And so the age of austerity is upon us, and while I'd love to add "so the media and politicians would have us believe", I genuinely believe that this is where things are going to get hard; the last ten years have been quite easy for most of us, so the next few years will probably be tough in comparison. Since the world's finances hit that ice-burg in 2008, we've been thinking that the ship isn't actually going to go down and if it does, well whadayouknow..? At the end of 2009 it bobbed right up again, like those plastic air-tight boats you played with in the bath as a child that would not sink permanently no matter how long you held them under the water. No such luck it seems, as the good ship SS World Banking is going down for one last time and there are plenty of countries in the water hoping for a life-boat to pick them up, like Germany who will soon be swamped by survivors from the EU. (The UK has its own boat built for one, but there's now two people inside trying to row it. It's also holed in many places and taking on water. Mmmm.)
Now that's about as far as I'll go on commentating on world politics and fiscal studies as that's not my forte and it's not the point of this blog. How this all relates to writing is pretty simple. For me, and for many others, we are entering a siege mentality with regards to non-essentials; non-essentials by definition being "Food, heating, housing, clothing and travel." Entertainment and all things cultural are no longer essential, even to a writer if the writer knows that buying a book is the difference between your child having a healthy diet or you reading the next Jim Crace novel. So it remains for the masses to live of the cultural fat they have accumulated over the past ten years of good living. My own personal stock, or fat, is considerable being someone who loves buying books and films but with very little time to spend reading or watching them. I'd say I have around 50 novels that I have yet to read and that again in terms of movies. We're talking about 2 years worth of reading and watching, and that doesn't include my iPhone e-reader where about 10,000 classics are readily available at no cost.
And that's the point: "no cost". Because I, and many others, will be looking at the bank balance before each speculative buy, and cost is paramount, more so than it has been before for the cultured public, because austerity affects everyone. Like it or not, due to VAT increases in the pipeline most of us will be buying less but spending almost as much on things that keep us alive rather than amused. Bookshops are hugely at risk even though – and all readers and writers hope – that books continue to be exempt from VAT. True enough, but the government taketh away in other places we can’t escape from so watch that bank balance dwindle all the same. Some bookshops are bailing out the water before it’s too late: Waterstones, for example, is re-branding but I suspect this won’t be enough to entice readers to buy from their shops. There will be plenty of people visiting, but only to browse and consider a book. Buying will ultimately go down to cost and where they can find cheapest price, which these days is Amazon. And that's even if someone can really afford to pay five quid for an eight quid book.
As entertainment goes, buying books is cheaper than going to the cinema (which I can't see surviving much longer with the admission prices they currently charge during an austerity age) or video games (which families will have to cut back on as they are more expensive than hard-drugs). DVDs aren't that expensive, not counting Blu-rays which will need to adapt their prices for the public for them to adopt a young, but not so ground-breaking, technology, but DVDs will struggle beyond budget releases. Which leaves books and telly as the chips of the entertainment budget.
But even chips are expensive.
The fact is, publishing and writers will have to adapt to this new age as sales dip further. It occurs to me that if someone sells a book at £8 and someone else sells a book for £1 and both have good reviews, the £1 book will sell like hot-cakes and the £8 book might sell okay. Costs aside, if you sell 20,000 £1 books you get £20,000. If you sell the not-so-sellable £8 book to 1,000 readers you get £8,000, because there are more people out there who can afford to buy something for a £1 than £8. Throw in the costs of printing and that's not such a good model to follow, I agree, but it does work when it comes to e-books which have no printing costs.
It’s clear to a lot of industry commentators that publishers aren't adapting well enough or quick enough to the technology or the age of austerity. They have an opportunity to sell vast numbers of books electronically but have been rubbing their hands together with glee selling e-books at the same prices of hardbacks, not realising (and really, why haven’t they?) that people aren't going to buy an e-book for £16, or those that do aren’t sufficient enough to make it viable. It’s almost as if publishers are trying to price e-books out of the market on purpose – which the more paranoid commentator might agree with.
Like it or not, e-books are here to stay - and more than that; in an age of austerity and despite the cost of the e-readers, they may take over the conventional book if it comes down to cost of each title.
Amazon is in some respects correct in that publishers are asking too much for their e-books - they can see the sense of selling them cheaper than the paperback, even if their reasoning is more mercenary than seeing the value to consumers. Writers too can see the value of pricing their e-books lower than a paperback and vastly lower than a hardback because they will sell more units, in most cases enough to equal the income from overpriced e-books and enough to make it viable.
Now the bad news for publishers, is that writers can do this without their help.
While they will still need an editor and a copy editor, a writer has more opportunity to self-publish e-books now than ever before. With a little bit of app-know-how, they can create apps for platforms like the iPhone or go via an e-book publisher who will give the writer no less than 70% of the profits of each sale on average. Compared to what major and conventional publishers are offering writers, well, it doesn't compare - and it's ludicrous. Writers can add up - we're not stupid. We can see where we are losing money, just as we can see where we might gain it.
So it maybe the nature of austerity and the prominence of e-books that will be the undoing of the conventional publisher as writers quickly realise they can earn more by refusing to give publishers electronic rights to their books; they'll make more doing it themselves and the conventional publisher will miss out. Unless conventional publishers change how they deal with their writers and how they deal with electronic publishing they will not survive such austere times because their readers, and their writers are moving on.
Yes, for consumers it is a siege mentality, and it is for writers too, but we already know that. Publishers need to realise this and adapt to the new mentality or they will not survive the campaign...