Mark Billingham Goes Hell for Leather

20/07/2012 by Stacey Bartlett

Crime writers went head-to-head at Harrogate about the devaluation of writing thanks to slashed e-book prices in 'Wanted for Murder: the e-book'

Mark Lawson chaired an impassioned debate about the e-book at Harrogate, aptly titled ‘Wanted for Murder’. Mark Billingham and Laura Lippman – who were sitting in the audience - felt compelled to cut in at some of the controversial things panelists were saying about e-books, arguing that authors like thriller writer Stephen Leather (a panelist) were devaluing books by selling them on Amazon at slashed prices.

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.” Lippman, author of the New York Times-bestselling Tess Monaghan books, said she was rejected by more than a hundred publishers before her debut novel was published, and it took eighteen months of trying.
The general feeling in the air at the Old Swan in Harrogate was that authors such as Leather - who was joined on stage by fellow author Steve Mosby, agent Philip Patterson, bookseller Patrick Neale and VP of the Publisher’s Association Ursula Mackenzie – were selling out by publishing e-book-only books “worth less than half the price of a cup of tea”, as Billingham phrased it, adding: “disgraceful”.
The panelists alluded to the almost-worthlessness of the e-book and therefore the book; Neale, of Jaffé and Neale Bookshop in Chipping Norton, said that customers would happily pay £4 for a greeting card, but try and haggle over the price of a £6.99 paperback on the basis they would be able to get it cheaper on Amazon. “These take authors a year of their lives,” he added, rendering Leather’s announcement that he often sells 100,000 word e-books for £2.99 dumbfounding. 
“I will spend four days writing a 7,000 word short story and sell it online for 70p,” Leather said. “That’s 20p for me. If it was sold in a supermarket I might get 7 per cent of the sale, but e-books are [up to] 70 per cent.”
“So you’re happy to work for five pence per day?” Ursula Mackenzie interjected, to titters from the audience and outrage from authors who clearly felt their work was being devalued. Billingham finished with the argument that no wonder people are reluctant to shell out for physical books when they are practically given away. “We’ve got to stop free and 20p books,” said Mackenzie, to a round of applause from the hundreds-strong audience.
Ironically, all panel members said they preferred physical books to e-books, but acknowledged that in publishing “speed is a dangerous thing”.




Stephen Leather's picture

Err.... someone needs to check her sums...

Yeah, it was a good robust debate. I didn't want to embarrass Ursula in front of so many people but she seemed to think that I spent five days writing a short story that I then received 25p for. Silly girl seems to forget that it was 25p A COPY.. And if I sell 100,000 copies that £25,000 which is £5,000 a day which is a lot more than she earns. Yes, there were titters from the audience but they failed to realise just how profitable eBooks can be, I didn't have time to fully explain my views on piracy but you can it take from me that most self-published writers actually embrace piracy. And to the guy who shouted "tosser," well, HMD my old son. HMD.'s picture

Questionable all-round

I'm glad I wasn't at this panel, and it makes me think that if this is what Harrogate has become, it's no longer the festival I've loved and enjoyed so much in the past. The act of authors heckling other authors from the audience and attacking people on a panel - as well as people in the audience whom they know nothing about - isn't something I would have expected to happen at Harrogate.

Whether I agree with an individual's approach to marketing or not, it's clear the idea of civil discourse was thrown right out the window. I'm still in shock to hear of such behavior, actually. We had a very stimulating and lively discussion about e-publishing at an MWA event recently, and I felt everyone left able to take away food for thought, whatever their position. This just sounds like people were set up to be attacked.'s picture


Whatever the pros and cons of the discussion at Harrogate might have been (though I agree about the absurdity of authors selling themselves for pence) I don't think, Stephen Leather, you need to be insulting and patronising about Ursula Mackenzie by refering to her as a 'silly girl' in your comment. Says more about you than her. She is one of the ablest women in publishing and is CEO and Publisher at Little Brown.'s picture

Cheap ebooks

MacKenzie said 'We've got to stop free and 20p books' giving the impression that it was only self published ebooks which were sold at these prices and thereby undermining the book selling market, what she ommitted to mention was that the 20p book which was most often quoted was one by Peter James and published by MacMillan, a traditional publisher. There have also been free ebooks on Amazon distributed by traditional publishers, so it seems inherently unfair to suggest it is only the self publisher who is undermining book sales for everyone else.

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