What is a book worth?

We all love a good spat and the recent heckling of Stephen Leather at Harrogate has lots of terrific elements, but  above all though a very serious issue being given a public airing.

The debate about e-book pricing – and the role of piracy – is well trodden and the two sides’ positions are pretty much irreconcilable.

The Fundamentalist Internauts take it as an article of faith that cutting out the middle man (and all the unpleasant rejection that middle men entail) can only be a Good Thing. The wisdom of the crowds will (magically) prevail and quality will out. Writers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your publishers.

The Legacy Luddites on the other hand bemoan the destruction of an entire cultural infrastructure and a world in which quality is (in theory) nurtured and sustained by an elegantly arranged system of gatekeepers. Livelihoods are destroyed and the world is handed over to noisy and tireless self publicists like Mr Leather. O tempora o mores.

Of course the flip side of that is that the triumphalist self publishing community jeering the legacy publishers are rather like reef fish taunting the barracudas while hiding in the mouth of the enormous great white that is Amazon; while the publishers interaction with new technology has, all too often, been reminiscent of the opening scenes in 2001 a Space Odyssey.

What was interesting about this spat was that it didn’t take place in the internet: where it normally does. And that means it raises the possibility that in fact there really is a majority of people out there who think that 99p books are wrong in principle and that the internet is (inevitably) skewed towards the people who are terribly serious about blogging and posting comments and they are misrepresentative of the majority.

The huge differential in costs between self publishers and the corporates is tremendously beneficial to self publishers. It is also tremendously beneficial to Amazon and the self published should perhaps reflect that there seems to me no evidence whatsoever that Amazon cares about authors or books in any way at all.

 They certainly show a disgraceful lack of interest – as the dominant UK bookseller – in promoting British talent and there is absolutely nothing to suggest that once they have reduced the power of the big publishers – and so the self published authors cease to be useful to them – they will do anything other than ruthlessly pursue their own interests and the interests of their own publishing outfits.

 It is not just that the self published might do well to wonder if they are Amazon’s patsies, they are in a more important sense selfish. One of the benefits to being published is the sense of belonging to a ‘house’. To be a Knopf author (to deliberately take a non UK example) was to be part of a fine and noble lineage – even if what you published was cheerful tosh, you were part of a grand continuum of writing: you were sharing fraternity with the greats.

 This promoted a sense of solidarity which is rapidly disappearing. It also resulted in one rather important thing. Publishing has always worked on the basis of the commercially successful 10% of their list supporting the rest. In practice that often meant the commercial supported the literary: in effect commercial authors were paying a kind of culture tax to help them support their more literary (and less fortunate) brothers and sisters.

This was tacit – but I think pretty widely understood. It would seem to have no part whatsoever in the world Mr Leather and other self published zealots inhabit: less writers of the world unite than I’m alright jack perhaps?




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