Chair: Mark Lawson, BBC Radio 4 Front Row
Panel members: writers Steve Mosby & Stephen Leather; literary agent Philip Patterson; bookseller Patrick Neale; President of The Publishers Association and CEO and Publisher of Little, Brown Book Group Ursula Mackenzie.
During the opening discussions we heard that Steve Mosby sells predominantly in print format and does well on overseas sales. Phil Patterson noted that ebooks are ‘here’ but he prefers the physical and believes that children need the physical format. He said that on a physical device the bookshelf becomes almost invisible. Whatever the format, Patterson sees the encouragement of reading as the driving force and believes ‘too many are obsessed with formats’. He reminded the audience that for every book on a device (or on a shelf) there is an author behind it.
Bookseller Patrick Neale stated his belief that we are underselling the value of physical books. He is looking for ‘beautiful things, beautifully made’ and he reminded the audience that it was not so long ago that the hardback was thought to be a dying breed. The ebook has changed that, with resurgence in the sales of hardbacks – the collectible end of the market – hence his views taking consideration of the beauty of the product. Neale emphasised that the ebook is not everything, so we should not undersell the physical. He considers the ebook to be the ‘new toy here’ and that we will have to wait and see how the market settles.
Ursula Mackenzie then provided an international perspective on ebook sales noting where countries such as France are notably slower to take up the format. At Little, Brown she had seen a swift rise in the ebook sales proportion from 3% to a recent 25% (which I believe was for fiction). Mackenzie stated that her main concern at the moment was ‘value’; she said ‘the question is “How do you get the value?”’ To appreciative noises from the audience Mackenzie then outlined the meaning of value – it’s not in the means of delivery but in the words, in the brain power and the years spent on the work.
Stephen Leather – who is published by Hodder for some of his thrillers but who has chosen to self-publish his other works that don’t fit publisher lists – noted that ‘doing ebooks is incredibly time-consuming’ and that there is a need to ‘publicise books constantly’. He cited the case of Amanda Hocking who was happy to sign with a traditional publishing deal as she became fed up with all the work involved. Leather said he was happy with his self-publishing involvement but also ‘likes some hands-off with Hodder’.
When Patterson was put on the spot about the role of agents in this changing landscape he said, ‘Most people can’t do it all themselves. A writer wants to write. Agents do the deals; most writers don’t want to be involved in the business side.’ Patterson also noted that the slush pile is down physically as ‘a lot of it is now online’. Leather’s rejoinder to all this was to say that he sees agents more at risk than booksellers.
Mosby – proving yet again what a crowd-pleaser he is – elaborated on the value side in reply to Leather. There was a very audible crowd reaction and clapping when he said he was worried for the long term where ebooks are sold at 99p or less. The reader – the customer – gets to expect a low price and the value of the work is gone.
Neale noted that greetings cards sell for up to £4 but the customer can try to haggle over a paperback at £6.99. (Something that makes me wonder if we are back to the ‘thing of beauty’ angle again.)
I think it was just before we went to audience questions that the value of editing was explored, and for many, this brought the defining and most memorable moment for many in the audience, myself included. You don’t have to work in publishing to recognise a situation of ‘bite the hand that feeds you’. Here, Leather noted that for his ebooks his MO for proofreading and copy-editing is to effectively crowd source. He gives away 100 pdfs and then takes into account the feedback from that. When someone said it was not the same as having an editor, he replied that he can get more from that than his editor at Hodder. An off the cuff comment in the heat of the moment?
[I have read reports today that Leather admitted to creating a few fake online IDs to discuss his self-published work as part of his promo tools. However, I missed this and suspect it followed his editorial comments as I was one of those in shock for a few minutes after delivery.]
When we moved to questions there was a row in the back in which Mark Billingham and Laura Lippman sat and it was obvious that both were desperate to get hold of the microphone for a question/comment back. Indeed, both achieved it eventually. You may have seen this event have a hashtag on twitter – #tossergate – because someone in the audience shouted ‘Tosser’ after one of Leather’s comments. Well, that man was a very voluble Mark Billingham.
You can find more on this from Steve Mosby and at We Love This Book, as well as from Leather who has also written his own event post mortem here. Oddly enough, he didn’t come across to me as badly on a personal basis at the event itself, as he did to some. However, his blog comments including this at We Love This Book (pic above) have led me down that path due to the personal insults conveyed. Some may say the door was opened when ‘tosser’ was shouted, but I was brought up with ‘Don’t lower yourself to their level’ parents. A stronger, well-presented argument in retaliation would have worked for me.
The debate didn’t actually get into the quality control/gatekeeping arena; something I was hoping to hear.