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As previously noted, my Kindle and I are engaged in a mental tussle over the question of how much I should pay for an e-book.  In truth, only one of the factors mentioned in that post really affects my behaviour: the bottom line is that e-books don’t currently meet enough of my personal criteria for permanent, irrevocable, unconstrained and secure ‘ownership’ to make me enthusiastic about spending big chunks of my limited book budget on them.

That said, I’m enjoying reading stuff on the Kindle, and I continue to find the technology (hardware more than software) terrifically engaging and statisfying.  So I definitely want to use the thing, even if I don’t want to spend too much cash to do so.  Not a problem.  Bargains abound in e-book world.

The problem is finding them. It takes a bit of work, or luck, to excavate treasure.  There’s a distinct lack of reliable signposts to structure your explorations.

Here are a few of the treasures I’ve found so far, all available at the time of writing in the UK Kindle Store for less than the entirely arbirtray figure of £4.  (Can’t speak to the prices in the US Kindle Store, although the one or two I’ve cross-checked are pretty aggressively priced over there too).

Frankenstein will cost you not one penny, and as I’d call it one of the best sf books ever written that looks like a bargain.  I know some people struggle with the antiquated structure and pacing and language – which is fair enough; it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste – but to me that’s surface.  What lies beneath is, if you ask me, a work of visionary genius that puts much of the sf published in the subsequent 200 years to shame.

Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams is the most fun I’ve had on my Kindle since I got the thing, and it cost me just £3.21. It’s far future sf set in a hierarchical human society of nanotech, gene therapy, virtual realities and many other wonders. It’s not what you’d call action-packed – although when face-to-face violence does take place it’s lengthily detailed – and the reader’s not exactly spoon-fed everything about the setting or characters, but I found it pretty engaging. Williams explores the world, both outer and inner, of his human demi-gods with smooth writing and an open mind. It’s kind of like a less democratic, less AI-heavy version of Iain Banks’ Culture, with more ambiguity about the pros and cons of such a society. And the best thing is, there’s plenty more modestly priced WJW e-stuff available for follow-up.

The Hunger Games will currently cost you a modest £2.70.  Now, I’ve not read it, so what am I doing pointing it out?  Well, I’ve bought it for future consumption because, just as Frankenstein marks the origins of the sf genre, this marks its current apogee in terms of cultural ubiquity and popularity.  I’m naturally curious about one of the most successful books the genre has ever produced, and here it is at a bargain price.

Unpossible by Daryl Gregory just sneaks in beneath the cost ceiling I’ve imposed for this post at £3.97.  It’s a short story collection, and an eclectic one at that.  All speculative fiction, from what I’ve read of it so far, but encompassing a wide range beneath that heading.  The tone varies almost as much as the genres do, from the decidedly dark to the wryly humourous to the fabulistic.  All of it’s done with considerable style and wit and polish, though.

I mentioned the (free) Lost World in my last post, so can’t resist pointing out you can also get as much Sherlock Holmes as you could ever possibly want for prices varying from nothing to all of £0.77 for a properly e-bookized collection of the whole canon.

Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine offers a free digest edition, comprising one short story and all its non-fiction content (reviews, commentary etc.) delivered automatically to your reader every other month.  It’s a tempter for a full subscription, of course, (which only costs a couple of £ per issue, I think) but that’s no bad thing since it means they select a high quality story for inclusion.

Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 1 I include here because it’s kind of what e-book shopping should be all about, isn’t it?  The chance to discover something unexpected, unfamiliar and to broaden your horizons.  It offers fifteen short stories for just £0.77, and from the (relatively little) I’ve read of it so far it would be a bargain at twice, or three times, the price.  As with the Gregory collection, the stories are diverse in genre and tone.

And finally, another e-item I haven’t actually read yet, but which also seems to me to illustrate some of what the e-publishing thing should be all about.  The Desert of Souls, an Arabian historical fantasy by Howard Andrew Jones has been getting seriously excited reviews since it was published last year, and I look forward to (probably) reading it.  But first, I’m going to read The Waters of Eternity, a set of six short stories featuring the same characters and setting as that novel, which I bought for just £1.52.  A perfect way to sample the milieu at no great financial risk, and if I like it, a pretty much guaranteed sale of the novel.  Whether you’ve already read and enjoyed The Desert of Souls, or if – like me – you’re just curious, what could be better?

(And I feel compelled to point out that while my own most recent modest contribution to world literature, The Edinburgh Dead, doesn’t quite squeeze under the arbitrary £4 price point, at just £4.49 for the Kindle edition it is, I can absolutely assure you, excellent value.)

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I’ll have more to say at some point about the bargains (real and illusory) available in ebook world, now that I’ve had some time to poke around in the unregulated, mapless swamp that is the Kindle Store.  But to jump the gun, I’ve just finished (re-)reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which cost me all of nothing.

