Trudi Canavan

bestselling author of The Black Magician Trilogy

The Future of Books and Authors

Like many authors and people interested in the future of books and publishing, I have been reading a lot of articles and blog posts about eBooks, piracy and such lately. I’m the sort who prefers good sturdy statistical facts and predictions grounded in reality by people familiar with the industry, over wishful thinking and doomsday predictions.

I think this post by Robert J. Sawyer hits the nail on the head, so to speak:

Are the days of the full-time novelist numbered?

And particularly how he sums up:

Maybe we will all indeed still be smiling as writing sf shifts from a career to a hobby. Still, lengthy, ambitious, complex works — works that take years of full-time effort to produce such as, say, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, or, if I may be so bold, my own WWW trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder — aren’t things that could have been produced in any kind of reasonable time by squeezing in an hour’s writing each day over one’s lunch break while working a nine-to-five job.

On the weekend I had an interesting conversation with a couple of old blokes at a party, one who proudly declared that he downloaded torrents of all the books he reads and never pays for them (Old Guy #1), the other who downloads most, but still buys his favourites because he loves the feel and smell of books (Old Guy #2).

As Paul pointed out later, how long would Old Guy #2 last if he did the same thing in restaurants, only paying for the meals he really liked? But what amused me most was that he went on to declare that publishing companies don’t support new writers (untrue, but I won’t go into that now). This from the person who only buys the best books, never considering that he may be supporting a lesser proportion of new writers – because writers get better with practise.

Old Guy #1 was more interesting in that his excuse for pirating books was that ‘publishing companies are exploiting us all – which is why books are so expensive’ (again, untrue and not where I want to go in this post). Even more interesting was that he gave no evidence of it, and dismissed everything thing he was told to the contrary. You can’t argue with people like Old Guy #1, but you can, if you’re evil like me, prod and study them for your own nefarious purposes. I know there are plenty of people like him out there. (Heck, I reckon there’s a little bit of a pirate in nearly everyone. While I don’t download anything – not even tv shows – I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the only way I’m going to get to see some tv shows not available here in Australia is if I borrow a downloaded copy from a friend, and then I’ll buy it if it’s ever made available on dvd.)

What I’d like to see, is for people to buy electronic books for a price that pays everyone involved a reasonable amount.

Like Old Guy #2, I like the physical experience of good old fashioned paper and glue books, but there has always been a guilt factor involved with issues around logging, toxic waste produced in making paper, carbon miles in transportation, and low-paid workers. Electronic books could be a solution. Not a perfect one – there are still those pesky devices with their ecological issues, and exploited workers. A change for the better would be great.

But I don’t see that happening. It’s too easy to pirate eBooks, too hard to stop it, and problems with availability in different regions will make it feel justified as it has with tv shows. What I think is this: people care as much about the makers of books as they do about the makers of clothing. Some people may care, perhaps a few act by buying ‘fair trade’ goods, but most won’t so long as they pay less – and feel justified in doing so. Clothing these days is cheap and doesn’t last long. I suspect books will go the same way – the quality will suffer.

Why do I believe this? Firstly, writing books takes a long time – it takes me about a year full-time to write one. Getting good at it takes even longer. In his book about success, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become truly good at something. That’s 3 hours a day, 333 days a year for ten years. (I chose a 3 hour writing day because most writers don’t make enough money to write full time.) Also consider that most writer’s careers start later in life, when they have families and house mortgages to support – and in the fantasy field they are often ‘new’ writers with great potential to be ‘great writers’. You get really good at writing a lot faster if you don’t have to write, as Robert says, ‘by squeezing in an hour’s writing each day over one’s lunch break while working a nine-to-five job’.

Secondly, in my experience, writers of good books are nearly always really smart, talented people. Smart enough to know when writing books has become too much of a bad deal to be worth doing as anything more than a hobby. Talented enough that they have other skills they can turn into careers – profitable careers. Basically, they’ll find something else to do.

Lastly, the above also applies to editors. IMHO, if you’ve ever pirated a book, you’ve lost any right to complain about typos and errors in them, in any format. Ever. Editors are the unsung heros of publishing.

If books do go the way of clothing, it could be that really good books will go the way of good quality clothing – produced by high end publishers and priced way out of the reach of the average reader. But that may be stretching the analogy too far.

