Last week, I wrote a post about learning, and I figured that it might be worthwhile to continue doing this. So without further a due, here’s the lesson I’ve learned this week, with regards to writing / publishing / books in general, and it has to do with this contraption here:

I got this in the mail a few days ago, as a thank you from my airline for having flown with them last year. Last year they sent us a metal clip for bank notes, and my sentiments then were similar, who uses cash these days?

I looked at the elaborate metal (from an airline? You’re kidding me, right?) book mark, and noticed how my eyes wondered over to my iPhone (where all my books are stored) and back to the book mark. How will I get you in here? Well, I did find a way, but joke aside, and thank you Lufthansa for your thoughtful gift, but I don’t use cash any more, and I don’t buy physical books any more.

Now I’m not sure if this is simply a generational issue, that most people flying with Lufthansa’s (btw amazing) premium class are all a bunch of “old people” who haven’t transitioned into the 21st century or if I’m missing a finer point of the life of “classy” people. Whichever, and you’re more than welcome to pitch in with your comments, this isn’t the point of this post either.

Last night I attended a meeting of the self-publishing group here in Gothenburg, and we had a few newcomers, and during the introduction round, we quickly ended up in a discussion about books, ebooks, printing, offset, print-on-demand (POD), Amazon and what not. As an author who sells 99.9% of his books on the anglo-saxon markets (.9% UK & Canada, do the math), it was always a given to me that I needed ebooks. My first novel came out less than two years ago, so yes, ebooks were huge already.

But that isn’t the case everywhere, certainly not in Europe, where physical books and bookstores are still “da shit”. And it’s not just for the reasons us ebook lovers often think of (retarded backwards looking don’t know better anti-technology paper sniffing freaks), no, there are other, more relevant reasons why people don’t even consider ebooks:

