Okay! What can we talk about tonight on Doctor Patrick’s Late Night Loveline Request Line and Chatshow? Our lines are open!
Ahem. Sorry, folks, but I’m in kind of a good mood, and that tends to make me a wee bit silly.
Why? Oh, lots of reasons. I worked through my end-0f-month sales figures to discover that I’d sold just over a hundred copies of The Obituarist in the last two months, and I think that’s a cause for celebration. My overall income from writing… well, it’s nothing to write home about, but the charge I get from people telling me they like my stuff is more important to me than the money. For the moment.
I also got a promotion (and pay raise) at the old day job today, so hopefully that will keep me afloat while I write more books that sell less than Fifty Shades of Grey. Which, okay, appears to be all books.
Plus, N. and I are heading to Fiji in a week for a combined honeymoon (ours) and wedding (friends). It should be a grand old time, featuring beaches, pleasant warmth, good company and enough alcohol to poison a battalion. And I may even have a chance to make a dent in the library of ebooks I keep compulsively downloading to my Kindle.
Plus plus plus, I now have 500 Twitter followers! A significant portion of whom have never tried to sell me Viagra or iPads!
Another happy-making thing was last night’s appearance at Dungeon Crawl, the monthly nerd-themed impro comedy show! It’s been a long time since I’ve done any impro, but from the laughs I got it looks like I remembered how it all worked. This was a superhero-themed night and I played upon my encyclopaedic knowledge of a certain Dark Knight to appear as Batman-Man, the Caped Crusader-Crusader who gained the proportional strength, speed and skill of Batman after being bitten by Adam West at Comic-Con. Yes, it was that kind of show and I had a great fucking time, bouncing off fellow players Lisa-Skye (‘Golden Shower’), Brenna Courteney Glazebrook (‘Super de Jour’), Richard McKenzie and (of course) host Ben McKenzie. The adrenaline high left me wobbly when it wore off, but it was a major rush to get back up on stage and be as silly as possible for an hour.
…huh. Apparently my attempt at a look of heroic competence makes me look more like someone who just swallowed his own glass eye. Good to know.
In any case, to celebrate all this positivity and my good mood, I figure it’s time to pay it forward with a giveaway!
From now until the 14th of July (when is when we head to Fiji), both Hotel Flamingo and Godheads are free! Free! Totally free! Gratis! Zero dinero! FREE BOOKS, MOTHERHUMPERS!
Specifically, they’re available for free at Smashwords with the use of a coupon code. You can get Hotel Flamingo there for free with the code EQ39G and Godheadswith the code KT24J. Feel free to pass those links and codes around to friends – it’s a giveaway for everyone! Party in the streets! Smack someone in the face with your Kobo! (And leave a review if you feel so inclined.)
Ah yes. Reviews.
I think that’s what we’re gonna talk about on Sunday.
Now go! Download! Read! And ask yourself this simple question: What Would Batman Do?
That’s right. When all else fails, pepper-spray a shark.
It’s been a long and very busy May for me, what with a new book to sell and promote, and… wait, what? It’s already June? Like nearly two weeks into June? Well, shit. That just shows how deep in the self-publishing K-hole I’ve been these last 5-6 weeks.
‘Self-publishing K-hole’, by the way, is a phrase you will never see used in Amazon’s publicity for KDP Select.
Anyway, it’s been close to six weeks since The Obituarist came out, and I’ve tried to abide by my promise not to talk incessantly about it here and become a boring spammy snake-oil merchant. But I also promised, back when I started this blog, to be as open as possible about the process of not just writing but creating, promoting and selling my ebooks, in the hope that any data I can share might help someone else with their own efforts.
So it’s in that spirit of sharing, rather than shilling, that I’m here to pick apart the numbers of how The Obituarist is going so far, where it might go next, what conclusions we might draw from the ebb and flow of sales and whether I’m ever going to make enough money from it to justify writing the sequel I’ve already started plotting out.
(If that sounds boring, you have my permission to skip this weekend’s update. There’ll be new flash fiction later in the week – come back for that, it should be fun!)
As of today, I have sold 94 copies of The Obituarist, netting me a pre-tax royalty of something like $160. It’s hard to know exactly how much, because Smashwords and Amazon both work in US dollars (or in pounds for the three copies that sold through Amazon UK). Let’s assume that the currency conversion and the 5% that the IRS will retain more or less cancel each other out and stick with $160 for argument’s sake.
