Theakstons Crime Writing Festival 2012 – Wanted For Murder: The ebook #TOPcrime2012

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.

**Update** 24 July: here’s a link to a fab post from Stuart Neville on the sock puppetry angle and wider implications.  Do take a look.

32 thoughts on “Theakstons Crime Writing Festival 2012 – Wanted For Murder: The ebook #TOPcrime2012

  1. MarinaSofia

    Thank you for a very balanced view of the affair, as I was thinking something very untoward and scandalous had occured, having read previous reports.

  2. Yvonne Johnston (@Whyjay99)

    I wasn’t there but have followed all the debate on Twitter and via blog posts. The thing that has struck me most about this is that all the fuss has simply created more publicity for Stephen Leather. I suspect that man had a plan. I’d have expected bigger names in the book world to have realised that and not have assisted in the way they did. Or am I just a cynic?

    1. crimeficreader Post author

      Not at all a cynic. If you read his own post you’ll see that he was asked to and agreed to be controversial (by Mark Billingham). And it was MB who shouted tosser. 2 + 2 = what here? Did he cross a line unexpectedly or did it play out perfectly? All I know is that if I was at Hodder I wouldn’t be pleased and might not feel so positive when it came to contract renewal time…

  3. James McCreet

    I’ve never bought or read an e-book, but I’ve just made one of mine (The Masked Adversary) available on Kindle because I know there are people who want to read it. My decision was motivated by the publisher (Macmillan) turning it down on the grounds that the first three in the series hadn’t sold to their expectations. Perfectly understandable. That’s how it works. But based on the figures we have, it does mean there are some thousands of people out there who would like to read it – just not tens of thousands. The editing question didn’t really come into it for me, as the conventially-published titles were very lightly edited – a moved paragraph the biggest change. I did get it professionally proofread, however.

    1. crimeficreader Post author

      James, I think you have been wise in doing so. You are right that you have a captive audience and you are making it available to them. Good luck with the book!

  4. Mrs P.

    Rhian, I did hear SL say that he places comments online about his work under different identities – these ‘sock-puppets’ are sometimes even made to have a discussion with one another! I was pretty shocked to hear him say this (came in at Number 2 after the editor comment) – he seemed to be more or less admitting that anything goes when promoting a book, even if that means deliberately deceiving your own readers. So he’s biting the hand that feeds him twice over – publishing house and readership. Wasn’t impressed.

      1. Mrs P.

        I *think* so, but can’t be absolutely certain. Incidentally, I’ve just read Stuart Neville’s excellent post on the issue of ‘sock-puppetry’.

  5. Stephen leather

    The point I was making was that having written more than 30 novels I generally don’t require major editing. I get very few notes from my Hodder editor. Editing me is mainly a matter of catching mistakes and typos. The audience didn’t seem to understand that. Re future contracts – I am sure I will do just fine but thanks for your concern. 🙂

  6. Rebecca Tope

    I’ve never been to the Harrogate Festival – waited years to be asked, but now have burnt all bridges by being churlish and narky about it. Sounds to me as if this tossergate thing was entirely staged by Billingham and Leather to make the whole exercise sound exciting. We all do it – pick fights on panels, that is. I have a pretty good track record for it myself. Even Laura Wilson and Sally Spedding managed a weeny spat about ghosts in Cambridge a week or so ago.It’s all designed to keep the audience awake.

  7. Harry Bingham

    Good post, Rhian. I for one think that Stephen L’s position has much more to recommend it than some bloggers are suggesting. Put aside some of the editor / internet-ID issues for a moment. The essence of the issue is this. Little Brown thinks that SL is damaging the cause of publishing by putting out books at £2.99, as it undermines the way readers value books. But from SL’s point of view, he’s not cutting prices at all. He’s QUADRUPLING his royalties per book, from about 50p per conventionally published paperback to about £2.00 per £2.99 ebook.