17 Responses »

  1. Personally, I love the idea of e-books and agree with what you say about the environment. I’m sure that in the long run, e-books will be easier for the majority of people cost-wise and certainly lighten your load when traveling. The only thing about e-books is that if you read them on your computer, it’s quite detrimental to your eyes. And some of us are putting in effort to reduce screen-time. Of course, we can get e-book readers, but then those can be quite costly too, depending on the features you want. But if you think about it in your lifetime, you might be able to save a bit of money. But for me, if I read an e-book, if I absolutely love the book and find myself wanting to read it multiple times, then I buy the book. That would actually get me going backwards instead of forwards in terms of cost.
    For me, it’s more ideal to have a book in the flesh instead of an electronic copy. I suppose that not all people would consider the effort that writers put in because of that ancient system we like to call the ‘library’. I think that libraries have dumbed us down a bit about that kind of thing. Sure it gets us to love books, and read them, but if any book you would want to read is available at the library, why would you buy it? I know that is true for some people. Rather, for me, I would want to buy a book because borrowing from the library is a hassle I would prefer to have out of my hair. I’m a slow reader, I like to read things at my own pace and whenever I would like to, and I hate being restricted by deadlines and fees. There are a couple books I’ve had overdue that cost more than buying the book itself.
    I believe that the best way to enjoy a book is to own it, not to borrow it or, in my case, share with other siblings. If I’m studying a book, it’s great to be able to annotate, highlight and write into the book when I need to. I would very much dislike having all of the books I need for school swapped for the electronic alternative for that reason. As for leisure books, I just hate the deadlines, and I hate the wear on the eyes. I prefer the method of my childhood, the flashlight and the book under the sheets. That’s probably just as bad for your eyes, but when you really get into a book, you find yourself resorting to that.
    I can understand people’s justifications for pirating and getting e-books as an alternative, but I really think that if you love the book enough, you should go out and but it. I really cannot imagine a future without paper books, for me it would just be too tragic to let go this ancient method of keeping records and stories to pass on for generations. There really is a big difference between e-books and paper books that people should consider: would you think twice about deleting an e-book or a beloved novel from your childhood?

  2. Real copies of books will always hold a special place in my heart. I love being able to turn the pages, seeing all the books on my shelf, and sometimes reading by candlelight. However, this summer I was packing for a trip and knew I wanted some books for the 30 hours of planes and airports I would be in but at the same time I don’t want to bring too many books because then I have less room for souvenirs. It is times like these that I really wish I had a Booknook, Kindle, or one of the other brands of e-book readers.
    The problem that I have is that my favorite books always are bought in 2 versions, the hardbacks as soon as they are released and then later the paperbacks. I do this because I love my hardback copies to be in pristine condition but sometimes I want to take them camping, in my bookbag to school, to the beach, etc. Yes, I could buy a Booknook and take that with me in those situations but then I have to deal with the same problem that someone else posted, I need to charge it, which is pretty difficult in the middle of the woods. So no, I still have to have my HC and my PB but do I really want to buy 3 copies of the same book?? Alas, since I won’t illegally download that appears to be my only option. So for now, until they fix the multiple readers, multiple types of downloads problem, I will stick with my real books and try to figure out a way to bring those books back home with me when I am out of room in my suitcase.

  3. I don’t know, is there really that big an effect on books being downloaded illegally. i love reading and i find that most of the younger generation don’t and therefore wouldn’t download books illegally and that most of the older generation (no offense to anyone) wouldn’t have a clue how 2 and personally i like 2 buy books for 2 reasons

    1 i don’t believe that writers make that much money (maybe i am wrong) and therefore i should support them, especially if i like them.

    2 i like to collect things everything i like i buy 2 keep and i don’t trade it back in so i don’t like lending from libraries or downloading for that reason.

    Is downloading books different than lending from a library and if so why?

    and is it really that much of a problem?

    I’d really like answers to the last 2 questions i am genuinely interested in what people think.

    • I’m afraid you’re wrong about age groups and downloading, and that’s why I called the pirates I met at the party Old Guy #1 and Old Guy #2. The generation that didn’t get much chance to grasp computers is fast dying out.

      As for how much effect downloading has… nobody really knows enough yet. Even the few efforts to survey and record statistics of eBook sales that I’ve seen were really too small to give much of an indication.

  4. It seems like you’ve set off quite a debate here, Trudi.

    I agree with old guy 2, I love the physical aspects of reading a book; the feel of the paper and the smell. I also love how they look. Since the age of thirteen, my small bedroom was very library-like. When I moved to my university halls, I didn’t take any sort of decoration for my room, I took my books – they were my way of making my room feel personal and homely. You couldn’t do that with eBooks.

