As the iPad is launched, what is the British book trade doing about the digital threat? Nothing
“Roll up that map”, William Pitt the Younger is said to have observed on his deathbed, having heard the news of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz. “It will not be wanted these 10 years.” Or apocryphally, and less high flown: “I think I could eat one of Bellamy’s meat pies.”
In the week the iPad is launched in the UK, it’s clear that several decisive recent cultural engagements have also torn up the map by which, for at least a century, writers and publishers have fought the battle of the books. For more than a decade we have been in terra incognita.
Now, through the fog of the IT revolution, the outline of a new and changed landscape is beginning to take shape. After more than a decade of fierce competition and innovation, it’s now indisputable that the three main players – Apple, Amazon and Google – are giants locked in a death struggle.
Each holds some strategic advantage. None has overwhelming superiority. Apple’s strength is its software. Amazon has its extraordinary business model and is making great inroads into the digital market. Google has a long-term winner with its digitisation programme, Google Book Search, the greatest act of piracy since Francis Drake sailed the Spanish Main.
Last week, Amazon opened up a new battlefront, announcing plans for a traditional publishing programme. Except that Amazon Encore is not your typical publisher. Not only does it draw on the awesome power of Amazon’s customer base, it also releases its titles as Kindle books, with potentially huge audiences. Already, there are now the glimmerings of a migration by established US writers from traditional imprints to Amazon Encore.
Encore is not just a one-off. Amazon has also announced the formation of Amazon Crossing, devoted to new works in translation. This will launch in November with the first English language publication of Tierno Monénembo’s The King of Kahel, winner of the important French literary award, the Prix Renaudot, in 2008. All the signs are that Amazon now wants to take on the established houses at their own game.
Everything is up for grabs. In another sign of the times, the merging of veteran literary agency PFD into The Rights House indicates a determined pitch for a larger share of a contested market. Other agencies are also looking nervously at their balance sheets.
There is a trend here. In the past year there have been a number of defections from mainstream imprints to fledgling e-publishers: the business guru Stephen R Covey, the Brazilian bestseller Paulo Coelho and the US horror writer F Paul Wilson. Hardly household names, you might say. A big bestselling writer from the Anglo-American tradition has yet to sign on with Amazon. But when that day comes – and it must be imminent – the foot soldiers of Random House and HarperCollins can throw away their weapons. The battle will be lost.
Smaller publishers will continue to flourish, and in some ways they are best suited to exploiting the benefits of the worldwideweb. Wherever it’s a numbers game the online giants will increasingly dominate.
And what, you ask, is the British book trade doing while the Visigoths from California swarm across the landscape? The short answer is: nothing. Last week, the Book Industry Conference, attended by the top brass from the trade, was held in London. Tellingly, neither Google nor Amazon sent representatives.
The president of the Booksellers Association, Sharon Murray, reassured delegates with a puzzling mixture of alarm and complacency. “If we fail to grasp the enormity of what is happening,” she said, “the first step to irrelevance will have been taken for us.”
Quite so; but in the next breath Ms Murray reassured the troops with the thought that the internet’s importance might be – shall we say – overstated. “If the internet accounts for 18% of sales,” she went on, “that means that more than four books in every five are not bought through this [electronic] channel, and digital sales are an even smaller part of our industry.”
Phew! So that’s all right, then. Never did the trade seem closer to Mr Micawber, whistling a merry tune while waiting for something to turn up.
An Old Spot of bother for jester McEwan
The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize was launched at the Hay festival in the new millennium to promote comic fiction. It made a promising debut with Howard Jacobson’s The Mighty Walzer, but over the years has steadily wiped the smile off Juno’s amiable face, stretching the definition of “comic” to the limit, and moving steadily upmarket. This year’s prize, awarded unanimously to Ian McEwan’s Solar, marks the apogee of literary grandeur. It will be interesting to see this contemporary master receive not only a jeroboam of Bolly, and PGW’s collected works in the definitive Everyman edition, but also take charge of a locally bred Gloucestershire Old Spot sow, opportunistically renamed Solar. Will Mr McEwan, we wonder, bring the bacon back to his home in metropolitan W1?
Fresh tremors in Greene’s old hangout
I hear that, nearly five months after its devastating earthquake, Haiti is slowly rediscovering its old magic. One recent literary visitor tells me that “it’s as though Graham Greene [above] just left and still like The Comedians.”
Miraculously, the old colonial pile, the Oloffson, a huge mahogany hotel festooned with spires and cupolas, set in gardens of coconut palm and casuarina, in which Greene stayed while he was writing his novel, has survived unscathed, more or less. I’m told that it’s once again open for regular tourist business. There’s just one hazard, slightly less troublesome than a natural disaster: Greene’s hangout has been colonised by the BBC.