I promise a post about a specific book shortly, honest.
Anyway, there’s now an excellent debate on the implications of ebooks for publishing at the Guardian here. You need to scroll down in the comments past the Amazon specific stuff, a chap called Dan Holloway makes some interesting remarks as do UnpublishedWriter, Tomkuryakin, TokenGesture (don’t you just love internet handles? I certainly do). There are lots of other good comments too.
As the thread was going that way, I set out my own view of a possible future, which I repeat below for the curious:
Here’s how I think the future could look.
Presently, I read a fairly wide range of books, I buy stuff from guys like Pushkin Press and Oneworld Classics both of whom produce books which as physical objects are a joy to hold and read. They also both serve as indicators of quality, they make intelligent choices of often less well known works. When I buy from guys like that, I buy from places like the LRB or other independent bookstores, as I want there to be places which stock those kinds of books and as it’s genuinely useful to have that opportunity for serendipitous discoveries (I don’t buy direct from the publishers, which may be worth exploring at some point).
I also read more mainstream literary fiction (the Pushkin stuff is often a bit obscure, though brilliant), I’ll often buy that from independent bookstores but may equally buy it from Waterstones on a three-for-two or from Amazon or thebookdepository. Convenience becomes more of an issue for me. The physical book much less so, saving possibly Penguin’s stuff.
And I read some SF and a fair bit of crime. Those are usually published as mass market paperbacks, as physical objects they’re interchangeable, often actually quite ugly and in the case of sf frequently with covers that are either embarrassing or bear no relation to the contents (or both). I buy those online, they’re cheaper that way and as objects they’re commoditised.
So, going beyond the solipsistic, how could that reflect a possible future?
Here’s how. Small independent publishers could continue to sell through specialised outlets, there will always be a market for books which as physical objects are things of beauty. I like the Pushkin’s and Oneworld Classics, others like the Everyman Library series (I may have the name of that wrong), Penguin recently brought out half a dozen titles in loose-leaf leather bound format (though I’m not sure all the books chosen were best suited to that format) and those sold even though you could buy the same titles in Penguin’s ordinary format (and I’d guess almost every customer they had already owned those books). Similarly, where a publisher is specialised, like Pushkin or Dedalus say, there’ll be a market for their books and those seeking them will be prepared to pay a premium in order to ensure those books continue to be available.
At the other end, mass market fiction will I think go wholly electronic, in time. Collectors aren’t as a rule collecting the SF Masterworks edition of The Demolished Man, it’s an excellent novel but physically it’s been commoditised and it would read as well on an ereader as anything else.
In between, you have the mainstream literary stuff. I’d expect to see something like the current hardback/paperback split, with releases coming in print format (probably hardback or good quality paperback) and with a separate release in electronic form. Some folk want the books on their shelves, so people can see them, and you can sell them the physical copies. Plus older people (including many young now) will want physical books as that’s what they’re used to.
So, small publishers will continue, where they publish interesting works in good quality attractive formats. Pushkin Press, Oneworld Publishing, Dedalus only survive I think due to grants but I still see them as the sorts of guys who might have a chance.
Mass market stuff will go fully electronic. Hardly anyone lines their walls with Charlie Stross and Alastair Reynolds to impress visitors to their home, the way they may do with Ian McEwan or Salman Rushdie (though personally I’d read a new Stross or Reynolds over a new McEwan or Rushdie any day).
Mainstream literary fiction will go part physical, part electronic. Physical for those who won’t make the shift (I’d expect many of the refuseniks to be into the more highbrow stuff, not sure why) or for those who want to buy to impress. Electronic for those who just want to read the thing.
On top of all that, I’d expect to see publisher run ebook clubs, free first chapters with payment only if you read that and want to read on, books disseminated chapter by chapter with micropayments for each (that would work particularly well for genre works), short stories suitable for reading on mobiles and other mobile platforms (already happening in Japan) and best of all – stuff that I haven’t even dreamt of yet.
Looking at it, I rather regret the word refusenik, which could be read as derogatory which really wasn’t my intent (I am, after all, in part one of them), but I think the analysis broadly holds.
A commenter named TokenGesture added the following, which I think is helpful:
Aren’t we talking about tiered pricing.
Free for ad funded etc, a compromised user experience but which could serve to widen overall readership
Low for commoditised popular fiction, ebook editions
Higher for physical – ppb, hb
And then premium for “objects of beauty” – the equivalent of the Special/Limited edition/box set
An economic model that offers an upgrade path for those who seek value.
I agree with his view.
So, that’s my take, and in some ways it’s quite an optimistic one, though I think there will be real challenges in terms of new authors getting their voice heard and in terms of novelists monetising their craft, Dan Holloway is a new writer experimenting with alternative methods of generating revenue where the book itself is available free, he’s much more optimistic than I am about the prospects for that. I hope, naturally, that he’s right and I’m wrong.