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Books will survive, but not on paper

By Susan Hayes - posted Tuesday, 15 September 2009

When I read recently that sales of the new Kindle e-reader in the US have not been as huge as anticipated, I must confess that my first feeling was one of relief. In the course of the past week I have acquired a new phone that does everything but feed the cat and an equally complicated camera. Both have necessitated lengthy tutorials from my son and I'm going through a fit of technology overload.

When US digital guru Bob Stein and I sat down at the Melbourne Writers Festival last month to discuss the future of the book, we were searching for common ground. Bob is one of those guys who calls books user-driven media. I'm one of those women of a certain age who belongs to a book club and can't get on a plane without at least one novel in my hand luggage.

Nevertheless, while Bob and I may disagree about the sanctity of an author's work and certain aspects of copyright, we were certainly on the same page in acknowledging that the paper book, as we know it, will gradually disappear from our shelves over the next 10 years.


I welcome the day when I can ditch that heavy book and download a dozen titles on to my lightweight e-reader before I fasten my seatbelt.

It was with this in mind that I approached the director of the Melbourne Writers Festival to discuss Australia Council support for the Digital Publishing Program. With the commercial success of the Kindle in the US and publishers in Britain already squabbling over royalty rates for e-books, it is essential for Australian publishers to be ready to go when this technology arrives in our stores.

The period of transition from book to e-book will be particularly hard for our smaller publishing houses. Setting a manuscript in user-friendly digital format is not simply a matter of pressing a few buttons.

While the multinationals are already taking advantage of both the publishing and global marketing opportunities offered by the new technologies, small independent publishers are struggling. Operating on low staffing levels and even lower profit margins, they do not have the necessary in-house expertise or the IT equipment capable of taking on this new level of sophistication.

Paradoxically, I believe that those who have already gone to an all digital output, investing in skills and technology rather than paper, have more chance of keeping pace with their more powerful rivals. It's the cost of putting out simultaneous online and paper versions of a book that will put some companies out of business.

It is equally important for writers to stay in touch with the complex field of digital rights management and subsequent royalty payments. Random House UK is in trouble for setting digital royalty rates below other publishers. Random is quoting 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent as a norm, while the original rate had been set at 25 per cent.


These rates can only be good news for writers, who at present expect a royalty between 8 per cent and 10 per cent for a conventional paper book. But they need to get canny about the variations between different territorial and new media rights attached to their book contracts.

Intellectual property lawyer Zoe Rodriguez discussed these issues with authors' literary agent Sophie Hamley and Elizabeth Weiss, digital publishing director at Allen & Unwin. Rodriguez has strong views on the rights of the author to recognition and payment, while Stein's views on intellectual property are rather more fluid.

At some point, these ideologies will need to find a meeting place and it will not be easy to define.

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First published in The Australian on September 4, 2009.

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About the Author

Susan Hayes is director of literature at the Australia Council for the Arts.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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