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”.