Many people won't have noted a dispute between publishers MacMillan and Amazon at the start of this month that resulted in Amazon briefly withdrawing from sale the entire MacMillan catalogue. And even now it appears that many titles are not available. There's all sorts of arguments going on here, but what should be a dispute between two corporations has involved a lot of writers being harmed as collateral damage. I particularly feel for some debut authors - imagine a favourable review coming out, and the public not being able to buy the book?
Amazon dominates the online bookseller's market. As far as I can tell from discussions with other writers and editors, it seems that Amazon is trying to be the only seller of books online, but also the only customer for books offered by publishers. And as a customer it's trying to set really, really low prices. Now I'm all in favour of cheap books, and if I can get a book at half-price I'll do it like a shot. But I'm not the world's biggest book retailer, and I know that if Amazon gets its way, a lot of publishers and writers are not going to survive the transition to the digital era.
This is not in itself a bad thing, but it might be if Amazon starts selling books supermarket style. You don't expect a huge range of books at a supermarket, either of authors or topics. And if the price of books is forced right down across the whle market, some books will no longer be available simply because they won't get written.
This particular fight between Amazon and the publishers is about the maximum cost of eBooks. People expect eBooks to be cheaper than paper books, but at present they just aren't. That's because distribution and printing is where eBooks make savings, but these are a minor cost compared to paying authors, editors, proofreaders, indexers and illustrators. And to make a proper eBook of anything but a plain text narrative you need another editor, and at least one or two computery types to make it work. And this cancels out printing and distribution savings, which in these days of container transport and printing in China weren't too expensive to start with.
It looks as though the digital wars have started for the book industry. As writers and readers there's not much we can do in the short run. In the long run, it's how writers and readers react to the antics of the big boys in the publishing and wholesale markets that will determine the future of the industry.
New Year Resolutions
Every year I make a few of these, partly for the delicious crunching noise that they make as they shatter. This year though, will be different. There are three things I'm determined to change. So here goes.
1. Only buy a book if it's both needed and relevant. Just getting through my backlog ought to take most of 2010, and I'm already being tempted by the new book on Mithridates ...
2. Stay off fiction. People keep asking me about books like 'Lustrum' or the Falco stories, and I have to say that I can't read them. Fiction authors are allowed to invent or bend 'facts' which my trusting subconscious happily accepts and regurgitates in unguarded comments or forum postings. So, just the real thing in my history reading from now on. If I'm wrong it will be because Tacitus was too.
3. Get out more. I went to movies twice over the holiday break, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. There's lakes and mountains and wine cellars in the valley here, and I intend to get into all of them. Come to think of it, Aristophanes and wine cellars should go well together anyway.
Other news is that I start teaching another course next week. I had more fun teaching Rome than anyone decently should who is being paid for it, and hope to do the same this time around in Athens. There's several of the same students on this course, so I'm looking forward to it.
When I started in the writing business, it was just the word-processor and I working late in the evening after I'd beavered away at my day job. The only other people I knew in the trade were another writer (the one who got me into it in the first place) and my production editor, who was a remote and awe-inspiring figure. At the time I thought it would always be like this.
It turns out I was wrong. I was reminded of this again as I looked over my Christmas card list for 2009. There's a stack of editors - production, commissioning and assistant - whom I've got to know well over the years. There's artists, agents and a dozen fellow writers. Instead of writing being the solitary business I always imagined, putting a book together involves a mini-community of professionals.
There's another stack of cards I'm about to sign. These are for non-professionals I have met in the course of my writing. These people have helped me in countless ways, contributing their enthusiasm and specialized expertise for no other reason than that they share my love of classical history. Sometimes I've sought them out and been overwhelmed by the generosity of their response. Others have contacted me about some aspect of the ancient world that particularly concerns them. Sometimes this has forced a major rethink on my part.
All these are on my Christmas card list. Another, even larger group I'd like to send cards to, but can't, are those people who have paid the ultimate compliment of parting with their hard-earned cash to read what I have to say.
Season's greetings and my grateful thanks to you all!
I've just got one of those Sony eReader things. Actually, my wife got it for me as a Christmas present, but its so useful that I started using it the moment we got the box home.
As I mentioned before, I often pre-read stuff before publication(and other people do the same for my work). Being able to read this in a book-type format rather than on a screen is great, especially as I can scribble notes right on the touch screen and the thing keeps track of what I wrote where.
There's also a zillion odd .pdf files of various articles I've used for research scattered all over my computer's hard drive that I now have an excuse to put into coherent order, because this reader handles .pdf files very well. The only thing I have not tried reading with it is an actual book, because paper is still clearer, non reflective, and turning pages is easier.
While I love the benefits of an eReader, I'm also slightly worried by the downside. If it becomes as easy to rip books in the future as it is with music now, a lot of authors who are just hanging on in the writing business are in trouble. It's not that easy even when you get paid for every sale. We sometimes joke that if you can make money writing history, you can make a fortune doing anything else.
So let's hope that publishing has learned from the music industry, and finds out how to allow eBooks to benefit both readers and writers.
Last seen in 200 AD ...
The nature of my job means that most days, I spend about ten hours in the ancient world. Most of today, for example, was spend wandering about the delightful city of Ephesus in Asia Minor where I was investigating the monuments and trade links.
This leads to a certain degree of mental misalignment with the modern world. I know Trajan's forum in Rome reasonably well, but as the ancient forum, so my first thought when I actually went there was to look at the modern road running right across it and think 'Who put *that* here?' In the same way, a fellow historian was able to put me right about the whereabouts of Budapest by pointing out that it is right next to the Roman town of Aquincum.
But the process is yet more insidious. I genuinely respect Tacitus and Thucydides, and consequently tend to respect what they respect. So I refer to 'worshippers of the Olympian Gods' rather than using the derogatory term 'pagans', and recently found myself hotly defending Roman gladiatorial combat as being ethically superior to the punitive systems of many modern countries.
During the days of the British empire, many an administrator spent so much time with the people he was governing that he adopted their manners and viewpoint wholesale. I can imagine those earnest Victorians shaking their heads over my liking for stoic philosophy or my admiration for people like Rutilius Rufus, and sadly saying 'The game's up for the poor fellah. He's gone native.'