EBOOKS : A BUBBLE?
Ewan Morrison on the ebook bubble
Ewan Morrison Can the Author Survive?
Jonathan Franzen on ebooks
Ewan Morrison The Guardian 30th Jan 2012-02-08
The internet is full of ironies. I, for one, could never have guessed that writing about the end of books would generate more income for me than actually publishing the damn things. I've been on an End of Books reading tour since August and it turns out that what the internet gurus say about consumers being more willing to pay for events, speeches and gigs, rather than buying cultural objects, is now becoming true.
At the other end of the political spectrum from me, among the epublishing enthusiasts and digital fundamentalists, similar ironies are playing out: there is now a boom industry in "How to get rich writing ebooks" manuals, as well as a multitude of blogs offering tips and services, and a new breed of specialists who'll charge you anything from $37 to $149 to get your ebook into shape.
This all seems like a repeat of the boom in get-rich-quick manuals and "specialists" that appeared around blogs and etrading. Did anyone actually get rich from writing blogs, you may ask? Well, according to Jaron Lanier (author of You are not a Gadget) there are only a handful of people in the world who can prove that they make a living from blogging: it's entirely possible that more money was made by those who wrote and sold the how-to manuals than by the bloggers themselves. But who cares, right? It's all part of the euphoria of digital change, and technological innovation is as unstoppable a force as fate. Reports show that paper book sales are "tanking" down a massive 54.3% while ebook sales are up triumphantly by 138%. The revolution will be epublished, and we're all going to be part of it.
All of this ebook talk is becoming a business in itself. Money is being made out of thin air in this strange new speculative meta-practice: there are seminars, conferences and courses springing up everywhere, even at the Society of Authors (a writers' union which, until recently, was largely against epublication). Television and radio programmes are being made about self-epublishing (I've personally been asked to speak about it on 12 occasions since August). Everyone can be a writer now: it only takes 10 minutes to upload your own ebook, and according to the New York Times "81% of people feel they have a book in them ... And should write it"
But all of this gives me an alarming sense of deja vu. There's another name for what happens when people start to make money out of speculation and hype: it's called a bubble. Like the dotcom bubble, the commercial real estate bubble, the subprime mortgage bubble, the credit bubble and the derivative trading bubble before it, the DIY epublishing bubble is inflating around us. Each of those other bubbles also saw, in their earliest stages, a great deal of fuss made over a "new" phenomenon, which was then over-hyped and over-leveraged. But speculation, as we've learned at our peril, is a very dangerous foundation for any business. And when the epub bubble bursts, as all previous bubbles have done, the fall-out for publishing and writing may be even harder to repair than it is proving to be in the fields of mortgages, derivatives and personal debt. Because this bubble is based on cultural, not purely economic, grounds.
How do we know if we're in a bubble?
To answer that we have to turn to respected economist Hyman Minsky. Minsky (1919-1996) studied recurring instability in markets and developed the idea that there are seven stages in any economic bubble (the following terminology is adapted from his Financial Instability Hypothesis
Stage One Disturbance
Every financial bubble begins with a disturbance. It could be the invention of a new technology; it may be a shift in laws or economic policy, or a reduction in interest rates or prices, or the expansion of a market into an area that has not been open before. Usually several factors come together to make the change and as a result, one sector of the economy goes through a dramatic transformation.
This has certainly occurred with epublishing. Over the last decade, Amazon has undercut the big global publishing houses through a radical new structural approach to storage and distribution and grown so quickly that it forced them to renegotiate their pricing policies. Then in opening up the long tail market and making hundreds of thousands of lost titles available again for resale, it reinvented bookselling. The creation of Kindle led to a new generation of ereaders which, with Apple, launched an economic boom in a previously non-existent market. It has already become a clichι in all media that digital self-publishing is a revolution comparable to the invention of the printing press. That is a lot of disturbance in a short space of time.
Stage Two Expansion/Prices Start to Increase
Following the disturbance, prices in that sector start to rise. Initially, the increase is barely noticed. Usually, these higher prices reflect some underlying improvement in fundamentals. As the price increases gain momentum, more people start to notice. Speculation thrives.