In case you’re wondering, THIS IS GREAT.
94 copies in about five weeks? I’m really goddamn happy about that! That’s more than double the number of copies of Godheads I’ve sold in a year, and not that much less than what I’ve sold of Hotel Flamingo in 18 months. And $160 is about a dollar more than what I’ve made from Flamingo‘s sales to date (thanks to dropping the price to 99c back in January). Right now this means that I’ve made a little more than half my expenses back, and I can assume that if I sell another 90 books I’ll be in the black and can start writing the sequel everyone keeps asking about.
It has a badger in it.
Of course, this is the initial sales point, and it’ll either slow down markedly or dramatically surge as I become SUPER FAMOUS WRITING DUDE. Which is more likely? Well, let’s look at the Amazon sales graph.
First thought – man, Amazon sales rankings make no fucking sense. They measure something like books sold in a specific period of time as compared to other books in the same category, which leads to things like The Obituarist having its highest ranking (about #22 000) the day after it was published, because it had sold half-a-dozen copies overnight, but being 50 000 spots lower a month later after selling a bunch more copies. I get the concept, but it’s weird.
Second thought – I can map the spikes and jumps to specific times I’ve promoted or talked about the book. For instance, the big jump on May 23 is when I was on Byte Into It to talk about the concept and the book. That gigantic jump – from #200 000 to #63 000 – is only four sales, but that’s just Amazon weirdness. So what I should do is confirm what gets the attention for those spikes and keep doing it, and I’ll talk about that below.
Third thought – I haven’t sold a single copy yet this month. Which isn’t good. For all that I get more money from Smashword sales, Amazon sales rankings are really important because they can increase a book’s visibility and improve the chances that someone discovers the book on their own rather than because I’m pushing it on them. So I need to turn this around soon.
And speaking of Smashwords, here’s a set of graphs from them:
Do they line up with the Amazon graph? Hmm. Kinda. You see some spikes and peaks in the same areas – like, obviously, the launch day – but not in others. That Byte Into It spike isn’t there, for instance – well, it might be, but it’s a sale of one copy if it is. Does that mean people who hear/read about the book are more likely to head to Amazon? Probably, and that’s something to take into account.
The next thing to note is how page views translate into sales and samples – or how they don’t. Again, lots of spikes at the start of the process, and lots of downloads to match, but later the page views fall faster and further than the downloads. This might mean people check it out when it hits the SW front page right after launch while not buying it; it might mean later interest comes from a smaller group of non-browsing customers who want this specific book; hell, it might mean that all the data-mining bots swarmed on it to gather data right away and now only boring humans care. There’s information there, but it’s hard to translate.
The good news is that I’m still selling copies on Smashwords in June while Amazon is quiet. The bad news is that I’ve sold like three copies – and yes, that’s better than zero, but I’m not setting fire to my underwear with joy about the difference.
In any event, it’s clear that May was an excellent month for me, but also that it was a launch month when the book’s visibility was high and when I was all over the internet talking about it. The last week has seen less of that and more of me talking about it in real space, such as at the EWF and Continuum, and that’s not been as effective. That’s not surprising – the best way to sell a book you find on the internet is to market and promote it on the internet. And I don’t regret that period, because it’s been good to tell people about it face-to-face – and, indeed, to talk to people full stop. People are cool.
But if I’m going to stop that slow spiral down to the bottom, I need to pull out a few more stops. And I have some ideas about what to do next.
Exciting new forms
The Obituarist is an ebook not because DIGITAL RULES DEADTREE DROOLS but because it’s hard to make a print novella commercially viable – but not impossible. I picked up a couple of discount vouchers for custom-publishing outfit Blurb during the EWF and I’m looking into the costs and possibilities of doing a small print run of physical copies. The tricky part will be working out whether the return will be worth the cost – not just of printing the book but of distributing it to customers and to local bookstores – and how much I’d need to charge to get that return. But it’s definitely something worth trying, even if in the end I only print 50 books; if nothing else I can give them away as Christmas presents to people I want to make feel guilty for not buying it already.
But that’s not all! I’m in discussion with awesome voice actor (and BFF) Ben McKenzie about doing an audiobook version! Ben actually read the first chapter aloud to the very, very small audience we had for our reading session at Continuum yesterday and he sounded amazing. We’re working out the costs, practical difficulties and potential for distribution and hopefully can come up with a plan in the next week or two. Believe me, when it comes together, I’ll be on here talking the hell out of it. You won’t miss out on Ben’s melodious voice and the charming, almost-but-not-quite-British inflection he brings to my book where people say ‘fuck’ a lot.
