I’m chairing a panel of literary types tonight for a discussion on ‘what it is to be a writer today’. A loose kind of subject but so much is changing in the publishing world that it merits an exploration rather than a debate. My own view is that it’s not as black and white as saying one is either for or against digital publishing. It just IS, and now we have to change the business models to accommodate that.
Not that I am alone in this view. Some publishers – on the whole the smaller ones, although Penguin always seems more willing to look for another route, if not an entirely radical one – are coming up with whole new ways of reading books. In a time when ebooks are outselling hardback and paperback sales on Amazon UK, they’ve simply got to do this. That said, ebooks still only account for 12.9% of the entire publishing market.
What I hope is that the publishing industry takes the best of what the music industry learned from the digital revolution, and avoids its more costly mistakes. I can see a world in which smaller, unknown writers are able to self-publish and garner their own readers (and therefore profits), leaving the publishers to bring out the behemoths – the cookery books and, dare I say it, TV companion books. Readers will buy digital books more frequently, when the cost is less per book, and then buy occasional, more expensive print books because those are the ones they love, look beautiful and demand to be kept. (Few of us have the space, quite apart from anything else, to do more than this. My own books have lain in storage for five years.)
And while writers are never going to sell out the O2 for a reading (though, you know, JK Rowling might), live events are growing all the time. Just watch the extraordinary success of Damian Barr’s work with his Salons, which began (and still run) at Shoreditch House with a small room of about 30 people or so and now have the guestlist of 300+ full within 15 minutes of announcing the dates. The product sells but so does the experience.
There’s another thing. While many believe it is their right to download music and movies for free online, I think books are viewed as something to be paid for. With the price wars smashing the cost of some Kindle books down to as little as 20p, and many of the out-of-print classics down to nothing, it’s questionable as to how long that will last. (And those battling publishers will only have themselves to blame.) They can increase the value of a product by making a book more of an experience online – you can watch it, read it, listen to it and so on. But movies are arguably a huge experience online and people still download those for free, with nary a shadow on their conscience.
Finally, there’s another big thing which has changed the nature of publishing – we’re all writers now. Much to our surprise, the chief form of communication in the 21st century is writing. Whether you’re texting, emailing, blogging, tweeting, Facebooking or penning a first novel in longhand, you’re getting busy with the alphabet. Every business from plumbers to PR has to have a ‘content strategy’. Either this makes the successful writers more precious – because readers recognise that while everyone has a go, only some can actually do it. Or it will cheapen the entire enterprise – what’s the point in honing the skill when everyone is doing it AND getting published?
So the real question is – will writers still be able to earn a living 20 years from now?