Digital publishing is the flavour of the month in Russia these days, while print publishing is in the doldrums. In an attempt to fathom what the future might hold, the Moscow Higher School of Economics organized a conference on “A Book vs. E-Book” from December 6-10, 2014. It attracted mainly young publishers from Moscow and the regions. Speakers included prominent Russian writers, television presenters and literary figures (Aleksandr Arkhangelskiy, Vladimir Kharitonov, Aleksandr Gavrilov) – and me.
As a writer with considerable first-hand knowledge of e-publishing in the UK, I was invited to take part in the conference and talk about my own experiences. My thanks go to Eric Johnson for dropping my name in the right place; to Tatiana Tikhomirova for issuing the invitation and ensuring I had a memorable stay; to Jane Vidyaykina for making sure everything functioned smoothly; and to Ksenia Khrustalyova for her word-perfect translation.
Here’s some of what I said:
I was born in England and I write in English even though I have a French name and live in Paris. I have eight books currently available either online or in paperback, including two novels, four thrillers, and two romantic comedies. I have written about Russia, Central Asia, Burma, and Germany.
None of this is mass-market fiction, and none of the books fit into a single category. Usually what I write is a mix of thriller, love story, and politics. Publishers don’t like this because they need to be able to position their product on the market, and booksellers don’t like it because they need to place it on the shelves. Because of this, I’ve always had trouble finding publishers.
In 1996, when I stumbled across online publishing, I’d been trying to find an editor for a novel called The Glass Palace Chronicle, which is about drug-smuggling in Burma. My literary agent in London had refused to handle it because she said nobody was interested in Burma. All the publishing houses I tried refused it. So when somebody told me about a new start-up called Online Originals, which was publishing books in digital format on the internet, I jumped at the idea. It meant that my work would be available, not just in one country, but to the English-speaking community worldwide. It was exciting to be involved in a new medium that was just opening up, and I felt privileged to be part of it.
I gave The Glass Palace Chronicle to Online Originals. There was no advance, but I got 50% of royalties. The following year, I gave them The Angels of Russia, the story of a dissident manipulated by the KGB in the perestroika period. Online Originals submitted it for the Booker Prize and, since it was the first e-book ever to be submitted, it generated a lot of publicity, a lot of idle discussion about paper and binding, and a rave review in the Times Literary Supplement.
I didn’t win the Booker, but I did get picked up by a London print publisher, Piatkus, who put out both The Angels of Russia and The Glass Palace Chronicle, and later Music at the Garden House, which is set in Germany and Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was the only stage in my career when I made any money. Online sales picked up after the publicity over the Booker Prize, but they were still only in the hundreds, not the thousands. The problem back then was that there were no dedicated e-readers and no tablets. Many people didn’t even have Internet at home.
Shortly after that my career petered out because of family problems, and I didn’t get back on track until 2009. By that time everything had changed. In 2007, Amazon had launched the Kindle e-reader, a light, portable, reader-friendly device, and people had begun to buy e-books as an alternative to print. Unfortunately Online Originals, after a strong start, had run out of steam, and weren’t doing much in the way of either publishing or promotion any more. Meanwhile, my print publisher had sold her company and retired.
So it was back to Square One.
I found a new agent, who has worked hard on my behalf, but she has failed to sell two recent books. The Judas Tree is about the Stasi files in East Germany, and Compassion is set in Stalinist Russia. A lot of the editorial rejection letters said that they personally enjoyed the books, but doubted they would sell. The publishing industry is in crisis, companies are being bought up, editors are nervous about losing their jobs, and there’s a lot of pressure to produce best-sellers. My agent has just sent out my latest book, Girl with Parasol, which is about Nazi art thefts in World War II, and warned me that it probably won’t find a home.
This means that I will have to publish it myself online, as I have done for several earlier books. I don’t work with a digital publisher at the moment, I do it myself. The obvious platform is Amazon, which is highly visible, has its own e-reader, and provides detailed guidelines for authors. Self-publishing means you have to edit the book, format it, provide a cover, upload the text, figure out the price. It’s a lot of work.
The major advantage of online publishing is that it extends a book’s lifetime indefinitely. Your work is never out of stock, nor out of print. The disadvantage is that you have to spend a lot of time promoting it via blogs, Facebook, Twitter etc. Since Internet culture is still oriented towards free circulation of information, I make some of my books available for free download on a site called obooko.com, and some of them have had over ten thousand downloads, including The Glass Palace Chronicle, which seems to be the most popular of my books.
Aside from the ideal of the Republic of Letters, free books are a useful marketing tool. You’re reaching people who might not have bothered to read the book if they had to pay for it. You’re not earning money, but you’re earning readers. Money, in any case, is pretty much beside the point. Best-sellers on Amazon are mass-market fiction, chick lit, and vampire romances.
E-books are eroding barriers between readers, writers, and publishers, and it’s hard to say how things might evolve in the future. Print publishers currently make at least thirty percent of their revenues from e-books, and quite likely the percentage will rise. Probably a lot will depend on who the next big player is. If someone like Apple decides to engage seriously with the e-book market, and reinvent the whole product with that magic Apple touch, then maybe the whole game will change.