Sydney Writers Festival 2007

The following is the presentation I gave at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival at a session entitled Books in the Digital Age. I appeared on a panel with author and lawyer Matt Rubenstein and Michael Fraser, who had just left the top job at Copyright Agency Ltd (CAL). My old mate Adolfo Cruzado, ex AFTRS, now doing a PhD up at SCU in Lismore happened to be in the audience. And asked if the papers would be published anywhere. Well, Adolfo, here’s mine 🙂


Sydney Writers Festival: Books in the Digital Age, Friday 1st June, 2006

On this day, twelve months ago, another, far more famous Sherman appeared at the 2006 Sydney Writers Festival. Sherman Alexie– the author of several books, including three novels, as well as several collections of short stories and poetry.
The other Sherman’s new novel was published only recently. It’s called Flight, which, incidentally, had a terrific review in Sunday’s New York Times. But Gleebooks doesn’t stock it yet. Which isn’t all that surprising – I’m not even sure if an Australian publisher has picked it up. In fact, gleebooks doesn’t have Sherman’s two earlier novels: Indian Killer, or Reservation Blues. (Although it does have three of his short story collections.)

But all is not lost for the other Sherman, a quick check of some other Sydney bookshops found one copy of Reservation Blues. But no Indian Killer. And definitely no Flight.

Think about it – this is the sad legacy of the book as a printed object in 2007. This man, Sherman Alexie, was flown out from America to be part of this very festival a mere twelve months ago. A year later, I can’t buy his latest novel in this town.
I know Flight exists. I have read the first six pages on I have read a current review in a New York newspaper. I can get an overseas friend to Fedex me a copy – or buy it online and wait for it to ship. But I can’t walk into a bookshop and buy it in Sydney.
And it’s the same for Indian Killer, first published a decade ago.
At least Indian Killer is still in print and can be ordered in. For older, out-of-print books, it’s even worse. Often, terrific books can’t be bought anywhere. They have ceased to exist.

Digital promises an end to this madness. It promises to let me download a Sherman Alexie novel as easily as I can download an old Bobby Sherman song from itunes. It promises instant availability and an infinite library.
Digital promises that nothing will ever go ‘out-of-print’ because storing a tiny file on a server somewhere costs much less than keeping a few copies lying around in a warehouse somewhere.

Look at the online versions of newspapers and magazines – they show how traditional print publishing can be transformed – and point to ways that books could be revolutionised.

There are, of course, issues to work through. Things like making a suitable reading device for large quantities of text. And creating an appropriate distribution infrastructure.

Not to mention the need to negotiate a reasonably seismic cultural shift, probably involving an enormous debate about what, exactly, is a book anyway.

Finally, there will be a huge barmy about copyright.

But this is the 21st century. Printed books are beginning to make as much sense as cassette players or cameras that need film.

We’re already taking the first baby steps towards a digital future for books (with google book search and the sony portable reader)
Suppose those baby steps resulted in a complete journey, and we reinvented book publishing to embrace a new world of instant, affordable access to every title in existence; suppose we created what I call the Heavenly Library. A world where books were purchased as digital downloads for a few dollars, and read on portable reading devices. In that world, the book would be open to a range of new possibilities.

Books would no longer be scarce.
It costs money to print books; it costs money to distribute them. As physical objects, they fit within a model of economic scarcity. Their price and value is dependent on their relative rarity – with limited supply, and sufficient demand, money can be made.
Electronic books would be cheaper to produce; once “published”, there are no print costs, and online distribution is cheaper than shipping another thousand copies from China.
And the key feature of lower costs is that publishers might have the courage to publish titles which they otherwise would not have touched. If it cost less to publish books, and they could be sold globally – then maybe worthy Vogel runners-up would be published more frequently than is currently the case. Rather than celebrity cookbooks, reality TV tie-ins, or cash-register stocking stuffers (what I call anti-books), publishers might deem it possible to publish a modern day Patrick White.
Electronic books exist in an economy of abundance – the cost of physical reproduction is essentially zero, so electronic books must be cheaper than printed ones. Of course a reading device would cost money – but the experience of mobile phones shows us how dramatically prices of electronic devices can fall; if there’s a little creativity in pricing models.

Moreover, books would no longer be lost.
Walk into a bookshop and try to find a particular book. If it’s a 3 for 2 special on the front table, you’re OK, otherwise good luck. The trend in bookselling may be towards larger stores, but finding individual titles can be difficult. Obscure, interesting books get lost. Either hidden away on the high shelves where no-one can look; or never stocked in the first place. And even stocked items might be held in the wrong category. Is it Business Books, or Cultural Studies; Literary Fiction or Crime. In the real world, a book can’t easily be in two places at once.
Digitally, the experience is different: searching is easy – by any number of keywords; books can exist in any number of categories; and software is intelligent enough to simulate serendipity and make clever suggestions about ‘books you might also enjoy’, and other titles with similar themes. All of a sudden, lost books are easily found.

