I was up at the Harrogate crime festival this weekend. All the events took place in the Old Swan hotel (the place where Christie was found after the old girl did her random disappearing act in the 1920s) and between seminars everyone sat out on the front lawn drinking pints, children ran around in the sunshine, it was a nice atmosphere, and something very English about it – a rich shire town surrounded by farmland, posters for murder mystery weekends, the nostalgia for the English murder and English secrets. The discussions I saw provoked too many thoughts and ideas to set down in one post so I’ll just add my impressions of one specific panel that has been widely reported in the trade press.
This was a discussion chaired by Mark Lawson on the e-book and what this means for publishing. There was a writer on the panel called Stephen Leather. I never heard of him before the weekend, but apparently he has a Hodder contract and has written twenty-eight novels. He is also a massive enthusiast for self publishing and e-books. I think e-books are great, and I’ll even concede there’s a place for self publishing. What got me about this guy wasn’t that he promoted e-publishing as an option, it was that he seemed to think e-publishing was the option and the only available future. You have to have some balls to slag industry professionals to an audience of industry professionals and, from the acrimonious murmurs from the floor, it became clear that I wasn’t the only one watching this man’s performance with a growing sense of irritation and disbelief.
Here’s a report from the We Love This Book site:
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!’
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’.
‘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.
I’ve written so much about this debate, but it is not going away and I feel it’s important to keep banging on, particularly as I meet so many young writers who see self publishing as the first and last resort and seem to perceive a potential in the medium that in my view is simply not there.
Here are some points, some of which came up in the panel, others in my own discussions with writers.
- A common defence of self publishing is that it brings an audience to novelists who are just too damn edgy and iconoclastic to be accepted by corporate publishing. In the last year, self publishing has taken off, but not in the way the outsider hipsterati expected. The novel everyone associates with self publishing is E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, widely regarded as pedestrian soft BDSM. Following Smith’s First Law of self publishing success, James signed a seven-figure deal with Vintage after her fiction took off.
- Stephen Leather explained that as a self publishing author he not only had to write the books but also handle design, cover art, admin, finance, marketing and promotion. To his credit he understood that this is not going to appeal to most writers, who get into writing because they love to write. Working people will not have the time or resources to act as a one man publisher.
- Another thing that annoyed me about Stephen Leather was that, despite arguing from a position that the digital world is everything, he seemed to have little feeling for it. He talked about promoting his books on social media – ‘I have to tweet a dozen times a day’ – with the implication that this was a work thing, an obligation. The hypocrisy of this hacked me off. Social networks are supposed to be fun, they are a leisure activity, Twitter for me is a carnival of invention and delight. You can check the timeline on your phone and see something that will make you laugh out loud, or realise something new about the world. It’s not a conference centre where you set up a stall and shout your prices. Leather also said that he uses sockpuppets on fiction forums to promote his books and create a buzz.
- If you think that the physical book will eventually become obsolete, then consider Fitzgerald’s question: what happens when the machines stop? You may have heard in the grown-up books pages that the online journal I write for, 3:AM Magazine, recently disappeared from the web entirely. It’s a bizarre story involving a Dallas cock-augmentation businessman, tracked through social media to a tattoo parlour somewhere else in Texas, servers in Bucharest – suffice to say we are now back online and should be posting again soon, but it all could have been lost forever. The transitory nature of online writing appeals to me, but established novelists with a backlist to sell may not take these little glitches so lightly.
- We still don’t have a sure method of making a living wage out of this technology. Ursula MacKenzie alluded to the Guardian, which is finding out the hard way that clicks don’t necessarily equal cash (and see Alan A for a brilliant analysis of why the paper’s in the mess it’s in). Writers got to eat, so do publishers, but we’re still on the ‘Phase 2: ?’ stage of the South Park Gnomes business model.
- An agent made the point to me in the bar afterwards that Leather was being kind of irresponsible in promoting the self publishing route so aggressively. Not everyone who uploads their book to Amazon will sell and not everyone has Leather’s Hodder contract to fall back on. And as far as I understand it, once you give away your first rights, that’s it.
