The RMS Titanic sank over a century ago, taking with it 1500 lives. It could have been many fewer, but in the early stages of the catastrophe the boat appeared to stop sinking, and many passengers in 3rd class were told the situation was safe, to only then feel the ship resume it’s lethal progress even faster.
Enter Simon Jenkins of the Guardian to tell us that books are definitely not sinking, and only the “technodazzled” thought otherwise. Hurrah, said the twitterverse, sharing the article over 36,000 times and leaving almost 900 jubilant comments. If it’s fair to say that the more wishful the thinking, the less evidence it requires for celebration, then Jenkin’s thinking is the most wishful of all, as he presents hardly any evidence at all, and badly misinterprets the few data points he invokes.
The news that Waterstone’s has stopped selling Kindles is singularly irrelevant. If they stop selling Moleskine’s will that indicate the death of writing? The total number of smartphones worldwide is estimated to hit 2 billion and to continue growing at 7% each year. Every single one is a device designed for reading ebooks. It’s staggering that Jenkins, whose grasp of the technology doesn’t even reach to seeing the difference between ebook readers and ebooks, was allowed to present such a skewed perception as fact.
A 5% rise in Waterstones print book sales is good news. It’s driven by colouring books sadly, a temporary hobby fad. Even with that temporary boost, Waterstones isn’t profitable. It’s no longer shedding money, and isn’t likely to go out of business this year. But the chances of there being a dedicated high-street book retailer in 10 years time are remote. There will always be print books, but whether they’ll sell enough to support a retail industry is open to conjecture. Vinyl records still sell today, but not well enough to bring back record shops.
Jenkins killer “fact” is a fall in “digital content” sales of a few % points. Jenkins doesn’t mention that this is the same period publishers jacked up the price of ebooks in an act of near criminal sabotage against their own authors. A £10 paperback will now cost £13 for ebook or often more. Few people are happy paying more for an ebook, and so the “big 5” publishers ebook sales have fallen. Actual ebook sales however are way up and accelerating. As publishers attack their own writers, indie authors have stepped in and are now dominating the Amazon bestseller lists across the board. And they’re making a small fortune on 70% royalty rates, while all but the very bestselling mainstream published authors are failing to even make a living.
Which is really the heart of the problem. Not only is Jenkins article a shoddy piece of journalism, it’s inviting people to celebrate the continuance of a system that is not good for creators. Authors sign away almost all their income to retailers, distributors and publishers. The delivery drivers who haul the books get paid better than most trad published authors. Publisher’s do very well from ebooks, but still offer authors a derisory royalty on them, in increasingly odious contracts that gouge more money and rights from writers. If the beauty of print books comes nailed to the poor treatment of the wonderful souls who write them, you can keep it.
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