Danish writers refute the ebook

It is not exactly new news, but as it was repeated in a literary supplement the other day, I thought my English readers would be interested in knowing that two Danish writers of crime fiction, Leif Davidsen and Jussi Adler-Olsen, refuse to sell their new books as ebooks.

Adler-Olsen argues that ebooks are bad for the publishing business as such while Davidsen stresses the fact that ebooks are far too easy to copy. “Have you thought about what you are doing?” he asks.

With regard to the piracy argument, I truly hope fear of theft won´t prevent writers from doing what they want to do. I am sure piracy has been around ever since Caxton´s convenient little invention in the 15th century in one way or the other.

With regard to the threat to publishers, Gyldendal (the Danish publishing giant) has finally noticed that American writer John Locke has sold millions of self-published ebooks. Of course any serious publisher should think about what this means to the business. But is the sensible reaction to try to stem the tide, or to discuss if it is time to change their traditional approach? I may also worry about traditional bookshops, but the ebook has been invented, after all, and if Danish customers cannot get Danish ebooks, recent surveys have shown that c 30 % of us read English books occasionally. What will happen to that figure if young readers cannot get new Danish fiction…?

At CrimeFest in Bristol I heard about a British publisher who offered ebook contracts to new writers if they were not certain a paper book could sell enough to make a profit. When/if the ebook did well, they were ready with contracts for paper books.

Another worry expressed by Leif Davidsen is that ebook prices will be so low that ´nobody can live off writing´. Perhaps. But until book prices were set free recently, the lack of competition meant that new hardbacks cost around $ 60, paperbacks $ 40 or so. Denmark is a small country with a population of c 5 million people, but Sweden with a population of c 9 million, has sold paperbacks of Läckberg, Jungstedt, Mankell, Nesbø etc for $ 7-10 for ages. Does anyone imagine that Läckberg´s publisher sells these books with a loss, or could the truth be that with cheap pocket books lying around in the supermarket customers buy so many books that…

Oh no, that is unthinkable. Books are literary gems and should be sold as such. So if Danish customers want ebooks at all, they should be happy to get them for $ 30 because when the state has taken 25 % and the publisher 85 %, the writer´s slice is $ 3.60, and that´s the way we have always arranged things in our little duck pond.

Wake up, Gyldendal and other publishers, times are achanging, whether you and your writers want it or not. I won´t pretend I know how to solve all the problems, but I fear that in the long run your options are to adjust – or perish.

About Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

I am a Danish teacher. In my spare time I read, write and review crime fiction.
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17 Responses to Danish writers refute the ebook

  1. Fascinating…and very ostrich-like behaviour, especially on the part of Davidsen.

    The reality is that long before the eBook was invented virtually no one lived off their writing. In Australia the figure that is bandied around is usually around 2 dozen people make a living writing novels and that hasn’t changed much since I’ve been an adult. 24 people out of a population of c.22million make their living from writing novels. The only impact that the eBook is likely to have on that number is increase it. The vast bulk of novel writers across the globe have to do something else in addition to writing novels in order to survive…that might range from having a full time, unrelated job and being a writer ‘on the side’ or it might be that they manage to eek out a living with their novels plus other writing (film/tv work, essays, short fiction pieces, columns for newspapers and blogs etc) and, increasingly, branching out into merchandising and other markets (selling film/tv rights, selling rights for computer games etc). Some writers have partners whose income supports them.

    And I haven’t even tackled the issue of Davidsen being fundamentally wrong about people expecting to pay nothing for books in an eBook world…it simply isn’t true.

  2. Bernadette: excellent points. And I couldn´t help thinking that we all know Adler-Olsen lives very well on selling paper books these days, but what about the rest of the Danish writers? I don´t think the ebook is the easy way to millionaredom for the majority of writers, but I am beginning to like the idea of being judged by the readers, not by anyone else.
    And I am also very willing to pay a fair price for an ebook. Not the same as for a paperback, but perhaps 30 % less. So thought there must be millions of $ 0.99 books out there, that is not what I am looking for – unless I know beforehand that the writer has something to offer.

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    Dorte – You make some excellent, excellent points here. The world is changing and the reality is, more and more people are getting their reading material electronically. Whether those authors want to realise it or not, when people look for books, they increasingly look for ebooks. As a matter of fact, I just read an article about one of our local library systems. This library has added a whole dimension of available reading material by adding ebooks and ereading. Patrons can download ebooks and while they’re in the library, can make use of ereading software. Libraries are, I would guess (not being a librarian) finding it cost-efficient to get books electronically and to make them available to patrons. And this isn’t the only library doing that, either.
    In my opinion, if one’s going to be an author, one has to find out where one’s target audience is and, well, target it. Today, more and more of the reading public is online. They download books. They read them on ereaders or at least use ereading software. It costs readers less to do that, and it’s more efficient. Authors and publishers who don’t recongise that will lose readers. They’ll lose sales.

  4. This sounds very similar (should I say “the same”?) as the state of traditional publishing in the US. I echo others in that I’m very willing to pay a fair price for an eBook, and as others have said on other blogs, those who pirate most likely wouldn’t buy the books anyway, so it’s not a “lost sale”.

