Home » Ain't life great. » Taking an app: Armageddon in the e-book trade

Taking an app: Armageddon in the e-book trade

As it happens, the prognostications of Mr Russell Grant and his syndicated columns of horoscopy have a direct personal relevance to me.

Some years ago, I managed to find a maternity-relief job on my local newspaper as the person who typesets the Classified advertisements. The position was so poorly paid that my children qualified for free school lunches.

After a month of deteriorating relations with the bossy women whose job was to sell the ad space – the principal cause of friction being my insistence on correcting their spelling mistakes – someone higher up actually read my CV and realised that I had been a card-carrying journalist long before the editor was squeezing into a size-16 gym-slip.

Accordingly, I was promoted out of the line of vitriol of the sales harpies, and put instead to sub-editing the safer parts of the paper itself. The showbiz column. The local history page. Urgent news from around the Women’s Institute branches. What’s On? at the local fleapit cinema.

And, the horoscopes. The mighty Universal Grant machine supplied our paper, as many others, with weekly advice for those who half-believe that their destiny lies in the stars. The horoscopes would arrive in monthly batches, and we would quite often print them in the wrong date order, but it didn’t seem to matter.

My problem was that the copy was invariably too long, and I would have to chop bits out of each star sign to get them all to fit the available space. I began to worry. Which bits wouldn’t be important to somebody?

What if the reader was relying on Russell to advise them what to do under certain vital circumstances, the circumstances had arisen, but the advice was not there; important aspects of people’s lives, Sagittarius, Leo, that they would not be forewarned of, digitally binned, as it were, by my uncaring editorial hand? What if they died?

I began to feel as if it was me, rather than the rising and conjoining constellations, Pisces, Aries, that was shaping human destiny.

“If you press yourself too hard, you could get a headache. There’s nothing wrong with taking a nap when you get tired. Career opportunities could be few and far between. Treat yourself to… a new electronic e-reader.”

Now, this is uncanny. In my horoscope for today, carried on the Yahoo! homepage, Russell has put his chubby, beringed finger precisely on the nub of the problem.

I did press myself too hard last night, and this morning I do have a bit of a headache. Sometimes, I find (don’t you?) that I have to force myself to knock-off the last third of the bottle, as I can get tired of drinking cheap supermarket wine and need to take a nap. I often fall asleep in the afternoons too, feeling that there’s nothing wrong with missing out on a few minutes’ worth of career opportunities, given that there don’t seem to be any this week.

But it’s the electronic e-reader bit that’s so fascinating.

Russell obviously was not to know that I don’t have an old e-reader to replace with a new one, or indeed any money to buy one, career opportunities being so thin on the ground, but I have been thinking a lot about e-readers recently.

One of the many forms of suicide I have been practising in recent years is cultural. I did read one book last year, on a personal recommendation, but found it so tiring that I got headaches and had to take several naps.

Because I can’t seem to grasp information and hold on to it right to the end of the paragraph. Consequently I have no idea what the author is on about, and so feel that buying books in the first place, in whatever format, is a waste of money. I prefer reading these, my own Posts, which are fascinating, informative, companionable and well-written – but above all, easy to understand.

A few days ago, the Big Beast of the e-reader jungle, Amazon’s Kindle division, kindly sent me a four-page letter outlining their case in their well-publicised dispute with the French publishing empire, Hachette. (I think that’s French for ‘axe’?)

I didn’t understand much of what they were saying, and have forgotten the rest already, but it seems Amazon was attempting to justify its policy of blacklisting Hachette’s authors in order to persuade the publisher to accept that e-readable versions of their books ought to be a lot cheaper than the cardboard-sandwiches people buy in bookshops, and so Kindle should pay them less for the publication rights. (I’ve just had to read this paragraph again, twice, but I think I now understand it.)

This seems logical, and Amazon’s argument, that if e-books were cheaper more people would buy them and so Hachette would make bigger profits, sounded utterly reasonable. Imagine my distress, therefore, to learn that no fewer than nine hundred authors had signed a letter in the New York Review of Books, telling Amazon to go fuck itself.

But how much good have traditional publishers ever done for the majority of their authors?

