Comment: Cheap books cheapen our reading culture

A healthy reading culture is one that asks something of the reader and pays the writer. Picture: Getty
A healthy reading culture is one that asks something of the reader and pays the writer. Picture: Getty
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WHO DOESN’T love a Penguin paperback? The thin softcovers are pleasing to the eye and to the touch. It is a pleasure to flick through them and smell the waft of musty air emitted from their pages.

I have bookcases to display their coloured spines, organised by the different shades of orange, green and blue. Cute penguins stand to attention when I scan the shelves.

So beloved are they that it came as little surprise that in the heated negotiations between Amazon and publishing giant Hachette, regarding Hachette books being sold by the online retailer, Amazon co-opted the paperbacks into their fight. Who wouldn’t want to take the side of those who appear to defend the very right of the paperback to have been published in the first place? Not just because these books are attractive to have and to hold, but because when they were originally published in 1935 they cost just sixpence – the same price as a packet of cigarettes – about 10 per cent of the price of hardcovers. The Penguin paperback revolutionised book buying, making books more accessible for millions of people. They were unquestionably a good thing.

Now George Orwell – and his estate – have become involved, after the writer was quoted by Amazon as being against the first paperbacks, and part of the literary establishment of the past which, according to Amazon, stood against attempts to encourage the masses to read. In turn, Hachette has fielded hundreds of authors to bat for its side including John Grisham, James Patterson and Donna Tartt, and claims that the future of the writer is at stake.

Both sides say they are involved in this tussle for noble reasons: for books, for great writers, and for us – the readers – so it seems important. But what is all the fuss about? And how did it start?

Over the past few months, Amazon has been making it difficult for customers to buy books published by Hachette – one of the largest publishing houses in the United States. This is because the two companies are fighting over e-book terms. Amazon wants to charge less for e-books than Hachette would like them to. Amazon says the cost cutting is all for the reader, so we can afford to buy books. Hachette presents its company as the guardian of literary culture wanting the best for its treasured authors – it is keeping prices high, though not that high, so that its authors can earn a living, it says. So nasty have things become that 900 writers signed an open letter that appeared in the New York Times, urging Amazon to leave authors out of the contract dispute.

At the heart of this fight is a straightforward commercial dispute. Much of this is simply about market share. Companies today don’t want to admit they are in the business of making money; they want to wear ethical clothing and look like they are doing good, like Google, which has the formal corporate motto: “Don’t be Evil”. The two massive companies in this particular case are using the rhetoric of the culture wars, trying to present a commercial dispute as if it is a vital, moral issue.

Both companies in this dispute are concerned with the bottom line, but they are also worried about the future of publishing, which is an industry that is changing. So is Amazon or Hachette in the right? Well, both have a point. While it may be an aggressive corporate machine, Amazon has made book buying easier and cheaper, and – most importantly – given self-published authors a tremendous opportunity to reach a public, circumnavigating the publisher. The challenge this has placed on publishing companies, the traditional gatekeepers, is no bad thing. And I like to buy books at low cost at the click of a mouse – who doesn’t? But, and I say this as someone who has found working with publishers, shall we say, somewhat frustrating – we need them. Readers and writers need good publishers.

In trying to push down the prices for e-books, Amazon underestimates the amount of intellectual capital invested in publishing them. It’s not just a question of uploading the content on to an e-reader. Publishing digitally and non-digitally involves work. It involves reading loads of manuscripts beforehand; giving writers feedback; editing; and marketing. Editors, proofreaders, subs, writers and all members of staff need to be paid for their product – for their creative work.

On Newsnight this week, Kirsty Wark challenged the best-selling thriller writer Lee Child, who has signed the letter urging Amazon to settle its dispute with Hachette Book Group. Wark put it to Child that the reaction against Amazon, and its attempt to lower prices, is like the reaction to the Penguin paperback when it was first published, when bookstores refused to stock them and the literary establishment was concerned low-cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture. Wark suggested cheaper e-books will encourage more people to read, which is surely a good thing?

It is this that strikes me as what is new and wrong about this issue. The popular idea is that books need to be pretty much available for free in order for people to read them. Amazon implies this when it says the following, in defence of lowering the cost of e-books: “But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more.

“If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.”

But giving something away for free or for very little cost is no way to encourage reading. We have to argue for books as worth paying for, and as different to updating a status on Facebook – reading is more demanding, and it is more satisfying. It’s also not that expensive. We have to challenge this culture of free.

Cheaper books will cheapen our culture of reading. Booksellers and publishers should stop being so defensive. A healthy reading culture is one that asks something of the reader and pays the writer.