- The acceleration in online technology over the last ten years made it inevitable that someone would figure out a way for people to download books straight onto a mobile device. But technology isn’t necessarily going to accelerate forever. Mark Lawson said that at the Edinburgh TV festival ten years ago everyone was saying that by the 2010s consumers would just record what they wanted to watch, and channels and listings would be obsolete. That hasn’t happened. Things change all the time and the old gives way to the new. Often, old and new technologies can coexist. People have been predicting the death of the novel since the advent of wireless. Let’s credit Constant Reader with the ability to cope with more than one thing.
- There is a problem with quality control. If you can write a book and upload it to a mass audience at the click of a mouse, where’s the incentive to edit, rewrite, reread and generally make your fiction the best it can possibly be?
The novelist Laura Lippman illustrated this better than I can.
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.
There’s a line from James Hawes about the value of patience. He says it’s the difference between a supermodel and a centrefold.
Because nowhere in Stephen’s blogpost does he mention the moment on the panel that really caused the audience to gasp: his casual and unashamed admission that he uses sock puppet accounts to promote his work – creating fake online personas to engage with him, each other and other readers to build buzz and spread the word about his books. When I asked him if his readers knew these accounts were fake, he said no. He seemed totally oblivious that any of this might prove controversial, but it was what most people were talking about afterwards.
All in all, the panel felt surreal. It was a strange experience, as I certainly didn’t dislike Stephen – he was very amiable, with a lot of time for his fans at the signing – and I agreed with him on certain issues, such as DRM. The comment on piracy that prompted the ‘Tosser!’ shout was badly worded and ill-advised, especially given the atmosphere, but I do understand the point he was attempting to make. Unfortunately, it came at the end of what had basically been a car crash of an event for him.
As a final note, I’ll return briefly to the comments I made earlier about value, and the different perspectives on it. Stephen seemed to concentrate on value in purely financial terms, and with his use of words like ‘punters’ and ‘units’ it was occasionally easy to forget we were talking about books at all. I’m sure he doesn’t really think like this, but it came across at times as though his readership was some kind of bovine factory farm that needed to be milked in the most efficient manner possible. At a festival full of passionate readers, the response to that was always going to be chilly. It is a business, of course – but to many writers, readers and publishers, books do mean considerably more than that. Conspicuous by its absence in the discussion was any passion whatsoever for storytelling and reading, even though it was precisely that passion that had brought the audience there in the first place.
Another update: This has been going on all week. The brilliant and tireless Jeremy Duns has investigated Leather’s dishonesty, bullying and sockpuppetry in detail. If you want to follow the story on, Steve Mosby has posted a comprehensive update.
Further update: for obvious and worthwhile reasons, the activities and personality of Stephen Leather have overshadowed this debate. But Ewan Morrison has written a fantastic critical piece on e-books, well worth your time.
And again: There is now a recording of the Harrogate panel. You can listen to Stephen Leather in all his grandiloquent glory.
Steve Mosby has transcribed the sockpuppetry admission:
I’ll go onto several forums, from the well-known forums, and post there, under my own name and under various other names and various other characters. You build this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself. And then I’ve got enough fans…
So you use sockpuppet accounts basically?
I think everyone does. Everyone does. Or I have friends who are sockpuppets, who might be real, but they might pick a fight with me.
Are your readers aware of this, or…?
Well, I think that everyone … well, are the readers aware of it? No … But they’re not buying it because of the sockpuppet. What you’re trying to do is create a buzz. And it’s very hard, one person, surrounded by a hundred thousand other writers, to create a buzz. I mean, that’s one of the things that publishers do. They create a buzz. One person on their own, difficult to create a buzz. If you’ve got ten friends, and they’ve got friends, and you can get them all as one creating a buzz, then hopefully you’ll be all right.
Nick Cohen has picked up on this, and discusses Leather in a general piece on literary and journalistic frauds.
Also: Another mainstream piece on Leather and social media chicanery in general, this time from Laura Miller at Salon.
If this debate results in such underhand strategy becoming more widely known, it will have been worth it.