Monday, August 06, 2012

Price or value?

At the recent Harrogate Crime Festival in North Yorkshire, a panel debate with the title 'Wanted for Murder: the ebook', gave rise to some heated comments, as you might expect. What you might not expect is where the sympathies of the audience lay.

Thriller writer Stephen Leather, who boasted of selling his ebooks for less than £1.00 – and was happy to admit to using doubtful methods to promote them – found to his surprise that the response from the crime-fiction-loving audience wasn't applause for cheap books, but hisses and boos.

The panel comments that did find favour were the ones that made the point that if you spill your cup of coffee over your book and it's cheaper to replace the book than the coffee, literature has in some way become devalued. Leather's talk of 'punters' and 'units' when referring to readers and books reinforced the impression that writing for him wasn't about telling a story and crafting it with joy and skill for the reader's pleasure – just pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap.

Everyone likes a bargain, but the countries of Continental Europe have a different approach. If you go into a French hypermarket the range and number of volumes in the book section, from the latest thriller to the great French classics, all at full price, is astonishing. Since big supermarkets aren't noted for their sentimental and reverential approach to literature, the books are there because the French buy them, without them being cheaper than the cards in the greeting section. And in Norway, apparently, the new Jo Nesbo can cost you £40.

I can't see any of us going for that. But the reaction of the Harrogate audience and the responses from the public to the US Department of Justice suit against Apple just could be a sign that readers are becoming uncomfortable with the trend things are taking.

There will always be a few authors who make the big time – but very few. Many who are household names, who write beautiful, thoughtful and sometimes even life-changing books which take a year, or two or three, to produce, have an income that kids with a vacation job in McDonalds would call derisory. Books are already 'cheap as chips', as one member of the Harrogate audience put it. If the prices fall further, writing will become a hobby not a profession with aspirations and standards and everyone, not least the book-loving public, will be a loser.


Rick Blechta said...

Somehow I don't think Stephen Leather really gets it.

Hannah Dennison said...

Wow - this is terrific Aline. What a thought-provoking post. Thank you. Very interesting about books in the French hypermarkets.

Aline Templeton said...

Thanks, Hannah. I always feel depressed when I compare our cultural values with the French!

Charlotte Hinger said...

Hannah, something has gone wrong somewhere. I've never had more books to choose from and more difficulty in finding ones I like.