For Whom The Bell Tolls

Stephen Leather (www.stephenleather.com), number-one best seller in the Kindle thriller charts (and therefore our biggest rival!) blogged this week that “The UK Publishers Association has just revealed that the number of e-readers in the United Kingdom doubled over Christmas.”

He adds, “One in twelve adults in Britain received an e-reader as a Christmas present, and there are now 6.5 million adults with them, equivalent to 13 per cent of the population. According to the Publishers Association, almost two-thirds of the adults who were given an e-reader for Christmas immediately downloaded a paid-for e-book and the average new user has already bought six books. The PA suggests that up to ten million e-books have been sold in the UK since Christmas compared with almost 17 million dead tree books.”

Notwithstanding the novelty element of a new toy, this surely demonstrates the tsunami that is the e-reader revolution has reached the tipping point and is now pretty much unstoppable.

Woe betide those dinosaurs among the agents and publishers out there who still hang on to the delusion that e-books will be another dot.com disaster, and cite the success of dead-tree newspapers as proof.

Of course it’s entirely true that predictions of the imminent demise of the newspaper industry were grossly exaggerated. Newspapers have survived and prospered, just as have cinemas, despite the threat from first VHS, then DVD and now downloads.

But books are not newspapers.

Books (when new, at least) do not cost pennies to buy and are not instantly disposable. With a typical paperback costing best part of ten pounds, often more, a book is an investment. We want, and expect, a good return for our money.

But paying out a tenner on a new, unknown author, or trying out a new genre, is a risk. A risk many of us prefer not to take. Which is why we readers will spend hours in a bookshop browsing covers, grazing on opening lines, weighing up the choices, knowing we’d love to buy a dozen but can only afford one or maybe two. And then play safe and buy the latest from an author we already know and trust.

That new author you’ve heard about is supposed to be really good, but your regular author has a new one out too. Choices, choices…

The cover on this one is screaming out at you, but supposing you get home and hate it?

Then there’s that new vampire book… Now you’ve never read a dark-fantasy book in your life, but vampires and angels are all the rage just now. Everyone at work is talking about this new trilogy. Oh to be in the know and be able to join in. But if you buy that, then you can’t buy…

We’ve all been there.

But now the e-reader revolution is re-writing the rules. Not just for writers, agents and publishers, but all importantly for the reader.

Just skip along to the Kindle store with your grubby tenner in your sweaty palm and you can get not just one, but ten different books for the same price, and still come away with change!

Okay, one or two, or even five, may be the biggest load of rubbish you’ve ever read, and you never get past the first page. But if even one of the other five is good then you’ve broken even, and if two are good you’re on a roll.

Imagine if five are good!

Hey, imagine if all ten were good! It could happen!

And don’t forget the classics, now available for absolutely zilch! Yes, free! Gratis!

Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare, Shelley, Stoker, Aesop, Homer… You name it… No more paying the same price for a hundred year old classic as for a modern author. That’s just solid profit to the publishers. Not a royalty in sight!

Of course, the modern-release e-book for under a pound is going to be the real test for the e-publishing industry. After Amazon (or whoever) take their share there’s not a lot left to go round between author, agent and original publisher. (Presuming the latter two are even in on the act!)

Equally, paying over five pounds for an e-book is just crazy, no matter who the author is.

How can they possibly justify that? There are no paper costs. No ink costs. No printing costs. No warehouse and delivery costs, no wholesale and retail overheads, etc, etc.

Over the next year e-book prices will go through some experimental trials and by Christmas 2011 will stabilise somewhere around the two-to-three pound mark for the big names, while the indie authors and the new writers will still keep their charge as low as they can.

Of course Christmas 2011 will still see a small fortune being made by the traditional publishing sector. Dead-tree books still have a few years or life in them, no question.

A real-life book will always make a great present, and some people will never be comfortable reading on screen. And that unique smell of ink and paper that makes walking into a well-stocked bookshop such a pleasure is something the e-reader will never be able to recreate.

But the winds of change are now a strong breeze, and will approach gale force over the next few years. Sure, there will be colourful celebrity make-over books and coffee-table show-pieces churned out for a very long time to come, but that’s a different world from a good read.

For writers like us, who want to be read and enjoyed for our writing ability and content, not our five minutes of celebrity fame, the revolution is well under way.

It’s up to us to ride the wave or be submerged by it.

Do not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for us all!

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