On first inspection, epublishing doesn't appear to fit the model here, as it's clear that the prices of ebooks are falling drastically (in the week of Jan 1, 28% of the top 100 ebooks on Amazon were 99p or under, and 48% were under £2.99). But that's because we're looking at this the wrong way round from the perspective of the consumer. The ebook explosion is coupled with the rise of the e-reader, and the profits there are in the hands of the manufacturers. There has also been a fast turn around in these new technologies from Kindle to Kindle Fire, from iPad to iPad 2; and a brand new market of consumers for these products has appeared from nowhere. The change to cheap ebooks and self-published ebooks is a "change in underlying fundamentals".
Stage Three Euphoria/Easy Credit
1. Increasing prices/sales do not, by themselves, create a bubble. Every financial bubble needs fuel; cheap and easy credit is that fuel. Without it, there can be no speculation and the sector returns to a normal state. Speculation takes over and there is a rush to "get in" as newcomers become involved "cheaply" 2. When a bubble starts, the sector involved pushes stories into the media, and is suddenly inundated by outsiders; people who normally would not be there.
1. "Easy credit" in this case relates to the plummeting costs of digital content. In fact, there is an inverse correlation between the cheapness of digital content and the high cost of ereaders and smart technology. The more 'free' or nearly-free content is available online, the more appealing expensive ereader and epad technologies have become. Furthermore, "cheaply" here refers to the ease with which someone can now self publish. A decade ago, self publishing could costs thousands of pounds for a mere 100-book print run. Now it is free or almost free.
2. The whole point of self-epublishing is that the market "brings in people who would not normally be there". Like the promise that we can all have an affordable home with a cheap mortgage, we are being told constantly by digital businesses and the media that we can all be writers and even be successful as writers. Even the tabloids are generating hype, telling the masses that they each can make millions through self-epublishing. The more traffic there is in self-epublishing the more the hype has 'evidence' to support it. According to USA today, "it's a gold rush...get out there".
Stage Four Over-trading/Prices Reach a Peak
1. As the effects of cheap and easy credit dig deeper, the market begins to accelerate. Overtrading lifts up volumes and spot shortages emerge. Prices start to zoom, and easy profits are made. This brings in more outsiders, and prices run out of control. 2. This is the point that amateurs the foolish, the greedy, and the desperate enter the market. Just as a fire is fed by more fuel, a financial bubble needs a mass of people involved in mass behaviour to fuel it.
1. Since epublishing started, the race to undercut competitors has accelerated at unforeseen speed. Blogs now give advice to start-up writers, telling them to give their work away for free to gain audience share and get reviews, and only then attempt to raise their prices. The zooming prices here refers to the zooming down of prices. For example self-epublishers are now giving books away for free see the Kindle Top 100 Free books. Furthermore, in this ecstatic push to self-epublish, there are hundreds of thousands of new ebooks for which there are almost no readers at all because they have zero visibility.
2. Over the last six months there has been a huge growth in the number of people with no former experience who have entered self-epublishing. Taking myself as a representative slice of the public, I can attest, from recent personal experience, to the following: People I know who have been rejected by mainstream publishers have brought out their first ebooks on Kindle; people I didn't even know had novels under their beds have done the same; friends of friends on Facebook have announced that they too have novels and short stories available on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iPad and Sony Reader. Locally, I have seen two new digital publishing houses born from nothing and paying no advances, operating on "spec" writing. And all of these people are self-promoting their work on what platforms they have: Twitter, Facebook and their blogs. All of this is evidence of a "desperation to enter the market". I know this because I also felt the pressure to try it (and did: I self re-epublished what was my first book).
People who are self-epublishing for the first time are also buying their first iPads and Kindles, so as to better understand the epub technologies and to further promote their ebooks. They may be giving their ebooks away for free but they're spending between £100-400 on single items of new technology more than they ever actually spent on books in a year.
Stage Five Market Reversal/Insider Profit Taking
Warnings sound that the boom will turn to bust; that the models on which success is based are unrealistic and overblown. These arguments are ignored by those who justify the now insane prices with the euphoric claim that the world has fundamentally changed and cannot change back. The fact is that insiders have been pulling the strings all along, capitalising on the hype created by the ill-informed newcomers to the market.