  5. Barbara says:

    The way I see it is that there are so many writers in the world who aren’t being published because they can’t find a publisher, and then those of us who have self-published but don’t have enough money left to market that book, that our work is simply going to waste. I would guess the vast majority of even published writers can’t make a living from it. If you have a best seller, that’s wonderful for you, but most of us either work for a regular paycheck or have a spouse who supports us. Starving artist in the garret anyone? In short, I think e-books are a good thing, and I’ve even convinced myself to buy a Nook or a Kindle because two of the writers I enjoy, you and Linda Gillard, are publishing electronically.

  6. Petty Witter says:

    Interesting. As with most things there is obviously more than one side to this arguement. As you know I’m not a fan of ebooks but can see how they might be good for up and coming authors. That said its a shame that people like me won’t have access to these authors.

  7. Maxine says:

    Well before the internet and all this was invented, the journal/magazine I work for had massive problems with wholesale piracy in a certain country – as you point out, print can be plagiarised and copied pretty easily.
    Many publishers (not all thankfully) use DRM to attempt to stop piracy. The fact that this is in-use in the music and DVD/video industry shows us how good that is. (On a recent holiday we saw all the new movies some not even released in cinemas yet, on sale in DVD formats for a few £ each, in all the shops).
    One point to make to Lief Davidson (if not yet Jussi A-O) is that e-format is good for “out of print” books. Some of Davidson’s backlist has been translated but it unobtainable/out of print (The Sardine deception for example). If publishers put out of print books into eformat, then they would be making x pounds minus piracy, whereas if they don’t put them into eformat they are making 0 pounds.

  8. Margot: surprise, surprise, but Leif Davidsen doesn´t like the idea of libraries lending his books in eform either. If there was no waiting list in the library, he cannot imagine anyone would buy his books.
    Cathryn: agree on both points.
    Barbara: ebooks are definitely also useful for me with my readers spread all over the world, and comments like yours are just heart-warming 🙂
    Tracy: I´m sorry about that, but while it might be possible for me to self-publish a Danish paper book, I just couldn´t risk publishing “The Cosy Knave” in both the US and UK. But when I´ve earned a couple of millions…. 😉
    Maxine: I agree that ebooks are perfect for writers´ backlists, and it seems that neither of the two mind that 😉 What they are against is mainly cheap copies of their NEW books. I think they only valid point is trying to protect book shops, but as I have probably said a thousand times, our local ones are book shops by name, stationaries and gift shops in reality.

  9. Joanne says:

    Oh, those same old teething problems! As far as I can see ebooks and epublishing are here to stay. I think everyone should look at the benefits and embrace it, or as you say, Dorte, ‘adjust or perish!’
    Yes. A good wake-up call is due. 🙂

  10. Joanne: teething problems is the perfect term for it! And I know that many readers in Denmark have not really seen the ebook revolution coming, but the besteller writers and publishers should keep an eye on what´s going on, shouldn´t they?

    • Joanne says:

      Absolutely agree with you. We’re a globalised world. They need to open their eyes, look beyond their borders and keep up with the play. Excellent post!

  11. Lauren says:

    I still can’t get over Danish book prices – and I thought Oz prices were expensive growing up! I will add that it’s ridiculous to deny the domestic market e-books when readers-in-translation can download books. Davidsen isn’t on Kindle in German, but the three Adler-Olsen books that have been translated are, although two and three are currently too pricey for my taste. (Thirteen euros for an e-book is pushing it unless I adore the author’s work.) I’m not sure how much books in English are a solution in countries where that’s not the main language – I know a lot of fluent speakers of other languages who really won’t read for pleasure in any language other than their first.

    I also find the logic idiotic that cheap secondhand books prevent sales. I used to go to the Oxfam bookshop on my street in Edinburgh frequently (Dorte, I believe you remember it!), but that didn’t stop me buying new – often the same authors if I could only find part of a series.

  12. Those authors will only hurt themselves in the long run. They will limit their sales and frustrate fans who own ereaders and can’t get their work.
    The highest cost to a publisher is the printing-shipping-distributor-returns aspect. With ebooks, there is none of that. So the prices should be lower for ebooks. Of course, authors also realize publishers are making more on the ebooks and want a larger chunk.
    I think the bigger publishers will feel the pressure the most. They have the highest amount of cost and overhead and if they keep their ebook prices high, fewer people will buy, but if they lower them to be competitive, they won’t survive financially.

  13. Lauren: we are only 5 million or so and the VAT on books is 25 % so Danish books cannot compete with e.g. British prices, but in my opinion the branch have tried to ´protect´ the book by having ridiculous prices while they might have sold much more the other way. And I firmly believe that people who buy second-hand books will also buy some new books – if the price makes sense.

    Diane: yes, that is also what I think! But so far it seems the publishers have had some success with their mantra: it also costs to produce ebooks. True, but if Amazon is willing to sell millions for $ 0.99, it can´t be much.

  14. Lauren says:

    Off topic, but you’ve reminded me that I was working in a bookshop when Australian introduced a GST in 2001, and we had to work overtime and put little yellow stickers with the new price on every single book. And it was a big bookshop!

    Australian books have gone up in price a lot over the years – when I was home last year, I wandered into a second-hand bookshop and was horrified to have to pay prices I paid for new books not that long ago. My companion (who had also been living in the UK for a while) was also shocked. It must be something about small markets, and it’s not as if Denmark could go to parallel imports (if I’ve understood things correctly, NZ does this but Aus does not) to get prices down, given that there are no other countries producing large numbers of books in Danish.

  15. Pingback: Danish writers refute the ebook « Ritanila’s Weblog

  16. Pingback: Bookshops on the Defensive | djskrimiblog

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