    I don’t like the idea of the publishing world ending due to people illegally downloading books online and, quite frankly, I don’t know how people can read e-Books. I have no desire to sit in front of a laptop or handheld device and read a book.

    If you just read e-Books, you’d never be able to sit in the garden, or in a park, and read a good story.

    I’ll stay with a good old hardback please!

  5. My husband and i are avid readers – our tiny flat is very much resemling a library, with more books than furniture – and we find that we cant get on with eBooks. I love proper books too much. At the end of the day, an electronic device is prone to crashing or the battery dying. At least i can read my paper book without worrying the text is going to short out or im going to get halfway through a long bus journey and the battery light flashs at me.
    We’re very much in an age where people want to get something for nothing, and the amount of piracy astounds me. They will be the first people to complain that their favourite author hasnt written anything new, and it’ll be because piracy has robbed them of their livihoods and probably sucked any joy out of writing because they’ll have to work full time to support themselves. I’ve been trying to write my book for the last 7 years but working full time and trying to deal with a husband who is constantly at war has destroyed any enthusiasm i have for writing. I can get out a couple of chapters a week, at the very best. Generally its a couple of weeks before i can pick my writing up and do a little more. I love technology and am well known for having the latest gadgets, but i will never trade my paper books for ebooks.

    • If you think the amount of piracy is astounding, ask a bookseller how much stock they lose to theft. It’s always nice to hear that someone appreciates the work that goes into writing a book, and how disheartening being ‘ripped off’ or unappreciated feels.

  6. The problem with criticizing both of those Old Guys is that ultimately, is downloading illegally any different to going to a library? No-one gets any money, and most definitely not the author.

    There could be an argument in that with a library at least the publisher is paid for the number of physical copies in existence, but the author can still loose out massively.

    But that falls apart entirely with digital copies.

    Some libraries allow you to download an e-book version of certain titles, and that is not copy-limited as with physical – you never get an ‘out of stock’ message.

    Then you have the restrictions on e-books.

    With a physical book that you have bought, no-one can say you cannot lend it to a friend or pass it on (the ‘First Sale’ principle it is called in the US) – it is this very principle that allows libraries to work. They buy it once, and then lend it out temporarily to one person at a time.
    With e-books, rarely can you pass it on, and often there is a device restriction depending on the format. You cannot put an e-book bought through Apples iBookStore onto any other device due to its DRM scheme.

    While e-books are moving towards a standardised .epub with Adobe encryption – meaning that cross-device is possible – there is still the issue that they are considered ‘licenced’ not ‘sold’. It was this very principle that allowed Amazon to retroactively remove all copies of a book from its customers devices after the right to distribute it was disputed.

    With a physical book, such a thing cannot happen. Should this happen, then the bookstore will stop selling the copies; but they won’t go into customer’s homes demanding the book back.

    These things entirely crush the basis on which Libraries work, and the basis on which physical books are bought.

    Thus, I think that e-books need to be fundamentally re-thought out. Too many people are used to the freedoms associated with bought books / library books that e-books become very restrictive by comparison.

    The only time I download e-books legally is if they are free or offer a sneak-peak / exclusive content that I care about (e.g. Tor released the prologue to The Gathering Storm as a low-cost e-book early).
    Disclaimer #2:
    The only time I download e-books illegally are if I already have a physical copy – ultimately no different from format shifting my music collection from CD to my hard drive.

    I’d be interested to hear what people think on my second disclaimer.

    • Your second disclaimer is fine, it’s not illegal to download something you already have a copy of 😉

      Some people would moan to hell cause you downloaded it (oh no!) but it’s fine (by me at least!). Having a digital backup of a book can be useful in some cases 🙂

  7. Personally I don’t think e-books are the best way forward. Yes there is the easy availability of buying them from the internet and such, but then you fall under the problem that the e-book that you paid for isn’t truly yours. If you buy the book then no-one can say it is not yours and you also don’t the problem of accidentally losing it if say your computer hard drive crashed. Personally I will never buy an e-book for a few reasons. One being that i already spend enough time looking at a computer screen, I won’t put my eyes under any more stress by looking at a tiny screen. Secondly I absolutely adore holding the book (even when they get annoying to hold in bed!) and I don’t think I could ever truly get into a book reading it on a little screen. It sounds completely against what I stand for as I fully support recycling everything, but books live on and go to charity shops etc. I think that books can be made better by using recycled paper, as that is much more sustainable.

