Debate over 20p e-books rages on

Polarised views on low e-book prices have been raised this week, as Sony and Amazon continue to offer frontlist e-books for just 20p. 

Publishers Association president Ursula Mackenzie said she finds the “constant” devaluing of books very worrying. “What people seem to misunderstand is where the value lies. To me it seems to lie in the words, the content, all the time the author spent working on that novel and honing it, and has remarkably little to do with the delivery system,” she said. The Little, Brown c.e.o. added: “It is why Hachette was in favour of the agency model and adopted it. It’s about us ensuring 20p is not a price on our e-books.”

But agent Carole Blake, representing Peter James, whose novel Perfect People is one of those being offered for 20p, said the numbers the 20p edition had sold were “stunning.” She commented: “It’s impossible to compare like with like. It is a shame that readers might think that because some e-books are at 20p, all e-books should be like that. 

"Some people think all e-books should be cheaper, and paper books will disappear, but it’s not that simple. You might see some e-books selling at 20p, but you also see hardbacks selling for £20. It’s almost like comparing clothes selling in the supermarket to designers clothes in a shop in Bond Street—there’s room for both.”

A tense debate developed between Mackenzie and author Stephen Leather (pictured) at a talk at last week’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, “Wanted for Murder: the e-book”. Leather—who self-publishes as well as publishing with both Hodder and Amazon—told the Harrogate audience that he was in favour of offering e-books at low prices to boost sales growth, including giving books away to bring in new readers. 

In a blog post on the Harrogate debate, he said he was surprised the audience did not share his view that “books are best sold at a price that readers find attractive” and amid a discussion of whether publishers can justify claiming “the lion’s share” of publishing profits, said that “an author with a large fan base can use fans to edit and proof-read”.

Leather angered some Harrogate audience members, with scout Louise Allen-Jones commenting: “This author got where he is today via the conventional publishing route—and because his publisher promoted him properly. It’s inflammatory (and frankly ill-informed) to diss the publishing process in this way.”

Curtis Brown agent Gordon Wise, also present at the debate, commented: “I think it was absolutely right that Stephen was on the panel, as he’s someone who has made a success of e-books. But I am not sure he is typical of self-published authors, in the way his books are serials with revisited characters, published in an episodic way his fans obviously appreciate.”  He added: “I was heartened to see a publisher defending the value of books. I think if you’d polled the readers in the room about pricing they would say they expected to pay for quality entertainment . . . There is a value embodied in a book, and it is worth more than 20p. Little, Brown, or Hachette, expect to fund a writer for a year and provide a valuable service for them, and they can’t do that for 20p a book.”

Bookseller Patrick Neale, who sat on the Harrogate debate panel, said it was difficult for the industry to discuss the issue among themselves, commenting: “When any high level meeting of publishers is had, purely as a precaution, a lawyer must be asked to be present. That’s purely from the fear that they might be accused of colluding, which of course they aren’t. It’s incredibly difficult to get people together.”