    Now given that authors are famously badly paid, it seems to me that any innovation which promises to quadruple authors’ earnings can’t easily be rejected. Yes, the author has some additional costs (conventional editing / copyediting fees, for example) and yes, the author has some additional work (e-publicity for example). But for an audience of readers to chastise any author seeking to improve upon the not-very-generous terms offered by publishers? Hum. Personally, I’d be likely to wish that author the very best of luck.

    1. crimeficreader Post author

      Thanks Harry. I think they were more concerned with the 99p and down prices to be honest, Harry. Not sure if I’ve seen it for Little, Brown, but I’ve certainly seen some ebooks from publishers on sale for just over your £2.99, at £3.86 for example. It’s certainly a market that needs to settle and who knows how it will be configured when it does. Pure, basic market economics give a demand curve of low price, high sales and vice versa. High sales, high price come in when you have a luxury product and that’s not going to feature highly in the world of books, I think. For those cheap, high volume products, let me ask you this: how does a reader find the time to wade through an apparently infinte number of grains of sand to find the goodies? Where writers would rather write, readers would rather read. There will still be quality control/gatekeeping of some sort but it may not look the same. I also believe that publishers’ own brands will take on a far greater importance. I suspect we will see more, but not masses of new ‘Penguins’ emerge. Again,readers don’t have the time to align themselves with the trade’s sat nav of imprints, so I see the number of imprints reducing across the large publishers.

  8. Maxine

    I don’t know what HMD stands for, but it has clearly upset some people.

    Good luck to Leather, even though I don’t agree with him about crowdsourcing as a substitute for a good (single) editor….but if he isn’t getting much feedback from his editor, then who can blame him for being critical. Part of the role of a good editor is to work on the text with the author in a developmental manner.

    On the “sock puppets”, this is a very common practice and at least he’s honest about it. Orlando Figes’s case is known because of the legal case which was reported. That’s a tip of an iceberg.

    Leather, of course, was a best-selling author before he started self-publishing, so was starting from a position of strength (loyal reader base, a well-known name, etc). This is not the case for most self-publishing authors as they have not usually been published properly beforehand.

    (By the way I have never read a book by Leather and don’t intend to – and I am sure his comment above is correct that he’ll do fine in future. After all, it was his publisher who would not publish the series he decided to publish himself…..and has done very well.)

    1. crimeficreader Post author

      Maxine, it’s a rather impolite ‘Hold My Dick’. I was only recently aware of this after reading that Bob Diamond’s investment banking daughter had tweeted it in reply to his demise and in support of her father.

      I think it’s worth taking into account Stephen Leather’s comments above. I think we have a case of delivery at the time not fulfilling the bigger picture of intention. But I also believe this was a set up to create buzz. It’s worked. For Leather, things may have gone too far.

      Where sock puppetry may be common, I don’t think it does anyone any favours.

  9. Yvonne Johnston (@Whyjay99)

    Just a quick question. Was Peter James at that discussion? I note one of his recent novels has been on sale as an e-book at 20p for several weeks. It would have been interesting to hear from an author himself as to whether he believed his book was being devalued by a decision made by his publisher.
    I understand that Peter James’ agent was there at the time.

    1. crimeficreader Post author

      No idea,Yvonne. I hardly saw Peter there. However, in the case of the book you mention – Perfect People – I understand that is Amazon pricing and not the publisher’s, where Amazon is seeking market share etc. and meeting or beating Apple prices on ibooks. In such cases, the contract of sale between Amazon and the publisher still stands, so whatever they contracted for holds. This is another example of Amazon going loss leader. I wonder how the authors feel about the pricing of their work? (Even though their royalties won’t be based on 20p unit sales.) Do they feel their work is being devalued? Are they happy for a single book offer? Presumably they cannot control the timing and Amazon chooses that too, so if it’s a long period how do they feel then? (I know a few who really don’t mind the daily kindle deal and similar for the increased exposure it gets them.)

      A whole load of interesting and unanswered questions I think.

