Dr Anthony Mandal on digital publishing

 Dr Anthony Mandal is the Associate Director at the  Centre for Editorial & Intertextual Research, Cardiff University. Whilst researching for my piece on digitial books I asked him how they were affecting the publishing industry. His answers were so interesting they deserved a blog post of their own.

How have publishers reacted to the effect of the internet and e-books on their industry?

In the main this is still quite traditional, with publishers offering duplicates of the textual content of their printed books. Obviously, for Amazon to claim that e-book sales exceeded those of hardbacks in the US – as they did in the summer of 2011 – then publishers must be taking e-books seriously. There are a few exceptions which try to make more innovative use of the digital medium, such as Faber&Faber’s Wasteland app for the iPad, or for lighter-hearted readers, there are Padworx’s interactive Dracula and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

On another level, publishers seem to be (certainly, in the UK) taking a rather protectionist and reactionary approach to e-books. There has been an outcry among Kindle readers as some publishers have been pricing their Kindle e-books higher than the paperbacks. Surely, the publishers would take advantage of the lower costs of generating e-books than print ones, and retail them at substantively reduced prices to secure further sales from this expanding market? Well, that’s what customers thought. Amazon distanced itself from this by attaching a label in cases where the ‘Price had been set by the publisher’, while customers said that they would buy second-hand copies to prevent the publishers making a profit.

Are publishers prioritising physical book sales?

My feeling is that certain publishers are doing this to protect their physical sales. Book retailers operate on a ‘sale-or-return’ policy, so that if they only sell a small portion of books sent by the publisher for sale, they can return any remaining stock without having to pay. Hence, if a publisher has invested tens of thousands of dollars in a print-run, they will want to ensure that the book sells, as they’ll otherwise be stuck with the unsold copies.

What do you think about the idea of Google Books?

In principle, Google Books was a great idea, and particularly for someone like me, who researches literature that is out of copyright, the access to such a large number of pre-1900 works is a real asset.

However the settlement that Google was obliged to come to with the Authors’ Guild and the Association of American Publishers undermined the public good of such a project, given the monetization that would take place. Libraries that had digitized materials as part of the Google Books project for free would now have to buy back access to the same digital texts. Google might have a monopoly on these digitized works, preventing other similar initiatives.

The ‘orphaned books’ issue is a particularly thorny one. On the one hand, Google Books would make a lot of these out-of-print works available to the public; on the other hand, any income derived from the digitization of these books would be split between the three partners in the settlement, with little redress to authors of orphaned works or their legatees. So, on the whole, I think it represents a rewriting of copyright law and an infringement of intellectual property for commercial gain, which could only be a bad thing for authors.

What do you think about self-publishing?

Self-publishing isn’t an inherently bad thing. Many authors stepped into the literary marketplace by self-publishing. Jane Austen published her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, at her own expense in 1811, paying the publisher the costs and a ten per cent commission. Virginia and Leonard Woolf set up the Hogarth Press in 1917 as a hobby, which turned into a successful business.

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However publishers perform a gatekeeping function, making sure that what reaches the customer has been through a comparable process of scrutiny. Self-published material does not undergo this, meaning the reader might be misled by what is being presented. This is probably fine in most cases, but in those where facts are at stake, we need to be careful about vesting too much authority in anything that is published. Or conversely, we might be in danger of becoming desensitised to material that should carry authority because of this textual revolution.

At the same time, I think it’s a great thing that through blogging, online publishing and social media, more people are becoming writers. Writing can encourage reflection and make us think more clearly about our society and its values, so the more people who write and engage in this way, the better, I think.


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