July 24, 2012

The ebook pricing debate gets heated in the U.K.


Gatekeeping is hard work.

Ire about ebook pricing has fallen out of the tubes and into the streets. And one no longer has to be a cartoonishly naive agent of the Department of Justice to end up in the line of fire. Author Steve Mosby reports back from the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, held this past weekend, where a panel discussion on ebooks turned ugly. Mosby was on a panel titled “Wanted for murder: the Ebook” alongside agent Philip Patterson, Patrick Neale, of the beautiful Jaffé and Neale bookshop, VP of the Publisher’s Association Ursula Mackenzie and last and reportedly most vociferous, Stephen Leather, a fellow crime fiction author. Authors Mark Billingham and Laura Lippman were in the audience. Mosby and the awesomely-monikered Leather both have accounts of the panel, as does the blog We Love This Book, and accounts seem to be largely in agreement. Leather writes:

What surprised me was how the audience seemed so set against cheap eBooks.  Rather than taking my view that books are best sold at a price that readers find attractive, the general feeling of the audience seemed to be that books were already – as one man said – ‘cheap as chips’ while Norwegians had to pay £40 for one of Jo Nesbo’s books. When I explained that I had sold half a million eBooks last year, most of them for less than a quid, I was surprised to hear a few boos and hisses rather than the applause that I had expected.

And it wasn’t ebooks alone that cost Leather his audience. From We Love This Book:

Leather also somewhat tastelessly joked that ‘e-book pirates’, who share digital copies of books for free, much like music pirates, “are doing my marketing for me” – which prompted an audience member to shout: “tosser!” Titters and cat-calls from Billingham, Lippman and their neighbours invoked an impassioned debate; Lippman, spurred by an audience member who introduced herself as a writer who wrote e-books because she had trodden the publishing circuit with no luck “for three months” before publishing online, earnestly said: “Patience on the writer’s side is not ill-advised.”

We’ve reported on our own battles with piracy before, and as you’d expect from a publisher we’re not always sympathetic with the old “data wants to be free” trope. DRM is a broken system, but Leather’s arguments are essentially selfish and agnostic to the survival of a book culture more generally, one where a book—digital or otherwise—the result of years of labor, should perhaps be valued more than the cup of coffee one could spill on it. That said, this panel sounds like a meeting of the British House of Commons than the usual literary panel. Mosby’s take is the most thoughtful:

Stephen seemed to concentrate on value in purely financial terms, and with his use of words like “punters” and “units” it was occasionally easy to forget we were talking about books at all. I’m sure he doesn’t really think like this, but it came across at times as though his readership was some kind of bovine factory farm that needed to be milked in the most efficient manner possible. At a festival full of passionate readers, the response to that was always going to be chilly. It is a business, of course – but to many writers, readers and publishers, books do mean considerably more than that. Conspicuous by its absence in the discussion was any passion whatsoever for storytelling and reading, even though it was precisely that passion that had brought the audience there in the first place.

Mosby also mentions the most immediately objectionable of Leather’s comments, that being his blithe admission that he often uses multiple online personae—sock puppets, in the parlance—to help promote his own books. You may remember this as the method that cost Lee Seigel his column at The New Republic years ago.

Leather’s general chewy distastefulness aside, I wonder if this sort of crowd reaction isn’t a bellwether. Has awareness about the ebook pricing battleground made its way to a more general reading populace? The self-selected crowd at a literary event with such a title could be called atypical, but with so much reporting on the DoJ lawsuit against Apple and others making its way to front pages, we might have moved beyond that sacred tenet that all book buyers are only concerned with price. Many booksellers reported a surge in vocally conscientious customers after the release of the laughably nefarious Amazon price-checking app. Will we see similar reactions even in the ebook marketplace? Is this the year in which readers come to see their literary pixels of choice as having real production costs? And too, I wonder if the audience for Mosby and Leather’s panel is so very aberrant.

One of the real sea changes of the book industry in the twenty-first century is that everyone really is an author now. Or, to look at it from the other side of that much-discussed “gate” we’re all so busy “keeping”, enough people are writers now, amateur or otherwise, that they themselves are an appreciable market, and not just for books about writing. Is this community entering a progressive phase, in which their motivations are inspired more by something resembling a civic concern, rather than just grasping for E.L James’ brass sex-dungeon ring? Recent letters by self published authors to the DoJ indicate not, but these sorts of reports of hissing Britons might give cause for hope.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.