Skip to Content

Any other business

Neither catharsis not cataclysm, but a year of mobile money and digital books

29 December 2012

9:00 AM

29 December 2012

9:00 AM

In a recent Spectator panel debate titled ‘Review 2012, Preview 2013’, Matthew Parris startled an expectant audience by observing that in his view nothing very interesting had happened in the past 12 months, and not much excitement lies in wait for next year. Prediction, we know, is a mug’s game — those ancient Mayans who said the world was going to end last week must be feeling more sheepish than a flock of Treasury growth forecasters. Even predicting ‘not much excitement’ is to risk being horribly wrong if our banks turn out to be as under-capitalised as the doomsters suggest, and it all kicks off again like September 2008. But Matthew is wise: experience should have taught us by now not to hope for great moments of catharsis, and not to live in constant fear of cataclysm.

So that’s it really. Muddling through is set to continue, the coalition will stumble on, recovery will be patchy, unseasonal weather and inappropriate behaviour will make headlines for want of anything weightier — and Europe’s ‘Newcomer to Watch’ will be Silvio Berlusconi. But still we must scratch our crystal balls one last time for 2012. So let me offer some positive futurology for two sectors close to my heart: banks and books.

Pay as you go

Following pre-Christmas arrests of Libor traders, huge fines on HSBC for laundering drug money and a £270 million cock-up at Northern Rock, banks could hardly stand lower in public estimation if they had been caught partying in Jimmy Savile’s dressing room. New entrants on the high street have made little impact so far — though I like the sound of the fledgling Cambridge & Counties Bank, which says it is busy offering loans to East Anglian retailers, pubs and hot food takeaways. As for the established banks, it’s hard to think of anything they can do to redeem themselves in 2013, except stop saying no to small-business borrowers.

But there is at least one new thing worth highlighting: Barclays’ ‘Pingit’ gimmick, allowing money to be sent and received by mobile phone, may just seem like another little step towards running your life through a hand-held device — but in the Third World, such services make a huge difference. Our ‘Wild Life’ columnist Aidan Hartley writes in Montrose Journal about a phone-based payment system called M-Pesa which has taken away the danger of transporting wads of cash to pay his remote Kenyan farm payroll. A British digital success story is Monitise, which sells its money-transfer-by-phone technology all over the developing world. In India, habitual skimming of payroll cash by factory managers is being discouraged by a microfinance venture called Geosansar, which enables wages to be paid direct into accounts for illiterate workers, who then access their money via thumbprint scanners. Yes, the banking industry and its technology can sometimes be socially useful. Hold that thought for 2013.

Fifty shades

Two men at a party, one says: ‘I’m writing a book.’ The other replies: ‘Neither am I.’ Internet sources disagree whether that should be ‘novel’ rather than ‘book’, some think it was an exchange between Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and I’ve always assumed it was a Spectator cartoon — but Michael Heath tells me authoritatively it was drawn for Private Eye by Barry Fantoni. There you go: ‘the truth has many shades, it’s not a matter of black and white, but grey,’ as the rapper B.o.B. puts it, rap being a milieu I have attempted to infiltrate in 2012 in the interest of keeping a finger on the pulse of change. And nothing is changing so fast as the world of books, in which I fear record numbers of would-be authors, baffled by the way publishing is mutating, will be saying ‘Neither am I’ to each other in 2013.

Some killer pre-Christmas book facts, not quite Mayan but certainly epoch–making: Amazon now sells 114 ebooks for every 100 printed ones; the merged Penguin Random House combine, publisher of everything from Fifty Shades of Grey to Pippa’s party tips, controls a quarter of all English-language book output; and the season’s top sellers were Jamie Oliver, Miranda Hart and Bradley Wiggins. The death of biodiversity in publishing, of the well-made book by the lesser-known author, is widely feared — while perversely, trade in secondhand and out-of-print titles flourishes as never before through online sellers.

But my man in the dusty bookshop with the leather elbow patches tells me not all is lost; far from it, in fact. The game for 2013 and beyond is about cutting out the middle-men, bringing writer and reader closer together through the power of the internet. The trade is waiting for Penguin Random House to offer an e-reader device exclusively carrying its own books. An intriguing new model is Unbound (so intriguing, I should say, that I am a small shareholder in it), which is the book world’s first adventure in ‘crowd-sourcing’: a growing crowd of online readers is invited to pledge support for authors’ pitches, and if enough pledges stack up the book is commissioned.

Meanwhile, the digital revolution has generated a new standard length — between 5,000 and 30,000 words — of works published only for e-readers: Amazon UK has its own version, Kindle Singles, in the hands of former Penguin publisher Andrew Rosenheim, while another is Endeavour Press, launched by Spectator contributor Matthew Lynn. Well-known authors may move next towards a subscription model, offering new writings, a chapter at a time, to their own online followers. Unknown writers have the option of low-cost self-publishing, digitally or print-on-demand. Irritating, ghosted celebrities will continue to take the cream, but real writers not primarily motivated by money can still find 50 ways to reach their readership.

And so to my New Year resolutions. A 20,000-word digital squib, instantly yours for £2.99? Maybe. A 200,000-word £25 tome, complete with elegant plate section and marbled endpapers? Neither am I.

Show comments