eReading in the Age of Austerity
Irrational exuberance is dead; we’re all living in the Age of Austerity now. We’ve learned that private, corporate, and sovereign debt can’t be ignored forever, and we’re shrinking our expenditure accordingly.
Okay, okay! I know you’ve heard that plenty of times, but there’s another side to this change. Many of us are working longer hours for less money or spending a lot of time looking for work, which means that we are not only poorer, but we have less leisure time too.
I’m intimately familiar with this. After working for a large corporation for twenty years, they made me redundant in February 2011. My co-workers gave me a Kindle as a farewell present. That set me thinking… and now I am a full-time writer and publisher.
There’s a reason why I told you my story. Look again, because it shows another worldwide trend in microcosm: economic austerity has coincided with the revolution in eReading. Here in the UK, eBooks were for many years the trend that continued not to take off… until Amazon launched the Kindle in August 2010, six months before I was made redundant. As a consequence, in the following twelve months, UK per-capita spending on eBooks grew to be one of the highest in the world; half of all eBooks in Western Europe were bought in the UK during that period (source: Futuresource).
So what does eReading mean in the Age of Austerity?
I’ve three predictions for you. Make a note in your calendar now to re-read this post in five years time. Bet you I’m right!
Books will be cheaper, but most books you seek out will cost more than 99c
We’re living in the age of Austerity Leisure…
Free books are great. In fact, I’ve heard of this great site called GetFreeEbooks.com… But as the Age of Austerity grinds on over the coming years, free and 99c books will become the home of samples (full books, but nonetheless samples that encourage you to try out an author) and authors who want to be read but harbor no illusions about being paid to do so.
Why? Look at the economics because they are inescapable. Authors don’t make any money selling free books, and have to sell a helluva large number to make money selling at 99c. The median family income here in the UK is equivalent to selling approximately a quarter of a million 99c eBooks every year. And writing full-sized books to a professional standard takes a lot of time, so authors had better pray each one will sell well. More likely, full-time but ‘mid-list’ authors will need to price the majority of their books higher than 99c.
And we’re living in the age of Austerity Leisure, don’t forget. Leisure time is suffering deflation: it’s in shorter supply so its value is rising. We might have less money to spend on leisure, but we have to invest just as much of our free time to read a novel as we did in the years of (relative) plenty. And those of us working longer hours have less free time to invest.
That’s important because even though I have less money, most independently published eBooks are already seriously cheap. I’m writing this over a large cappuccino in my local Costa Coffee. It costs £2.65. An eBook that costs 99c on amazon.com costs £0.86 on amazon.co.uk. So for the price of my coffee, I can buy three 99c novels and any number of downloads from GetFreeEbooks.com. Don’t get me wrong, I love downloading free or 99c books to try out new writers and new genres that I would never have come across in the days of print-only books. However, once I’ve found a new author, I’d much rather pay $4.99 for their next novel because that’s still a cheap price, and I want them to be able to pay their mortgage from their royalties so they write more great books.
You will be reading many free and 99c books to try out new authors and genres, but most of the novels you read from your favorite authors will be priced at a few dollars.
You will be reading a wider variety of styles and book lengths than you are now
There’s even a saga told in a series of poems…
In the past month, my Kindle has acquired newspapers, magazines novels, novellas, how-to guides, a coding manual, short stories in an anthology, and short stories that stand alone. There’s even a saga told in a series of poems. It isn’t just that my Kindle carries the equivalent of an entire bookcase, but it is eliminating the distinction between different types of print media. The origins of many of those distinctions come down to print and distribution costs, not the worth or popularity.
Go to your print bookshop. Outside of the children’s section, how many fiction books do you see at 150 pages or under? How many short fiction periodicals do you see? Probably, you’ll see neither. You might see magazines and newspapers there, but they will be treated very separately. Print and distribution costs meant that adult novellas (a story length that would be perhaps 70-150 pages in paperback) almost died out after the Second World War, yet they were once extremely popular. Novellas in eBook form can now be distributed and sold for a significantly cheaper price than print novels, while still being commercially viable.
Some of the distinctions between different types of ‘content’ no longer make sense and will die away. When niche content types become available to you on the same platforms as mainstream content, you will probably try them out.
Novellas and short novels will be much more popular than in the print world, and you will have at least tried them.
Does that mean novellas will make a comeback?
Novellas again! If you wind back a century, you will find that novellas and serialized short stories (such as the Sherlock Holmes adventures and a lot of Dickens’ classics) were not merely more commonplace than they are today, they were more popular than novels. It was the increase of print and distribution costs that led to the dominance of the novel that we are so familiar with in the print world. Does that mean novellas will make a comeback?
They are already starting to. Self-published eBook novellas are still a lot less common than novels, but there are far more of them than in the print world. Even the majors are beginning publish more of them. Self-published novels tend to be shorter too. Occasionally I like a wallow in a big book, but mostly I don’t have the time. It’s Austerity Leisure again. We have more leisure time than our great-grandparents, but less than we did when our economies gorged on debt. So I predict novellas will become much more popular, but less so than a century ago.
Short stories, novellas, and novels are all different reading experiences, but in a time of Austerity Leisure, a shorter read is sometimes more practical as we work longer hours. The reason most people only read novels is because that’s what the publishers wanted you to read. Now it’s up to you!
Well, there you have it. The rise of eBooks will quickly become an integral part of our leisure time in the Age of Austerity. We will enjoy cheaper books, though most of the books we enjoy most will cost more than 99c. We will have a wider variety of story lengths and styles to chose from, and – best of all – when we have half an hour to kill over a coffee, we will always have our library to hand.
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