Imagining Alph

Imagining Alph

Average author earnings in 2018 were £10,497. This doesn’t have a lot to recommend it other than the fact that should it remain at this level, we’ll all be able to earn a further two grand doing other things before we have to pay any tax. Not that it’s likely to – it’s widely reported that it’s going down, which is all the more galling in the context of the UK’s overall publishing turnover, which in 2020 topped £6.4billion. Everyone knows there’s plenty of cash kicking about, it just needs to be more equitably distributed.

I’ve always thought that one way of doing this might be for a group of writers to get together to create a collectively-owned, not-for-profit, e-commerce site selling e-books and audiobooks (we’ll leave the actual physical books to the nation’s brilliant independent booksellers); a site that would allow everyone involved to effectively become their own retailer. For the sake of this piece let’s call this hypothetical website Alph, after Coleridge, because online booksellers named after rivers seem to do quite well and I can’t see Styx making it past the first focus group.

If Alph were to work, it could potentially mean considerably more money for authors. To make the maths as simple as possible, let’s imagine we’re dealing with a £10 e-book. As is currently the case, the publisher would get its £7, of which the author would get their 25% (£1.75). Of the remaining £3, Alph would take as little as possible to maintain the site – initially, say, £1 (hoping this would come down considerably over time) – with the remainder (£2 to begin with) going to the author, more than doubling their income per sale.

Obviously, setting up a site like this would not be without its challenges but all of them are surmountable, I think.

To get it going it would probably need 100-200 authors on board, with a smaller group acting as a Board. The subscription-based audiobook market is a bit more complex so it would probably be best to start with e-books, which should be relatively simple.

First up, you’d need some money of course. Enough to pay a project manager and get a site built. A benefactor would be useful, if there’s anyone reading this who fancies it. But it could also be crowdfunded as the sums involved needn’t be vast. The front end would need to be designed by someone who knew what they were doing but in the first instance it could be built using Squarespace, which allows up to 10,000 products on its £270-a-year e-commerce plan. And the back end could be contracted out to a company like Vitrium who, for a few thousand pounds a year, would store the e-books as DRM-protected PDFs (taking care of any security concerns). The authors themselves wouldn’t be involved in the process of getting their books on to the site as it would operate just like another retailer, with publishers taking care of all that.

Ordinarily, the biggest hurdle faced by most new e-commerce businesses of this sort is the prohibitive cost of marketing a new website. But Alph would only need to have one or two reasonably high profile writers on board to be a big news story and it would also benefit from having hundreds of authors sending readers its way through their social media accounts and mailing lists.

Sceptics will point to the Kindle’s hegemony in the market, highlighting the challenge of luring away readers who have already invested in other hardware and whose buying habits are established. But as phones get bigger and tablets get lighter, people are reading on them more and more, and the success of Bookshop.org is evidence surely that there is a substantial group of readers who are keen to ensure that their money doesn’t always end up in the pockets of corporate behemoths. And it’s not like there isn’t plenty of pie to go around: last year alone Britain’s big six publishers sold 54.5 million e-books. If Alph could eventually take just 1% of that market that would be more than 500,000 sales a year.

Ironically, the biggest hurdle might turn out to the be the authors themselves. Of the writers I contacted, lots were interested in principle but didn’t have the time or, they felt, the skillset (we are not, in the main, spreadsheet people) to be of much use in getting it going. I imagine what it would need to work is for it to be taken on by a few committed young people who work in publishing and fancy doing something that would shake things up a bit. My sense is that they’re out there. The kind of people who are repulsed by rentier capitalism and would love to create something that fires a shot across its bows. The kind of people who want to create a social enterprise that would operate a sliding scale reward system, so that once an author has earned a certain amount, a portion of their earnings get directed into a pot of money which could be used to create opportunities for marginalised voices. The kind of people who want to help save the midlist.

If you’re out there and you fancy it, let me know.

David Annand’s debut novel, Peterdown, is published by Corsair. He can be contacted through his website www.davidannandwrites.com