Books - The Last Chapter?

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imagine..., Winter 2011 Episode 6 of 8

Duration: 1 hour, 10 minutes

With the rise of electronic books, is the final chapter about to be written in the long love story between books and their readers? Will the app take the place of the traditional book?

Alan Yentob discusses the subject with writers Alan Bennett, Douglas Coupland, Ewan Morrison and Gary Shteyngart, publisher Gail Rebuck, agent Ed Victor and librarian Rachael Morrison. They also smell books, making precise notes about the distinctive aroma of each.

Music Played

10 items
  • Inspired by QR codes: Douglas Coupland

    Inspired by QR codes: Douglas Coupland

    If you have a smart phone with a QR code reader, point it at the painting on the left.

    Douglas Coupland - Trépanier Baer Gallery
  • Cara Barer Photographs

    Cara Barer Photographs

    "I have changed a common object into sculpture in a state of flux. The way we choose to research and find information is also in an evolution. I hope to raise questions about these changes, the ephemeral and fragile nature in which we now obtain knowledge, and the future of books."

    Cara Barer's Portfolio
  • Interview with Gail Rebuck, Ewan Morrison and Ed Victor

    Interview with Gail Rebuck, Ewan Morrison and Ed Victor

    ALAN
    It took centuries for the book to evolve as it has and yet, all these changes seem to have happened very fast. Is the book and the future of the book now very different prospect to the one we might have envisaged say thirty years ago?

    GAIL
    The old way of doing things is fading, and I think the new way of doing things hasn’t quite come into focus yet. What has changed totally is the way we package books physically and the way we market books, because we have to make use of social networks and so on. And indeed our customers have changed, or are in the process of changing. The High Street is diminishing and more and more books are sold via the internet, either as physical books or as e-books.

    But the one thing that hasn’t changed, is the essence of what we do as publishers, and that’s curating, it’s selecting, it’s choosing the books we want to publish, it’s the editor working in close collaboration with the author, shaping the book, developing the book, and then ultimately bringing it to it’s public. So we don’t really mind how we deliver books in whatever form. What is a book really? Is it its body or it’s soul? I mean we’re in the business of the soul of books.

    ED
    Not everything has changed, you know. I went into publishing... I want to say in 1864 because it seems like the nineteenth century now...in 1964, and publishing in 1964 was pretty much what it was in 1934, even 1924: we bought books, we bought the rights, we edited, we brought it to market, we put jackets on it, we went to bookstores with it.

    I always thought that by the time publishing reached this digital phase I’d be dead. I would have lived my life happily, gone to meet my maker when books were made of paper and board and ink. But I’m actually just loving it. I went through a period of depression about it and now I’m out the other side and really happy with it, because it’s changed, it’s interesting but as Gail just said, it’s still about books, it’s about writing, it’s about the quality of the writing, it’s about curating, it’s about marketing, all of which is what we did in 1964.

  • Interview with Gail Rebuck, Ewan Morrison and Ed Victor (cont.)

    Interview with Gail Rebuck, Ewan Morrison and Ed Victor (cont.)

    ALAN
    OK, so you two are both relaxed about it and looking at the opportunities but I think you’re less relaxed about it aren’t you Ewan?

    EWAN
    It’s almost at the point where we can’t really talk about books anymore, as a separate entity, because really, what is a book? Soon as books go digital they become another piece of digital content. I think one only has to look at the other industries that have come before us and seen the way that the industries have changed when they went digital. The music industry’s lost half of its value in the last ten years, it’s gone from fourteen point six billion down to six point eight billion, and the people who really suffer at the bottom end are the people who make the music. In the United States, for example, there’s a twenty to one ratio between pirated music and bought music: for every twenty pieces of music that are listened to, one gets bought. So if we lose that respect and reverence for the book and the book just becomes like an MP3 or a Quicktime movie, then that will be the end of the book.

    ED
    People don’t think about copyright. For most people copyright is a mystery. I remember having this talk with my son who was 14 or 15 at the time, and he was downloading music from somewhere, and I said ‘Ryan, this whole house is built on copyright’, but I couldn’t make him really understand. He said ‘Well, it’s out there, you know’.

    EWAN
    I really think we should be levying a pretty heavy tax on people like Google who allow these things to happen and really fighting for really strong copyright law. This is one of the reasons that authors have to stick with publishers actually, and not run off.

    ED
    And agents! We fight for you.

    EWAN
    Yes, it’s because there is a common battle here against the draining away of copyright law and copyright protection. I think people should be paid for what they do. It takes a year to write a book, you know.