Make Goodreads my bitch
Goodreads is shaping up as one of the most important social media sites for books and readers, and I want to explore it much further to see what I can get out of it – and, just as important, what I can bring to it to make it more worthwhile for its users.
Obviously The Obituarist already has a page on the site, and people have been leaving reviews and putting it on their to-read lists, which is great – but I need to see what else I can do. One option is advertising; Goodreads has a number of pay-per-click advertising packages for authors. I will admit that I rarely – okay, pretty much never – bother clicking on ads on the site (or indeed many others), but that doesn’t mean that others don’t or that those ads can’t be useful as well as annoying. So I’m going to check those out and maybe give them a limited try to see how it all works.
Goodreads also has a large number of discussion groups dedicated to crime, ebooks, Australian fiction and more, and I’m going to start checking those out and maybe joining a few. However, I’m not going to just join and then dump a HEY DOODZ BUY MY BOOK IT’S GREAT SEE YA post, because that’s just spammy bullshit. The thing I keep telling people who ask about ebook promotion – other than that they should really ask someone more qualified – is that it’s about being genuine and about being honestly interested in your book, your genre, your themes and your readers (or at least how they engage with those things). So joining those Goodreads groups – and for that matter similar groups elsewhere – needs to be a genuine attempt to be part of those communities. Which can be time-consuming, but it can also be rewarding, and not just in the Amazon-sales-spike fashion.
And hey, if you are on Goodreads and have read or are thinking of reading The Obituarist, it’d be pretty goddamn sweet if you could add it to your list or leave a review. Every bit helps. If you’re super keen you could recommend it to others, too, but obviously I’d never ask that of you. NEVER.
The thing I’ve gleaned from the graphs above is that the most effective things I’ve done are the various interviews I’ve done about the book on other people’s blogs and on RRR. And that’s not surprising, because interviews and discussions are a chance to not sell the book but to talk about its themes and ideas, the whole digital afterlife concept, my take on Chandlerian crime and other topics – in other words, a chance to talk about and be enthusiastic about writing rather than just this one thing I’ve written. Enthusiasm is infectious, after all, and interviews are a chance to share the love without being a (say it with me) boring spammy snake-oil merchant. They’re also just plain fun to do.
I’ve had a ball doing the ones from last month, and I’m hoping more opportunities come up soon, especially with crime-focused blogs/podcasts or those based outside Australia. I’m working on that, but if you have such a blog, podcast or platform and would be interested in having me pop in for a while to rabbit on about death and Facebook, give me a holler.
Hang on, let me check the wordcount on this post OH HOLY FUCK.
Man, I could go on about this, but if you’ve stuck around for the last 1900 words then I don’t want to punish you by making you endure a thousand more. Let’s bring it back to the core concept – I’ve sold some books, I’m really happy, but I’m going to try to sell more without being any more boring about it than I am already.
Jesus, I could have just said that two hours ago and then gone to bed. The long weekend has left me verbose; we should all be grateful that the day job usually leaves me too exhausted to do much more than type a few paragraphs and dump in a LOLcat.
If any of this has been useful to you, I am a) shocked and b) glad. And if you think my ideas have gaps or holes, or that I really should learn to edit them down, then speak up! Please, help turn this blog’s comment function into more than a spam-trap and leave me your thoughts.
It’s just going to be a quick post tonight, as I have something else to focus on. I’ve put myself on a tight schedule of banging out one chapter of The Obituarist a night, or at least nearly every night, and so far it’s going pretty well. Admittedly each chapter is only around 1200 words, but hey, it still means I’m getting it done. And having fun with it too, which is pretty unusual for me. So fingers crossed, I should have this draft finished pretty soon and a final, publishable version by early-mid April.
But that does kinda preclude making too many long blog posts, just for the moment.
However, other than blowing my own trumpet about my sudden discovery of a work ethic, I did want to post something else.
As I mentioned on the weekend, I haz a Kindle! And I’m going to New Zealand next week! And it seems to me that I can combine these two facts and end up with plenty to read on flights and long drives without blowing out my luggage allowance.