Before becoming a lowly typesetter, I had a number of editorial jobs, notably in publishing, where I produced over a hundred and fifty new titles in a career spanning five years.

And, before that, I had had a number of somewhat higher-profile jobs in advertising. So, being the creative, imaginative sort, I tried to apply a little thinking from the latter category to the former. I simply could not understand why my employers in the publishing business were so utterly crap at selling books?

The answer, I believe, is that it is because they sold books; or hoped to, rather than selling what was in the books. They were selling the wrong product: the outer packaging, not the contents.

Their marketing ideas seemed to have ossified early on in the Victorian era, about the time Mr Dickens was cleverly maximising his sales by going out on the stump, giving highly dramatic readings of his lurid serialisations to gasping and fainting audiences of hundreds of adoring fans around the country.

It was a brilliant display of multi-medial marketing, in which the content took pride of place over the outward form. Who cared what the cover looked like, when Little Nell was at stake? It’s a lesson publishers seem never since to have taken on board. Book signings aren’t quite the same thing.

To give just one example of what I mean, behind the foyer of one reputable independent company where I worked, that specialised in History books, was a room lined with shelves, a veritable literary ossuary in which rested the dusty bones of a few samples each of the hundreds of meaty titles previously published by us, long before thought to have reached their expiry dates.

I looked at them in a very different light.

Here were yards and yards of re-usable, marketable content: information, opinion, ideas, painstakingly researched and paid-for, put into comprehensible, entertaining formats for the reading public, now just sitting there, doing nothing, waiting in vain for new media to release them once more into the world and make celebrities of their authors.

While, upstairs, the marketing department struggled to obtain bookshop sales for a never-ending stream of expensive new products, in competition with large publishing groups supplying chains like Borders and Waterstones; who in turn were soliciting higher and higher margins, outright bribes, from ‘favoured’ publishers to display their wares and nobody else’s, in panicky flight from the power of the supermarkets.

My imagination reeled! Just what couldn’t we do with all that scrummy content, re-edited and re-packaged in a variety of ways for new readerships, audiences, user-groups – content we already owned, that we could market outside the increasingly profitless world of conventional book publishing!

Instead, most of those books, having failed to reach their initial sales targets for one reason and another, had been ‘remaindered’; which is to say, the unsold copies had been boxed-up and sold for 10p each to a Nigerian entrepreneur, who shipped them out to Lagos and sold them on in the trade, at a hefty premium.

Several of my own books were hardly off the press before Marketing gave up on them. If they didn’t hit their modest sales targets in three months, they weren’t worth spending any more money on. It was Armaggedon in the book trade; as if, having made a hundred cans of baked beans and sold only eighty, Heinz had abandoned beans as a good idea without any research to understand why, and switched instead to selling pickled pimentos; and when they didn’t sell out, had moved on to boiled beets and curdled cabbage, stabbing blindly in the dark.

Why didn’t we just cut-out the middle-man and create outlets for our own remainders? It was a conundrum. The old Net Book Agreement, that had for decades operated a closed shop containing book prices that could not legally be reduced, had gone under the Heath government. Why did we not just sell books for 10p, if that was what they were fated to be sold for anyway? At least we would keep the money. And I had plenty more ideas where that came from.

I put some of them together on paper, took them to the Marketing Manager. I showed him one: how we could increase the profit-per-publication by 10% by producing accompanying low-cost audiobook versions of the texts; how we would market them in the trade.

I explained that I had spent ten years in the broadcast industries, fifteen in marketing service agencies. I showed him market research, statistics. I offered to set-up and manage an audiobooks production department at no extra cost to my current, dismal salary. His flaccid reply: “But we are not in the business of producing audiobooks.”

Six months after I left the company, it had vanished without a trace.

Who would have predicted that? Or that, within a few years, people would be reading books on their phones, books supplied by Google, and have no more need for Amazon’s frankly nerdy little plasticky one-function Kindle readers – panic being the real reason they sent out that weaselly letter?

Wake up, Russell. I’ve got a Smartphone, I don’t need an electronic e-reader, thanks.

Nice try. But I feel a headache coming on. Think I’ll take an app….



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