    ED
    You’re preaching to the converted.

    EWAN
    I’m just really worried that we’re all going to be out of a job in about ten years time. You can sort of look at us and see three coffins sitting here. My great grandchildren will grow up in a world in which it’s impossible to monetise culture. I think that we’re heading towards that. It’s hard to make a profit on culture.

    GAIL
    I hope we’ve learned from the example of the music industry. Luckily books were late in to digitisation so we’ve spent an awful lot of time and money and effort in creating anti-piracy intiatives: monitoring the web, outsourcing, and also lobbying governments and also educating the public. I have to say that it’s very difficult to know at the moment quite how many books are lost to piracy, I mean there’s no really reliable data, so we’re not being complaisant but the early indications are that people are willing to pay for digital books. Whether the entirety of a print run is substitutional or partly substitutional from physical to digital is difficult to say because we are in the early moments of the digital future.

    ED
    That’s the key question for me: will the loss of physical sales be made up for by the rise of digital sales? And on that the jury’s still out.

    GAIL
    At the moment they are because when people get their first e-book reader, they’re so excited and it’s so easy to download books, that they download a lot of them. When people were given their e-book readers last Christmas, we had people monitoring the next day, on Boxing Day, and we saw this huge spike in e-book sales because people want to read something on this new piece of gadgetry. Then that kind of levelled off. But digital hasn’t been around, it’s not mature enough to know whether people then go back to a duality, in other words enjoying the digital and the physical at the same time, you know, feeling that they need something substantial at the end of this wonderful immersive experience, which after all is the same whether you read on e-book reader or between the two covers. Do they want something physical at the end of it. I mean big question mark. I’d like to think they would.

    EWAN
    I think there’s a question over the ‘they’, who are the ‘they’ that we’re talking about? What concerns me is you’ve got the baby boom generation who are getting older now, who are a very large market, and then you’ve got this scrawny little market in the middle called Generation X which is people like me who are half the size, and then you’ve got Generation Y who are the same size as the baby boomers, so they’re really the next market. Now Gen Y already consume about 78% of the material that’s online, so within a generation it’s going to be the same for books I’m afraid. There’s no way that you can instil in them the need to start using books if they’ve never had that experience.

  • Interview with Gail Rebuck, Ewan Morrison and Ed Victor (cont.)

    Interview with Gail Rebuck, Ewan Morrison and Ed Victor (cont.)

    ALAN
    One of the side-effects of digitisation and the online boom in publishing is that writers who feel they have been overlooked by publishers and agents can find other ways to get their work before the public. That must be a good thing, surely?

    GAIL
    Yes, it is much easier for people to get published. They could be published by a self-publisher, they could go to an agent and be published. They could also go to a retailer or an e-tailer and be published. There are so many more routes to market. In the old days they used to call certain companies vanity publishers, now they’re called self-publishers. I remember a few years ago, a vanity publisher came in to see me and he was talking about his vision of heaven, which was 80,000 books in ‘vanilla format’ which means unedited by anyone except the author. I said, ‘That might be your vision of heaven, it’s my vision of hell.’ And it’s my vision of hell because as publishers we are there to select out of the 80,000 the five that are worth publishing.

    EWAN
    Readers feel they can trust the publisher who’s pre-selected the books, the cultural gatekeepers who have said we’re going to look at 80,000 and we’re going to choose five that we think are very good and we’re going to invest money in them through marketing and we’re going to exploit the networks that exist - the critics, the bookshops and so on - we’re going to get quotes on the front cover and we’ll lure readers in. All these systems that have been built up are precisely what’s missing in the digital world.

    ED
    And now the world’s biggest online retailer, Amazon, is a publisher. They’ve set up a publishing house in America, run by Larry Kirshbaum who used to run Time-Warner, big time publisher. So here is our biggest customer now set up to rival the publishing houses, and they’re gonna be out in the market trawling for books, and buying books very expensively, and if you think I’m not gonna sell to them, of course I’m gonna sell to them. It’s a legitimate publishing business.

    GAIL
    I’m not going to imagine on your Imagine actually what’s behind Amazon creating a number of publishing imprints, but all I will say is: it’s taken many, many, many years and a lot of experience and a lot of depth of knowledge built up over those years, handed down in very many departments to create a landmark publishing house like Random House that regularly supplies 25% of the best seller list. So it’s not that easy, it’s not just about one experienced publisher and a cheque book, there’s a lot more that goes into it.

    ALAN
    But are Amazon’s objectives the same of those of a conventional publisher?

