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Appearing At Harrogate - The Plot Thickens

I’m just back from the Harrogate  Crime Writing Festival – three days of talks and events involving some of the country’s top crime-writing talent.  Why was I there?  Truth be told, I’m writing a short story called Inspector Zhang Goes To Harrogate where my Singaporean detective solves a locked room mystery in the Old Swan Hotel where the festival is based.

While I was there I appeared on a panel called 'Wanted for Murder: the e-book', where a group of us discussed ePublishing, a subject I do know a fair bit about.

It turned out to be quite a surreal experience.  Fun, but surreal.  Running the festival this year was Mark “Scaredy Cat” Billingham, one of the best writers in the business as well as a top stand-up comic.  Mark came over to me in the green room before the panel and had a quiet word with me. Basically there is a danger of the panels turning into a luvvie love-fest and he wanted me to take a view and be a tad confrontational if at all possible. He wanted the panel to be the talking point of the festival.  I’m never one to duck a good argument so I said I’d go for it.

In the chair was Channel 4 presenter Mark Lawson, and on the panel with me were a publisher, another writer who hasn’t sold many eBooks, an agent and a bookseller.  It was pretty much going to be four against one from the start.

                                                         Me and writer Matt Hilton at the festival

What surprised me was how the audience seemed so set against cheap eBooks.  Rather than taking my view that books are best sold at a price that readers find attractive, the general feeling of the audience seemed to be that books were already – as one man said – ‘cheap as chips’ while Norwegians had to pay £40 for one of Jo Nesbo’s books. When I explained that I had sold half a million eBooks last year, most of them for less than a quid, I was surprised to hear a few boos and hisses rather than the applause that I had expected.

The most surreal moment for me came when the President of the Publisher’s Association, Ursula Mackenzie, was trying to defend their policy of maintaining eBooks at a high price.  Basically she was saying that books needed to maintain their value and that 20p and free eBooks needed to be stamped on.

I understand her view, but I’m a big fan of selling eBooks at lower prices providing you can get high volumes of sales. And I’m happy enough to give books away if it helps to bring in new readers.

So I explain to Ursula – and the audience – that I can write a short story in five days and am happy to sell that at the Amazon minimum of 72p which generates me an income of 25p.


At this point in my blog I mentioned a comment that I remembered had come from Ursula about earning 5p a book.  Having heard the recording of the panel I realise that I had misremembered this and the comment was made by Mark Lawson. I owe Ursula an unreserved and total apology for this and I will be writing to her personally to apologise. Truly my memory let me down and I am so so sorry. I can only think that the stress of the panel caused caused my memory to play tricks on me.

The point I wanted to make - which applies to Mark's comment and not to anything that Ursula said - was that of course I don’t work for 5p a day.  My Inspector Zhang stories sell about five or six hundred copies a month. Each. So one story sells 6,000 copies a year. So over the next ten years it could sell 60,000 copies which means I’d get £15,000, which is £3,000 a day.

Mark turned to the conversation around to the cost of books and how much went to the publisher, and asked Ursula to justify why the publisher’s took the lion’s share.  She put forward the old arguments about editing and marketing and I tried to explain that with eBooks, an author with a large fan base can use fans to edit and proof-read.  Everyone seemed to think that meant I thought writers could do away with editors, and of course that’s not the case. But not every writer needs a hard edit, some writers need little more than proof-reading and fact-checking and that can be done through fans. And my Jack Nightingale series is edited by a full-time editor on my agent's staff so those books need very little editing by my publisher. Yes, I know that some authors need a lot of editing. But I don't.  

The audience were quite strange when I talked about piracy, and I thought I was about to be lynched when I said that I regarded pirates as helping to market my books.  Someone shouted ‘Tosser!’ which was a bit harsh. What was a bit surprising was that it seemed to come from Mark Billingham’s direction.

I didn’t really get a chance to explain what I meant, which was a pity. Of course mass piracy would destroy publishing and destroy my income. But controlled piracy, where pirated books represent a small fraction of the total books available, can be a help to get a writer better known.  My opinion is that readers who buy pirated copies wouldn’t buy the real book anyway. But once they have become a fan, they might. The reader who starts off buying a pirated copy of one of my books might move on to buying hardbacks. It happens.

But I didn’t get the chance to say that. I did meet a lot of self-published writers at the festival – writers like Kerry Wilkinson, Allan Guthrie, Mark Edwards and Louise Voss.  All have stormed up the Kindle charts selling low-priced books.  I’m not going to put words into anyone’s mouth but I can tell you that most of the self-published writers I know have no fear of piracy and most embrace it.  Publishers don’t get it.  They don’t get the whole DRM thing either, where eBooks are ‘protected’ except of course they’re not.  Ursula, representing the publishers, was vehement that DRM was a good thing. Even traditionally-published author Steve Mosby tried to explain that DRM doesn’t work and isn’t fair in that it stops a reader transferring a book that he has already bought between different devices.  But Ursula wouldn’t have it.  I should say at this point that I was talking to one of the really big names at the festival and he has a Kindle and he has a neat little program that removes the DRM protection. I would love to tell you who it is but my lips are sealed!

Ursula was easy to argue with, as was the token agent, Philip Patterson. He was a lovely guy and I do feel guilty about blind-siding him with the question that most writers have – what exactly does an agent do to earn his 15 per cent when a writer sells most of his books through Amazon with whom there is almost no room for negotiation.  He didn’t come up with an answer and I did apologise to him afterwards.  The simple fact is that if a writer is self-publishing eBooks then he doesn’t need an agent.  Of course if that self-published author is then approached by a publishing house, that’s when you do need an agent in your corner.

What was strange is how a couple of agents started tweeting quite nastily about me.  One wondered how I would sell my foreign rights without an agent.  That’s a good question. I’d sell them myself, it’s not difficult. And in my experience, foreign rights barely cover the 15 per cent of the main UK deal.

Frankly I think publishers and agents are going to have a difficult few years as the whole eBook business works itself out.  And so are the book sellers. But of all the people on the panel, other than myself of course, I thought that the token bookseller was the guy who was most ready to take advantage of it. He was Patrick Neale of Jaffé and Neale Bookshop in Chipping Norton.  He’s a very smart guy who really understands his trade.  I think that the large book chains, the ones that are left, are going to be in big trouble soon but guys like Patrick can survive and prosper.  He’s seen a boom in hardback sales, but is also selling coffee in his shop and looking to profit from eBook sales. It was clear from listening to him that he is adapting his business to take advantage of the way books are changing, as opposed to the publishers who are fighting to maintain the status quo.

I guess the reason the audience were so unsympathetic to my views on piracy and low prices is because they weren't my core readership. I guess the big question is how my views would be received by a younger audience.  Hopefully they wouldn’t shout ‘tosser!’

Anyway, Mark Billingham came up to me afterwards, shook my hand and agreed that we’d achieved our objective – the tweets were already flying around the world and the festival was buzzing. Oh, and I pretty much finished Inspector Zhang Goes To Harrogate.  Much as I’d like the victim to be an overweight agent with badly-dyed hair, it’s an author who meets an untimely end.  And yes, I’ll be selling it at 72p.

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