    As for the price, I (despite not earning any money) am willing to pay most prices for books. It’s all to easy to say that everything is expensive nowadays, because everyone seems to want everything for next to nothing. People don’t seem to stop and think about all the effort on many levels which the book has gone through to be published, and those people need to earn an income too! For me it all depends on the size of the book and also what it means to you. For example we paid £60 for the BMT omnibus (limited edition) because it wasn’t for sale anywhere else so the price had doubled but I know that it is worth it as to me it is the best trilogy ever and is extremely close to my heart. It is easily my most prized possession. However I never buy a book to read once, I re-read all my books so to me £10 is a small amount seeing as I will read the books over and over. So maybe people who read books once need to learn to re-read their books!!

    • I am in awe of you for buying the omnibus! Personally, I’d like to buy electronic books first, then buy my favourites as hardbacks to reread that look and feel beautiful and last a long time. That way everyone gets paid, and my library isn’t overflowing.

      Okay, it might still end up overflowing, but the thought was nice.

  8. To a certain extent I agree with Old Man #1. I work as a bookseller in the UK, and having been to australia a few times I have found aussie books to be expensive. But its happening everywhere. New paperback book have have price increases of 20 to 30 % in the last decade, going from 4.99/5.99 to 7.99/8.99. When books are available for free online (even illegally) is it really suprising that people will get them from there?

    (It also doesn’t help that here in the UK we have to sell at RRP. Makes it very difficult to compete with online bookstore when they’re selling it cheaper)

    What I will say is something I tell a fair few of the customers in my store: I’d never buy an ereader. I like reading an actual book not words on a screen. And probably 8 out of every 10 customers I say this to agree with me. We might be moving towards the digital age of books but we’re not there yet!

    Oh, and if you’re worried about the carbon footprint of your books Trudi, have a look at the Orbit blog from April 1st 2010. Our books will soon be carbon neutral! 😉

  9. Excellent post, thankyou very much for raising these points. As an Aussie book buyer and seller who has watched in-store sales dwindle over the past years, I have to agree with a lot of what both your Old Guy #1 and 2 had to say. Aussie-published books are stupidly expensive in comparison to US prints, and far beyond the mental “I’ll give it a shot” price point. If books by new authors were under that $10 barrier, I’m sure we’d sell more. As it stands, $24 is too much of a risk for consumers when dealing with an unknown author, and that money gets reserved for the safe, established authors.

    As a budding writer myself, I’m also hoping that the self-published electronic book market will lift off sooner rather than later. This is the only skill I’ve got.

  10. I am an optimist. I really do believe people who love books will always buy them and are more than happy to pay for a *good* book. I certainly will but I read a lot and I’m fast running out of room in my house for books I would not want to read more than once. There are always going to be books I want to keep but I’d feel bad sending any book off to the tip as landfill and/or selling them/giving them to second hand bookshops because this process is not doing anything for the authors/publishers either.

    My work in ICT (Information and Communications Technology) based in the Australian tertiary education sector, exposes me to a large number of new technologies, like eReaders, and it is getting much easier to control the content which is being viewed on them.

    There are ways publishers can control eBooks and access to them on mobile devices (the ethics of ownership is another matter). One way would be to have the publisher itself create an application which runs off something like the iStore and has a list of books available for purchase from that publisher. The publisher could then have people wanting to buy eBooks purchasing directly from them, as a bookstore would, and they would get their share and authors would be entitled to thier commission. The publisher could then offer free chapters tastes for new books coming out, free older out of copyright books, book club/magazine subscriptions, etc. at a slightly discounted rate due to the smaller overheads compared to running something through the printer (although this last point is not likely based on previous experience with the cost of eBooks).

    I would really like publisher’s to consider some of the ways they can control how books are going and invest some forward thinking into this option just being a preferred way of reading, accessing (for those with disabilities) and storing a book rather than a way of cheating the system and getting the book for free.

    The pioneer publishers in this technology would be industry leaders and it could even be equated to the move from handwritten books to the first use of the printing press in the 1400’s. If I’m ever published, I love the idea of being one of the first. Maybe when studying history in 600 years students will read my name and have my title referred to as one of the first authors who embraced the eBook as a legitimate publishing platform.