The Ebook Revolution

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As 2016 slinks slightly shame-facedly away towards the box called ‘The Past’, I now have three – yes, three! Count them! – novellas out in in the wild and available on your e-reading device of choice.

All three of them are stand-alone stories set in the world of The Free. In fact they’re prequels to the novel, explaining how some of that world’s most famous warriors and magic-wielders wound up as comardes in the ranks of the greatest mercenary company there ever was: the Free. The explaining is dressed up in some fairly full on action and adventure, of course.

Long enough to satisfy, short enough to be easily digestible. Novellas have always been one of my favourite fiction formats, so I’m delighted to have got some under my writerly belt.

And, I can’t help but observe they’re staggeringly good value: currently $1.25 in the US, a mere 99p in the UK. Bargain. Treat yourself for the holidays, that’s what I say …

You can read them in any order, but here they are in what you might call in-world chronological order:


For years the Free have sold their martial and magical skills to the highest bidder, winning countless victories that have overthrown kings and shaken empires.

Yulan is a newcomer to their ranks, keen to prove himself worthy of the Free’s name. When corsair marauders ravage the Hommetic Kingdom’s coastline, Yulan gets his chance.

His mission is simple: travel to the corsairs’ island fortress, persuade their self-proclaimed king to sign a peace treaty, then head home with sword unbloodied.

Yet the crumbling fortress holds many secrets, and blades speak louder than words. Soon Yulan must fight not just for the glory of the Free, but for his very survival.

Amazon UK, Amazon US, Google Play, and also available everywhere else you get e-books from …


Wren is a Clever, someone who can shape the unseen forces of the world. Such powers are more a curse than a blessing, and Wren has been running all of her life – from the consequences of her actions, and from those who would use her abilities for their own ends.

Now she finally has a direction. Rumours talk of a legendary Clever living in the Hommetic Kingdom’s borderlands, a man who can teach her how to control the forces that rage inside her – if she can find him.

Yet enemies from Wren’s past hound her every step, and a horde of ferocious barbarians ravages the very lands that she must travel. Somewhere in this chaos, the Free – the most feared mercenary company in the world – are fighting against the invaders. Surely they would help her in her quest . . .

Or perhaps the Free will need her help even more.

Amazon UK, Amazon US, Google Play, and also available everywhere else you get e-books from …


For years the Free have sold their martial and magical skills to the highest bidder, winning countless victories that have overthrown kings and shaken empires.

Brennan is proud to serve in the Free’s ranks. He has blooded his sword to defend the company’s ideals of honour, freedom and justice, and he will gladly do so again. It is this devotion that now sees him riding hard on the heels of a band of slavers, who have burned two villages to the ground and escaped with sixty prisoners.

It has fallen to the Free to hunt the slavers down and rescue their captives – a simple task for soldiers of their skill.

Yet the Slavers have fled into the Empire of Orphans, a dangerous land of rumour and intrigue, where every step the Free take will bring them closer to the deadliest enemy they could ever face: the Orphanidons of the mad emperor.

But the Free have never backed down from a challenge.

Amazon UK, Amazon US, Google Play, and also available everywhere else you get e-books from …

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A couple of recent developments that I guess if I was obsessively on the ball about this kind of stuff, I might be able to offer a bit more info on what, if anything, they mean in practice.  But I’m not (on the ball, I mean); not in the way I used to be a few years ago, anyway.  But developments they are, nonetheless.

Historic regional divisions of the world, that put restrictions on what kind of e-books publishers could sell where, have been a bugbear of authors, publishers and readers alike since the whole ‘books don’t have to be paper and ink’ idea took off.  I’ve certainly had an occasional e-mail from folks complaining about their difficulty in getting hold of e-versions of my books in various parts of the world.  Maybe that’s changing, since it appears my publisher is finally going to be actively selling English language e-books everywhere, to anyone.

A press releasey type summary of the changes is over here, but the bottom line if I understand what’s happening correctly (never 100% garuanteed, I confess) is that before too long, if you want to buy an English language version of any of my books in digital form, you will be able to do so.  Wherever in the world you are.  That, if it works as seems to be intended, will be a v. good thing, if you ask me.  All the territorial restrictions inherited from a paper past never made a lick of sense, once e-books became an actual thing.

The other development, which came as a bit of a surprise, is that Piper, who hold the German translation rights to my Godless World trilogy, have – after a veeeery long delay – put out a mass market paperback version of Winterbirth (or Winterwende as it’s known over there).  As evidence, I can offer this link.  Does this mean German editions of the subsequent books in the trilogy might be forthcoming?  I’ve no idea, to be honest.  Like most such things, it’s no doubt sales dependent so if you or anyone you know speak German, can I humbly suggest this might be a suitable Christmas present perhaps?

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I like, and use Amazon, as much as any averagely active buyer of stuff over the internet.  That’s as a price-conscious consumer.  As a reader and writer, and as someone who is generally in favour of choice and competition in as many industries and retail sectors as possible, I find them … alarming, I suppose.  Not so long ago, I tended to use The Book Depository for most of my book purchases, in part specifically because they weren’t Amazon, but … oh, look.  Amazon bought them.  What a surprise.