    ED
    Well Amazon is not a conventional publisher. Amazon is a law unto itself. When they started this publishing business they announced that they were only going to publish titles as e-books on Kindle. No other platform. No other sales channel. And everyone put up a big cry and now they’ve reversed that.

    EWAN
    Amazon has forced publishers across the board to sell their books at up to 60% less than they normally would and then it sells some titles at a loss in order to put its competitors out of business. We’ve seen 2,000 bookshops go bust in the UK in the last ten years. I live in Glasgow, a city with a population of half a million, and we’ve only got two mainstream bookshops left.

    GAIL
    I think one needs to be measured. I think what Jeff Bezos [Amazon CEO] did is completely extraordinary. He had a vision and he created this company and I have nothing but admiration for taking us into this new digital age. At the same time, I’m a great believer in diversity, and one of the biggest issues that Ewan just touched on is the disappearance over the years of bookshops. If you couple that with libraries closing, we are in danger of becoming a bit of a book desert. The big issue now becomes about discovery. It’s all very well publishers discovering all these wonderful new writers, but how’s the public meant to discover them? Because, actually, discovery online is a bit of a hit and miss affair. If you know what you want it’s fantastic, it’s completely brilliant, you can get the book you want overnight, but if you don’t know what you want and you want to be stimulated into trying something new, you’re back with your pile of 80,000 books in vanilla format.

    EWAN
    We have to expand this outwards as well to look at Google. If it wasn’t for four publishers coming together five or six years ago, Google would have just scanned every book in the world, a hundred and thirty million books, for free and basically put the entire print business out of business. And it was four big mainstream publishers coming together to challenge that, that actually reversed that decision. But it was very close. I remember getting my email from Google informing me that three of my books had just been scanned, and I could get a buyout for a £180 in perpetuity. So, I think we’re at a crucial juncture just now where the publishers have got to get together again because there are forecasts going in Silicon Valley about who the three main publishers are going to be in ten years time.

    ALAN
    Google, Amazon and Apple?

    ED
    These are three companies that are going to rule our industry. They do now. Amazon, Apple and Google are these international monoliths and we are, well we’re not exactly tiny but we’re not big, and what they rely on us to do is provide them with content. And we do.

    EWAN
    The consumer’s partly to blame for this as well, because the consumer has been lead to believe that it’s okay to buy book for one pence on Amazon. I’ve done it myself. I’ve said, ‘Oh, I can get a new one or I can get a used one or a remaindered for one pence, and Amazon will make a percentage of the postage money. It’ll make like ten pence on that sale. But it will do that 13 million times in a week. So it’s really not a publisher. We shouldn’t really call Amazon a publisher, even though it’s starting to publish, because publishers are all about selling 13 million copies of one book, one really good book. It’s the other way round with Amazon, it’s all about many, many, many, many things rather than consolidating and investing in quality produce. Amazon have never been book people. Google are not book people, they’re information people and Apple are gizmo people. It’s like you’ve taken your baby and handed it to a bunch of people who are specialists in computer technology.

    ED
    We’re all changing, we have to change, how can we not? I changed very early because I represented the late great Douglas Adams, who was talking about this in the 1980s. He would say to me, ‘Ed, the business you’re in is obsolete’. How much longer are we going to manufacture physical books? ‘Hunks of molecules’, he called them.

    But I look at the bookshelves in my living room and there are these monuments to my reading and they’re all sitting there but how often do I take a book down? It’s pretty rare. These days, I usually order a book, and read it on my reading device. I watch my grandchildren looking at children’s books that are basically apps, and they’re wonderful, I mean, you know, things move and clocks tick and things like that. I had a conversation with an author who has had a big best seller, and I said what are you going do next and he said ‘I don’t want to do another book, I want to do an app’.

    GAIL
    Ultimately I think the point is that if we get it right and physical books remain a part of the market - and I haven’t got a crystal ball, I don’t know whether they’ll be 50% of the market or 20% or whatever - but actually, the opportunity for getting more people to read books - if they’re available and discoverable in digital and physical form - I think it’s very exciting.

    ED
    I want talk about William Goldman. William Goldman wrote a famous book called “Adventures in the Screen trade” but it could be adventures in any media trade, and he said, the most important thing to remember about Hollywood executives is this: nobody knows anything. And he said just in case you didn’t get that, and he puts it in huge type: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. So I submit to all of you that we don’t know anything. We don’t know what’s happening with this, the genie is out of the box, and it’s gonna go somewhere and we’re going with it, Gutenberg here we come!

  • Interview with Gail Rebuck, Ewan Morrison and Ed Victor (cont.)

