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Time to Lead

No e-books without authors, Atwood reminds us Add to ...

There is a lot of hoo haa, at the moment, about the economic implications of digital books for writers. Is a lower royalty for an e-book fair?

Fair pricing is a work in progress. With a paper book the author gets a percentage of the list price. With an e-book it's a percentage of the price received by the publisher. When a paper book is remaindered, you get nothing. But there is no such thing as 'remaindered' e-books - so, how is it all going to work out? Suppose I sell 1,000 copies of a paper book and they've printed 5,000 and remainder the other 4,000: 4,000 people get the book; I get nothing; the publisher gets cost. Is that better or worse than 4,000 copies of an e-book for which I receive a smaller amount for each one sold? We simply don't know yet. It's like asking in the early days of motorcars, "Do you agree with eight-lane speedways?" Well, no one had even thought of them. They couldn't imagine them, or visualize them in any way.

Yet publishers and booksellers are allowing themselves to imagine a nightmarish world in which they are irrelevant - where technology companies which distribute e-books, such as Amazon, Sony, Google and Apple, also take over the choosing and the selling of books. Gail Rebuck, the chief executive of Random House in the U.K., recently described her "idea of hell" as a website 'with 80,000 self-published works on it' - a world where publishers and bookshops are replaced by a sort of online, super slush pile. Despite these fears, many smaller, independent publishers have had a few very profitable years, perhaps as a result of concentrating their focus on the books themselves and allowing the hyperbole of the yet-to-come iPod moment for books to simply see itself out.

Well, it's the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. Everybody moves round a place. So the Book of the Month Club disappears and something else takes its share of the market. And then big publishers get in trouble and cut back, and that creates space for other publishers to acquire books they otherwise wouldn't have been able to get.

As publishing's obsession with the digital revolution grows, do you think there is a forgetfulness that it's actually the writer who keeps this business going?

Sure, people sit there putting words on the page, and some of them make a lot of money for their publishers and others create huge losses because the publishers placed their bets wrong. When people say publishing is a business - actually it's not quite a business. It's part gambling and part arts and crafts, with a business component. It's not like any other business, and that's why when standard businessmen go into publishing and think, "Right, I'm going to clean this up, rationalize it and make it work like a real business," two years later you find they're bald because they've torn out all their hair. And then you say to them, "It's not like selling beer. It's not like selling a case of this and a case of that and doing a campaign that works for all of the beer." You're selling one book - not even one author any more. Those days are gone, when you sold, let's say, "Graham Greene" almost like a brand. You're selling one book, and each copy of that book has to be bought by one reader and each reading of that book is by one unique individual. It's very specific.

What are your thoughts on paywalls and the decision that many newspapers have taken to make their content free?

This is a big topic, but let's just say that in nature there's no free lunch so somebody's paying for it somewhere and the question is, 'Who?' If I do some writing and I put it on the Net and everybody else reads it for nothing, then I have actually paid for it, because it's my time, my crappy little lunch that I've eaten to keep myself alive, my Internet communication - I've paid for that. It's actually not free. How the primary creators are going to get remunerated - that's the issue, and music has already hit that wall. I think people are more inclined to pay for a book, though, because they're more likely to think it represents work - work by them, because it takes longer to read a book than it does to listen to an MP3.

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