Ebooks for 20p may be a novel idea, but it spells bad news for literature
But reading between the lines, Samuel Muston discovers that it could be bad news for all of us
Those familiar with the 1990s cult teen film Clueless, will know of the phenomenon called "buyer's remorse": when the purchaser of an expensive, unnecessary, but highly prized item is wrought with anxiety after handing over the credit card.
I got this feeling in reverse on Christmas Day. Downloading Safe House by Chris Ewan (Faber) for my mother (the first book on her new Kindle), I noticed its price: 20p. A 448-page, well-reviewed work only a few months old was being touted for less than the price of a banana in our office canteen.
I would – and thousands have – paid many multiples of 10 for such a title. We do so quietly hoping that we are in some way supporting authors, publishers and literature in general. Was the 20p price a mistake then? Or some further push by Amazon to annexe the entire means by which books are sold in the word?
In fact, Amazon was only price matching. The 20p ebook story actually starts with Sony, whose UK ebookstore began the practice of offering 10 top-flight books at massive reductions in the summer. Back then it was Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child making ripples. A major book – so why offer it for only a few pence?
The ebook market increasingly runs on a wholesale model. Here's how it works: the publisher produces a book and sets an RRP of, say, £10. The retailer then says: we need this book from you at, say, 55 per cent discount. So the publisher gets £4.50 per book and the retailer then sells it for whatever it wants. The 20p ebooks represent a huge percentage loss for the retailer. So why do it? "Because it allows them to consolidate their market share" says Kate Poole, deputy chief executive of the Society of Authors, "then in future when they may increase the price"
Kate Poole worries about the devaluation of ebook and books in general by this sort of action. "Because ebooks have no physical manifestation it is harder for consumers to perceive the production cost that have gone into them – 20p could eventually be seen as the benchmark price". Although Sony points out there are "only a small selection of great titles available" and that it is "confident the British reading public is able to discern that a handful of ebooks at 20p does not make 20p the new price for ebooks."
Even so, there are still concerns that such deep discounting further puts pressure on already withering high-street book shops. With the unavoidable overheads of a physical shop, it is easy for them to be pinched out of existence.
This process is bad for literature says Poole. "Part of the function of publishers and high-street book shops is to filter manuscripts, to ensure the good float to the surface. It has always been subjective but it has always required both to put their money where their mouth when it comes to books they believe in. Now anyone can self-publish, that is exceptionally important."
It is a happy time then, for curious readers getting decent fiction at low prices, but today's sunshine may mean a long winter for publishers and consumers alike in years to come.
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Lucy Hawking: Stephen Hawking's daughter writes impassioned open letter to Katie Hopkins about rights of disabled people
- 2 #NotGuilty: Second Oxford student writes of brutal rape by two men who then threw her in a bin as part of campaign against victim blaming
- 3 Indonesia executions: Death row British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford will refuse to wear a blindfold when she faces firing squad
- 4 Oxygen-starved 'dead zones' with no marine life up to 100-miles long discovered in the Atlantic Ocean
- 5 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
The C-Word - review: Sheridan Smith shines in a warm, honest adaptation of Lisa Lynch's book about living with cancer
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 4 - review: Sansa is in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Adam Sandler's The Ridiculous Six: Make-up 'used to darken skin of actors to make them look Native American'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils