I was recently introduced to a well-educated, prolific reader who, in discovering that I was taking a divergence into electronic publishing, proceeded to berate the form as a malevolent force sent to devour our literature and steal our children. She insisted that pixilation rendered the words powerless. Love itself, she seemed to suggest, was contained exclusively in the dog-eared pages of paper books. And it wasn’t the first time I’d heard it. While the publishing industry is spattered with similar sentiments, pragmatism over the inevitability of electronic publishing and their fear of extinction has brought the subject to a head. Words, in the end won’t change. Their delivery however, is changing. The biggest upheaval to publishing in a hundred years has thrown up a lot more questions than answers.
As a picture book author and illustrator, my form of literature is far safer than text-only books in this digital age. I will attempt to highlight a few of the issues related to the revolution occurring in the book world today.
I won’t talk about Amazon, that’s a whole different subject other than the fact that they have started giving people the chance to publish or animate their own books. None of us should fear that. The cream will still rise to the top and a few gems will come into the world with the dross. What has changed for a publisher is the issue that underpins their survival; the production and sale of quality literature.
The problems in a nutshell.
Quality printing on paper isn’t cheap, but in order to prop up the lower selling titles, big numbers of the top ones can be printed and if everything goes to plan the best-sellers pay for the rest. And somewhere in the rest is your next big seller along with a swathe of less mainstream books that are the fabric of our cultural diversity. It’s been a perpetual cycle since the invention of the printing press. Now, suddenly the printing press is obsolete. Last year, e-book sales outperformed those of paper books for the first time in the U.S. The rise in the popularity of devices able to carry billions of words rather than thousands was frankly, predictable. But that didn’t stop it throwing up some big questions for publishers.
Publishers Identify good writing, sometimes improve it, and in doing so forge styles across generations with their lists. They market their product and their authors and they influence society and hope to survive in business. None of that changes with the arrival of the e-book. What changes significantly however is how much they can charge per unit. It doesn’t cost significantly less to bring the words of an e-book into the world but there is a perception that the price is too high for words on a screen. At the moment, most books are conversions of existing paper books, sometimes a multimillion-selling book from years ago gets a second life. Full value was already made out of it as a paper book so its revival is courtesy of little more than a typesetting exercise and some strategic placement. But if you lower the price accordingly, you have to bring the price of all the others down with it, including the increasing number that are being published straight to screen. All that expertise, nurturing and marketing walks out the door below cost. There has to be a fixed price but if its too low then the publishing houses are going to lose more and more of their talent both in house and out.
Adding further to the pressure is the U.S. government. They are currently taking several big international publishers to court alleging ‘conspiracy’ over price fixing. Accused of colluding in a series of illegal meetings in New York to fix higher prices for e-books, one kept away from the meetings and raised their prices a year later and were spared scrutiny while still banking the benefits. Several settled and the rest have unlocked the war chest and are fighting on. Sounds expensive.
And then there are picture books. There are several reasons why the picture book is going to take far less of a rethink than the other arms of publishing. They are consumed in homes and libraries and come with a whole other level of nostalgia for a start. But it’s a reverie born of a book-filled world and that world is passing. ‘Digital Native’ is a cold term but if you have ever seen a 3 year old operate a device you will be under no illusions that paper books have a struggle ahead to defend their position with the children of the near future. But I believe the picture-book will thrive in this new environment. There has always been a raft of ways to stretch the value of a best-selling picture book. Board books, bath books, anthologies, animated series. Now there are apps. And I’m not talking about the simple copy and digitise, I’m talking about a completely new but faithful-to-the- original remake and animation. An app is an interactive, portable, educational, language convertible, space saving promotion of a book that doesn’t compete with the traditional book, but enhances it. Some resemble games a bit more than is my taste but they are still drawing children to books. You only have to look at the diversity that already exists in picture books to be sure there is room for another kind, particularly in education.
Most of the machinations of the publishing industry occur far from the ears of authors, so the answers I have been looking for about what it will mean to picture books have been even harder to come by. My editor first mentioned the subject of e-books to me about 3 years ago and I had no opinion on it but that changed on my first trip to New York. When I discussed the subject with a respected US publisher, it was as though I had asked him what he thought a snowstorm in Antarctica would mean to picture books. Strange in a city where every second bookshop was closing down and where the Barnes and Noble chain had just announced that for the first time ever, e-book sales had overtaken book sales. Picture Books didn’t seem to be considered endangered. Phew.
On returning to Australia, the news of the Borders and A&R books store chains going into liquidation shook me to action. As an author I couldn’t see how losing 30% of an industry’s vendors was worth ignoring. Publishers, it should be said are not ignoring technology, they are simply trying to make books work in a tough market where everything is being sold off one big shelf. Diversifying on such a fundamental as the books physical form appears to be secondary for the moment. So I decided to dip my toe alone and offer them a third-party arrangement. I started a company with a music publisher, an animation studio director and a film producer and licenced my picture books to produce as interactive apps. At the same time, I signed 3 more contracts for ‘normal’ books. We promote the book on the app and the book promotes the app. The books now reach international markets that they never reached before and the cycle is proving rewarding for all parties. Whether or not we survive as a company, we are gathering information that few people have. I will keep this information in my survival kit.
Books have been around for a long time and it would take a bigger shovel to bury prose than the one wielded by this current revolution. Publishers face a serious rethink and an expensive adjustment, but out of all this, more access to literature will be the result and people will still be buying books that publishers are producing whether paper or otherwise. Publishers will continue to compete for the best talent, even more so now that any edge could mean the difference between survival and insolvency. Good books will keep being made and no-one’s going to give up on paper altogether but a library in my pocket seems like a dream come true for me.
Am I passionate about electronic books? No. But I am passionate about books and the craft of their creation and it is a job I intend to keep. We have to know what the future holds for our industry and I, for one, have a fear of suits so I am going to try to work within the new landscape. So, now that I’ve completely overcomplicated one of your favourite pursuits, next time you read a book, think about what it’s worth and how much time and money has gone into bringing it to you and know that publishers are not about to give that up for a mere revolution.