The Value of Nothing

A small group of women is gathered by the entrance of our branch of Tesco armed with copies of a widely read west Wales newspaper. ‘Half price Carmarthen Journal?’ they offer, ‘only 37p today?’ When we decline, one of the women introduces herself as the editor and asks why we’re not buying to which we explain that we can read most newspapers, including theirs, free online. 

As we walk away to do our shopping, it occurs to me that it’s a sign of the times when a newspaper editor is standing in the freezing doorway of a supermarket trying to drum up interest so I pop back for a quick chat. I explain that I can’t get this particular store - my local Tesco - to stock my books (central ordering), that - like her on this wintry day - I’m also constantly trying to find new and innovative ways to reach readers and finally that the main effect of giving digital content away is that consumers have come to expect it.

In the early days of Kindle, a special offer on one of my books was pretty much guaranteed to boost sales; here’s the heady moment, for example, when Turning the Tide first entered Amazon’s top 100 bestsellers.


But when Follow A Star was picked as a Black Friday deal, albeit very late in the day, it hardly flickered – why would it when there are now more daily and monthly deals and special offers than most folks have time to read? New EU rules in respect of VAT and the resulting increase in ebook prices will only make consumers baulk even more, especially when ebooks are often perceived as being cheap to produce despite the fact there’s still the author fee, editing, cover art, typesetting, marketing etc, etc which have to be covered. And of course, some people aren’t happy no matter how little they pay; ‘wish I hadn’t wasted my money’ complains one dissatisfied reader who paid 99p for Only True in Fairy Tales. Oh well, that’s what happens when you put your work out there - everyone’s entitled to their opinion.

In low moments, I wonder why I bother, all those months of work for so little return. Yes, I feel extraordinarily lucky to have been traditionally published and there are all kind of joys, like seeing physical copies of my books on my shelf, or receiving cards from people who’ve enjoyed them that I can’t put a value on. But a minimum wage would be good, let alone a living wage. What’s to be done? I wish I knew. There’s no turning back the digital tide, that’s for sure, but how about a bit of ‘paying it forward’; write reviews for little-known books, spread the word about new authors and admit that unless we want a race to the bottom some things are worth paying for.

And to end on a more cheerful note, I’m delighted to see Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, a book that I’ve been banging on about for ages, winning the 2014 Costa book prize in addition to the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction that it won last November. In a month where the film of Fifty Shade of Grey will see EL James novels dominating the charts again, it makes me very happy that a beautiful, haunting, lyrical tale of grief, loss and training a goshawk can still shine.


The painting is Rain Setting In, Pembrokeshire Coast by Tom Tomos

Comments

Victoria Lamb said…
It's a tricky problem with no easy solution. The best thing I can suggest - to myself as well as others - is to diversify. First I did that by publishing my own books. Then I did that by moving into rom com - NOT my natural area as a writer, but it seems folks like it much better than my historicals. Who knew? So I persevere with it. Now I am turning to non-fiction, since the more strings to my bow, the better. Yes, free content - including 'borrows' on Kindle Unlimited etc - have stifled and are killing writing careers left, right and centre. There is now no longer even the hope that cream will rise to the top. Not when it has to swim through so much free content to get there. But it is what it is. We are very unlikely to be able to stop free content; indeed it's more likely to keep moving further in that direction. So we have to find other ways, new ways, of making a career out of writing. Dreary stuff indeed. :(
Chris Stovell said…
Many thanks for your thoughts, Victoria. Tricky indeed - and excellent advice coming from an author with as many strings to her bow as you.
Kathryn Freeman said…
You write a very thought provoking post Mrs Stovell. It seems to me that nowadays it's a lot easier to get published, but a lot, lot harder to make any real money from it. When I consider what I used to pay for a book back in the day, as a reader I'm delighted I can pick one up for 99p - sometimes nothing. As a write…not so much :-). But you need to keep writing because your books bring pleasure to many (including me) and despite how it seems at times, it's still true to say that not many people have that gift.
Maggie Christie said…
Very well put. This is one of the reasons I no longer work for a local newspaper. The pressure on the ratio - the amount of advertising versus news - was always a huge problem and I left just as the internet started hitting sales too. Readers always complained bitterly at price rises, but it was those that paid our (fairly low) wages.

It makes me very sad. My old job doesn't exist any more; it was killed off by new technology. This is progress I suppose but I'm glad I had my years as a reporter and sub-editor before this happened. I wouldn't have liked having to tout for readers outside Tesco!

But authors should be able to make a living, as should artists and musicians. The new digital world is affecting us all. I don't know what to do either about it either, except to act on your recommendation, buy a full price print copy of H is for Hawk, and remember to help spread the word about new authors and good books.
mountainear said…
I guess it's the age we live in. The digital world has a lot to answer for - it's blamed for the demise of the high street too - and probably for the same reasons. 'Cut-price' and 'free' are huge enticements. The casualities are the authors and small traders.