This is a book that comes with a certain vague nostalgia attached for me.  I read it, and I think perhaps saw the not very good 1960 movie adaptation, at a young and impressionable age (certainly long before the cultural zeitgeist had a chance to teach me that Sherlock Holmes was Doyle’s only consequential creation).

The impression it made on impressionable me back then was of vivid adventure; so much so that I’ve got a feeling – impossible to absolutely confirm, given my hazy memory – that I produced my own fanfic set on the dinosaur-infested plateau.  Possibly even illustrated, since I didn’t realise until I was into my teens that the kindest thing I could for the world was to refrain from inflicting my art upon it.

Anyway, what did I make of The Lost World now that I’m a jaded, cyncial grown-up?  I had quite a bit of fun, that’s what.

Like a lot of old novels – this one appeared in 1912, I believe – it’s almost comically out of synch with what we’d call good prose writing these days.  It takes a ludicrous number of pages to get our heroes out of London, let alone up onto the famed plateau, and once there the narrative suddenly becomes frantic, cramming plot developments in one on top of another with relatively little regard for their plausibility.

The sexual, racial and environmental assumptions underlying the text are … not exactly attuned to mainstream 21st century thinking, to say the least.  (I found it oddly entertaining, as something of a conservationist by education and background, the way exploration and research in the novel – and at the time of its writing – revolve principally around shooting everything.  It’s a real taste of a different kind of lost world, and one that has an element of appeal in its certainties and privileges and ambitions.).  One of the central threads of the plot even sees our heroes participating enthusiastically in what might nowadays be seen as at best environmental sin of the highest order, and at worst something approximating to geoncide.

The science of the whole thing is utterly implausible in modern terms, unsurprisingly.  I imagine it seemed a good deal more believeable to its contemporary audience, and the lengthy scene-setting and character introductions at the start of the book were presumably intended to root the thing in the real world, and thereby render the speculations to come even more credible.  That said, the plot has plenty of hand-waving, and if you’re the kind of reader inclined to ask questions, most of them will be of the ‘… huh?’ or ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’ variety.

For all these potential barriers to enjoyment that the modern reader faces, though, The Lost World has plenty going for it.  Parts are really quite well and evocatively written; certainly better than Doyle’s early Holmes stories imho.

Professor Challenger, whose titanic, hubristic vision is the driving force behind the plot, is a wonderful creation.  Bombastic, rude, self-absorbed and arguably sociopathic; he’s great fun, and Doyle knows it.  I’d entirely forgotten quite how consistent, funny and thorough his writing of Challenger is.  Personally, I could have done with rather more Challenger stories and rather fewer Holmes, but that’s just me.

I had also forgotten that it’s a kind of epistolatory novel, the entire tale told through letters/article submitted by a journalist to his editor.  It may be entirely coincidental, but given that Frankenstein‘s got major epistolatory elements, and Dracula‘s epistolatory through and through, I wonder if these early writers of spec fic were deliberately using the form to enhance the illusion of reality in their tales.  Perhaps in the 19th and early 20th century ‘documents’ – letters, article, reports, whatever – were more likely to be unconsciously interpreted by the reader as having some kind of intrinsic authority, which they lent to the fantastical events being narrated.  Now, we live in an age of uncertainty and doubt, and are programmed to take nothing at face value.

Above all, I was sucked in by the sheer bravado and ambition of Doyle’s imagination.  At a time long before speculative fiction was the culturally ubiquitous commercial juggernaut of today, here he is spinning a wild tale of adventurers and dinosaurs and apemen in the Amazon; conjuring up visions that must have seemed truly extraordinary to his first readers, and still have the power to excite.

As I said, I don’t think the 1960 film version of The Lost World has very much to offer the modern viewer.  (An aside: whatever our misgivings about CG effects in movies, and I have a few, we should all rejoice unconditionally in the knowledge that the age of adorning real lizards with spurious horns and frills and filming them in close up to pretend that they’re dinosaurs is gone forever.  There can have been few more aesthetically disastrous and reptile-demeaning dead-ends in the evolution of sf cinema.).

So here, instead, is the 1925 silent version in its entirety.  Yes, book to big screen adaptation in just 13 years; even back then, the Hollywood blockbuster machine liked its ideas second-hand.

Like the novel, it takes quite a while to get going, but the dinosaur model animations are terrific, given that it was done almost 90 years ago, and the cast all look just right for their parts and for the time.  It also, arguably, has a better ending than the novel, and one that perfectly prefigures – and to some extent probably directly inspired – the modern obsession with monster-initiated urban destruction on the silver screen.

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So, I finally took the plunge a while back and joined the ranks of the e-reader army.

