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Time to Lead

Are mid-list authors an endangered species? Add to ...

Douglas Pepper, CEO at the Canadian publishing house McClelland & Stewart, does an experiment from time to time: He tries to buy an American book at Amazon.com. So far, he hasn't succeeded. Amazon politely directs him back to the Canadian edition of the title at Amazon.ca.

"Amazon has been a very good corporate citizen," Mr. Pepper says. "So far, so good. However, you have to be very careful: Once that cat is out of the bag, it's hard to put back in. Canadian authors stand to lose millions. We see it as copyright infringement and it's against the law."

Kobo's e-reading application has added a million users worldwide since Christmas; Random House of Canada, Canada's largest trade publisher, expects its e-book sales to more than double this year. As books become digital files that can be transferred to a buyer in seconds, pressure will only intensify on territorial copyright, the system that allows writers to sell exclusive rights to different publishers in different countries and which helps underwrite publishing in smaller markets such as Canada.

Mr. Pepper's scrutiny of the situation is not mere paranoia. In Australia, the government permitted Amazon to ship directly into that country without bothering to source Australian editions. Critics there trace the problems of RedGroup Retail, the insolvent owner of two bookstore chains that was put up for sale last week, to a government decision that forced bricks-and-mortar bookstores that couldn't sell cheaper foreign editions to compete with online retailers who could.

But restrictions on "buying around" are only one aspect of copyright law. What if the popularity of the e-book creates widespread piracy of books?

"What has been pleasantly surprising so far is that we are not seeing the same piracy impact as we did in music," says Michael Tamblyn, vice-president of content, sales and merchandising for the Canadian-based Kobo. He argues that, unlike the music industry when downloading took hold a decade ago, the book industry has a strong electronic business with which to counter piracy.

The geeks don't necessarily agree.

"Just as in music, I don't think you can stop people who want to get an e-book getting it for free," says Cory Doctorow, a Canadian technology and science-fiction writer who lives in Britain. "We won't ever have an effective mechanism to stop people from not paying. ... The primary challenge is to convince them that they should."

Mr. Doctorow's solution is to make his latest story collection available on his website for downloading on a "name-your-price" basis. The average donation is $10. This model may work for a writer with tech-savvy readers enthusiastic about the prospect of open content, but some are skeptical it would work for other writers.

"It's terribly problematic for a rights holder. You are giving up your right for a donation. You are asking for charity," says Alan Cumyn, chair of the Writers' Union of Canada.

Mr. Cumyn is also concerned that even as the business model of the e-book acts as a counterweight to piracy it is setting prices artificially low. "What is being dangled is the possibility of much larger sales [at lower prices]but we have yet to see it," he says. "There is tremendous pressure [in the digital realm]to make it free or drive the price down. That's worrisome because how do you make a living?"

For some writers the solution to an increasingly tight publishing market in which consumers expect cheap books is to simply bypass the publisher and self-publish e-books. The example of Amanda Hocking, the American writer of paranormal romances who has sold a million e-books online, is on everyone's lips.

"We have the very real phenomenon of the self-published author who is a top seller," Mr. Tamblyn says. "Some of these people are very sophisticated social marketers. They can even develop an audience while the book is still being written. ... What literary critics would say about these books is another matter."

Saskatchewan writer Cliff Burns, who has self-published e-books since 2000, is apoplectic about amateurs cluttering up the Web.

"The explosion of the amateur and the wannabe and the will-never-be writers is disturbing for people who care about the legacy of the printed word," he said. "I joke that people think syntax is something you pay when you buy potato chips."

An e-book market cluttered with the self-published but unedited, and a beleaguered professional publishing arena where only a few bestselling writers can make a living is a particularly unfriendly scenario for Canada, a nation that has produced few bestselling genre writers but many mid-list literary writers.

"It does result in the mid-list being squeezed and a lot of people falling by the wayside," says Kate Pullinger, author of the Governor-General Award winning Mistress of Nothing. She is not, however, pessimistic, believing new apps will help professional writers make money on self-published works while the gaming and documentary communities will experiment with hybrid video-books. She currently teaches in Britain and publishes both conventionally and online, where she posts fiction for free.

"Writers will make a living in a lot of different ways, only some of which are writing," she said.

Follow on Twitter: @thatkatetaylor

 

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