      1. Yvonne Johnston (@Whyjay99)

        Yes, my feeling, as a reader, is that the Kindle daily deal is great but this 20p on-going promotional price is just too much and I’d really like to know if the authors whose books are thus priced feel that their work is being devalued? I feel somehow they must do. Especially when a writer of the calibre of Alan Hollinghurst has his novel priced so low. I know it does not affect their revenues from the sales but I’d imagine that many are more worried about ‘value’ than to regard it in purely financial terms.
        On a matter of point, I don’t think Amazon is the baddie here. Apparently the 20p offer was simply price-matching that already agreed between Sony (promoting their e-reader) and the publishers. There was an article on this in yesterday’s Guardian.

          1. Maxine

            There is a whole legal affair going on in the USA about this, some of the world’s biggest publishers are accused of “collusion” by refusing to let Amazon price their books at less than x. As the Author’s guild and many others have pointed out, if Amazon win then prices will plummet and they (authors) will lose out even more if conventionally published. True as pointed out above that a self-published author has a higher percentage of each sale.

            1. crimeficreader Post author

              Thanks Maxine. And of course PanMac is one of the publishers not to settle with the DoJ. In the meantime they have done a promo deal with Sony and Amazon flexes its muscles by matching the prices on those promos. It’s like gladiators.

      2. Chris Longmuir

        Yes Peter was there, he was the special guest speaker on Saturday night, and he did mention his 20p book. However, he said it was his publisher who priced it at 20p and he had no say in it. He said he still gets his normal rate of royalty despite the cheap price. Perfect People is no longer 20p but another of his books, Dead Man’s Grip is now 20p. so it seems the publishers are not beyond playing the cheap as chips game when it suits them.

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  11. James McCreet

    The whole ‘sock puppet thing’ has to be taken in context. It seems to me that the first few reader reviews on new Amazon titles are often by the author’s friends – perhaps even in active collusion. The buzz around release date means that the initial feedback is an important buying catalyst. It’s only when a book has been out for a while that the accumulated reviews give a realistic picture.

    1. crimeficreader Post author

      But not always. There are some authors who don’t engage friends and family in this way. I think of one novel, out for about two years now, which is fabulous and it still only has 12 reviews, last time I looked. There’s a whole load more that goes into that marketing equation.

      As an aside, James, I don’t put reviews on Amazon as a rule as it was pointed out to me that they hold the copyright. Indeed they do and they can do anything they choose with what is written.

  12. James Hughes (@theJamesHughes)

    Having sat next to Stephen during a dinner, I can say he is very much someone who will say anything to get a reaction out of someone. I have witnessed him first hand wind someone up, then just wink. He wants a reaction. He wants to be talked about, and remembered. Whether or not he believes in what he is saying is open to debate.

    But I am glad that an author has finally come out and lifted the lid on the sock accounts. Everyone has suspected that self-published authors have been using fake accounts to promote themselves, and now Stephen has confirmed its existence and practice.

    So many other authors have denied it, hats off to Stephen Leather for letting readers know how they are being deceived by self-published authors.

    And despite all the authors that attended Harrogate, it is Stephen Leather everyone is still talking about – and that was most definitely what he intended.

    1. crimeficreader Post author

      This may be true, but the attitude of delivery did not really support it. And I have to say, this may work in a dining environment, but how many would see the wink of someone on a stage? I was sitting at the back and even though there were screens on either side my view was little more than the blurry outlines of those on the stage. I had no idea which one Leather was until about half way through.

      Re sock puppets, we may go down the disservice route by applying generalisation. I prefer evidence.

      1. Chris Longmuir

        As a self publisher to Kindle having migrated there from traditional publishing, I think many people in my situation would take offence at being labelled in such a manner. If there are self published authors using sock puppets to deceive their readers then I would consider them to be in the minority. Generalisations such as the one above do nobody any favours. And don’t forget Stephen is traditionally published as well, so does the sock puppet mention only apply to his self published books and not his traditionally published ones. So by using such generalisations, based on what one author said, all authors self and traditionally published could be tarred by the same brush (sorry for the cliche).

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