Kindle 4 (i.e. no keyboard, wi-fi only).

And sure enough, it changed my mind. Not in the sense that it substantially changed my opinion about anything to do with e-books etc. No, it changed – or at least is trying to change – my thought processes; my perceptions.

We’ll get to that in a bit, but first: do I like my Kindle?

Sure I do.  It’s a clever, effective bit of kit that does one thing – sell, deliver and display text for on-screen consumption – jolly well.  It’s what my parents, and hence I, would tend to call, approvingly, A Thing of Purpose.  It’s got a job to do, and it does it well.

And also: do I feel good about becoming a Kindle-owner?

Huh. What kind of a dumb question is that? Not quite as dumb as it sounds, if you were privy to my inner thoughts. Which approximate to: Amazon is not my friend. Neither as a reader nor a writer should I fall into the trap of imagining that Amazon is ‘on my side’. Amazon is on but one side, and that is its own. Charles Stross articulates my thoughts better than I could, right here.  Worth reading, especially if you’re under the illusion that the word ‘altriusm’ appears anywhere on Amazon’s agenda.

So, to rephrase, do I feel good about contributing, in my own entirely minuscule way, to Amazon’s advance towards monopoly and monopsony?  No, not especially.

But here’s the thing.  Amazon is going to determine – far more than any other single player – what the short and possibly medium term futures of the e-book look like.  I’m a writer, so I have a certain financial, creative and personal stake in this game.  So I got a Kindle, because I want to see what the biggest player and rule-maker is doing, how they’re doing it and how their system works.

I’ll probably do another post some time about what I actually make of some of the content I’ve loaded onto my Precious … ah, excuse me … my Kindle, and how I feel about the reading experience, but for now let’s just consider What my Kindle is doing to my brain.

It’s re-wiring it, that’s what.  It’s attempting to change my perceptions of what a book is, and what the value of a book is.  The second, unsurpisingly, is the interesting bit for me as an author.

Essentially, as I bimbled about online, wading through the swamps of the Kindle store, anything over £3 or £4 started looking expensive.  Now, I don’t actually believe that to be an entirely sensible conclusion to reach but nevertheless, for a whole load of reasons, I could all but feel the notion trying to take root in my brain.  Just a few of those reasons (not all of which I necessarily think are valid, but they were all there, feeding my unconscious thought processes):

  • There is no physical object for me to indisputably, irrevocably own on a permanent, unconstrained and transferable basis.  Without those fundamental components of ‘ownership’ I should not be expected to pay so much.
  • There is no physical object that has cost someone money to create.  Without those sunk costs, I should not be expected to pay so much.
  • There is a vast array of free or very cheap material on offer in the Kindle store; by comparison with it, more ‘traditionally’ priced items automatically start to appear expensive.
  • A virtual text feels inherently less consequential, considered and substantial (and therefore less valuable) than one that has been given physical form.
  • It’s sometimes hard to tell how long a text you’re being asked to pay for is, and there’s therefore a temptation to err on the side of caution when considering its value.
  • I don’t pay over £3 or £4 for hardly anything non-physical I acquire for entertainment purposes online (e.g. apps, renting a movie), indeed I pay nothing for a lot of it (e.g. podcasts, on-demand TV).

I could go on, but you get the idea.

To reiterate, I don’t think all of these kind of thoughts are either rational or reasonable, but that some part of my brain was busily processing them, out of the reach of my internal oversight, is indisputable.

It may be just me, of course.  I doubt it, though.  I fear I might be getting a glimpse of the future, just by peering into the muddy recesses of my own little head. And that future is cheap, but not necessarily in a good way.

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Because you can never have too many links, right?  And they don’t even all have to be about me … though some of them are, of course.

Let’s flag a couple of reviews of The Edinburgh Dead, first.

Neth Space likes it ( ‘a very good historical gothic mystery horror urban supernatural thriller’ !)

So does Civilian Reader ( ‘a superb, slow-burning horror suspense. Very highly recommended.’ !)

Come to that, so do the folks at RT Book reviews, who’ve got it listed as a nominee in the Fantasy category for their annual awards.  That’s nice, don’t you think?

And here’s something that tickles me.  As regular visitors here may have noticed, I’m a big, big podcast fan, so it’s particularly nice to be able to report my own podcast debut.  It has to be said, life is full of small lessons in humility, and one of them for me is hearing my own voice as others do: never fails to chip away at my self-image.  I did have a bit of a head cold at the time of recording (fully congealed sinuses, if you must know), but sadly I have a feeling I always sound much like this.  Ho hum.

Anyway, of all the places I thought I might end up talking about one of my books, the venue for my first podcast appearance wasn’t one of them, but it was a jolly pleasant experience: the National Review’s Between the Covers podcast.  You do, of course, come away from a quick, unedited interview like that with your brain buzzing with all the things you should have said and didn’t, but I don’t think I said anything that invites legal action or anything, so that counts as some sort of success in my book.

