Don’t fear the Reader

Garbhan Downey's new novel The American Envoy will be the first from a Northern Ireland press, Guildhall Press, to be sold as an e-book as well as in printed form.

The Derry author is convinced that the e-reading revolution will bring huge opportunities for readers, writers and publishers alike.

I love books. Our house is coming down with them. Every time we build a new bookcase, we instantly fill it from the pre-existing spill-over.Like many people I know, I have a greater sentimental attachment to books than any other (non-breathing) possessions. Revisiting the shelves has all the charm of revisiting old friends, without the attendant need to explain yourself. You remember the stories, where you were when you first saw them, the time you spent with them and when you fell in love with them.

I own signed copies of books that I wouldn’t even mention to people in passing conversation, for fear someone might want to see them – or worse again borrow them.

Last summer, however, was the first time I was ever able to go off on holiday with 125 books in my jacket pocket, courtesy of the Sony Reader my mother-in-law had given me at Easter.

The Reader gives you 7000 page turns without needing a re-charge, which, is roughly the equivalent of 15 to 20 books. And it allows you to purchase and read the books you want immediately, from the comfort of your PC – and you never have to settle for second best.

It’s not perfect by any means. The Reader doesn’t perform half the tricks of any semi-decent mobile phone, it isn’t interactive and it’s also, well, a little too black-and-white for my tastes. In addition, it still costs the guts of £150 and necessitates the user carrying around a third portable screen, (the others being the mobile and the laptop), which industry experts believe is one machine too many to be bothered with.

But while the current generation of devices is struggling to keep pace with consumer demands, (the 1G Apple iPad has already been getting flak for being too big and lacking the ability to multi-task), e-reading and e-publishing is here to stay.

Sales set to explode

Shortly before Christmas, two hundred publishers from all over the world attended a keynote conference on e-publishing at the CGI Tower in London. I attended as Guildhall Press’s representative.

Hosted by The Bookseller, the FUTUReBOOK symposium was addressed by some of the top names in both the book and telecommunication industries, including: Random House, Bloomsbury, Waterstones, the Publishers’ Association, Google and Vodafone. Every single person there was preparing for a massive explosion in e-book sales.

Jason Hanley, the Development Manager of Google Editions, quantified it in very simple terms. He noted that $113m of e-books were sold in the US in 2008, rising to $14m a month in 2009. He projects sales of $9 billion per annum by 2013; others suggest this figure could be even higher.

Whichever figure you take, the rise will be phenomenal. Even the most cautious contributor, the pollster from YouGov (research consultants), was convinced. And while he suggested that the current generation of e-reading devices might be a passing fad (in the way that mini-discs were in the music industry), they would only be a brief stopping point on the way to great things. He also stated that Apple would, without a shadow of a doubt, drive the e-reading market both in terms of book sales and devices.

The conference chair, Jason Dunne, pointed out that there are already 4.5 billion mobile screens active in the world, making it “inevitable” that reading would become digitised, just as music did. “People love books but they will prefer getting their wall space back,” he said. “Books as a physical product aren’t as important as we think.”

More for readers

Much debate was also given to adding enhanced value to e-books – to make them more “alive” and interactive for the 21st century reader. Peter Collinridge, the founder of Enhanced Editions, argued that it wouldn’t be enough to replicate the simple reading experience – and warned of the limitations of the Sony Reader and the Kindle. He showed a video of a new iPhone e-book his company had developed from the Nick Cave novel ‘Bunny Munro’. This includes full audio and select video of Cave reading the book – and a facility which allows the publisher to send updates to the purchaser, in the form of reviews and notice of new books.

Other publishers at the conference discussed the potential for developing fully interactive schoolbooks – with inbuilt links, urls, video and audio, and test questions. The recent announcement by Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, that he intends to furnish every single schoolchild in his state with an e-reading device, will certainly speed up this process.

There was widespread agreement that the days of the three-stone schoolbag and stoop-shouldered schoolboy were numbered. One prediction, that made its way into a Radio 4 documentary, was that there will be an e-reading device in every house in the UK within five years.

Less risk for publishers

The price of e-books is likely to remain almost identical to paperbacks, despite the reduction in production and distribution costs. All the major players in the book and telecommunication industries are demanding this, insisting that the quality of the final product will be as good as before. They also point out that similar (i.e. full) pricing structures apply in the music industry

Virtual supermarkets such as Apple, Google and Vodafone are expected to take around 30 percent from each e-book sale, as opposed to the 48 to 55 percent many distributors take from printed books. But there is, naturally, no longer any onus on the publisher to print a specified number of copies and then accept returns.

Fears that publishing houses will be done away with in place of self-publishers (a process referred to as “disintermediation”) also appear to be groundless. The major retailers and distributors are insisting on a regulated marketplace, as they did with the music industry, and will only deal with established publishers.

Good news for writers

Finally, and very importantly, it looks that e-publishing could be good news for writers. Some authors have already negotiated between 50 and 75 percent of the royalties to their digitised books – as opposed to the eight to 15 percent they get from printed volumes.

In addition, publishing houses will be more inclined to recruit and develop new talent on an “e-book only” basis, as the financial risk to them is much lower.

And of course, your work can be dispatched instantly to readers across the planet, without any additional cost or haggling with distributors. Just try getting a single US chain to take one hundred copies of your hardcopy novel. You could literally drown in the paperwork.

In my own case, as a lifelong techie, I am tickled pink that Guildhall Press have chosen my new novel, The American Envoy, to be the North’s first e-book.

Ironically, the central character is a man who prefers to write letters, as he doesn’t trust computers. And for those of you who might agree with him, the book will also be published in hardcopy form, with foldable pages and glossy cover.

As I said earlier, I love books. But I also love e-books.

[This article first appeared in the Verbal magazine, 23 Feb 2010.]

Garbhan Downey's The American Envoy published by Guildhall Press will be launched at the Dublin Book Festival Dublin Book Festival 6-8 March 2010. ISBN: 9781906271275. Paperback £6.95. Copies of the e-book are available to purchase from 1 March 2010. Garbhan will be reading at the festival alongside fellow author's Ciaran Carson and Karen Gillece at 3pm on Sunday 7 March in Dublin's City Hall. All welcome!

THE AMERICAN ENVOY by Garbhan Downey.

Published 6 March 2010 by Guildhall Press.

Paperback. ISBN: 9781906271275. £6.95.

E-book available from from 1 March 2010.

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THE AMERICAN ENVOY by Garbhan Downey will be launched at the Dublin Book Festival 6-8 March 2010. More details to follow soon.

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