I don't know what the answer is - as Maggie suggests buy a full price book and support local producers.
It is hard to interest people in print in this new digital age. It may change, but as of right now, readers have come to expect reads for almost nothing. It's definitely food for thought.
Chris Stovell said…
You've hit the nail on the head, Kate - both as a writer and a reader. Thank you so much for your kind words of encouragement, I still feel a bit pessimistic about it all right now!
Chris Stovell said…
I thought about you, Mags, when I saw the Carmarthen Journal staff standing there. Strange days indeed, although the editor was very cheerful, upbeat and immediately told me to get in touch about an article which I very much appreciated. However, however, sadly it still feels like a race to the bottom and I do wonder what the cost of all the free content will be as artists across the creative spectrum lose the will and the means to keep working for free.
Chris Stovell said…
PS. I'm sure you'll enjoy 'H is for Hawk' Mags, it's a such a beautiful, quirky book that stands out from the pack.
Chris Stovell said…
Mountaineer, thank you - I guess there's something to be said for a 'slow' approach; to visit local shops, buy a physical book - to be the authors of our own future... and yet, it's much easier for me, living 9 miles away from the nearest town, to press a one click button and wait for something to be delivered to my door. I guess we've all got to think about the consequence of our buying choices.
Chris Stovell said…
They certainly do, Chanpreet. Collectively, we have to decide whether or not the creators of 'free' content are sufficiently rewarded. If everything's up for grabs then there's no chance of the cream, as Victoria Lamb writes, rising to the top. We'll all curdle!
Frances said…
Chris, as I read your post and the earlier comments, I realized that without the internet, I most likely would never have met you and Tom, or have read your blog, or your novels. Of course, other folks would have met you and Tom, and I do hope that your novels would have been published, but ...well, you get my drift I am sure.

This revaluing of much in our lives, while we think we have access to everything via the keyboard, will continue its evolution. Who knows what is over the horizon.

With regard to literature, humans have loved story telling for many centuries. From way before anything was written down. I think that the digital age is still approaching its adolescence, and none of us has any idea of how it will mature.

Oh Chris, how I do wish that we could meet for tea tomorrow and have a long conversation about all this. The boundaries of this little comment box are too small.

Please do keep raising these question, and please do keep writing your novels. xo
Chris Stovell said…
Thank you, dear Frances. Wouldn't it be lovely to meet up for tea and a chat? I'm very glad we did meet on that very cold day in NYC and I'm grateful for the internet and the immediate sense of connection that came from reading your fascinating blog posts. As you wisely point out, the digital age comes with growing pains - maybe we all have to hang on for the ride and hope that not too many folks fall off? My fear, I suppose, is that the more free content is available the less it's appreciated - some of the most negative reviews of fellow authors' books I've seen come from readers who've downloaded them for free and then complain it's 'not their usual thing'. On the other hand I've benefited enormously from free access to, for example, Massive Open Online Courses, but I do wonder how sustainable the model is. Thanks for joining in the debate - and putting up with my moans! Cx
Flowerpot said…
I agree with Frances - online has its uses but I agree about all this 'free' material. But we love your books so keep writing - we will pay to read them!
Chris Stovell said…
What a very kind thing to say, Sue. And thank you so much for shelling out for them, it's much appreciated.
Pondside said…
I read what you said about hanging on for the ride - how sad that all the wonders of the internet have brought us into a bit of a dark age (in my opinion!) When children can't write or spell - when handwriting is no longer taught in school I wonder about the connections we were told were made in the brain when letters and words were formed. I still buy books - hard copies - and I buy books for my grandchildren. I fear the day will come when we won't be able to go into a book store to make a purchase.
Chris Stovell said…
I still use a notebook and a pen, Pondside, firstly for sketching out rough ideas, and secondly for writing up finished poems. There is, as you say, a different kind of connection as you form the letters, words and sentences. It would be good to hope that children will still read physical books, but with so few independent bookshops around our choice is increasing limited by what the big players want to sell.
I am visiting via 'Pondside' and as a bookseller, I truly appreciate the joy of a book in hand. I'm glad to have discovered your blog.
Chris Stovell said…
Hello Jane - thank you so much for visiting, I'll return the favour, and for sharing your thoughts.
Sally Townsend said…
Thank you once again for 'popping by' my blogspot, it really lifts the spirits and keeps you going knowing someone is reading your words... It's difficult, without the internet we would never have all connected with each other all those years back and yet there is something deeply satisfying about the feel of a book so I hope there will continue to be room for both. X

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