But finding ebooks is harder than I had originally thought – or, more to the point, finding ones I want to read in the endless ocean of ebooks that gnaws at the shores of the Kindle Store. There’s a blog post percolating in my skull about that, but that’s a topic for another night.
Tonight, instead, I’m hoping you can help a brother out with some recommendations. What are your favourite 2-3 ebooks that come in Kindle format (whether from Amazon or another vendor) that cost 5 dollars or less? (I’m happy to spend more than five bucks on an ebook, but just not this week ‘cos funds are tight.) Tell me what I should buy – and why I should buy it.
Comments! I need comments! Lickety-split! Fill up my Kindlator!
Thank you, thank you, yes I don’t look a day over 33, you’re too kind.
It was a day marked by spontaneous outpourings of love and respect from people all over the planet, which is amazing and always makes me feel humbled and incredibly fortunate.
PLUS I GOT PHAT LOOTS.
Said loots include an excellent and stylish watch, books, a Lego Batplane set (!!!), a variety of vouchers for buying graphic novels, and…
Yes, I done got me a Kindle, thanks to the efforts of my amazing wife and our most excellent friends. And it is a thing of beauty – 155 grams of processing power, with a minimal but easy-to-use interface and enough space to store a metric shit-tonne of ebooks.
I have, of course, immediately put all my own ebook titles on it, and have finally been able to examine them in their native environment and realise that I don’t like some of the formatting. So I’ll need to do some work on those – both Kindle Store and Smashwords versions – to get them up to snuff.
I also have a few other titles on there, including Chuck Wendig’s Shotgun Gravy and Greg Stolze’s Switchflipped, both of which I can now read in comfort without balancing a laptop on my knees while riding the bus. More will come, once I start working out how to filter down the impossible volume of ebooks on the market to find the ones I want.
Yes, I’m now a consumer as well as a producer, and can start developing my own impressions about ebooks and how expensive they are. It’s exciting.
Also rather exciting is the appearance of Hotel Flamingo and Godheads in The Book Designer‘s ebook cover design awards for February. They didn’t win, but I’m assuming that the covers are listed in descending order of awesomeness, which means they placed pretty high. I’m chuffed no matter what.
Speaking of cover designs, I’m still working out what to do for The Obituarist; I’m very happy with the great work Design Junkies did on those two books, but it’d be good to try something different for the next one. So if there are any graphic designers reading who’d like to work on an ebook cover – and can work within my budgetary constraints – drop me a line and talk to me!
(As for Nine Flash Nine, I’m talking to an illustrator about that one for something different again, but it’s a while away still.)
Work on The Obituarist continues apace. I’m actually having a lot of fun writing it, which is very out of character for me, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out.
The problem has been finding time to write it, as this has been a very busy couple of months, what with the day job, social life, travelling and writing horse-choking blog posts every 3-4 days. Which, as you may have noticed, I’m cutting back on a little, now that all that book pricing stuff is done and dusted.
But still, the hope is that I can finish a first draft by the end of March. I’m actually going to New Zealand in a week or so to spend 5 days travelling around the North Island and meeting with textbook authors and consultants for my day job. But by night, I plan to eschew the fleshpots of Auckland and Palmerston North to hunker down in my hotel room and bang out one 1000-word chapter after another.
Let’s see how that goes.
In closing – it’s a short post tonight – I want to reiterate the fact that my wife is amazing. Just amazing.
You know, the day after I posted that last blog post, I kinda regretted it – it was a half-baked mess of ideas that didn’t really get across any point I was trying to make.
And yet it’s getting more comments and discussion than any other post I’ve made on this blog. Go figure. Anyway, I’m going to come back to that topic on Sunday and try to say something more coherent.
Tonight, though, something completely different – free short fiction!
Once again I’ve taken one of the stories I’ve written over the last few years and uploaded it to the internets for free download. This time it’s ‘Hearts of Ice’, a story about you – yes, you, you reading now, you right there!
More precisely, it’s a story written in second person that makes you the subject whether you like it or not; a story about need, addiction, choices, loss, love and the way white smoke pools like liquid in the bowl of a glass pipe, pools in a way you could watch for hours because it’s so much more engrossing than the rest of your life. You know, stuff like that.
If you enjoyed Hotel Flamingo or Godheads, this is, well, completely different. But it’s a cool story nonetheless and I hope people will dig it.
