Stand together

<p>One of the few advantages of being a cow, I have always thought, must be a sublime ignorance as to the price of a pint of milk. Day in and day out, you chomp grass or stand patiently with suckers attached to your teats&mdash;and for what? To have Tesco flog the produce of your udders at some humiliating discount.</p>
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<p>Authors may not care to compare themselves to cattle&mdash;but there is a sense in which the fruit of their labours is no less of a commodity than milk. That means, in turn, that a book, just like semi-skimmed, can be sold at an often whopping discount. Online or in supermarkets, it makes sound commercial sense for retailers to fly in the face of seeming logic, and sell the most sought-after novels at rock-bottom prices. What matters is to gain footfall, to squeeze competitors. Losses can be borne in the short term in the cause of maximising long-term profit. </p>
<p>The problem for publishers with this strategy, of course, is that it places them rather in the role of beleagured hill farmers. Authors too should be concerned&mdash;because we, unlike cows, do not have the excuse of ignorance. It is hardly necessary to have an MBA, or be Naomi Klein, to recognise the iron law of branding: that the only value a product has is what consumers are prepared to pay for it. Give books away for next to nothing, and next to nothing is what they will be worth. Try then to hike up prices again, and people will feel that they are being ripped off. Even Rupert Murdoch is finding it a struggle to box his way out of that particular corner.</p>
<p>Which is why the news that Stieg Larsson is going for &pound;2.50 on Kindle should serve to send a shiver down the spines of publishers and authors alike. Even as we snap and snarl at each other about e-book royalty rates, there is a risk that we will all end up, to paraphrase Borges, like bald men fighting over a comb. Devalue- the e-book in the eye of consumers before they have even got into the habit of purchasing books as downloads, and the danger is that publishers will find themselves on the edge of the same abyss that has already swallowed up the newspaper industry.</p>
<p>Authors and publishers may have their differences when it comes to e-books&mdash;but on this issue, surely, there is an absolute community of interests. It is not only a fledgling and potentially lucrative source of income that is being risked, after all. Devalue- the electronic form of the book, and the strong probability is that the traditional form will end up being devalued as well. That way ruin lies&mdash;and if there is one thing worse than being a cow on a farm, it is being a cow on a farm that has gone bust. <br />