I’m also interviewed, in the more traditional text form, over at the aforementioned Civilian Reader.

Now, on to some less self-serving content netted out of the great ocean that is the internet.

First, two podcasts of possible interest to those, like me, with a near-limitless appetite for learning more about history:

The Seige of Tenochtitlan got talked about on BBC radio’s In Our Time programme recently – available on BBC iplayer here, or you can probably find a downloadable version in this list.  Difficult to think of a more extreme example of clashing cultures in all of human history, really …

And Max Hastings talks at some length about the Second World War on the BBC History magazine podcast – direct link to audio here, or find it in the list here (it’s the 21st October edition).  I found it interesting mostly because he concentrates on some of the details that often get overlooked or ignored in discussions about the war (like how many Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed … i.e. a very, very large number).

And now one of the most remarakble demonstrations of fan dedication and craftsmanship I’ve ever encountered.   The ultimate Star Wars documentary, in that you get to watch the film while simultaneously getting deluged with background information, annotations, creator interviews etc. etc.  Very, very clever and entertaining, and all the more remarkable because the same fan has done the same thing for Empire Strikes Back and Jedi.  Here, for your viewing pleasure, then, is Star Wars – all of it! – as you’ve never seen or heard it before.

I mean, seriously: that almost justifies the entire existence of the internet by itself, doesn’t it?

But let’s end on a less cheery note and dip our toes into the muddy waters of the impending bookpocalypse.  It’s mesmerizing, watching the turmoil into which the whole publishing industry is descending bit by bit.  Here’s two markers along the way to wherever it is we’re heading that caught my notice recently:

Ewan Morrison asking Are books dead, and can authors survive?  The answer to the first bit of that is clearly Not Yet.  Print books are clearly going to fade into a niche, but e-books aren’t going to be dying any time soon.  The answer to the second bit, I’m not so sure about.  The folks who sell really, really big numbers of their books are going to be just fine, of course.  The rest of us?  Actually: maybe not.

The picture Morrison paints is the worst case scenario, and I can’t really buy into it unreservedly, but … but … there are more than enough folk out there around the internet hailing the digital revolution as the best thing since sliced bread, and I increasingly find myself inclining towards a much darker prognosis, not only for publishers (turmoil hardly covers what they’re looking at) and writers (I strongly suspect if – like me – you’re not a bestseller, things are about to get uncomfortable, to say the least) but also for readers (be careful what you wish for … low prices and an explosion in self-publishing don’t come without consequences).

And Amazon continues to hammer away at the chances of anyone but them making money out of the book business.  Including authors, which is the bit that bugs me, obviously.  A lending programme for e-books might sound like a nifty idea to owners of Kindles, but it sounds like the tolling of a funereal bell to me.

The weird thing is, there’s so much going on that looks at best inadvisable and at worst potentially disastrous if, like me, you value the work of writers and the survival of a diverse and high quality output of books, and yet … I can’t think of a single thing anyone involved could do, or is likely to, that would change the outcome.  Pretty much everyone is coming at this from the point of view of their own individual best interest (personal or corporate), and that’s entirely reasonable and justifiable when looked at at the level of each specific decision, but the overall effect, seen in big picture terms, is … well, alarming just about covers it, I guess.

So, I had the pleasure of spending something in excess of ten hours as a guest of our splendid rail service over the weekend. Close to two hours more than I was supposed to spend, but that’s what happens when points and signals fail on a weekend.  I like travelling by train, as it happens, but only when they’re moving.  As soon as a train stops for longer than it’s supposed to, well then the anxiety starts.  If it’s stationary for long enough, the whole experience becomes a sort of slow existential torture as you powerlessly watch the minutes of your life tick by.

Anyway, both while the trains (two journeys involved) were moving and not, I occupied myself with some entirely unscientific surveying of the state of the written word in modern times.  Which is to say, I walked up and down the carriages being nosy about what people were reading.  Or more to the point, how they were reading what they were reading.  Now the sample size wasn’t very big, because I was only moving on a relatively short route from seat – buffet car – seat – toilet – seat etc.  You get the idea.  But I found it all mildly interesting nevertheless, even though my findings were … unremarkable.

I saw something like ten people reading actual books, of the ink on paper sort.  (None of them speculative fiction, as far as I could tell, but that’s neither here nor there).

I saw three people reading from Kindles.

I saw no one reading prose from any other electronic device (i.e. no tablets, Sony e-readers, whatever).

I saw more people than I could reasonably count doing one or more of the following: listening to mp3 players, fiddling about with laptops/netbooks, peering inscrutably at their mobile phones, and reading newspapers or maagzines.

