Media jobs: e-readers and the future of publishing

I’ve just been reminded of this year’s traditional family Christmas row. I mentioned that I was planning to buy a Kindle. My sister, an author of many books, spluttered that I shouldn’t mention Kindle to her. It would kill publishing – and media jobs – just as surely as downloading had killed the music industry. She also felt that authors were entitled to a larger slice of revenues from e-books because the publishing companies had much lower overheads.

Of course, this being Christmas, I disagreed. Books have long been passed on by people who have enjoyed them. In addition, libraries pay minimal royalties, and second hand bookshops pay none at all. At least with Kindle and its rivals, most people are only able to download from legal sources, and it is difficult to share files. As much as I might like a book, I am unlikely to lend my Kindle to someone to read a particular book; I am more likely to email them a link to where they can download the book.

As to the level of royalty payments, I can understand the point. However, publishing has long been an industry that subsidises its poor-performing authors through its blockbusters. Most books make a loss. It is surely better for authors of all stripes for the publishers to be making healthy margins through e-books that they can reinvest in commissioning new work. This is surely a virtuous circle.

For me, the threat from e-books actually comes from a different direction, and this could be bad both for authors and publishers. If I walk into a bookshop, it costs roughly the same to buy a paperback from Ian McEwan as one from Jane Austen. In other words, they are competing on a level playing field. But most e-readers now boast about how many free (out of copyright) books they offer: in Kindle’s case, like Apple’s iBooks, 700,000 titles. Kobo offers one million; others offer up to two million free titles. Assuming I had not read either, why would I pay £5.00 to read Atonement when I can download Pride & Prejudice for free?

As with all advances in media, you it is difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. But I do think this could be a serious issue for the publishing industry going forward.