  • They don’t know they exist… (I kid you not!)
  • Many titles are not available as ebooks
  • ebooks are not (much) cheaper than physical books
Yeah, we own more than one Billy… And
yes, it’s filled with, mostly, books, many of
them are mine, i.e. written by me.
The first part is probably the largest factor, and it hits me every time I hear it. Educated (yes) people, teachers, scientists who had never even considered ebooks. Sure, they may have heard of it, the way we’ve heard of large atomic colliders, but they never in their wildest dreams imagined it could have a direct impact on their lives, the way they consume and enjoy literature. Yeah, right? Makes you think… It just never struck them, and you should see the lights going on when you demo a Kindle or iBook, the way you can change fonts, letter sizes, background colors, how you NEVER again will need a book mark, or one of those ugly IKEA Billy book shelves that sits in every Swedish (world wide?) home… It was remarkable! (I had two such guys last night, in a literary group no less!)
We discussed print runs, and how many copies to print in a first edition, and when I said I print 0 (zero), which isn’t entirely true, as my government requires ten copies for the Swedish equivalent of the Library of Congress for research, eye brows quickly rose to meet receding hairlines. Yeah, there were both guys.
Hence, in many countries, authors and publishers alike have no market for ebooks, and therefore don’t produce them. If they, to make matters worse, live in a country like Sweden, where books are generously supported (erm!) with a 6% arts VAT rate while ebooks are considered an IT “product”, taxed at the standard 25% VAT rate, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that ebooks aren’t as inexpensive as they could be, sorry, should be. Sadly, circling back to my first point, we’ve had no minister of culture or finance in the past twenty years who even remotely came close to understanding what an ebook is, hence they see no need / have no desire to change VAT scales for something they aren’t aware of exists. It’s a vicious cycle. A cycle that at least here is acerbated by the fact that the largest publishing houses also own distribution and book stores, risking part of their business model if ebooks were to become successful. Needless to say, they’re scared out of their wits by the pending (for four years now, we’re still waiting) arrival of Amazon. Cry wolf anyone?
In this country (Sweden), the only time ebooks are discussed is when we talk about libraries, and how expensive it is for libraries to lend ebooks compared to the physical object. Naturally, that is complete rubbish and nonsense, because if one really compared the cost of a physical book to an ebook, one would immediately toss out all remaining paper books. However, that isn’t done, and the reason is simple: libraries. Yes, the building itself.
The New York Public Library. Impressive, beautiful, expensive to maintain. Photo: Razimantv / Wikimedia Commons
For centuries, we’ve build libraries to house books. All those books are purchased, catalogued, stored and after x amount of loans, they need to be replaced. The storage of those books requires HUGE buildings (I just recently visited the amazingly beautiful public library in New York, one of my favorites), and even in my humble little home town, we just recently invested hundreds of million of our currency (a sizable amount of real money) to add on to our centannial city library. That cost, plus the cost of utilities, not to mention all the minions carrying books to and fro (sometimes referred to as librarians) is never really adequately included in those comparisons, because it’s considered a fixed cost, i.e. something you can’t change. Of course not, where else would librarians sit? My apologies if I’m a bit cynical. I love libraries, and I’m not at all proposing that we abandon all those glorious buildings, but maybe, just maybe it’s time we stopped building new ones? Adding on to existing ones to make room for more paper books in storage? Maybe we could downsize a bit? With ebooks, “all” you need is servers, a bit of office space for librarians and a meeting area, where you can help new customers to find what they’re looking for. Librarians could focus on curating the best books and giving advice, rather than spending most of their time shelving…
My first ever novel to be published and printed. Holding
it was quite special.
There are a gazillion advantages for libraries to reach entirely new groups of readers, people who would never even consider setting their feet inside the 42 st building (or wherever yours is located.) We all have computers, smartphones and what not, with access to not only YouTube, Netflix and Amazon, but also to our local libraries. Sadly it seems that Amazon is making money (with their Unlimited program) where libraries are still dragging their feet. Unfortunately, Amazon’s business model for Unlimited is that of a slave owner’s (you have to be signed exclusively to Amazon), which is obviously a no go for most authors and publishers outside the USA, and even within the US, for many out of principle. 
Monopolies are never a good thing, unless they’re government owned for the common good of the entire population (e.g. power lines, sewage systems etc.)
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate physical books. In fact, I own all of my own books as physical copies, too, and every time my latest book is delivered,  I open the box, take it into my hand, feel the smooth cover, smell the ink, I feel accomplished, like a parent holding his child for the first time. Well, maybe not quite like that, but you catch my drift. It’s an amazing sensation. The ebook, that I usually read a couple of times before publication doesn’t quite do it for me, even though it’s a much better read than your run of the mill word processing documents…
However, ebooks are convenient. I can be thousands of miles away from my library and still have access to all my titles right at the tip of my fingers. As a publisher, I can update files and erase typos as and when they are found. Sadly there’s always some out there. A new file is uploaded and everyone gets a better product. Try that with a paper book… 
The author with his latest novel,
the day he first got his hands on it…
Eventually, more and more people will realize those advantages and switch. I want people to switch on their own time, if and when they’re ready, and just like there are still people out there advocating for vinyl records, eight track & VHS tapes, there will always be people who will want to read their books on paper. I say let them. They don’t hurt anyone. 
For the rest of us, we need to level the playing field, taxation needs to be the same, pricing needs to be adjusted by publishers, and public libraries need to start to rethink their business models and look at all the cost of physical book lending, not just that which is opportunistic.
Who knew, right? 
All of this from one metal book mark from my favorite airline. 
I won’t ever use it as it was intended, but it inspired a hell of a thought process this week. So thank you Lufthansa for a fine gift!
You all have a great weekend and enjoy your next book, be it on paper or not.
Hans M Hirschi
Hans is the author of four novels, publisher at Yāree as well as the chairman of the Swedish Federation of Self- & Independent Publishers. He published his first two novels in July of 2013 and is currently working on Opus 5. He also recently joined the Author Social Media Support Group, hence the #asmsg hashtag in the heading every now and then.

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