I saw more people sleeping than reading books, whether of the paper or e- kind.  But I don’t blame them for that.  I did the same thing, when not marching purposefully up and down.

The sample size, for those who care about such things, was … oh, I have no idea.  I did say this was entirely unscientific, didn’t I?  Probably two or three hundred all together.

Not being bonkers, I don’t read anything much into these observations, beyond the degree to which they conform to my subjective impressions of where things are, and where they are going.

This is certainly the first time I’ve really noticed the e-reading contingent as a significant chunk of what was going on.  It’s also, I’m fairly sure, a much smaller number of people reading paper and ink books than would have been the case until really very recently.  That’s not down to the arrival of e-books so much as the ubiquity of mp3 players, wifi connections, cheap laptops/netbooks and phones that can and will do everything up to and including sing you a lullaby to send you off into a snooze.

In fact, on reflection I find it mildly surprising that  reading long form prose hasn’t already collapsed as a leisure habit under the onslaught of all these recently appeared alternative uses for what is allegedly our ever more pressurised free time.  I can only think that novels offer a distinct kind of pleasure that makes their appeal at least a little resistant to erosion.  There are (just) enough people who find something uniquely enjoyable about reading a book (and I’m talking both paper and e-books here) that they continue to prioritise it over all the other multitude of entertainment choices available to those stuck on a train.

Another completely non-revelatory truth on show in those carriages: Amazon owns the digital book space.  The Kindle outscored every other means of reading a book digitally 3-0.  Whatever the extent of the digital future for books (pretty enormous, I think everyone now agrees) it belongs, for the time being, to Amazon.

This is, to my way of thinking, Not a Good Thing, but I also think littering, global warming and sloppily privatized railway systems are Not Good Things and my disapproval doesn’t seem to have done much to stop them happening so … I’ve got nothing in particular against Amazon, I’m just not a big fan of quasi-monopolistic dominance of any industry.  This, for example, wouldn’t alarm me nearly so much as it does if it was being proposed by a pushy new upstart company rather than the Amazon-squid leviathan that already has a suckered arm scrabbling for a strangehold on every single element of the book publishing-distribution-retailing system.

What will I see when I’m stuck on an unmoving train four or five years hence? (And I surely will be, since there are few harder things to sort out than a sloppily privatized and horribly under-invested railway system).  Safe in the knowledge that no one will remember them when the time comes to call me to account, I am prepared to make bold and decisive predictions.  Here we go …

There will be at most one or two people reading paper books.  Possibly none, though I’d be mildly surprised if it happens quite that quickly.

There will be at least five or six people reading e-books, and at least half of them will be doing so on some iteration of the Kindle.

Even more people than the ‘more I could reasonably count’ I saw this time will be messing about in some non-book-related way with electronic devices.  Most of them will be smart phones.  Some will be tablets.  Some will be laptops.  None, or a close approximation thereof, will be netbooks.

At least 5% of those people will be doing something I – and indeed most of us – haven’t yet thought of with their electronic devices.  Knitting or something.  I don’t know; that’s the whole point.

There will be a dozen or so people reading hard-copy newspapers or magazines.  Less than today, but not extinct.

There will still be more people asleep than reading a book.  Because that, my friends, is just the way things always have been and always will be.  Probably.

Alert readers will notice that I’m predicting a potentially non-trivial decline in the total number of people reading books, irrespective of delivery system.  That’s one bit of my predictions I don’t feel entirely bold and decisive about, but I can certainly construct a vaguely plausible argument for ending up in that state.  Here’s hoping I’m wrong, eh?

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I’m not what you’d call an unconditional fan of the migration of book sales away from high street bookstores into the online or digital realms, as I’ve mentioned here before, but I’m also no great fan of the King Canute approach to life, sitting around on a beach shouting at the insensate tide in a pointless effort to halt its approach.  The cold calculations of economically wobbly times, and of convenience and ease, add up to a pretty powerful tidal force.

The pricing of books, both hard copy and digital, is a hot topic these days, and one that’s going to remain in flux for quite a time yet.  In the last week or two, I noticed a couple of price-related items online that I thought they might be of interest to one or two others.

First, The Book Depository is offering 10% off every purchase until the end of this month.  That’s on top of already pretty aggressive discounts, and free shipping on all orders, whatever their size, worldwide.  (Yes, free shipping worldwide.  I have no idea how they make money on this model, but apparently they do).  I mention this for two reasons.  First, The Book Depository is already often cheaper than Amazon UK for any given title (always cheaper for graphic novels, for some reason, which is what I mostly buy from them) so this adds up to a pretty spectacular deal for the next week or so.  Second, if we are going to gradually lose our high street bookstores, it would be nice if there was at least some competition in the online sale of hard copy books – it’s a bit of a mystery to me why The Book Depository isn’t already better known as, at least in the UK, a lively competitor to Amazon, so I thought I’d do my negligible little bit to point out that there is such a thing as choice in your selection of online vendor.

