August 12, 2011 6:23 pm

Light reading

This summer we’ve finally embraced the e-book – but what does this mean for writers and publishers?
e-book

In the departure lounge at Heathrow Airport people are reading. There’s nothing particularly unusual about the scene – we read all the time, on buses, trains and planes. What stands out here is that many of these readers are glued not to tatty paperbacks or glossy hardbacks or even those large format airport specials but e-books.

It’s all part of what is being dubbed the “Kindle Summer” – the first summer when e-books have sold strongly, marking a turning point for publishing. And if you’ve recently packed for a beach holiday, as I did last week, you’ll understand the benefits. Why take a stack of heavy hardbacks that eat into your precious luggage allowance when you can take an e-reader stocked with thousands of books? Gone is that mad rush at the airport bookshop as you try to find something you might want to read; and gone is the suitcase crammed with hardbacks packed “just in case”.

In April, the Association of American Publishers announced that for the first time e-books had outsold all other traditional formats; and since the beginning of April, Amazon.co.uk customers have been purchasing Kindle books over hardcover books at a rate of more than two to one. “E-book sales are rising, and rising faster than previously predicted, led in the most part by the Kindle,” says Philip Jones, deputy editor of the Bookseller. “Penguin reported in July that its global e-book sales in the first half were up at 14 per cent, while in the UK it agreed with the general consensus that e-books now make up about 6 per cent of their trade/consumer business. We expect e-books to be at about 10 per cent by the end of the year.”

So what does this all mean? Are we reading more? Are e-books taking over from physical books? Are hardbacks about to go the way of vinyl? And where does it leave readers, writers and publishers?

There are now several major platforms for e-books. Amazon’s Kindle is the market leader, but Apple’s iBooks, Barnes and Noble’s Nook, Waterstones and retailers such as Kobo have all expanded the horizons of e-books in the past couple of years. Although each platform has its own unique feel, what are selling particularly well across all devices are thrillers, misery memoirs and blockbusting popular fiction.

Yet, while readers are embracing the digital book more than ever, this shift hasn’t been easy for publishers. The music industry struggled through the impact of Napster and the rise of the MP3 player, but publishing – one of the most traditional of all the creative industries – has until now remained relatively resistant to change.

“Culturally there was resistance pretty much at every publishing house,” says Michael Bhaskar, digital publishing director at Profile Books. “People thought that e-books and digital publishing were out there to kill books and the book industry.” That attitude has slowly been replaced with one of acceptance that digital is here to stay and that publishers (and writers) must adapt to survive. “Digital isn’t a way of killing print books, but supporting them. It’s the content that matters most.”

Making the transition from an entirely print world to a print and digital one is far from easy. It’s not simply a case of digital books bringing in extra sales. As Jones points out, the overall fiction market is down 13 per cent year-on-year and “sales of hardback novels through BookScan’s Top 5,000 bestseller list were down 5 per cent year-on-year, with paperback novels down 17 per cent.” Many readers who would once have paid full price for a physical book have migrated to e-books.

From the readers’ point of view, it’s not hard to see why. Joe Dunthorne, author of Submarine, says: “When reading all 1,200 pages of Infinite Jest last year, I cut my copy into three chunks (re-binding each bit with masking tape) to make it easier to carry. But then, each night, I had to come home and catch up on the footnotes. Needless to say, it was annoying. Now my girlfriend’s reading it on Kindle, and it’s ideal. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest seems like a good enough reason, on its own, to buy an e-reader.”

Earlier this year, e-books had a prominent breakthrough when the judges of the 2011 Man Booker Prize were given a choice of how to read the 138 contenders. “We could choose to use Kindles or not – as I recall two did and three didn’t,” says the novelist Susan Hill, a judge on this year’s panel. Hill’s book Howards End is on the Landing (2009) explored her experience of rediscovering old books during a year of reading – something that couldn’t happen in a purely digital world. Did she embrace the Kindle for her Booker reading? “I didn’t read on a Kindle and have never even seen one,” she says. “I am a real book person – and always will be. I am a great laptop person and an internet/Twitter/Facebook one too so I am no Luddite; but the real printed book is a joy – it ain’t broke so ... ”

However, many book-lovers are embracing the e-book. The thriller writer and former literary agent Emlyn Rees is now an e-book fan: “I got a Kindle for Christmas and now read more books on it than not. It’s particularly great for holidays, in that you can load it up with beach reading, without having to pay airlines for the privilege of carrying all that extra weight.”

This summer, Rees’ publisher Constable and Robinson has been using e-books to grow word-of-mouth interest in titles that it will then publish in the autumn as physical books. Rees’ Hunted has been selling for just £1 as an e-book throughout July and August, garnering praise from Jeffrey Deaver and Sam Bourne. It will be published as a £12.99 hardback in September.

“All writers have to embrace e-books,” says Rees. “Any writer with a mainstream publisher is going to have to get used to promoting their e-books online as the market is growing so quickly it can’t be ignored. The main arguments concerning the pros and cons of e-books come down to royalties and piracy. What slice will the writer get of the electronic pie and how can they protect themselves from having their work distributed for free?”

One of Constable and Robinson’s literary bestsellers is Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. The novel, also available as an e-book (£5.99), has become an iPhone and iPad app. For just £2.99, readers get not only the full text of the book but the audiobook, video and illustrations. It’s hard to see how the £7.99 paperback can compete.