So I’m a fan of anything that introduces more diversity into the online bookselling scene (because I think we can safely assume that nobody’s going to be introducing more diversity into the bricks and mortar bookselling scene any time soon).  The arrival of Bookish is therefore interesting.  It’s backed by three big publishers (including mine), and loads more are connected to it, so whatever anyone might say it’s undoubtedly at least in part an attempt to break Amazon’s growing stranglehold on their business.

But never mind why it’s (belatedly, since it’s been in the works for ages) here, or who’s behind it: putting my price-conscious consumer’s hat on for a second, Bookish looks like a good thing.  Competitive prices for both print and e-books, loads of social features, wide range of titles etc. etc.  It’s also a USA thing, so to any and all of you living on that side of the Atlantic I merely suggest: check it out, maybe give it a try.

Choice and competition matter, and they are not heading in a healthy direction at the moment.  To put it mildly.  Using Bookish might be one small way to nurture them.

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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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… who knows?  The world the aspiring writer’s confronted with is a less structured, less restrictive, less certain place.  That, plus I’ve maybe changed my mind a bit about some of the stuff that used to be taken for granted ten years ago, back when I was scavenging for info on how publishing worked and what I had to do to get a seat at the table.

1.  Start with short stories.  This one was probably holed below the waterline even ten years ago, to be honest, but at some point before that it certainly used to be the prevailing wisdom that when it came to speculative fiction, one sensible route map for launching a career was to sell some short stories to the magazines and then ‘graduate’ to novel writing.  My impression is that nowadays a much higher proportion of novelists skip the short fiction stage and jump straight to novels.

There are all kinds of reason why it’s changed, but I suspect one of them is that there’s a much higher proportion nowadays of potential sf and fantasy novel readers who don’t pay attention to the short story outlets (new or long-established).  That, in many ways, is a good thing: the potential audience for the spec fic novelist has expanded far beyond the core audience of genre fans.  Personally (and despite rarely writing them myself) I still think short stories have enormous value as a craft-honing exercise for the aspiring writer.

2. You need an agent.  Well now.  This one’s complicated, and still – I’d say – more true than not.  But … but … the writing life’s changing fast, and the role and place of the agent is as much up for re-evaluation as any other aspect of the publishing business, now that the digital revolution is well and truly underway.

There’s the obvious self-publishing issue.  You don’t need an agent to get your novel in front of millions of paying customers now that the e-book is gradually becoming the key medium.  Unless you’re super-sharp and super-confident, and have plenty of time to spare, you probably still need one if and when the time comes to talk contracts with a publishing house (and most of them are, anyway, still very reluctant to look at unagented submissions as far as I know), but even then I wonder what the future holds.

One of my strong suspicions about this brave new digital world is that mid-list authors being published by the big publishing houses are facing an uncertain future.  Even if you can land a contract, my guess is that absolute income for mid-list writers is more likely to decline than rise in coming years, due to some combination of lower overall sales and/or the inevitable continuing downward pressure on e-book prices.  That being the case, sacrificing a non-trivial chunk of your income to an agent might eventually start to look like a really good reason to develop your own bargaining and negotiating skills.  Or your own self-publishing and marketing skills.

3. Advertising doesn’t work for books.  I can remember hearing or reading this repeatedly a few years back.  The consensus in the industry seemed to be that money spent on advertising a book was money that could probably have been more profitably used elsewhere (like buying high profile displays in bookshops, for example).  What actually sold books was word of mouth, covers and name recognition.  Advertising spend (posters, magazine adverts, whatever) existed to mollify self-important superstar authors and to front-load sales rather than increase them in absolute terms.  I’m sure the situation wasn’t as simple as all that, even twenty years ago, but I’m equally sure it’s a whole lot less simple these days.

I’ve heard self-publishers and niche publishers say that Facebook advertising (paid Facebook advertising, not just social networking) can indeed move the sales figures for books.  I can also see a scenario – in this connected, digitised, visual world – in which book trailers and other forms of online advertising, especially those designed to go viral, could have an effect.  But mostly, when it comes to thinking about the future of book advertising, it just looks like one of the ways big publishing houses could justify their existence in a hostile future.  If there’s any way of making book advertising work nowadays, I imagine they’re working and thinking hard to try to find it.

4. Publishers and agents have to love a book to take it on.  I was always slightly sceptical about this one, which you still hear now and again.  Not because I mistrust what publishers and agents say, but because the whole thing’s a business, right?  There are undoubtedly plenty of agents and publishers around who would decline involvement with a book because they don’t personally love it, even if they can see that it’s commercially very promising.  More power to them, I say.  But I’ve no doubt there are also plenty who are very happily, and sensibly, working hard to turn books they’re personally not exactly wild about into the bestsellers they believe they can be.

