I got back from the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival yesterday. It was – as always – a brilliant weekend, so huge thanks and congratulations to the team organising it all behind the scenes, and especially to Mark Billingham, this year’s programming chair.
As usual, there was a fantastic friendly atmosphere. Catching up with old friends and meeting lots of lovely new people is as much a part of the festival experience as the excellent panels. Aside from that, I was there for two specific things: the announcement of the award on the Thursday evening, and the panel “Wanted for Murder: the Ebook” on Friday afternoon. Denise Mina won the award (and although I would have loved to win, it was very well-deserved and I was genuinely pleased for her). As to the latter … well you may have already heard. If not, this gives some indication of how heated it got. Stephen Leather has also posted his own feelings, which you can read here, and to which we will return shortly.
My impressions? The crowd reaction wasn’t quite as obvious from the stage as it must have been on the floor, but it certainly became more so as time went on. I was aware we were all knocking heads a little, but to be honest it was fairly hard for me to get a word in edgeways. At the time, it was slightly frustrating that the questions kept going to Stephen, but in hindsight it’s clear enough why. Nobody else on the panel could have argued against him quite as effectively as he managed himself.
Some specific points, with reference to Stephen’s blog post.
“Mark (Billingham) came over to me in the green room before the panel and had a quiet word with me. Basically there is a danger of the panels turning into a luvvie love-fest and he wanted me to take a view and be a tad confrontational if at all possible. He wanted the panel to be the talking point of the festival. I’m never one to duck a good argument so I said I’d go for it.”
Well, this sounds suspiciously like someone ducking a good argument. Unless Stephen is claiming he does not hold the views he expressed on stage, and was stating them purely for effect, as per request, the point is an irrelevant one. Since he restates and expands upon a number of those views in his post, we can assume he does, and so whatever Mark said is beside the point.
“What surprised me was how the audience seemed so set against cheap eBooks. Rather than taking my view that books are best sold at a price that readers find attractive, the general feeling of the audience seemed to be that books were already – as one man said – ‘cheap as chips’ while Norwegians had to pay £40 for one of Jo Nesbo’s books. When I explained that I had sold half a million eBooks last year, most of them for less than a quid, I was surprised to hear a few boos and hisses rather than the applause that I had expected.”
He can be as surprised as he wants, but yes, that did seem to be the general reaction. There were a great many readers there, so perhaps it seems counter-intuitive – Stephen presumably expects readers to want books as cheaply as possible – but then these were readers enthusiastic enough about crime writing to come and attend a festival. While there is certainly a legitimate discussion to be had around pricing (although loss leaders, lower prices for higher volumes, etc are neither rocket science in principle nor dependable in practice), the audience that day was far more likely to be affected by the bookseller Patrick Neale’s observation that customers in his shop these days will haggle over the cost of a book before purchasing a pack of postcards at a higher price than Stephen quoting his CV at them.
You might say he’s right though. The audience did feel books were best sold at a price they found attractive, and it’s just that their tastes were different from his.
In short, that and many of the points hinged on the concept of value. Stephen tended to concentrate on the money flowing towards him – the numbers shifted; the total money his work made – but another angle to consider is the value of the reading experience itself. The notion that ‘reading a novel shouldn’t cost less than buying a cup of coffee’ might well be romantic, but it is also intuitive, and not to be dismissed lightly. Similarly, people don’t like to picture bookshops and libraries disappearing. I think that Stephen, whatever the merits of his argument, found himself at odds with the audience, and that is not their fault.
Speaking of which:
“I’m used to being surrounded by people half my age but at Harrogate I felt like the young whippersnapper. The audience was predominantly female and elderly and they are of an age that still believes that books should be paid for.”
This is slightly ironic, considering he was sitting next to me and I was often disagreeing with him, but that’s by the by. Just to note that I find this a completely baffling analysis of the Harrogate demographic, and can only presume he had a very different festival experience from me.
“Mark (Lawson) turned to the conversation around to the cost of books and how much went to the publisher, and asked Ursula to justify why the publisher’s took the lion’s share … I tried to explain that with eBooks, an author with a large fan base can use fans to edit and proof-read. Everyone seemed to think that meant I thought writers could do away with editors, and of course that’s not the case. But not every writer needs a hard edit, some writers need little more than proof-reading and fact-checking and that can be done through fans.”
As anyone who was present will know, this is a distinctly rose-tinted version of what was said. I think Stephen found himself trapped here, actually, and let an off-the-cuff comment fly, but that is a matter between the man and his publisher. By this point, it didn’t feel like he was being deliberately confrontational so much as continually putting his foot in his mouth and coming across badly. You could say the same thing about his use of ‘HMD’ in the reply to the article linked to above, or his patronising reference to fellow panellist Ursula Mackenzie as a “silly girl”. Or from his blogpost, this, about an agent tweeting him:
“I did think of tweeting to ask her if it was eBooks or salads that she was most afraid of, but I’m too much of a gentlemen.”
Leaving aside the fact that if you’re going to insult someone unnecessarily then it pays to at least be funny, the accidental use of the plural “gentlemen” there might cause anyone who was present to raise an amused eyebrow. Because nowhere in Stephen’s blogpost does he mention the moment on the panel that really caused the audience to gasp: his casual and unashamed admission that he uses sock puppet accounts to promote his work – creating fake online personas to engage with him, each other and other readers to build buzz and spread the word about his books. When I asked him if his readers knew these accounts were fake, he said no. He seemed totally oblivious that any of this might prove controversial, but it was what most people were talking about afterwards.
All in all, the panel felt surreal. It was a strange experience, as I certainly didn’t dislike Stephen – he was very amiable, with a lot of time for his fans at the signing – and I agreed with him on certain issues, such as DRM. The comment on piracy that prompted the “Tosser!” shout was badly worded and ill-advised, especially given the atmosphere, but I do understand the point he was attempting to make. Unfortunately, it came at the end of what had basically been a car crash of an event for him.
As a final note, I’ll return briefly to the comments I made earlier about value, and the different perspectives on it. Stephen seemed to concentrate on value in purely financial terms, and with his use of words like “punters” and “units” it was occasionally easy to forget we were talking about books at all. I’m sure he doesn’t really think like this, but it came across at times as though his readership was some kind of bovine factory farm that needed to be milked in the most efficient manner possible. At a festival full of passionate readers, the response to that was always going to be chilly. It is a business, of course – but to many writers, readers and publishers, books do mean considerably more than that. Conspicuous by its absence in the discussion was any passion whatsoever for storytelling and reading, even though it was precisely that passion that had brought the audience there in the first place.
What to do, though? The issues are so nuanced that in a live debate I imagine we’re always going to end up with more heat than light. But I also imagine these debates will happen more and more. If they’re anything like last Friday’s, then at least they’ll be enormously entertaining.
Anyway. Thanks to everyone who came to that – and, once again, to everyone at the festival. Great weekend. Let’s do it again next year, eh? Yes? Cool!