My Rite to Read

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

When Books Don't Cost a Thing

We get told every day, BOOKS are Dying. WRITERS will die. Booksellers will die. Publishers are dead!
Man's love of  apocalypse might be older than the Mayan Calendar, but some superstition, is better than none, I say. Books will and shall continue to exist, even if we are 'addressing a demographic' that's strictly USA, the UK and certain parts of the EU, even if we're talking about 15 years from now.

Edinburgh based Electric Bookshop runs a quarterly event on book technology and literary culture at Inspaces, on Crichron Street. This time, part time literary agent and dedicated ebook publisher of crime fiction, Allan Guthrie, talked at length about his mid life professional start up Blasted Heath. Ebooks are the end of all woes for the artiste according to him, in a time where societal anxieties about culture dissipating in the claws of the internet are rampant. His basic pitch was that digital publications undercut the bureaucracy of print, long winded processes of going through middlemen and unimaginative systems that do not understand niches, and the lines between author and consumer have blurred in a way that makes e-reading, e-writing, and e-books if not profitable, at least a whole lot sustainable. Was writing ever a top paying job? No! Everyone knows that only 10% of UK's writers make enough money to do without a day job! Then why the sudden panic with the advent of ebooks, he questioned?

Allan Guthrie in Conversation
image courtsey:
Guthrie said the USP of his publishing was pulse pricing of e-books, and that price could serve as a perfect marketing strategy for products like his! That is, you take popular books, price them lower than usual, and float them at that discount for a limited period, in order to hook overwhelming sales.  Barely over a fortnight old, Blasted Heath ran its first ebook launch week offering a free ebook for download, each day! For those who missed the opportunity, 99p is the promotional price on his first line up of ebooks until the end of November. With tactics like these his group will soon make it to the Big Seven, he jokes in earnest.  The average price of an ebook should be 2 pounds less than its Hardback; the average price of the ebook online is at 9.99 pounds. 

Short stories go undervalued in print editions, and people (and publishers) judge the value of a book by the number of chapters it consists! Such value consciousness disappears in the ebook format, as customers reel with the plethora of choice in widely (and uniformly cheaply) available short stories in numerous electronic formats. 40K Books is another Italian epublishing company that has talked about the short story being the Hero of the Digital Age.

More and more conventional conglomerates and independent publishers are making eforays and acquiring e-lists and imprints to meet the increasingly fast appetites of e-consumers (and readers!). Random House's Story Cuts and  Quercus' Head of Zeus imprints are quick recent examples of the revival of short fiction in e-formats.

The points Allan covered were: 
  • Short stories (in ebooks) will sell like cupcakes on Christmas
  • Marketing of Ebooks should focus on price pulsing
  • Ebooks are author-friendly, undercuts the bureaucracy of print publishing
  • E-artistes live in hope of reaching the consumer directly, no middlemen attached
  • Will "free culture" really stimulate "paid for" culture and facilitate more paid-for content? 
  • Piracy will coexist and perhaps even boost higher sales especially in parts of the world where affordability and access affect literacy; but the internet is a sweat shop
  • No DRM on Blasted Heath books will offer easy access and readability
Allan Guthrie's own crime fiction novel "Slammer" (Polygon) is priced at 1.99GBP in The Works, and offered for 5 pounds as part of a set of three books of one's choice! I couldn't help but wonder if  there was such a thing as value for money in books? I would never buy 3 books for 5 pounds because I always know, the store is tricking me into buying more than I need. Chances are, there is always only one book you really want; and the discerning reader knows that. 

Ewan Morrison takes on the rise of Free Culture and the End of the Book
image courtsey:

The drama hiked up a notch when Ewan Morrison (pictured above) novelist and columnist famous for his predictions on the end of the book in Edinburgh's book festival earlier this year,  tackled Generation Y head on. The attending demographic was a fair mixture of males and females 95%  falling between the ages 17-35 years.

The more book events became related with technology, (like guests being welcomed on an ipad at the reception of this particular function!) the more men will gather at book related events traditionally dominated by the female demographic. Men are seen with gadgets, women are seen with books. With the advent of all things digital, something in the reading experience might be neutered. We are living in our heads, inside the prison that is the internet. Andrew Keine's documentary, says we are policing our own lives, living in mutual consent.

Morrison set up the uncanny equation of Amazon versus the highstreet as equalling 5 books produced by million people versus 1 million books created by 5 people! 80,000 books alone were sold in the past month by Amazon alone. If all books began etailing at 99p, the Big Four will have to clamp down on prices, compromise, warned Morrison. Unless you are a service provider, you will not make money! Famous for his postmarxist perspective on why free culture is killing the livelihoods of artistes, breeding an "economy of resentment," Morrisson sparked off criticisms and debate on the ills of Y culture, the irresponsible consumer, and increasingly caged netizen desperate to be somebody, if only successful

'The Shelf life of a book had fallen somewhere between that of milk and yoghurt'                                    Jason Epstein on the Amazon effect

At the event most guests had downloaded out of copyright videos on YouTube (78% of its content is pirated) in the past year. Was this going to stop? No. Was this going to push artistes out of business, by undervaluing Culture? yes. Was Generation Y guilty of killing off the gatekeepers of culture and gluttons of Free Art? Heated debate ensued. 

I am a strong believer that readers will continue to buy books; they may watch less television but they won't read less on the internet. More people surf the internet than watch television in the UK. While the Web may displace television, there is little relation between watching television and reading books, confirms Jason Epstein.

Fueled by optimism and peppered with a healthy cynicism of what has essentially become a culture less appreciated, and worse monetized, the event pulped much insight on new media and its exploding limits. 

Allan Guthrie and Ewan Morrison will continue their debate at an SYP event on 29 November 2011.

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