Alex Massie

What price books?

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Megan hails Amazon's e-reader, the Kindle* and makes a pretty persuasive case. But what happens when you lose or break your Kindle? Does that mean you've lost your library too? James Joyner is not quite so convinced and complains:

And the fact that e-books are still priced at 50-80 percent the sticker price of the hardcover books strikes me as outrageous, given that the cost of materials, production, transport, and so forth have gone away and one doesn’t end up with a nice objet d’art for one’s shelves.

Not so fast! Authors have to get paid too! Now if every book were sold electronically I doubt you would see much of a price drop for consumers - at least not in the case of still-in-print and copyright material. e-books should, theoretically, be excellent for out-of-copyright classics since these books can be sold for, well, practically nothing (or even given away) while costing no more to carry around than, well, any other book. Equally, some readers may find it easier to make it to the end of the great classics since they may not actually be able to see how many pages they have to go before completing the task.

So, good news for the classics? Perhaps so. But not necessarily bad news for writers either. In fact, the Kindle - and its competitor products - might prove a boon to writers. Readers generally vastly over-estimate how much an author receives from a book sale. Suppose, for instance, that a customer pays £10 for a book in Borders or Waterstones. Well, the author ain't going to see much of that. To begin with, the major chains routinely insist upon a 50% discount. So the publisher is only receiving £5. The author may, if he's lucky, receive 10% of that. But only once all other costs have been met: ie, printing, distribution, marketing, emplyoment costs and so on. Oh, and the author's advance. All this being the case, it's not a great surprise that most books fail to cover their advances (of which the author only receives 85% before tax, anyway since he needs, quite properly, to pay his agent something too).

On the one hand you could say that publishers are being generous to authors; on the other you could argue that this helps publishers since if it weren't the case that a few popular successes subsidise all other production publishers might have to be more creative, hard-working and innovative in terms of actually pushing and selling and marketing books. As the system currently stands, authors can do well if their book is a surprise best-seller, but publishers do disproportionately better still.

As it is the person who does the most work - the author - receives the least, and final, reward.

The Kindle could, at least theoretically, change that if authors begin to sell directly. I don't quite know how this would work, but you can at least envision a future in which it is publishers who are squeezed as authors are able to sell directly  - or via Amazon and so on - to the public who'll download their books onto their e-readers.

Now you might say that this might not be great news for writers whose books don't earn back their advances, but again it's not clear how much this failure is their fault at present and how much represents the failure to find the market in the first place, let alone build it.

And how much is expensive anyway? Would you be willing to pay £5 for an e-version of a book if you knew that 80% of that money was going to the fellow who actually spent a year writing the book? That doesn't seem very unreasonable to me now, does it?

*Weird name: or do they mean to suggest that the Kindle is actually some kind of book-destroyer like, er, fire?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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