Philip Gwyn Jones warns on 'internecine' book wars

Philip Gwyn Jones warns on 'internecine' book wars

The shift to social reading is “liable to consign the traditional publisher and many a writer to decline and defeat in the Civil War for Books”, Philip Gwyn Jones is to say today (16th April), with the reader becoming the prize.

In a speech at the London Book Fair this afternoon, Gwyn Jones will say that the book itself “will become less commercially valuable than the details around its sales transaction – when it was done, where it was done, amongst what other activities, alongside what other purchases”.

The "Where is the Money Going?: The Civil War for Books" seminar at 1pm will look at where the money is literature is going and whether anyone is “raking it in”.

Gwyn Jones, formerly executive publisher for Granta Books, and for Portobello Books, which he founded in 2004, will be joined in the discussion by journalist, broadcaster and stand-up comedian, Viv Groskop and writer Nell Leyshon. The panel will be hosted by Chris Gribble of Writers’ Centre Norwich.

Over the last few years, the book industry has been “stuck in our very own World War One re-enactment, in trench warfare over where the money lines are drawn”, Gwyn Jones will say.

“The skirmishes in the global book industry are internecine and unrelenting: the independent authors bombard the traditional publishers; the traditional authors bombard the literary festival directors; the traditional publishers bombard the retailers; academics denounce those who would defend copyright as traitors to the public good; and the retailers take the publishers to courts martial” says Gwyn Jones. “With the new armaments of disruption and disintermediation whirring nicely, the ‘creative destruction’ of techno-capitalism is at full tilt in the business of writing. But who will taste defeat first? Will it be the publishers? Or the booksellers? Agents? Or, dread thought, might it be the writers? Mounted on my high horse, surveying the scene, I fear it is another regiment on this clamorous battlefield which is most in peril. The Readers.”

Gwyn Jones will say that the traditional copyright payment structure “will come under ever greater pressure” as the “cost of copying approaches absolute zero in the digital space, and the belief hardens that ‘sharing’ writing on the Internet by hyperlinking is not the theft it would be deemed to be were it to take place in print”.

This means that publisher and author book revenues may suffer further.

“Which is why the income to be had from live events might become crucial to writers,” Gwyn Jones will say. “Readers increasingly want intimacy: access to writers, online and in person. They seek proximity, to share an experience with writers, conversation, observation, questioning, at literary festivals and at the new salons like Damian Barr’s, Pin Drop, Local Transport, Intelligence Squared et al, and beyond that in other initiatives where writers sell their unique wisdom in person.”

Gwyn Jones will also say that there “is a universe of self-censorship out there, even if it is invisible to the naked eye”.

“We’ve had perhaps five years now of good writers taking their next ambitious project to their agent who in turn excitably puts it in front of publishers only to be told that it’s perhaps a little too bold an idea for these austere and shape-shifting times, and might there not be a more reader-friendly project up the writer’s sleeve? The agent sheepishly reports this back to their beloved writer, who then either conforms to the market’s demands or slopes away to nurse their wounded ego, and think hard about the purposes and pleasures of writing. The next time that writer comes up with a bold, unorthodox, unprecedented notion for a book, what happens? Well, perhaps, just perhaps, they decide before they start in earnest that it’s a no-hoper and they ought to play safe, so they bin it without telling anyone. And another bright star never shines”, Gwyn Jones will say.