Second, The Book Depository is not always cheaper than Amazon UK.  Witness The Edinburgh DeadAt the time of writing, Amazon UK is offering my next book, due out in August, at the pre-order price of £4.34.  That’s a 46% discount on the cover price.  Within spitting difference of half price.  A real book you can hold in your hands, never be parted from by DRM or vendor collapse, and lend to your friends if you so desire, for not much more than £4.  Now by all means, feel free to rush over there and pre-order the thing – I’d be nothing but delighted if folk do take advantage of the opportunity to get their orders in early – but I can’t help but think what a funny old world we live in.  At that kind of price, Amazon can’t be exactly rolling in profit on each copy sold (to put it mildly).  What chance do the high street bookstores possibly have?  I mean, if I hadn’t already read the thing, I’d be first in line to get my order in, never mind my nostalgic affection for the bricks and mortar booksellers.  Money talks, in the end.  It always does.

(As an aside, in light of the constant, tumultuous debate – that’s the politest way of describing it – over the pricing of e-books, I noticed that on Amazon UK, the Kindle editions of all three of the Godless World books are, by non-trivial amounts, the cheapest versions availableAll are priced at £4.99, with the hard copy editions somewhere between £5 and £6.  That’s not an unfair price for an e-book, I’d say, but there are powerful forces that could yet drive that price a good deal lower and if they do, something – quite possibly several somethings – is going to have to give in the great author-agent-publisher-seller merry-go-round that has dominated the book business for a long time now.  No bad thing, you might say.  Maybe.  We’ll see …)

On a more cheery note, but still in the spirit of public service, here’s the most useful thing I’ve learned from the internet in the last month or so (it really is, and I’m not sure whether that says more about me or the internet):

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E-books, the UK and Me

The most recent specific figures I’ve seen from a wholly reliable source were that in 2010, ebook sales were constituting around 9% of the book sales market in the US and something like 4% in the UK.  Both rising fast, of course.  So they’re already significant – undoubtedly higher than those numbers as I write – and will be highly significant within a very short period of time (a year or two at the most?).  I imagine they’ll be a crucial, quite possibly the dominant, force in the market shortly thereafter.

All of which is not what you’d call good news for the bricks and mortar bookstores, but we’re not here today to mourn the casualties; I thought I’d crunch some numbers instead, out of curiosity.

So I’ve been peering at my last couple of royalty statements, which cover the 2010 calendar year.  Unfortunately, due to the mysterious workings of multinational publishers, I can’t do the sums for my US sales at the moment, but as far as UK sales go, I can be pretty precise about how the ebook versions of the Godless World trilogy are doing.  Well … not precise, exactly, since – as any author will tell you – interpreting numbers on a royalty statement is an activity specifically designed to bring low the hubristic author feeling smug at possessing such a thing as a royalty statement in the first place.

Anyway, some crude numbers first, and we’ll throw out the unhelpful ones afterwards.  These are based on units, not income, by the way:

Winterbirth UK sales in 2010: books 96.2%, ebooks 3.8%

Bloodheir: books 77.5%, ebooks 22.5%

Fall of Thanes: books 97.9%, ebooks 2.1%

Or something like that.  Now, for the qualifications and dismissals.

What’s up with Bloodheir?, you ask.  Well, I worked out the figures for sales of hard copy books net of returns.  High street bookstores have the luxury of returning unsold copies to the publisher for a refund, and the publisher can set those returns against new sales when it comes to paying the author royalties, to arrive at a net figure.   Returns tend to come in lumps rather than being evenly distributed, depending on things like how long ago the particular edition of the book was published, whether a new edition has come out etc.

In this case, it so happens that one of my royalty statements in 2010 included quite a few returns of one version of Bloodheir, so because I was only working out the net movement of books, the overall number for paper Bloodheirs got depressed (as does an author seeing lots of returns on his or her royalty statement, of course.  Ha ha.).  Anyway, it makes the figures for Bloodheir definite outliers, so we might as well ignore them.

(Except … it does point out a significant feature of ebooks: there’s no such thing as returns.  A sale of an ebook that appears on my royalty statement is a real, irrevocable sale; a sale of a hard copy book is actually just the shipping of one to a bookstore – it may actually sell to a reader, it may get returned for a refund.  So that 22.5% figure for ebooks is accurate: if there happen to be a lot of returns in a given period, the proportional importance of ebook sales rises.)

