It’s been a week since the Harrowgate Crime Writing Festival in the UK, but there are parts of the internet that are still buzzing about the events at their Wanted for Murder: The eBook panel. This shouldn’t be surprising, really, given that the title of the panel session alone seems designed to court controversy and the report from the man at the middle of the fracas, Stephen Leather, indicates that they were intentionally looking to create a talking point:
“Running the festival this year was Mark “Scaredy Cat” Billingham, one of the best writers in the business as well as a top stand-up comic. Mark came over to me in the green room before the panel and had a quiet word with me. Basically there is a danger of the panels turning into a luvvie love-fest and he wanted me to take a view and be a tad confrontational if at all possible. He wanted the panel to be the talking point of the festival. I’m never one to duck a good argument so I said I’d go for it.”
The result was a panel where the topic of ebook pricing came under heavy critique, the heated debate fueled by some poorly worded remarks regarding the role of piracy and promotional tactics on the part of Stephen Leather.
Leather, who has experienced phenomenal success self-publishing his own work in the UK kindle store, quickly found himself up against an agent, his fellow authors, representatives from the UK Publisher’s Association, and a large portion of the Harrowgate audience. The result, by all reports, seems to have been a tirade against ebooks and the devaluation of writer’s works.
This isn’t exactly a new accusation. Ebook pricing has been at the core of many publisher’s issues with Amazon and the rise of the one dollar self-published ebook has been commented upon many times. Pricing is definitely an issue worth talking about in relation to electronic publishing, and as yet there’s no clear understanding of what an ebook is ‘worth.’
What’s intriguing about the Harrowgate panel is the open hostility being displayed by both the publishers in attendance and the readers. Stacey Bartlett has a more detailed summary of the panel over at We Love This Book which summarizes the general tone of the event, complete with Leather being referred to as a tosser by members of the audience. The response was strong enough for Dean Kurtz at Melville House Books to ask whether the Harrowgate audience represents a bellwether:
Has awareness about the ebook pricing battleground made its way to a more general reading populace? The self-selected crowd at a literary event with such a title could be called atypical, but with so much reporting on the DoJ lawsuit against Apple and others making its way to front pages, we might have moved beyond that sacred tenet that all book buyers are only concerned with price. Many booksellers reported a surge in vocally conscientious customers after the release of the laughably nefarious Amazon price-checking app. Will we see similar reactions even in the ebook marketplace? Is this the year in which readers come to see their literary pixels of choice as having real production costs? And too, I wonder if the audience for Mosby and Leather’s panel is so very aberrant.
Leather has posted a considerably longer write-up about his experience of the panel, and admits that he was shocked by the fact that parts of the audience was against lower-priced books. What’s disappointing, based on his account, is that parts of the debate were overshadowed by the inherent theatrics that comes from playing to a crowd:
“So I explain to Ursula – and the audience – that I can write a short story in five days and am happy to sell that at the Amazon minimum of 72p which generates me an income of 25p. At this point Ursula – who runs one of the biggest publishing houses in the UK – asked me “so you’re happy to work for 5p a day, are you?” The audience laughed and clapped, and I was frankly gob-smacked. I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t seen the fallacy in her comment. She was assuming that I spent five days writing a story and then sold one copy. She can’t possibly have believed that, could she? Of course I don’t work for 5p a day. My Inspector Zhang stories sell about five or six hundred copies a month. Each. So one story sells 6,000 copies a year. So over the next ten years it could sell 60,000 copies which means I’d get £15,000, which is £3,000 a day and that’s probably more than she gets paid.”
What’s been lost in the point-scoring of this debate is the fundamental shift ebooks represent in thinking about publishing, which is well-articulated in Catherine Howard’s post about the incident, Low Ebook Pricing: The Compensation Model.
That Leather believes in ebook publishing is the future seems fairly obvious – you don’t title your blog How To Make A Million Dollars From Writing eBooks (or How I Learned To Love The Kindle) unless you have some confidence in the format – but the worrying thing about the hostility he experienced isn’t just the aversion to the ebook, but an apparent hostility towards the idea of a writer choosing to run his career like a business and/or courting a larger audience.
Then again, perhaps this hostility isn’t entirely unwarranted. While the bulk of the online conversation has revolved around Stephen Leather, the other author on the panel, Stephen Mosby, has expresses his own frustration with the experience. Chief among them were the inability to get a word in edgewise, the tendency for questions to be direction in Leather’s direction, and the problems inherent with talking about books as “product” in an audience full of passionate readers. Mosby concedes that writing is a business, but there’s a time and place to talk about it as such.
Equally interesting is the post from audience member Rebecca Bradley, whose summary of the issues that generated such hostility from the audience is an interesting counter-point to the online ruckus, at least in terms of Leather’s gaffs.