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Thursday, 15 December 2011

Some Thoughts on Traditional Publishing and the E-book revolution

I wrote this nearly three years ago, but, having just come across it, decided it's as pertinent now a it was then.... 

The last thing I wanted just now was a day off, but my nose and throat have fallen foul of a nasty assortment of germs - and I fear that my chest is likewise under assault. So here it is, a quarter to  four; the sun has gone down and all I’ve done today is read the paper, eat lunch, and watch a movie. I now have tomorrow and five working days next week to complete this first draft in order that I might relax over the Christmas holiday.

Yesterday morning I had an email from my pal Greg. Had I seen the late-night programme, on BBC TV, about the future of the book? I hadn’t, so I sat at my desk before breakfast and watched it online. It was a typical hour-long arts documentary: a salaried BBC employee, Alan Yentob, strode around London, Oxford, Vancouver and  such places holding various books in his hand and looking concerned. Yes, the e-book is coming, and the World may very well End. And so, alongside interviews with excitable tech-heads forecasting the death of the hard copy and singing the praises of the kindle and its progeny, we got lingering shots of a glum Yentob, white-gloved, fingering hallowed manuscripts that date back 1500 years.

I’ve been  a book-lover all my life, but I am ready to be converted to the e-book; and I look forward, in the coming year, to publishing some of my own work in the new medium. It seems to me that electronic books represent a chance for authors to break free of the bondage in which we are held by publishers, agents, retailers and critics. I may of course be utterly wrong about this. We shall see. The programme I watched yesterday made me angry, and I had to pause after watching it to figure out what it was exactly that was getting up my nose.

First, Yentob. Left public school at eighteen, went to university, joined the BBC in 1968 and has never left. Well, okay, let’s accept that a wee bit of envy might have cross-fertilised my irritation. I have a thing against most career academics and career media people, as I have against career politicians - and, dare I say it, career artists. All such people are meant to know about, teach about, comment upon and lead others  through life. They are, however, likely to be so cloistered, so molly-coddled, so narrow in their experience of life that you have to doubt whether they really know much at all about their subject. When I see the likes of Yentob ambling past monolithic sculptures in public spaces in great cities around the world, presumably in order to suggest a graphic illustration of some point the narrative is making, I can’t help wondering whether, should I ever be cast in a similar role, I would wear a similarly crumpled suit, would neglect to comb my hair, and whether I might perhaps shave the morning of the shoot. Oh dear - I am far more old-fashioned than I thought. I can’t help deciphering such studied scruffiness as something akin to arrogance.

But that really is a pettifogging complaint. Remember: I have a cold. I feel tetchy. Far more irritating was the way the programme peddled the most outrageous clich├ęs about writers and the writing game. When Yentob sat himself down to discuss books and e-books with a writer, an agent and a publisher he had, of course, to seat them around an oak table in an ancient library full of leather-bound tomes. So here we were again, the BBC perpetrating the myth of the writer as a genteel, elegantly scruffy soul surrounded by symbols of literary antiquity and enjoying the company of the suave, the sophisticated, the well-to-do; and, by implication, doing very nicely. Lies, lies, lies. I believe there are one or two writers in the UK who are doing rather well, but I’ve never met one who wasn’t dependent on (a) an academic or media income, or (b) a well-paid spouse. As I watched this ritualised homage to the concept of the writer as cultured aesthete who only eats at fine restaurants, only reads off vellum bound by deer-hide, I took stock of my own situation: sitting in a cluttered study in my dressing-gown with a dirty porridge-bowl where the keyboard usually is and surrounded by disintegrating paperbacks, most of them collected over the years in second-hand shops. And yet, and yet… I am by definition a successful writer. I earn a living at it. Have done for most of the past twenty years. I do not have an academic post, nor a wealthy spouse. I’ve just this week parted with £4,334.62 in corporation tax - and, while it hurt, I accept that it is a mark of my relative success. The fact that I now have £32 in the bank and still have a good six weeks before I can expect to receive the payment due upon delivery of the latest manuscript is something I just have to swallow. Dare I posit that a hungry writer is a productive writer?

So while we’re on the subject of money, let me air a final grievance about the Yentob programme. Throughout all the lamentations regarding the imminent demise of the book, he never mentioned income from same; I mean income for the author. Take a notional cover price of, let’s say, £15.99 (hardback) or a £7.99 (paper). No, let’s think in terms of an average price, say £10. 10% will go the author. That’s a pound. And £5.50 to the retailer. Of that £1 that the author gets, 15% will go to his or her agent. And he or she will pay VAT at 17% on that deduction - or has it just gone up to 20%? I forget. Fact is, you’re looking at around 70 pence, less income tax. In my case, as a ghost writer, sharing all proceeds with Mike Pannett, you can slice that in half. I would imagine that only farmers and growers receive such a pathetically small portion of the retail price for their product.

Without a writer there is no book. Period. You could eliminate the agent, the publisher, the retailer - which might be a rewarding project for a disaffected author one of these days - and you would still have the work, although, yes, only a single copy of it. Horror of horrors, you might have to go out in the streets and declaim to passers-by. E-publishing, it seems to me, frees up the author to reach an audience without getting tied up with parasites. E-publishing offers the writer as much as 70% of the cover-price; and the work doesn’t disappear off the shelves after a few weeks. Okay, so the writer has to go and sell his work. Well, so he should. Having touted copies of my own work outside football grounds, for example, I can vouch for the deep satisfaction to be had when slipping the WHOLE of the cover price, all 100% of it, in jingling cash, into my back pocket. I am in touch with a hang-gliding bum/writer in the U.S. who does likewise through a combination of e-books and ‘print on demand’; he seems to stay one step ahead of the taxman’s hounds. Check him out:  (

I know, I know… it ain’t ever that simple; and a lot of writers will sell next to no copies of their work electronically. But… if ever an industry needed a kick up the rear end, it is publishing; and I am glad to see it getting what it deserves. I just wish the BBC could have come up with a programme about the coming revolution that wasn’t so mired in sentiment and myth-making.

Tomorrow I am due to fly/drive to Haverfordwest, in Pembrokeshire. I need to feel an awful lot better if I am to risk it.

Next week, with a bit of luck and a following wind, I will have a new website up and running. If it’s not too arrogant to say it, prepare for an announcement….

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