    Interview with Gail Rebuck, Ewan Morrison and Ed Victor (cont.)

    ALAN
    I want to return to the point the Gail made at the start, that although the digital revolution has changed so much in the book business, at the heart of publishing there is still a key set of relationships -between writer, editor and publisher for example - that have not changed. Is that true?

    GAIL
    A few years ago, I was at the launch party for Antonia Byatt ‘The Children’s Book’, a wonderful big thick fantastic immersive book if there ever was one. And she decided in her speech to give paean of praise to her editor. She described the editorial process, and her editor happens to be a distinguished writer herself. And she talked about how she imagined this world which she only shared with her editor, and maybe one other person, and for years they would talk on the phone as if these were real people. What would this person do? Do you think they’d wear this when they went out and so on. And this intimacy, this co-dependence and the way in which they enriched each other’s experience was utterly enlightening to me and deeply moving. Now I’m not saying that you know, in every case an editor gets so close to a writer, but I’d like to think that it still does happen, but maybe you should ask the writer here, who has a wonderful editor...

    EWAN
    Well it’s nice to talk about the inter-relationship between a writer and an editor, but the hard tacks of being a writer, whether you’re Dostoyevsky or Shakespeare, is that you’ve got to get paid for the job, and one of the problems with the digital squeeze is that publishers have been cutting back. Marketing is one area that’s been squeezed and authors’ advances is another.

    The author’s advance is a great system. It allows a publisher to split the risk. One success out of ten supports the other nine which were perhaps less successful commercially, one best-seller pays for all the others. I think we’re seeing a loosening of this relationship. Advances are not sustaining writers anymore and some of the top sellers are trying to break away from that whole network. The sustainability of a writer’s career is what’s really important. What we don’t want to have is a very polarised industry when on the one hand you’ve got the already established authors selling 4 million units, and on the other hand you’ve got first timers who are willing to work for nothing to get that first time book out, and you spend all your marketing money on both of the top and bottom end and you forget about all the people in the middle. So books will survive but whether or not there’s a long term vocation for as many people to be writers, that’s really the question for me.

    ED
    I’d like to chime in on advances because that’s what I’ve been known to get in large amounts, as Gail will attest. Now the best possible situation is that a large advance is paid, and the writer earns out through sales and then we get royalties. That’s great. But I don’t think that the economic model that we had in the 80s and 90s could have gone on, just as our whole economy hasn’t gone on. What happened back then was that Gail or another publisher would pay me a lot of money, a lot of money, for certain authors, then they would print a punch of copies, then they would ship them down the highway from their warehouse and hope that 50% of them stuck to the walls of the bookstore. You know the entire publishing industry was defined by Alfred A Knopf, the great Alfred Knopf, who I’m actually old enough to have met. He said, ‘gone today, here tomorrow’: the books go out and then they come back! So that model just couldn’t go on because of the amount of unearned advances. Now I minded that. Some agents don’t, but I minded it.

    GAIL
    One of the biggest issues that publishers have is unearned advances.

    ALAN
    So how do you persuade a top-selling author to accept a smaller advance?

    ED
    It’s not easy. You go to a top author and say ‘Why don’t we do a joint-venture with the publisher?’. And they say, ‘Well what does that involve?’, and you say ‘You pay half of the cost of promoting your book in the way that you want it to be promoted, and the extra costs will come out of your advance. I once did this with a very famous author. He said, ‘How will it work?’ and I said, ‘Well supposing you get a jacket design and you say “My name is not prominent enough-I want some foil on here, I want it to look like an oven-ready turkey, I want a lot of foil”.’ And I said ‘Fine, that’ll cost another 50 cents a copy to produce, the publisher will pay 25 cents and you’ll pay 25 cents, and if they print a hundred thousand copies you’ll owe them $25,000.’ My author said, ‘Not me! I’m not gonna give them $25,000!’ He wanted his seven figure advance.

    GAIL
    People coming into the industry from outside say: ‘Why don’t you just publish the best sellers? like it was so easy to know which ones they’re going to be! Let’s take a very well known mass market author, one Dan Brown. None of his books did particularly well until he published ‘The Da Vinci Code’. It was like striking a match, suddenly everyone wanted to know about all the other books he had written. Now in America his backlist is with a number of different publishers but we are, I think, the only publisher in the world to publish his entire backlist, and that was thanks to the vision of one editor, who loved his work, and he was proven right. It just shows you have to hang on in there.

Credits

Presenter
Alan Yentob
Producer
Tim Kirby
Series Editor
Alan Yentob

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