The very small publishing houses, who have their costs under ferocious control, can afford to be picky and choosy, restricting their publishing projects to those in which love of the material plays a major part.  The giants of the industry, which their overheads and mutlinational corporate masters – maybe not so much, in the testing years to come.  I mean, when the only certainty is uncertainty, would it really make sense to merrily turn down a book that looked like a seriously strong commercial prospect just because you didn’t absolutely adore it yourself?

5.  Aspiring writers shouldn’t try to follow trends.  I can think of a couple of reasons this used to be said, back in the day.  First, the time lag involved in writing a novel, submitting it to agents/publishers, revising it, getting it published and onto bookstore shelves, was so enormous that whatever trend the author had been aiming at had probably gone the way of the Titanic by the time their magnum opus actually saw the light of day.  Second, agents and publishers often seemed to be saying, in public, that what they really wanted to see was new stuff, not retreads of stuff that was already out there.

That trends exist, and persist, and are enormously powerful sales juggernauts seems indisputable these days.  Steampunk and urban fantasy, to name but two.  But what interests me more is the chaotic free-for-all that is the e-book market.  Low-priced, often but not always self-published, novels abound on the e-bestseller charts, and they can very easily be written and published a great deal faster than print books ever could.  Following a trend might starts to look more and more like an entirely sensible strategy, especially given that price and availability are quite clearly non-trivial factors in the aggregate purchasing decisions of e-book consumers, and perhaps more so than anticipated quality.

But me, I’d still say to any aspiring writer: ‘Write whatever you want to write.  If it’s similar to a lot of other stuff already doing well in the market, there’s no harm in that.  If it’s utterly unlike everything that’s ever been published before (unlikely, but you know what I mean), go ahead and write it.  It might turn out to be a triumph or a tragedy, but you’ll never know until you write the thing.’

6.  It’s not about luck.  Creating and sustaining a writing career has, I suspect, always been about three things: talent, persistence and luck.  I used to be pretty confident that luck was the least important of those.  I’m no longer so sure.  I am pretty sure that – even if it wasn’t always the case, which it probably was – persistence is now the only one of the three that’s indispensible.  And that’s all I have to say about that.



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 was going to call this post ‘signposts’ on the journey into the future, but honestly: nobody needs signposts any more, right?  We all know roughly where this is heading, even if nobody knows the precise destination.  Now, it’s really just a question of ticking off the landmarks along the journey.

Borders finally bites the dust in the US (Borders UK, a separate company, expired a year or two ago).  No one was sufficiently insensitive to the way the wind is blowing to make a plausible offer for the company and its business.  Dedicated, generalist, large scale physical bookstores on the high street are going the way of the dinosaurs.  I guess the only question of any substance remaining is whether strategies of diversification (into fields other than hard copy books) or, conversely, specialization (as niche sellers of obscure, hardback and/or genre-specific books) will produce a viable future for some portion of the herd.  We’ll know in a few years, no doubt.

Amazon gobbles up The Book Depository.  This makes me downright despondent.  There goes by far the most credible competitor to Amazon in the field of online bookselling in the UK (and arguably anywhere, since one of The Book Depository’s most appealing offers was that of free shipping to almost anywhere in the world, and evidently three-quarters of its sales were outside the UK).  I suppose it’s possible regulators may still intervene to try to stifle this latest stage of Amazon’s incremental conquest of the entire world, but I won’t be holding my breath.

In the long run, it’s rarely healthy for any industry to see power and control consolidated into too few corporate hands, and Amazon’s position astride the entire business of publishing and selling books – in both e- and hard copy form – just makes me instinctively glum, even as I greatly admire the effectiveness and ambition with which they’ve constructed their behemoth.  There may not be much money left in selling physical books on the high street, but there’s undoubtedly a bit more in selling them online (for now, at least).

So there’s a possible outline of our future: radically fewer bricks and mortar bookstores, and Amazon dominating the sale (maybe the publishing, too) of both paper and e-books.  We can hope for stronger competition to emerge in the e-book field as time goes on, since the ecology of that area is still in flux, but Amazon’s proved itself an incredibly resourceful and assertive operator so far, so I don’t suppose they’ll concede any ground too easily.

Many folk celebrate the e-book revolution as a cathartic destruction of old-fashioned, restrictive practices and businesses, which is freeing up established and aspiring writers, small-scale publishers and even readers, and opening up huge new vistas of choice.  Which is at least partly true, and worth celebrating.  Choice is a fragile and sometimes illusory thing, though.  At the moment, we’re seeing the destruction pretty clearly, but the compensatory creation of diverse, viable and sustainable mechanisms for the production, distribution and sale of a healthy variety of high quality writing doesn’t seem to be proceeding with quite the same vigour (unless you’re Amazon, and in their case diversity – by which in this context I specifically mean competition – is very much not something they’re looking to foster).

That’s inevitable, and hopefully we’ll end up somewhere positive in the end, but there does seem to be a risk that here, in the middle of the messy process, good stuff might get torn down along with the bad and some new bad stuff might get built on the wreckage.  Such is life, and watching it all certainly makes for an interesting spectator sport.

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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.