes in the book can be printed and shipped immediately.

To do this, however, they must have a legal contract with the publisher of the book giving them the right to print it. As the company under their aegis that handles this kind of contract is Booksurge, the agreement is technically with Booksurge.

I realize the above is more information than your mention of this issue, and the overall theme of your blog, warrants. However, in view of the ongoing misinformation still making the rounds on this side of the pond, including a lawsuit, I felt it would help to get the facts out early, given the attention this matter has received on your side.

I am not an employee of either Amazon or Booksurge; we've simply been using Booksurge as our printer pretty much since the company began, and added the other major US digital printing service, Lightning Source, two years ago. Knowing what Amazon had planned for POD, it didn't take too much effort to add the numbers when they launched the new policy--nor to see that, as usual, they managed to do it in the worst way possible.

Verdandi said...

Thank you, Elizabeth, you, of course, absolutely right about Booksurge and Amazon and the relationship between them.
As a committee member for the Society of Authors in Scotland I hear a great many complaints about Amazon - especially, marketplace. I think generally authors - and publishers - fear how very large they are becoming, and that any beast so large and powerful will eventually get away with structuring the market as it wants due to its potentially enormous power base. (The old 'you have to be in it to win' saw.)
I have to also say the larger British publishing houses have generally (in my opinion) lagged in embracing the digital age from POD to ebooks and everything that lies inbetween.
Strangely, it is often the smaller publishing houses, like yourself, that are up with impending physical changes in the market, and I suspect well armed to face the future.
Thanks for comment.

Atun said...

They predict a rise in sales for crime, thrillers and books that tell you how to do things more cheaply - this millennium's making do and mend. Who knows they may even be digging out those old hippy books from the 70s that told you have to grow cress on your windowsill and stressed the importance of sharing baths.

white hat seo

fiona glass said...

As a slight aside, I saw from Private Eye that some publishers (notably Random House, I think) have stopped funding 'jollies' for authors which includes appearances at literary festivals. PE was questioning whether this might mean the end for most litfests, other than the two or three that are large enough and reputable enough to pay their own way....