The model of ebook success that's held up for everyone to copy is based on half-truths. Even those who are seen as ebook stars are actually transitional figures straddling the digital self-publishing and the mainstream camps.
Take for example digital guru, free culture activist (former European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation) and author Cory Doctorow an SF celebrity and aggressive exponent of self-epublishing who gives his books away for free under a creative commons license (with optional payment). It turns out that Doctorow isn't just any old novelist: the subjects he and his characters talk about are file sharing, the digital revolution, digital rights management and the oppressive old gatekeepers of the mainstream. His kudos comes from the fact that we are in a transitional period in which "free digital culture" is still an issue. Ironically, if and when self-epublishing becomes the norm, his subject matter will no longer seem so radical and no doubt his reader base will diminish.
Or take Amanda Hocking, the paradigmatic example of epublishing success, who has made $2.5m from selling her own ebook. Hocking writes about the supernatural and teenagers, and her success is due in no small part to what the industry calls "piggybacking" on a mainstream success. Without Twilight, and the popularisation of the teen-romantic-horror genre, it is doubtful that Hocking would have a foothold in the industry, or that many people beyond her internet friends would have bought My Blood Approves (retailing at £0.72 on Amazon).
The models of Doctorow or Hocking are misleading to say the least. For the hundreds of thousands of newcomers to self-epublishing to believe that they can become as successful as these role models is a dangerous delusion, and one capitalised on by companies who have an interest in maximizing internet traffic and selling e-readers and internet advertising.
The crisis that's looming is that while the price of ebooks is pushed to almost zero by the rush of frantic amateur self-publishing activity, the established publishing businesses will be forced into life-saving cost-cutting. Again, this is something from which those who have an interest in maximising internet traffic and selling e-readers and internet advertising will benefit. For a while, all those new Kindle owners will find it liberating to see the prices of all ebooks fall, allowing them to vastly expand their libraries, while at the same time, paradoxically, they will wait anxiously for someone to buy their own literary e-offerings online.
Stage Six Financial Crisis
Just as the euphoria consumes the outsiders, the insiders see the warning signs, lose their faith and begin to sneak out the exit. Whether the outsiders see the insiders leave or not, insider profit-taking signals the beginning of the end.
Already the stars of self-epublishing are leaving the system that launched them. Hocking signed a deal with Macmillan that gave her a $500,000 advance on four separate books in a series a total reversal from the way self publishing is done (with zero advances being paid and all work being done on "spec"). The self-epublished author has left the glass-ceiling world of 79c ebook sales (to embrace the old mainstream model, believing that it is the only system that can elevate her to a higher profile and bring her into an arena where her books can by "synergised" with tie-in products such as films, TV serials, even toys) and the door of opportunity closes behind her as she exits, leaving hundreds of thousands of self-epublishing authors without a model to aspire to.
Meanwhile the mainstream publishing houses have suffered huge losses and now can only publish authors who seem to offer a guaranteed return. The entire field of publishing has shrunk, beneath what seemed on the surface like an infinite expansion. Publishers have been forced to launch their own epublishing sites in the attempt to join in the bubble and gain kudos, but they are too late and are wasting resources, and further undermine their old status as market leaders. They in fact turn to the new model of the self-epublishing "star" to get them out of the doldrums. This is the point at which self-epublishing becomes a hall of mirrors and speculation runs in circles.
And what has happened to all those new authors who were told they could make money from epublishing? Well, they are working entirely for free (on spec) on the promise of those big 70% royalties on future sales. They write their books, they blog, they net-network and self-promote; they could put in as much as a year's work, all without payment. So much writing-for-free is going on that it upsets the previous paradigm: people start to ask, why should any writers get paid at all? Why should "professional" writers get a wage or advance, when I've had to do all this work on my self-published ebook for free?
And then comes the collapse if you work for free and have to slash your costs to be competitive to, say, undercut the vast 99p market by going down to 45p or 15p then your chances of ever seeing a return on all the free labour you've put in diminish accordingly. Add to this the fact that hundreds of thousands of others are competing with you in this pricing race to the bottom and the possibility of any newcomers making any money from self-epublishing vanishes. The bubble bursts.
Stage seven Revulsion/Lender of Last Resort
Panic starts and euphoria is replaced with revulsion. Outsiders start to sell, but there are no buyers. Panic sets in, prices start to tumble downwards, credit dries up, and losses start to accumulate. The market is forced back to pre-bubble levels, with major destruction to its infrastructure. The "Lender of the Last Resort" may step in to save what is left.
1. After a long year of trying to sell self-epublished books, attempting to self-promote on all available networking sites, and realising that they have been in competition with hundreds of thousands of newcomers just like them, the vast majority of the newly self-epublished authors discover that they have sold less than 100 books each. They then discover that this was in fact the business model of Amazon and other epub platforms in the first place: a model called "the long tail". With five million new self-publishing authors selling 100 books each, Amazon has shifted 500m units. While each author since they had to cut costs to 99p has made only £99 after a year's work. Disillusionment sets in as they realise that they were sold an idea of success which could, by definition, not possibly be extended to all who were willing to take part.
The now ex-self-epublished authors decide not to publish again (it was a strain anyway, and it was made harder by the fact that they weren't paid for their work and had to work after hours while doing another job and they realised that self-promoting online would have to be a full-time job.) They come to see self-epublishing as a kind of Ponzi scheme one created by digital companies to prey on the desires of an expanding mass of consumers who also wanted to be believe they could be "creative". They also become disillusioned with their ereaders, which are now out of date anyway. And so they return to the mainstream publishers to look for culture. Unfortunately, as a result of the ebook market implosion it is impossible for publishers to push their prices back up to pre-bubble levels (from 99p to £12.99), and so their infrastructure continues to decline. And since they have decided to look for new talent in self-epublishing, they are trapped in the very same bubble that everyone else is trying to get out of.
2. The "Lender in the Last Resort" cannot really step in to save the "investors", as these are the hundreds of thousands of hopeful and now-disappointed first-time epublishers. Instead, the government (if we're lucky) steps in to bail out the publishing industry, and to regulate the digital companies that created the bubble in the first place. Or the government could continue to subsidise these companies, as it does just now, and in so doing create the next bubble.
Of course, none of this might come to pass. Perhaps self-epublishing wont take off, and perhaps people will continue to pay more than 99p for ebooks and paper books. And perhaps hundreds of thousands of new writers will actually taste success. But this, again, is mere speculation.
Are books dead, and can authors survive?
At the Edinburgh international book festival this weekend, Ewan Morrison set out his bleak vision of a publishing industry in terminal decline. Here's a shortened version of his argument The Guardian Monday 22 August 2011
Last words ... the end of professional writing is nigh.
Will books, as we know them, come to an end?
Yes, absolutely, within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books. But more importantly, ebooks and e-publishing will mean the end of "the writer" as a profession. Ebooks, in the future, will be written by first-timers, by teams, by speciality subject enthusiasts and by those who were already established in the era of the paper book. The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.
Generation Y and the End of Paper
First of all I'd like to clear up the question: "The end of Books?" This is misleading as it seems purely technical a question of the paper mill versus the hard drive. Of course the paper book will survive, you may say; it will reinvent itself as it did before. Haven't future projections been wrong in the past? Didn't they say Penguin paperbacks would destroy the print industry in 1939? That the printing press would overthrow Catholicism after 1440? That home videos would destroy cinema?
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.
But let's leave the survival of the paper book alone, and ask the more important question: Will writers be able to make a living and continue writing in the digital era? And let's also leave alone the question: why should authors live by their work? Let's abandon the romantic myth that writers must survive in the garret, and look at the facts. Most notable writers in the history of books were paid a living wage: they include Dostoevksy, Dickens and Shakespeare. In the last 50 years the system of publishers' advances has supported writers such as Ian McEwan, Angela Carter, JM Coetzee, Joan Didion, Milan Kundera, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, Norman Mailer, Philp Roth, Anita Shreve, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark and John Fowles. Authors do not live on royalties alone. To ask whether International Man Booker prizewinner Philip Roth could have written 24 novels and the award-winning American trilogy without advances is like asking if Michelangelo could have painted the Sistine Chapel without the patronage of Pope Julius II. The economic framework that supports artists is as important as the art itself; if you remove one from the other then things fall apart.