The numbers for Fall of Thanes are also slightly distorted, but in the opposite direction.  Sales of any edition of a book are front-loaded, and the UK mass market paperback of Fall of Thanes came out in early 2010, so a lot of them were shipped to UK bookstores.  Nevertheless, ebooks still scrape over the 2% level in terms of units, which is pretty good going.

And so to Winterbirth, which has been out long enough that things like returns and new editions are not a factor.  Here, we’re looking at uncomplicated, long term figures for a book that’s been on the market for quite a while.  And what do you know?  At 3.8% of units, I’m almost bang on the 4% figure I quoted for ebooks in the UK market.  My figure for income from Winterbirth ebooks, as opposed to units, is actually slightly higher – I haven’t worked it out exactly, but it would be over 4%.

What can we conclude from this?  Perhaps that my readership is broadly representative of the wider reading population in terms of ebook uptake?  Certainly that it’s a complicated business for even an author to work out precise and meaningful numbers for this kind of thing (possible, just tediously time-consuming).  And although I can’t wrangle the numbers to the same degree for the US sales of these books, I do know that ebooks make up a slightly higher proportion of my sales in the US than in the UK, so I again conform to the bigger picture that the UK is lagging some way behind our Transatlantic pathfinding cousins in adopting the digital habit.

It’s what happens from here on out that’s really interesting, of course.  In 2010, if ebook sales of my books in the UK (and the US, for that matter) had been precisely zero, I would not have faced any financial hardship.  My guess is that, a year from now, such an outcome (not remotely likely, thankfully) would be a big enough drag on my income from the books to make me a bit glum, but not thoroughly despondent; and two, three years from now … who knows?  By then maybe zero ebook sales = zero future as a writer.  Maybe ebooks’ll be 20% plus of all my sales, maybe they’ll be racing away and looking at the 50% mark in their wing mirrors.  I’ll find out soon enough.

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Well, one way of making a book anyway. The Espresso Book Machine is already installed here and there, including a few bookshops around the world, I think. Is this a possible saviour for a handful of the doomed bookstores I was talking about last week? I’m a bit dubious, but you can see why they’d want to give it a try. Any straw you can get hold of probably looks appealing when you’re sinking fast. It is quite clever, I suppose, and it’s fun to watch a book coming into existence like that.

I’m not sure it really offers much defence against the e-book advance, though. Much as I hate to dwell on the gloomier aspects of this revolution, it’s stayed on my mind this last week, so a couple of further hints at what the future holds:

As pointed out by Simon in the comments on the last post, Waterstone’s, the UK’s last big chain of dedicated bookstores is shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic. They plan to turn their backs (partially) on the dreaded celebrity biography and give individual store managers more control over what books their shops stock and promote. It’s an idea I can get behind, but will it stave off the coming storm? Somehow I doubt it. Might prolong the life of some of their stores, but can’t see it saving large numbers of them in the long run.

20% of digital book buyers apparently stop buying print copies entirely. Can’t make up my mind whether that’s a higher or lower percentage than I would have expected. One thing’s for sure, though – it’s a chunky enough number (and one I’d imagine is only going to rise) to put a big ugly question mark over the viability of all bricks and mortar bookshops once the digital habit has spread a bit further through the reading population.

Lots of digital books are illegally downloaded. A staggeringly unexpected discovery, I’m sure you’ll agree. Reading about it a bit more widely, it’s not obvious the study’s findings are exactly robust, since there’s a lot of extrapolation and sampling involved, but maybe I should just be pleased to see that fiction titles are actually amongst the least affected. (But in this case ‘least affected’ still means thousands and thousands of copies). Again, one thing’s for sure: the numbers will only rise once on-screen reading of books becomes a more widespread and deeply entrenched norm. What effect it’ll have on the financial stability of the whole writing business remains to be seen, and I’m instinctively doubtful of anyone who claims to know.

And as for publishers … well, all I can say is I’m glad it’s not my job to spend all day trying to figure out where all this is heading, and whether I’ll still have gainful employment when it gets there … I’d be in a perpetual cold sweat.

So, everyone: welcome to 2010. (A week late, I know, but it’s the thought that counts, right?) I hope you enjoy it, and that it delivers at the very least a respectable portion of all that you hope for.

Starting a new year with a new experience can’t be a bad thing, I reckon, so you won’t hear any complaints from me about the wintry onslaught that has subjugated the British Isles. There’s been no sign of the grass on the lawn outside my window for over three weeks now, buried as it is beneath a gleaming white blanket of snow. Nothing remarkable for many of you, of course, including those living at the same latitude as Edinburgh (approaching 56 deg N, for the record – roughly the same as Moscow and the Aleutian Islands), but it’s exceptionally unusual round here, where the peculiarities of climates both macro- and micro- mean most winters are all but snow-free. In fact, I don’t remember seeing anything quite like it in my life.

