Culture: Pirates won't rob writers of riches

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The Independent Online

I recently agreed to become an ambassador for Sony's new electronic book reader (pictured below), which goes on sale this September, and several of my fellow authors have accused me of being a quisling. In their view, electronic books will rob authors of their livelihoods in the same way that the digitisation of music has deprived musicians of their royalties.

But this is unduly pessimistic. It assumes that as soon as the major publishing houses begin producing electronic books, pirated editions will appear online and people will download them for free. But will this happen? Even if hackers can work out how to bypass the anti-piracy software built into electronic books, it is by no means obvious that bibliophiles will take advantage of this. Provided ebooks are reasonably priced – that is, less than the cost of a mass-market paperback – people will be willing to pay for them.

If that is the case, there is every reason why writers should embrace this new technology. Instead of relying on publishers to distribute and market their wares, authors will simply set up their own websites and sell their books direct to the public. They may have to pay a few hundred pounds to get their books digitised, and perhaps a few more to a publicist to make sure their work gets talked about, but after they've absorbed these costs they will get 100 per cent of the retail price. That has to be better than the 10 per cent to 15 per cent they receive now.

Of course, if ebooks catch on, most publishing firms will go out of business. But I cannot think of many writers who will be sorry to see them go. Whenever authors gather around a bottle of wine, the sole topic of conversation is how terrible their publishers are. Their editors are illiterates, the publicity departments are staffed by airheads and the people responsible for designing their dust jackets should be shot.

Agents, too, will be a thing of the past. Who needs an agent when you no longer need a book deal? Writers are marginally better disposed towards agents than publishers, but they won't miss having to pay them 15 per cent, rising to 20 per cent when it comes to foreign rights.

The real beneficiaries, though, will be all those authors who can't get an agent, let alone a book deal. If ebooks take hold, there will be nothing to stop them setting out their stalls alongside more established writers – and that can be only a good thing. Perhaps the real reason my colleagues are nervous is fear of competition.

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