And this is what is happening now.
The Retreat of 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."
Publishers are focusing on the short term and are dropping midlist writers. Midlisters neither bestsellers nor first-timers were formerly the Research and Development department of publishers in the 20th century. It was within the midlist that future award-winners and bestsellers were hot-housed (Don Delillo, for example, was supported as a midlist author over the six underperforming books that preceded his Pulitzer-nominated, multi-award winning novel, Underworld.
In reaction to the removal of their living wage, many writers have decided to abandon the mainstream entirely: they've come to believe that publishers and their distribution systems are out of date; that too many middle-men (distributors, booksellers) have been living off their work. When authors either self e-publish or do deals through agents that to go straight to digital they embrace a philosophy of the digital market called the long tail.
Living in the Long Tail
Fig.1. A Long Tail Graph
The long tail is best described by business adviser, futurologist, guru and editor of Wired Magazine, Chris Anderson, in his book The Long Tail, or Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. An alternative tagline for the book is How Endless Choice is Creating Unlimited Demand. In simple terms, the long tail derives its name from graphs of sales against number of products. Whereas throughout the 20th century publishers concentrated on selling only a few heavily promoted "hits" or "bestsellers" in bulk, digital shopping has meant that what was originally a tail-off in sales, has now become increasingly profitable. Rather than selling, say, 13m copies of one Harry Potter book, a long tail provider can make the same profits by selling 13m different "obscure", "failed'" and "niche" books.
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.
Myths of the Long Tail
The recent enthusiasm for the long-tail market does, however, obscure a very basic economic fact: very few writers and independent publishers can survive in the long tail. Amazon can sell millions of books by obscure authors, while at the same time those authors, when they get their Amazon receipts, will see that they have sold only five books in a year. This is not an accident, but part of a trend endemic to the digital world. As Chris Anderson said in his book Free: Why $0.00 is the future of business: "Every industry that becomes Digital will eventually become free."
The reason why a living wage for writers is essential is that every industry that has become digital has seen a dramatic, and in many cases terminal, decrease in earnings for those who create "content". Writing has already begun its slide towards becoming something produced and consumed for free.
In the Free Revolution, why should anyone pay for content?
The following are facts about the financial downturn in the digital industries:
(1) Home videos
Originally the industry started off with consumers having to buy expensive equipment (VHS, LaserDisc etc) - which were superseded by DVD, then by online video streaming. Over and above the possibility of ripping pirate videos (according to a 2010 study by OVN, 69% of the population do this already), the price of watching a feature film or TV show is now trending towards zero. Sites like Netflix and LoveFilm have thousands of films available to watch entirely for free or with subscriber packages for a few pounds a month. In 2005 alone, the Motion Picture Association of America announced that the movie industry lost $6.1bn to piracy (75% higher than they expected).
A statistical study on Information is Beautiful shows that for a musician to earn the minimum wage in the US, per month, he or she would have to sell either 143 self-pressed CDs, 1,161 retail album CDs or 4,053,110 plays on Spotify (with a 0.0016 percent royalty. In an article in Society of Authors journal The Author, Martin Hodkinson states that "Hundreds of people have 'downed their tools' in the music business, through no choice of their own. The total income of the industry dropped by 25% between 1999 and 2008 and is expected to fall by 75% by 2013."
According to the LA Times "Industry insiders estimate that since 2007, revenue for most adult production and distribution companies has declined from 30% to 50% and the number of new films made has fallen sharply". One top porn star, Savannah Stern, has cited that, on par with most of her colleagues, her earnings fell in 2010, from $150K a year to $50K. As Bill Asher, co-chairman of Vivid Entertainment, states: "We always said that once the internet took off, we'd be OK ... It never crossed our minds that we'd be competing with people who just give it away for free."
(4) Computer games
Japan's Computer Entertainment Suppliers Association claims that game piracy on handheld systems has cost the international videogame industry more than $41bn over the past half-decade.
