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John Jenkins June 11


The June column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.


A new chapter for publishers

by John Jenkins  

You may have noticed recently full page advertisements advertising a thing called the Kindle.

You have also been bombarded with television advertisements advising you that if you haven’t got an iPhone you haven’t got an iPhone.

Simple messages but they are the heralds of massive and important changes in our lifestyles.  They are the growing examples of electronic books - volumes you can read on screen without ever having any form of paper in your hands.

Being something of a laggard in keeping up with changes in IT – after once being in the vanguard of change – I was inclined to view this move to electronic books as a passing fad… For years I have said that such a thing was a gimmick which would not catch on.

But for the first time last year in the United States sales of ebooks overtook the sale of paperbacks.  And in the first two months of last year sales of ebooks totalled more than $68 millon dollars.

I believe I once offered the opinion that supermarkets would not catch on in Britain.  Simply amazing how often one can be wrong, as the Prince of Wales might say.

When I first went into this black art we were barely out of the quill pen age.  In the first office I worked the air was thick with tobacco smoke and on paper-littered desks was a collection of sit-up and beg typewriters. Naturally enough I inherited the oldest and most battered.  It was a weary Royal machine where the keys stuck together if you didn’t hit them with the accuracy of a metronome and the ‘e’ was missing. It was some months before somebody else joined and I nabbed a better behaved Remington and passed on my machine to the unsuspecting newcomer.

Time moved on and little had changed even when I reached the portals of the Daily Telegraph.  As for the printing room, Caxton himself would have been quite at home with the available machinery as it had hardly changed in a hundred years.

Inky-stained compositors made up pages from slabs of hot type produced by linotype machines, others sweated in foundries to produce pages moulded into cylinders which were bolted on to giant rotary presses spewing out thousands of copies per minute.

But all was to change. Despite printing unions, despite entrenched beliefs, IT took over publishing.

When I quit the Telegraph to set up my own publishing companies I was in the vanguard of that change with computerised typesetting and web offset printing.  Not everybody embraced that change. When I was ready to deliver a manuscript to Longmans they were horrified when I suggested that if they gave me their preferred typeface and format I would supply the manuscript to suit.

But today, 30 years on, we at last seem to be making the final step towards a paperless society as far as books are concerned.

I find it sad. For I cannot feel the same regard for books on a hand-held screen as I do nursing the real thing. I love everything about books, the look and the feel, and that indefinable aroma from opening - for the first time - the pages of a new book.

Even at school as a new term began in September I was thrilled to receive bundles of new books – even though some were bought second hand from the previous year’s pupils. I had read them all by the end of October; not just the English set books, but history, maths, geography, French, chemistry and physics and -  sad to say - rarely opened them again voluntarily, until frantic revision was needed ahead of exams. Old habits die hard.  I cannot walk past a bookshop or a library without going in to browse.

So how long will it take before electronic books take over our reading habits in the UK?

Two years ago on my occasional visits to London I noticed that people were not reading so many newspapers in the commuter trains but were perusing paperbacks. Now I notice that three or four people in a tube carriage are using Kindles or iPhones to read their stories.

So – for the uninitiated reader - what are the benefit of ebooks?

They will be cheaper, more easily updated and will not take up so much room. If you are the sort of person who takes three or four books on holiday then the saving on weight will be colossal.

Your reader, will in fact, hold hundreds of books in its memory.

You can read it on the beach, in the bath, train or plane. Just about anywhere. Currently a Kindle will cost you around £111 but just as early calculators dropped in price, so will these.

You can buy the books online and directly from your ereader device.

As far as authors go it should be a win-win situation. From a standard book an author receives around 10 or 15% of the net cover price. But for an ebook the royalty can increase to 25%, or even more. Hence the saving on printing and paper is shared between author and reader.

The same margin will eventually apply to magazines where currently a publisher receives only 50 per cent of the cover price. The rest goes to the distributor, the wholesaler and the retailer. In the case of W H Smith they often perform all three activities.

As for academic books, it will be much easier for author to update their work.

All round, it seems like a great deal. Except for old romantics like me who love the feel of books.


John Jenkins' April column was entitled 'What's the big idea?' and dealt with whree writers get their ideas from.


If you have a question you would like John to answer please email it to:

The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

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Publisher: Cooper Johnson Limited
Kindle Edition
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