A lot has been said about the demise of traditional bookshops and the rise of ebooks. Less mention has been made of the changing role of the publisher in all this. A good publisher can be a real asset to a writer, a bad one is a definite hindrance. I’ve been a professional writer for more than twenty years. Fed up with the inefficiencies of some of the publishers with which I’ve worked, a few years ago I became part of a team which set up our own small publishing house, Loaghtan Books. It’s being a rollercoaster ride. A few basic facts about publishing. Firstly, anyone can do it. ‘Publishing’ merely means bringing into the public domain. If you send round a circular letter at Christmas you are publishing. The term therefore has no legal meaning. Publishers are facilitators – people who take an individual’s work and bring it to the attention of a crowd. Traditionally this has meant taking a manuscript and nursing it through the various stages of editing, gathering illustrations, typesetting and printing before trying to sell the finished product to retailers. Until very recently, publishing a book has remained essentially the same since Caxton imported the printing press in the fifteenth century; getting ideas onto paper and, through shops, into the hands of readers.

It’s not like that any more. The most obvious change is in retail outlets. Almost all new books used to be sold through dedicated bookshops. Now you can also buy books through supermarkets, newsagents, online traders, museums, tourist attractions, libraries, gift shops, eateries, by post, over the counter, online, using vouchers, as part of a marketing offer, etc. Such divergence helps the reader – at least superficially – but can be a real problem for publishers who no longer have relatively few known specialist retailers – the book shops – with which to deal.

The fragmentation of the retail book trade has led to a decrease in the number of expert book buyers and an increase in the use of distributors – middle men who make the process easy for the retailers, who only need do business with one firm, but expensive for the publishers. The cover price of a book used to be divisible, roughly, into thirds. One third went to the printer and covered raw materials, one third went to the publisher out of which the author was paid, one third went to the bookshop which had to pay overheads and business rates. Everything was made simple by the Net Book Agreement which stated that the book must be sold at the price on the cover.

Real changes were felt when the Net Book Agreement, under threat from 1991, finally fell apart in 1997. Its demise meant that retailers could charge whatever they wanted for books, and opened the way for supermarkets, newsagents, online traders, museums, tourist attractions, libraries, gift shops, eateries, etc., to be able to sell them at a reduction on the cover price. As a publisher I now spend a huge amount of my time dealing with all sorts of buyers who really don’t know how to assess whether certain books will sell through their organisation. Understandably, commercial outlets which are not specialist bookshops often won’t take the risk of stocking anything which is not a proven bestseller. Consequently many of our books cannot easily be found by interested readers. The collapse of the Net Book Agreement paved the way for the growth of distributors, as there were just too many outlets for publishers to be able to handle all the possible markets themselves.

Now, distributors are not a bad thing for publications likely to be of wide interest – the Dan Browns, the David Attenboroughs, the Atkins diets, etc. They are, however, a bit of a disaster for small publishers who don’t issue many books, and for publications which attract a lot of interest in particular localities or among particular groups. Bookshops do usually have some means by which managers can buy direct from the publisher and not through a distributor, but it’s usually cumbersome. Busy managers can be easily put off wading through additional paperwork, and so the lesser known books don’t make it to their shelves.

And not stocking a particular book can’t matter that much can it? Well, yes, actually it can. As we’ve seen, you don’t need a bookshop to buy the well-known books. So, if a dedicated bookshop can’t show off an uncommon and eclectic mix of books to tempt browsers who don’t previously know about them (but which they might buy), why should booklovers go in? Readers can pick up the latest Ian Rankin online, or with their groceries in the supermarket, or at any number of non-bibliographic outlets and save themselves time. Bookshops which don’t appeal to local interest are missing out on potential customers (and profits), while readers are missing out on books which might interest them.

As a small publisher, dealing through distributors is just not economic for us. To start with, most distributors expect publishers to sell their books for around 60% discount on cover price. Using distributors certainly gets books to more outlets, but leaves just one third of the cover price to pay the printer, the author, the shipping and the publisher. To increase the amount of money generated by each book, publishers increase the cover price of the book. Retailers often promptly reduce it again to make it appear like a special offer and make it more attractive to readers. The only constant is the amount paid to the distributor.

To be fair, it’s not all profit for the distributor. Books are heavy. It often costs more to post an individual book than it does to print it. Shipping has to be factored in to the revenue generated by each book sale. But what if books could be made lighter? Or even weightless? This brings us to the even more fundamental change than that which has occurred in book retail, which is what is happening to the books themselves.

Books used to be easily recognisable; words and pictures on paper, sandwiched between boards forming a cover. No longer. Yes, the traditional physical book still exists, but now there are also ebooks where words and pictures are downloaded from a central source and displayed on a screen. The physicality of books has apparently ceased to matter. In one sense, this is a good thing. Despite what some collectors claim, the important thing about the book is surely its content and not its presentation. The cover, the wrapping, the way the content is packaged doesn’t really matter – it could be hand-made parchment bound in leather, or pixels on a Kindle. What does matter, surely, is the content’s immutability. And that is really the problem with ebooks.

When you download an ebook you don’t really own it, in the usual sense. There have been rare occasions when an ebook has been withdrawn and – pop! – has disappeared from all the devices on which it was stored. Messages have been sent explaining whatever the problem was (usually with copyright) and the customers reimbursed, but the fact remains that they can no longer read the book. There have also been occasions where authors have been able to re-write part of their book once it has been published. Imagine this sort of interaction if a book such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover had first been published as an ebook. I suspect it would not exist now, or at least, not in its original and mould-breaking form. What about Satanic Verses, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or The Origin of Species? All caused a furore in their time. Their writers and publishers may have been tempted to back away from the storm they unleashed, but the physicality of the book meant that they couldn’t rescind whatever statement the book made. The advent of ebooks means that they could now.

Some publishers are developing ebooks with ever increasing interaction. In a book about castles for children, for example, there is a picture of a castle. Tap it and the walls disappear to show the interior layout. Tap it again and the castle is peopled with residents from different periods. Tap one of the residents and he fills the screen, his way of life and clothing are described. Such ebooks rely on very clever and sophisticated pieces of kit and are excellent learning tools, but are they books? Wouldn’t they more accurately be described as websites?

‘OK’, I hear you object, ‘but that’s factual books. It’s different with fiction’. But is it? Or rather, need it be? Suppose you could choose which ending the novel you are reading should have? Suppose you could tap the screen and be given background information about the characters in the story? Suppose the ending hadn’t been written yet and that there was an online poll to determine how the writer should end the work? Suppose different endings were charged at different prices? Suppose that any reader could change any part of the book?

Ebooks have their advantages, of course they do, but they do not guarantee the immutability of their content as a physical book does. It seems to me that, far beyond the debates about Kindle or not Kindle, physical bookshop or online retailer, the real question is: if ebooks merge into websites, what now is a book? To stay in business, publishers have to find the answer.