Across the board in March 2010, every national UK paper fell in circulation by between 6% and 27%. News International lost half of its value in Q1 of 2009. As newspapers lay off staff to cut costs, they confront the fact that newspaper readership is tied to an ageing demographic. A recent business story claimed that "printing the New York Times costs twice as much as sending every subscriber a new Kindle."
Staff photographers at newspapers have been laid off over the last five years. Picture desks now use amateur online photo archives instead of commissioning new images and get pictures for a fraction of previous costs or entirely for free.
In the 1980s, the price of a call to India from the UK was £2 a minute. Now, with fibre-optic cable, it is 4p. With Skype it's absolutely free. As concerns handsets, generally, within two years of manufacture a phone's price tends towards zero. New packages give free phones in return for small monthly payments. This impacts all other digital industries as new smart phones lower their costs on the promise of access to a world of increasingly free digital content.
(8) The internet
Many of the largest growth industries in the last decade provide an entirely free service to the consumer: Google, Yahoo, YouTube. These have facilitated other sites made by consumers for consumers, for free: the blogosphere, open source, social networks, Wikipedia. All of these, to quote Anderson, are "produced by entirely free labour, consumed with no expectation of payment or monetary exchange". As he says, "'Free' is the gift of silicon valley to the world".
The Free revolution - So who's selling what to whom?
Before we go back to books, let's look at what all this means. For all its digital-friendly rhetoric and the co-option of "radical" jargon, surely the people at Google, Yahoo and YouTube aren't working for free. These companies are making a profit big enough to place them on the Fortune 500. So if the future of digital media is "free", where does the money come from?
While providers such as Yahoo and Google provide free content, at the same time, on every screen, they sell advertising space. The culture (books, films and music) that you find for free on the sites, is not the product, it has no monetary value. The real product Yahoo and Google are selling is something less tangible it is you.
Your profile and that of millions of other consumers are being sold to advertisers. Your hits and clicks make them money.
These digital providers are not in any way concerned with or interested in content, or what used to be called "culture". To them culture is merely generic content; it is a free service that is provided in the selling of customers to advertisers. Ideally for service providers, the customers will even provide the culture themselves, for free. And this is what we do when we write blogs, or free ebooks or upload films of ourselves, at no cost.
Forecasts predict that within 10 to 15 years the largest "publishers" in the world will be Google, Amazon and Apple. In May 2010, Google announced plans to compete with Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Apple by launching its own online ebook store, which requires no e-reader and no fees. In August of the same year, Google annonunced its intention to scan all known books (130m) by the end of the decade. All of which would be available for free or for a minuscule one-off payment to authors of around $60 per book. Google is still caught up in legal wrangles, but this change is coming.
Piracy and competitive discounting the race to the bottom
Back again to books. 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. The shift to piracy moves imperceptibly in the mind of the consumer, as Adrian Hon, founder of a leading games company outlined in the Telegraph.
It starts in this way: consumers download electronic copies of books that they already own for convenience sake (an activity that the New York times claims is ethical). This introduces people to ebook torrents. Then they start downloading classics: "Tolkien and CS Lewis are both dead, so why should I feel bad about pirating their books?" And since they have enough memory on their e-reader to store 3,500 books and the e-reader came with four preloaded free classics to start with, what difference will it make? Then, says Hon, "you'll have people downloading ebooks not available in their country yet. Then it'll be people downloading entire collections, just because it's quicker. Then they'll start wondering why they should buy any ebooks at all, when they cost so much."
In every digital industry the attempt to combat piracy has led to a massive reduction in cover price: the slippery slope towards free digital content.
Will digital books be any different from jpegs, quicktimes and mp3s? What makes them so, other than a desire by the currently dominant generation to preserve what they have known - a trend that will be outgrown when that generation passes?
The Long Term against the Long Tail
Is there an alternative to this catastrophe? If so, it cannot lie where Chris Anderson recommends, in having what he terms "freemium viewing" locked or extra content for subscribers (a system devised for newspapers and computer games). What would this mean for the book? An extra chapter? An author's commentary? The final sentence if you pay more?
An alternative could lie in authors writing apps and blogs, on both of which, the author would get paid per 10,000 or so hits, by advertisers. Or it could lie in crowd funding with innovations such as publishing house 'Unbound'. You have enough readers, they pay a dollar or a pound, and en masse they see you through the duration required to write the book, that you then give then for free.