I’m a big fan of the big freeze. Everything looks just that little bit unfamiliar and exotic. It feels like we’ve all travelled to some other place – one quieter, more beautiful and imbued with a faint, cold magic – without having to move. The sound of deep snow crunching underfoot seems to me vaguely romantic and wild and fantastical.

A new computer arrived in my house. I didn’t really want one, but the old one was accumulating software glitches and idiosyncracies that nothing seemed to rid it of, and to be fair it was a few years old, so I bit the bullet and went shopping. Turns out PCs have got a whole lot better since I last bought one. Who knew? I mean, have you seen these flat screen things? They’re all … flat and stuff. Amazing.

Anyway, one consequence has been a big clean out and reorganising of my feeds, which gives me an excuse to flag up some new, newish or not new at all podcasts that might be of interest:

1. Tor.com has added a new podcast – the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy – to complement their existing audio fiction one. Both can be found here. The G’s G to the G promises to cover a wide spectrum of geeky interests, so should be worth following. (First episode doesn’t do much for me, since it’s mostly about Left 4 Dead 2, and my gaming days are more or less behind me, sadly, but I’m not letting that put me off).

2. The iFanboy Pick of the Week podcast is my graphic novels and comics-related listening of choice. For any of you out there with a liking for that medium, it gets a great big thumbs up from me. (As does their video podcast, if you’re a visually oriented sort).

3. Naked Archaeology offers monthly news and views on archaeological research and discoveries. Quite interesting, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s a spin-off from the very well known and jolly good Naked Scientists podcast, as is the newer and potentially interesting (but I haven’t actually listened to it yet, so don’t blame me if it’s rubbish) Naked Astronomy.

And lo, the new year brings a new look for Fall of Thanes. This is the cover for the US mass market paperback edition, due out very soon. And it is, IMHO, a thing of beauty. Possibly my favourite ‘look’ for any of the trilogy so far. And that’s saying something, since all the way through, I’ve really been jolly well taken care of by the Orbit folks responsible for prettying up my books.

The new year also brings free pdfs of books. Free pdfs of 11,000 books to be precise, including quite a lot of famous ones (and a great many not very famous at all ones, I suspect). They’re available at The Book Depository. Now, personally I can’t read novel-length stuff in pdf form. Can just about manage a short story, but that’s about my limit in that format (and even then, I’ll be hoping it’s a short short story). But you might be different, so go knock yourself out. It doesn’t look that easy to actually find some of the freebies, admittedly, but even right there on the front page, there’s links to free Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling and others.

Talking about e-books (I did mention the one dollar Winterbirth e-book, didn’t I?), a few other fragments of the discussion about the technology that have come to light recently:

Orbit’s own Tim Holman talks at some length about e-books on the Dragon Page podcast. It’s well worth a listen. Anyone who doubts that publishers are expending a lot of precious brain time on this whole area will quickly be disabused of such notions. Anyone who thinks publishers actually know what’s going to come of all the changes infiltrating the industry will be similarly disabused. But knowing isn’t what’s important; preparing flexibly and imaginatively for unpredictable change, and being willing to try stuff and see what works, is what’s important. I think.

Another publisher – this time a new one, Angry Robot Books – wants to know how much an e-book is worth to you, the reader. It’s not a brilliantly designed survey (says he huffily, knowing only just enough about survey design to make him wildly over-confident and huffy), but the basic question is obviously at the heart of where this technology is going. And it’s a tough one to find a fair answer too.

Just how tough is evidenced by … the 9.99 e-book boycott on Amazon. At the time of writing, irritated readers have now tagged over 800 e-books on Amazon.com as being unjustifiably expensive. Not an unreasonable sort of price point for the protestors to settle upon, you might think (and I sort of agree), but check out the commenters on that original GalleyCat post. Not everyone is onboard, and there’s no doubt the situation is not as clear-cut as a lot of the protestors probably think.

This one’s going to run and run and run. The tough questions certainly aren’t going to go away, indeed I suspect they’re only going to get tougher as time and technology advance. I have no clue what the publishing industry and the world’s reading habits are going to look like twenty years from now. I remain somewhat unconvinced that anybody else does either, and I still think all the amazing opportunities opening up before us are balanced by definite risks in the medium term. Which makes it all jolly interesting, if nothing else.

And mildy related: by coincidence I had two folk e-mail me this week asking, in their different ways, whether an audio version of the Godless World trilogy was available, or ever likely to be. Short answer is that such a thing doesn’t exist at the moment, and as far as I know isn’t likely. I’m almost certain – I could check my contract to be absolutely sure, of course, but it’s filed away, I’m feeling lazy right now and I expect someone will correct me if I’m wrong – that the rights to such a version reside with Orbit, so they are probably the people to ask about it, if there’s an army of you out there craving Wintebrirth in your ears.

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