Story is King

As publishers, we’ve always argued that, as the old cliché has it, content is king. You can have as many platforms as you like. But content is where the value lies. It’s why TV companies pay millions for rights to Game of Thrones or billions for the Premier League.

That’s all true, but we’d venture a small modification of this.

Story is King.

What makes something work as an ebook as opposed to anything else? It’s often said that (so called) ‘genre’ books work better in ebook than in print. Why should that be?

Over the past few weeks we’ve been doing a lot of thinking around this. Focusing on digital editions means we have to. If we want to be doing our jobs properly — adding real value — we also have to be confident that the market is right for a book. Which in our case means figuring out why certain things work in, say ebook.

There are a few things to say.

  1. Production. We all know some books are made to be seen and not read. These are often quite wonderful objects. But these books will not work in digital format. The first rule of ebooks is: ebooks are designed to be read and not seen. Any book relying on its production will, therefore, struggle to work.
  2. Price. However much you want to, ignoring the market is never going to work. Expensive books will find digital traction difficult simply because, for reasons that are much debated but nevertheless always apparent, the digital market does not bear high prices in the vast, vast majority of cases.
  3. Content. So far, so simple. But everyone knows that certain forms of content perform better in ebook. The most basic example is fiction. For years ebook’s market share in fiction has been far higher than in non-fiction. So persistent is the pattern that there must be a deep underlying explanation. Likewise, within fiction, certain forms — romance say — have outperformed against their market share in print. Again, there must be an underlying cause. Aside from the above two points, it’s likely that books where narrative drive, that sense of the book falling away, of the world disappearing down the rabbit hole of words, where words themselves become invisible and all you have is pure story, that brilliant sense that made us all love reading in the first place — those are the books that do best. When launching the Kindle all those years ago Jeff Bezos said as much and so it has proved.
Narrative drive, addiction, a clear hook. These are what make ebooks work.

You could be holding an ereader or a tablet — hell you could be reading from a stuffed pigeon, the point is it doesn’t matter, you’ve forgotten the frame, you live in the content.

Arch literary works often play on the fact of their bookishness. They are self consciously textual, they work as books because they are written as books. In contrast much digital fiction is the exact opposite. It doesn’t want to put itself or even the writing in the foreground. Both book and writing are invisible, hidden behind the great all consuming train that is a Damn Good Story.

Although we love ‘difficult’ books as well as great stories, it would be crazy not to acknowledge it is a harder sell.

When you look at the content that works best today — Game of Thrones and a subscription to the Premier League included — what stands out are the stories that transcend medium. Perhaps it has always been the case but what has value, for producers and consumers, in a world saturated with devices, screens, media of all kinds, is something that makes us forget those same devices and screens.

In the ebook market production and price are aristocrats.

But only story is royalty.

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