Boyd Tonkin: The man who starved literature?

The week in books

How much ought you expect to pay for a copy of Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest? Buy the Kindle e-book edition from Amazon, in this case the guys who manage the hardware, the software and the retail pricing alike, and the answer this week is: exactly £2.68, or roughly as much as the posh frothy coffee you might drink while reading a few pages of it. Amazon's dead-tree paperback, for comparison, will set you back a comparatively steep £3.99. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the late Swedish spellbinder last month became the first author to sell a million electronic copies for the Kindle reader.

As the autumn publishing seasons nears with its routine harvest of inflated hopes and overblown claims, let's take a reality check. Just as the the newspaper business did a dozen years ago, when it chose to give its products away online without devising a credible method to replace abandoned revenues, trade publishing stands at risk of committing hi-tech suicide. True, digital distribution did not by itself inaugurate the crazed rush to strip perceived value from the art, skill and labour of writers everywhere, and to encourage younger consumers to treat literary talent – as they already treat journalistic and musical talent – as an effectively cost-free service that should arrive on tap, almost gratis.

In Britain, the catastrophic double whammy of the late 1990s – the abolition of statutory price maintenance for books, backed with a refusal to enact US-style controls on monopolistic discounts – soon seeded the belief that the proper value of an expensively-produced £20 hardback lay somewhere around £7.99. Supermarkets had already steamrollered publishers with their piled-high, flogged-cheap way with bestsellers when "kindle" still meant lighting a fire under a pile of unwanted paper. And, for all the company's control-freak paranoia about both technology and content, Apple has so far played relatively fair with publishers – and authors – to keep prices in its iBookstore at a level at which the art, and business, of the book has some hope of long-term viability.

Amazon, with its more varied, inexpensive lines of kit and broader range of titles, looks well placed to resist Apple's bid via the iPad to become the retailer of choice for digital readers. Yet Jeff Bezos's company has also led the race towards all-but "free" content: a plunge to the depths that, as e-reading develops, threatens to drown writers and publishers alike. All the same, the cultural shift marked by the crash of virtual reading onto the bargain-basement floor runs deeper than any hunt for corporate villains (or heroes).

Can professional authorship even survive, in the post-Enlightenment sense of a body of individuals who may reasonably hope over a career (rather than via one-off sensations) to gain a livelihood chiefly from the composition and sale of book-length works? Certainly it will, for the blockbusters and brand-creators, and the odd literary superstar. But the corps of full-time pros will shrink – perhaps drastically so.

Remember, though, that this status has always been much rarer than book-trade hype implies. Cross-subsidy from other jobs, other writing and family support has traditionally sustained serious literature, both fiction and non-fiction. It will do so in spades over the coming years of digitally squeezed margins and slashed incomes. Already, the bulk of well-known writers earn – from their published work alone – less than readers think they do, especially the "literary" novelists. One still sees fantasy numbers quoted for book advances that overshoot any likely figure by 1000 per cent and more. They will soon earn even less.

For the ambitious novelist, the portfolio career awaits. They will live as poets always have, with fees from teaching, performance, festivals, editing, broadcasting and journalism now combined – as media and education also suffer cuts – with quite separate trades. If I were a university creative-writing head, I would now be starting to plan joint degrees in Landscape Gardening and Literary Fiction; in Psychotherapy and Biography; or (given the shining examples of TS Eliot, Roy Fuller and Wallace Stevens) in Financial Services and Modern Poetry.

Good, even great, writing, will flourish, as it did and does in all those poorer countries where gifted authors have never had the chance to write for cash. Who knows? The evaporation of rewards from the commercial marketplace may strike many authors as a liberation from pressures to conform. But writers themselves, along with their readers, need to think and talk in earnest about the future economics of their calling. So far, this conversation has scarcely begun.

The president's freedom to read

Being President means that you get to read hot books before the hoi polloi. At the Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Martha's Vineyard (right), a vacationing Barack Obama bought titles by John Steinbeck and Harper Lee (but surely the legal eagle read To Kill a Mockingbird while in short pants?). He was also gifted an early copy of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. A mighty fanfare has anticipated the novel's release - but it's not on sale yet. Cue US outrage over the discovery that retailers and media receive advance proofs. Disgusted of Brooklyn is welcome to bid for The Independent's own preview copy. Will exchange for dinner (and round-trip fare) at L'Etoile, Edgartown, Mass.

Farewell to a modern master

Among my (and no doubt your) least favourite genres is the fond reminiscence by middle-aged buffers of the giants who stalked lecture-rooms in their student days. Undeterred, I have to mark the passing (aged 90) of Sir Frank Kermode, Manx lorry driver's son, quizzical wartime naval officer - see his lovely memoir, Not Entitled - and a paragon of mind-expanding criticism. With Kermode, ever-adventurous ideas and searching scholarship went hand-in-hand with modesty and accessibility. Once upon a time at Cambridge, students might learn from a trio of giants – each, in his own way, semi-detached from the powers-that-be – how to trace the paths that led from the EngLit canon into a thrilling hinterland of thought that stretched in space all over Europe, and beyond, and in time from the Classics to the present: Frank Kermode, George Steiner and Raymond Williams. Each could (and did) in a different style demolish the myth of the Golden Age. But who, in any university, has since filled their shoes?

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor