The literary agent Andrew Wylie once remarked that 'in the long run, the most valuable author of all is Shakespeare.' The well documented short-termism of major trade publishers has created a market congested with meerkats and strictly-come-novelists. In an industry obsessed by market share and short-term sales, month-long bestsellers will always take precedence over serious literature which, if it sells at all, does so steadily over time. In a depressed market, this nervousness of unpredictable long-term investment is understandable. And yet ultimately the value of a publisher is in owning rights in great literature. Publishers won't be selling One Direction: Our Journey for the full term of copyright.
Some, like Jonathan Franzen, believe the shift to digital is quickening our cultural decline - that ebooks are somehow 'corroding values'. And yet the rise of digital publishing could (and should) be having quite the opposite effect. In recent months, talk has frequently turned to the subject of 'digital exclusives', but rarely in relation to literary fiction and non-fiction. Yes, digital-only publishing is great for reviving old romance imprints and profiting from shorter fiction from big brand authors. But it also provides a unique opportunity for literary publishers, who can now take a punt on serious, perhaps difficult, books at a lesser financial risk. Great books can be brought to market for a fraction of the cost - and readers can be found for them by a mixture of low-cost digital marketing, price promotions and old fashioned publicity.
Unlike the digitization of backlist titles, publishing 'ebook exclusives' from new authors is not inexpensive: although the price of conversion is negligible, the design, editorial and publicity costs remain, to say nothing of an advance. But nor are the savings made on printing and distribution inconsiderable. It can be guaranteed that there'll be no returns; stock won't need to be remaindered or pulped. Of course, quite how much publishers save by publishing digitally is a subject of endless debate, but it's surely enough to make a list dedicated to showcasing challenging new literature a commercial possibility. Some of these books won't sell; others will still be read in fifty years' time. But bright young authors depend for their success upon a good editor, a skilful jacket designer, and an assiduous and intelligent publicity team.
Many agents and authors will view the prospect of digital-only publishing with a mixture of cynicism and anxiety, particularly when it becomes the proposed publishing model for new writers. This is not because, or only because, they are sentimentally attached to the printed book, or to the idea of being 'in print'. They currently have more practical concerns - the first and most obvious being the limitation of the book's market to those with e-readers or tablets. The inexorable rise of the ebook can be counted upon to allay such fears. One third of Americans now own an e-reader or tablet device, and the UK will surely follow. In two or three years' time, those who read regularly but don't own an electronic device will be no more common than those who rely on bricks-and-mortar bookshops because they don't have an internet connection. And yet physical books won't disappear completely. Even the most devoted ebook aficionado will buy the odd hardback, and not just to furnish a room. Already we see readers switching between print and electronic editions according to circumstance. The Kindle's perfect for the tube - but for the armchair?
The agent's second question to the digital-only publisher, then, will be, 'what about print rights?' New contractual precedents need to be set if this is to be answered satisfactorily. The focus here will not be digitisation, but physicalisation. Yes, the original publisher should be given the option, perhaps even the right, to publish the work in print format. However, if they fail to exploit these rights within a reasonable period, they should be willing to relinquish them. If the publisher makes a success of a work, it should be obliged to publish a physical edition; if it doesn't, it should be happy for print rights to revert. No doubt these points, amongst others, will be raised with increasing frequency over the coming months and years.
Finally, authors and agents need to be convinced that publishers will take a different approach to digital-only publishing than they have so far done with backlist digitisation. During the e-rights land grab of the past four years, vast numbers of books - many of them classics - have been published electronically without the care and attention necessary to make them successful in this format. Opportunities have been wasted. A complete shift in the culture of ebook publishing is required to ensure the success of the digital-only business model. Selling ebooks is hard work and requires constant monitoring. Every effort must be made to ensure that metadata is accurate, that the price is realistic and that the book is widely visible on retailers' websites. Authors and agents need to be convinced that publishers will employ their skill and expertise in this area, and not only during the month of publication. Publishing literary ebook exclusives will require a sustained effort, but the rewards will undoubtedly come.
There will always be readers with a taste for serious literature, and the digital-only model presents a fine opportunity to bring great but ostensibly 'uncommercial' books to market. There are bound to be surprises. When The Waves was published in 1931, Virginia Woolf famously doubted it would sell 2,000 copies; by the end of its first year of publication, it had sold 24,000. It surely sells as many annually today.
So, publishers, bag yourself a meerkat, by all means. But don’t forget a Shakespeare too.
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