Meanwhile, Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh iPhone app has been downloaded more than 30,000 times and has just been launched on Android phones. The free app isn’t a book, but a guided tour of the city that has inspired Rankin’s writing and demonstrates that authors are no longer simply confined to producing traditional works. “Novels, films and games will start overlapping more and more,” says Rees. “You’re seeing this already in the gaming world, where titles such as LA Noire and Alan Wake are hybrids of crime fiction novels and games, only where players get to help shape the narrative. The novel as we know it might not hold any appeal for future generations.”

But publishers have to be cautious about how they embrace the digital possibilities. The question hanging over these complex and often expensive apps is: are they commercially viable? They require investment and can ultimately compete with other products such as the hardback or paperback, cutting publishers’ margins. Henry Volans, Head of Faber Digital is more positive. “If publishers don’t stretch what you can do then start-ups will. I think there’s an imperative to innovate.”

Faber, in partnership with Touch Press, is behind two of the most successful iPad book apps produced so far. TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, originally published in 1922, features a performance of the poem by Fiona Shaw and readings by TS Eliot, Ted Hughes and Alec Guinness, plus copies of the original manuscript. The Solar System by Marcus Chown is an interactive guide commissioned specially as an app with a hardback version due for publication in November. Both apps sell for £9.99 each and, Volans tells me, earned back their production costs in six weeks and are now in profit. “At one point,” he says, “The Waste Land was the third highest grossing iPad app in the UK. It’s quite thrilling to see a difficult literary poem among all those other things.”

Yet, digital books are not simply running amok. Physical books, far from obsolete, are competing with their digital counterparts. Hodder’s new Flipback books, for example, printed on wafer-thin paper and bound along the long edge are tiny, light and easy to read – like an e-reader. For mainstream hardback books we could also see a push to greater quality and exclusivity. “As digital culture becomes more prevalent the value of speciality culture becomes greater,” says Bhaskar. “I’m convinced that we’ll start to see more limited, boxed and numbered editions produced on incredible paper with extra design features. We’ll see the resurgence of the book as a sort of collector’s item.” Paperbacks and more disposable types of books, however, may not fare so well.

We can also expect new financing models for authors. In the US, Amazon has “dropped a brick in the publishing pond” with its digital self-publishing element (in June, John Locke became the first self-published author to sell a million e-books through Amazon). In the UK, the Unbound project is publishing books by pitching ideas direct to readers who then stump up the funding for the ones they want to read. When an idea has received 100 per cent of the financing needed, the writer starts work and “investors” receive a copy of the finished product. Terry Jones has started on Evil Machines, due in October, and Tibor Fischer has 76 per cent of the funding needed to start Crushed Mexican Spiders.

Literary agents, too, are getting in on the act. Last year, Andrew Wylie launched Odyssey Editions to publish modern classics by the likes of Saul Bellow and William Burroughs as e-books through Amazon. Part of the move was to cut publishers out of the loop. Next month, the agent Ed Victor will follow Wylie, setting up his own e-books imprint Bedford Square Books.

“I started Bedford Square Books for three reasons,” Victor explains. “One was to please my authors, to have books that they thought were dormant living and breathing again. The second reason was to have fun. I was a publisher, but the last book I actually published was in 1972. I’m learning about how you publish and market books in the 21st century and it’s fascinating. And the third thing is not to lose money.”

Bedford Square Books will begin by publishing six titles by Victor’s authors that are no longer in print. “I’m not doing this to compete with publishers, I’m publishing books that they didn’t want to publish,” he says. “I am now able to say to a publisher: ‘Would you like to reissue this wonderful book or shall I?’ It gets their attention.”

But while digital publishing has opened up the means of publishing to anyone with a computer, pity the poor reader. Sitting on a beach with my Kindle, I didn’t start trawling through all the books by authors I’d never heard of. Instead, I downloaded Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending , which was published while I was abroad, but could be downloaded. When faced with vast choice, we gravitate to what we know. The brand (be it author or publisher) is all important. One of the biggest – JK Rowling – will begin selling Harry Potter e-books exclusively through her Pottermore website in the autumn. It is a canny move for the author, allowing her to maintain complete control (and reap the benefits).

Below the horizon, there is also mushrooming creativity from new start-ups keen to break the mould. This summer, 24symbols.com, a “Spotify for books”, has launched. Readers can download e-books either ad-supported without charge or for €9.99 per month ad-free. Meanwhile, small digital non-fiction publishers such as atavist.net and byliner.com are finding niches for new forms of writing. Byliner made a splash in April publishing Three Cups of Deceit by award-winning author Jon Krakauer, about allegations that Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greg Mortenson fabricated parts of his bestselling books. Known as “Singles”, these e-books are intended to be read in a single two-hour sitting.

Fiction writers, too, could benefit. “There are so many possibilities for interactive fiction, which is where I see the e-readers really coming in to their own,” says Dunthorne, who has just published his second novel Wild Abandon. “I’ve been writing literary Choose Your Own Adventure stories, and these seem perfect for digital.”

“Writing always changes and evolves,” agrees Bhaskar. “Tweeting, blogging, the way people interact on social media – all of those things are new forms of writing and what we will see is new great writers master these forms. It’s a new commercial and creative challenge for writers. Publishers have to be there to help make it a success.”

There are, of course, hurdles to this brave new digital world. Sitting on the plane, waiting to fly home, I heard a voice: “I’m sorry sir, could you turn that off for take-off?” I’ve never been asked to switch off a book before.

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