Then, there is the Long Tail
Chris Anderson uses the phrase long tail to suggest that digital goods allow totally different patterns of sales to emerge. He argues that rather than rely on immediate hit-driven sales, the digital realm allows different factors to come into play. Anderson cites a number of examples. Itunes sales data suggests that a list of best sellers doesn’t merely contain the latest hits, but a vast selection of titles from long ago and far away; And then there are the sales figures, where a quarter of book sales come from outside its top 100,000 titles. The Long Tail explains an expanded market – where there are enough buyers for almost anything that is for sale – given time and availability.

So, rather than give a book a couple of months on a shelf, before being returned to publishers and perhaps pulped, a digital book can always be on the shelf; and be part of that long tail, available whenever a reader might want it.

You could think of it as An abundance of niches
And it’s global. If a book appeals to a particular niche of say 500 people in Sydney, you can almost guarantee that a similar number will be interested in every major english-speaking city on the planet. At the moment it might have 500 hard-won sales, individually placed by a sympathetic sales rep. Digitally, with the right online community building and virtual word of mouth, it could garner similar sales in San Francisco, New York, London, Toronto and a dozen others. All of a sudden, the book is more viable.

(What about the Royalties though)
But if the digital book is cheaper, surely that means authors will suffer a per copy loss. I reckon that’s not necessarily so.

I’d suggest that it’s entirely feasible for per-copy royalties to remain at their current rate.

Unless you’re JK Rowling, most authors probably get about 10% on net sales. So a $30 book, which would net the publisher about $15 give or take, would pay the author around $1.50 per copy.

The net price is what booksellers pay – so if the publisher were to sell direct, then there’s a significant amount to be saved. Likewise, printing and distribution costs would probably make up half of the net price – particularly when you consider that publishers have to gamble on the size of print runs and deal with sale and return conditions on the printed books.
At a rough guess, publishers could probably sell an electronic version of a $30 paperback for between $7 and $10, make the same profit as the printed book, and pay the author the same royalty.
Is this a problem for traditional booksellers? Probably. But that’s a whole other discussion.

And there are Other Opportunities
In the music realm, where there have been similar debates around downloads as compared to CDs, many argue that downloaded music has refocussed the revenue opportunity away from recorded music and towards different items of value – such as live performance, merchandising, and interaction with the artists.
The book realm might not have the same possibilities, but they do exist. You may not pay money to hear Peter Carey sing, but you’d happily go to a literary lunch. And who knows, there might be a market for Pico Iyer t-shirts.
Already, there are different models for payment, some authors value their reputation above their royalties – academics, for example, glean rewards from their books from citations, promotion opportunities and the suggestion of further research possibilities and collaboration. In that realm, the digital realm has already been a boon – amazon search inside and google book search have broadened the avenues by which they might have their reputations enhanced.

So, in summary, the digital book, the heavenly library, if properly implemented, would give invisible authors visibility, expand their global distribution, make the books available for longer to exploit every potential sale – and maintain their royalties. Sounds like win-win-win to me.

But some argue that the digital world introduces a factor that has not really been a problem for book publishing. The digital book, they argue is easy to copy; it’s easy to share – so piracy would become abundant…
The fact is that the printed book has built in copy protection – it is difficult to photocopy an entire book – or at least easier to buy or borrow a copy from the library – and this difficulty prevents widespread piracy. Go digital, and that difficulty disappears. Copying becomes incredibly easy.
Some would say, just look at music. Napster, Kazaa, Limewire, Bittorrent. Millions of songs being shared, traded, downloaded – and most importantly, not bought. Go digital and the entire industry will sink in a festering ocean of bloodthirsty pirates. Remove the inherent barrier of having to recreate a hefty physical object, and it’s all downhill.

But the response from book lovers needs to be measured and appropriate – the lessons from music are manifold.

1. For example, just because someone has copied, or downloaded something, does not mean a lost sale. It’s common for industry types to count every downloaded song as one that would otherwise have been bought. Which is wrong. A teenage kid who has downloaded ten thousand songs would not have bought all 10,000. It’s more likely that he downloaded because he could, and for the most part had no intention of buying most of the songs anyway. It’s also likely that having heard a downloaded song, some might have actually gone out and bought an album’s worth of that artist’s material. That download acted as publicity; incentive to purchase – if not immediately, then later when the kid could afford it. It created a fan.

An example from books – Baen Books, a science fiction publisher has long had a free library of electronic books, easily downloadable from their website. And Baen has found that giving away those electronic versions has actually increased sales of the printed books. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

2. Moreover, I suspect that, when given a reasonable choice, reasonable people choose to pay. The itunes store has sold over 2 billion songs and is the 5th biggest music retailer in the United States. By providing an easy to use service, with a vast range and appropriate pricing, people are happy to ‘do the right thing’

The bottom line is that in 2007, books must embrace the possibilities of digital. Sure, there are issues to be discussed and hurdles to overcome, but unless it happens, books are dead. Weighed down by printed objects, the unique qualities and virtues of books will be sidelined in an increasingly irrelevant part of the cultural universe.
Arguments about copyright, whilst they need to be heard, are red herrings, designed to distract us from the bigger challenge – which is that in an age where people expect, or demand, instant access to their information products, the legacy, and blind devotion to printed objects threatens the very existence of books.


1 comment so far

  1. […] I spoke about digital books and copyright with Sherman Young and Michael Fraser. Sherman gave a very provocative talk about how books have to go digital or else: The bottom line is that in 2007, books must embrace the […]

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