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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fairtrade for books?

Support your local bookshop before it's too late. I was talking to a major fiction publisher yesterday who spelled it out in the starkest terms: fewer outlets = fewer books published in future. They're already downsizing. Amazon is a brilliant sales model, but can it support authors who need to eat, clothe their children and pay the mortgage in a world that wants books but doesn't want to pay much for them?

Now there are those who might say it wouldn't harm the publishers to shrink a little, not least in the waistband. Down with all those long lunches! Isn't publishing just filled with middlemen, living fat off the talent? The regular comparisons with the music business miss the mark; writers, by and large, are not working for 'the man'; you won't see them daubing 'slave' on their cheek or turning their names into unpronounceable symbols.

But writers do not necessarily resemble exhibitionist pop stars or musicians; they certainly can't have a second revenue stream in the form of gigs. You can make a bit of money on the speaking circuit, but it robs time from your core pursuit. Of all the creative arts, writing demands the most time spent alone, writing and thinking; not blogging, or doing your own marketing, or being seen in glamorous places, or packing up boxes of books, or speaking to printers, or talking to book groups, or ringing round bookshops, or negotiating film rights. I know I'd rather my favourite authors just crack on with it.

Yes, e-books will take over the world; publishers of all people were early adopters because they mean you don't have to cart round forty manuscripts. There's a big battle going on over e-book pricing, to ensure that writers are fairly compensated for the work they put in creating the books we love. They'll do doubt carry on anyway; that mysterious magic called human creativity can't be easily stifled by mere lack of loot. But for the sake of fairness we have to find a way of supporting them.

We understand the value of fairtrade products which guarantee workers in the third world a safe environment and a decent wage; why not extend the principle to writers? A fairtrade product is an item of quality, like a garment from People Tree which has been hand-dyed, woven and embroidered by real people (I got a great pair of woolly socks which came with a tag with the name of the woman in Nepal who'd knitted them - a lovely touch). Odourless, tasteless, intangible, e-books don't have that sort of appeal.

So why not let Amazon sell the e-books to those that want them; and for people who demand something a little more special, how about fairtrade publishing? Publishers could band together to sell hard copies at real prices, via a website which explains, for the increasing number of people who just don't get it, how writers have to earn a proper wage. It could work especially well for poets: 'Just ten copies sold will help Kathleen Jamie buy a winter jumper!' 'Hugo Williams needs a new coat...'

There will always be people who just want to eat cheap, exploitative chocolate. But fairtrade writing, like Green & Blacks, could be chic, responsible and desirable. What do you think?


  1. I've been considering something similar for quite some time, actually. I've written a short story which a couple of friends have asked to read - I've balked at asking them for money, but I can't see why they shouldn't make some sort of token gesture. Also when people buy second hand copies, they should really make some sort of donation to the author.

  2. I agree with so much of this. The problem is that once you get used to having anything for less (or even for free, viz online newspapers) it becomes hard to go back to paying the full price. I think that, as with Fairtrade there has to be a combination of feel-good and fashion attached to it. Books are cheap compared to theatre and many cinema tickets - when they deliver, you've got a bargain.
    What worries me about e-books is that like actual books they can be sold on at no profit to publisher and author. You can't do this to computer games (I think.)

  3. Suzi, have yuo seen this site where snivelling brats complain about having to pay too much for books or indeed pay at all? http://lostbooksales.com/2011/02/the-book-of-funk-by-sir-nose-devoid-of-funk/


  4. ha I am sure Hugo Williams is doing just fine for coats by now!

    Simon Armitage needs a second home, preferably in the Auvergne...

  5. I like this idea. But I don't know.

    In my experience, some of the best writers I know fit their writing round other jobs/activities anyway. We have had 'death of the author' maybe 'death of the writer' is on its way too,as a 'vocation'...

  6. Hmm.

    Firstly, most exhibitionist pop stars make very little ... and generally speaking, live performances lose money - or would were it not for the merchandizing ... perhaps this is where authors need to look - get out your Martin Amis wallet, maybe your Hemingway hip flask, your Sarah Waters, er ...

    Musicians make money from publishing, that is the songwriter makes the cash. Perhaps the same model might transfer ... you sell a publisher a license to print, distribute and sell your work.

    Or maybe do what some bands have done, and get their fans to pay up front for the album ... thus paying the capital costs.

    The problem, of course, is marketing. Without product visibility, you sell nothing. So the power will shift to ... wait for it ... the reviewer.

    I love the idea of asking people for a contribution should they ask to read a story of mine ... in fact, since you've got this far, I'm sure you will be happy to make a small consideration to the advantage of my private island fund ...