The trend of consumers demanding ever more for ever less is not restricted to culture. It's a phenomenon well documented by writers such as Zygmunt Bauman and Naomi Klein: the "race to the bottom", in which competing corporations cut their prices in the bid to put all other competitors out of business.
Can books be written in sweatshops?
Well, books might not be manufactured in China and Korea but the long tail is the sweatshop of the future, and it will contain millions of would-be-writers who will labour under the delusion that they can be successful in the way writers were before, in the age of the mainstream and the paper book.
There is no simple solution. All that is clear is that for authors and publishers to abandon each other only accelerates the race towards free content.
Authors must respect and demand the work of good editors and support the publishing industry, precisely by resisting the temptation to "go it alone" in the long tail. In return, publishing houses must take the risk on the long term; supporting writers over years and books, it is only then that books of the standard we have seen in the last half-century can continue to come into being.
This is something that publishers are well aware of, but still seem powerless to do anything about. As Sarnoff CEO of Bertelsmann has said, " as things switch to digital there is the danger that a lot of value can leak out of the industry, and that our authors, our artists won't have enough revenues there to pay for their best work and that we won't have enough revenue to pay for our own infrastructure."
If the connection between publishers and writers splits completely, if they fail to support and defend each other, then both will separately be subjected to the markets' demand for totally free content, and both shall have very short lives in the long tail. The writer will become an entrepreneur with a short shelf life, in a world without publishers or even shelves.
But ultimately, any strategy conceived now is just playing for time as the slide towards a totally free digital culture accelerates. How long have we got? A generation. After that, writers, like musicians, filmmakers, critics, porn stars, journalists and photographers, will have to find other ways of making a living in a short-term world that will not pay them for their labour.
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.
I ask you to take the long view, to look a generation beyond where we are now, and to express concern for the future of the book. I ask you to vote that the end of "the book" as written by professional writers, is imminent; and not to be placated with short-term projections and enthusiasms intended to reduce fear in a confused market. I ask you to leave this place troubled, and to ask yourself and as many others as you can, what you can do if you truly value the work of the people formerly known as writers.
Jonathan Franzen at the Cartagena festival: 'All the real things are dying off.' Photograph: Stringer/Colombia/Reuters
Jonathan Franzen has spoken of his fear that ebooks will have a detrimental effect on the world and his belief that serious readers will always prefer print editions.
The acclaimed and bestselling novelist, who denies himself
access to the internet when writing, was talking at the Hay festival in
Cartagena, Colombia. "Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from
now, but I do. When I read a book, I'm handling a specific object in a specific
time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says
the same thing that's reassuring," said Franzen, according to
"Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it's just not permanent enough."
For serious readers, Franzen said, "a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience". "Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn't change," he continued. "Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don't have a crystal ball. But I do fear that it's going to be very hard to make the world work if there's no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government."
The acclaimed author of Freedom and The Corrections which are published as ebooks has said in the past that "it's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction". He seals the ethernet port on his own computer to prevent him connecting to the internet while he writes, also removing the card so he is unable to play computer games and wearing noise-cancelling headphones to prevent distraction.
The disruption posed by technology is even voiced by one of his characters, Walter Berglund, in Freedom. "'This was what was keeping me awake at night,' Walter said. 'This fragmentation. Because it's the same problem everywhere. It's like the internet, or cable TV there's never any centre, there's no communal agreement, there's just a trillion bits of distracting noise All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things, are dying off.'"
Franzen said at Hay that "the combination of technology and capitalism has given us a world that really feels out of control".
"If you go to Europe, politicians don't matter. The people making the decisions in Europe are bankers," he said. "The technicians of finance are making the decisions there. It has very little to do with democracy or the will of the people. And we are hostage to that because we like our iPhones."
If printed books do become obsolete in the next 50 years, Franzen is pleased that at least he won't have to see it. "One of the consolations of dying is that [you think], 'Well, that won't have to be my problem'," he said. "Seriously, the world is changing so quickly that if you had any more than 80 years of change I don't see how you could stand it psychologically."