Opinion: eBooks, piracy, and a new age in publishing

The rise and rise of the digital format presents unique challenges to publishers and authors.

The subject of print’s imminent demise seems to be one of those indefatigable subjects, ironically proliferated through the very medium for whom the bell tolls. Over the last few years, with the development of the iPad, distribution networks for digital books, and other eReaders that aren’t, you know, shit, there’s been an absurd amount of column inches dedicated to the subject, none of which seem to have offered a satisfactory argument that indeed, paper and ink is now as obsolete a writing medium as the chisel and stone.

Obviously, I have a vested interest in that not being the case. I earn my salary from being, principally, a print journalist. Sales of the magazine that I work for keep a roof over my head, food in my belly and mostly manage to keep the bank at bay. On a personal level, though, completely divorced from my own employment situation and preferences, I don’t think that the printed word will ever die out. Books will endure, even newspapers, as my frequent debates with my partner on the subject tend to go. Announcing their death is immature and betrays ignorance about society and culture – the real question is whether they’ll be quite as ubiquitous, or whether they’ll become luxury items. I suspect that, more than anything else, will be the case.

More interesting than the tiresome back and forth over the above subject, however, is the formation of new relationships between provider and consumer, author and audience, publisher and publishee that will have to develop as a result of this recent explosion in our digital era. Already, we’ve seen publishers move away from traditional and established codes of relationship between themselves and booksellers, with many switching to the widely publicised, much-vaunted (and derided) and controversial Agency Model.

Lately, though, there’s been a light wave of chatter that’s slowly swelling about that Big Economic Concern of the 21st Century – piracy. I spoke to Ringworld author Larry Niven the other day, and asked him the obligatory question about whether he believes digital reading will replace the good old-fashioned codex, possibly the most important invention in human history since humans began cooking the meat before dinner. “It’ll happen, I think,” said Niven. “My fear is that eBooks are so easy to steal. Writers may not be able to make a living, but we’ll have vastly more readers.”

Indeed, as the music industry (and more recently, News Corp) has found to its great cost in reputation and revenue since the first giddy days of Napster, if there’s a chance to get something for free then people will take it. A recent article from Adrian Hon in the Telegraph, referenced by io9 in a similar post, explored the cresting wave that’s about to break on the publishing industry, detailing how a quick search on filesharing terms will bring up Jonathan Franzen’s latest, the complete Iain Banks Culture series, or more or less anything that you can think of in most formats. Part of this is by traditional book scanning, the most famous example probably being the leak of Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince several days before its publication, but a part of it is also enterprising, tech-savvy consumers breaking the Digital Rights Management (DRM) coding on officially released eBooks. There’s no denying that piracy is a huge problem in the world of entertainment. It’s become a norm of internet use for millions of people, and it’s not just the public either. Sony, recently, announced that it would no longer provide review copies of films to media outlets (in the UK at least) due to ongoing problems with piracy that resulted directly from that practice.

Hon’s article, though, full of doom and gloom, reticent about the possibilities of combating thousands of virtual Jack Sparrows that aren’t quite as funny as Johnny Depp, and far more destructive, glosses over solutions and new possibilities that present themselves through eBooks. As with any technological or industrial revolution, there are pros and cons. The cons in this case are, of course, the declining revenues for authors and the erosion of traditional publishing models. But let’s be fair, that’s happening anyway. Authors are receiving lower advances than ever for novels (unless, like Alastair Reynolds, you can land a £1 million deal), less are being published, and it’s all understandable. The recession, and the vicissitudes of this peculiarity of mass capitalism have affected all of us in different ways. Self-publishing houses are thriving, but there’s also an opportunity for authors to grow. With the mass dissemination capabilities of eBooks, writers are discovering that they can, not without great effort on their part mind, get their own work out there without the usual (and wholly beneficial) support of a publishing house, its marketing arm, and the hardworking copy editors and designers who, let’s be honest, deserve every ounce of respect paid to them. One commenter in the thread on the Telegraph article described how they priced their book at under £1, and it’s doing well, despite this advent of piracy so portentously claimed.

Accordingly, this leads on to questions about how publishers and what we would commonly consider the usual route of publishing will survive. There is no easy answer, and people more intelligent, more experienced and vastly more qualified than I am, have been working at this for far longer and in more detail than I can possibly express in a 1,000-odd word column. The main opposition, from what I’ve heard by talking to consumers, to people who pirate, to those who dogmatically stick to printed novels and to those for whom the digital revolution is a myopic forward march, is the money paid. People simply don’t want to pay physical prices for eBooks, and the common thought is that publishers shouldn’t have to charge full whack, or slightly reduced full-whack for what is essentially an ephemeral product. Are we right, sports fans?

No, that’s not the case at all. People often see things in black and white – I’m getting this much, so I’ll trade this much, a physical book has to be stored, printed and shipped, but an eBook is transmitted instantaneously, so it should cost a fraction of that as you don’t have to store, print or ship it. An eBook isn’t just a glorified PDF document sent to your Kindle through wireless signals. It represents so much more – the wages and time invested into the aforementioned unsung heroes of publishing that are the copy editors, the publicists, the jacket artists, the publishers and the commissioning editors to name a few. Not to mention the royalties paid to the authors, and the money it must make back against the advances given to said writers. To slash the eBook cover price of, say, China Mieville’s Kraken would be to dramatically reduce the amount that could be invested in it, and the amount that the author could make from the novel. It’s simply not workable – and it’s fine if you’re a self-published writer who has the startling ability to write without errors, in perfect form, and with a knack for InDesign, but most aren’t that way.

Publishers are needed, and they always will be. Quality in literature is important, and while the big houses can often be seen as capricious gatekeepers to the wider world, uncaring of whether your book is the next big thing or not, it’s simply not the case. The industry has to adapt, but demands for knock-down prices and a jubilant, euphoric worship of the latest trend in technology that absolutely will redefine life as we know it is not a sensible approach. Just like you’d approach a new book that you’ve been looking forward to for years, publishers, the media, consumers and authors need to sit down, take it slowly, absorb the necessary details and develop a path forward that works for all parties without ridiculous knee-jerk reactions.

And you can say what you like about print, but it’s not bloody dead.