I was all set to upload this story, along with my other free short stories, to the Kindle Store tonight, but was brought up short when I realised that you can’t upload a free file to the Kindle Store. The lowest you can go there is 99 cents; the free ebooks they offer are either special promotions or (I think) public domain works specifically published by Amazon themselves.
I can get where they’re coming from, I suppose; Amazon’s Whispernet delivery service for Kindle book is free to customers but still racks up costs, and there’s not much return in them spending money to help authors give their stuff away. And setting a 99 cent minimum has some benefits to writers too – specifically, by setting some kind of lower limit on the race to the bottom on ebook pricing. Bad enough that so many consumers demand a 99 cent price point; I don’t really feel like competing with a 49 cent or 10 cent price point.
That said, it’s still annoying that I can’t put these stories up on the Kindle Store; there’s no way I can get sales at 99 cents for a single story when I’m also selling a novella and an anthology at that price. Giving them away is the only practical option – and hey, not something I struggle with or grumble about – but I can’t do so in the biggest ebook market, and nor can anyone else.
Ah well, such is life.
Speaking of cheap 99 cent ebooks, the change in price for Flamingo and Godheads is paying off, at least in terms of sales numbers. Sales returns… meh, not worrying about that so much. Let’s be honest here, I still haven’t received any payments from Amazon (who pay by cheque), and I’ve asked Smashwords to hold off on payment until I get a US tax number sorted out. So no matter how many books I sell, I’m not seeing any cash any time soon, so I may as well not stress about it.
Anyway, hope you like the story. Going to put some more up in the next couple of months.
Come back Sunday for some more focused and (hopefully) useful thoughts about extrapolation versus invention. And maybe some swearing.
I’m not really going to enjoy writing this blog post. Partially because it’s about a subject that doesn’t make me very happy, but mostly because it’s a million fucking degrees right now, and I’m writing when I could be sitting under an airconditioner in my underwear drinking chilled Mountain Goat and eating NYE leftovers.
Oh yeah. Happy New Year! Hope that some of you don’t live in Melbourne or Adelaide and thus have escaped the crippling heat that’s only going to be worse tomorrow.
But heat aside, I want to talk about the sales of my ebooks Hotel Flamingo and Godheads, which – and I need to use a technical publishing term here – suck rancid iguana testicles. Possibly not in relative terms, since most ebooks don’t sell squat, and every time I do sell a copy of something it briefly catapults about 400 000 places on the Kindle Store charts, but in absolute terms the big lizard nuts are on the table and they stink something fierce.
In the spirit of openness, let me share some sales figures with you.
I published Hotel Flamingo on Smashwords back in December 2010, and then on the Kindle Store in April 2011. (I was waiting for Smashwords to organise their distribution deal with Amazon, but that’s still in progress, so now I just publish versions through each outlet.) In that time, I’ve sold 65 copies through Smashwords (most of those in the first couple of months) and 13 through Amazon, netting me a total of 78 sales and $148.13 (US) for that book. That’s obviously small change, and once I get through paying tax on it twice (both the US and Australian governments take a cut) it’s closer to chump change, but again, it’s probably more than a lot of other self-epublishers ever see. It stops short of respectable, but it’s a start.
Godheads is newer – published in May 2011 on both sites – and has had a less successful sales profile. Okay, a bloody shithouse sales profile – 18 copies on Smashwords and 15 on Amazon, for a total of 33 sales and $56.90. Whoot. That’s well short of respectable; that’s one toe over the line of stillborn.
So that’s a grand total of $205 (and 3 cents) made from my ebook publishing efforts over the last 13 months. Which is disappointing. It’s even more so when you consider that the covers of each ebook cost me $217 a pop. And I was happy to pay that, because they look amazing and they stand out from the terrible clip-art and MS Paint covers on a lot of other ebooks. But given that, I’m still about $230 in the hole at this point, and it seems pretty obvious that I’m not getting out any time soon unless I do something differently.
Am I angry about this? No, not at all. All along I’ve considered this project as an experiment, and an experiment that fails is still an experiment that yields a result. So what I need to do now is consider what the result of this experiment means at this point, and what needs to be done next.
There are a couple of questions I’ve asked myself:
Do my books suck? Ego aside, I think Hotel Flamingo is an occasionally uneven but worthwhile piece of prose, and I know a lot of people who’ve really enjoyed it. Godheads is… you know, I’m prepared to say that Godheads isn’t all that it could be, and that the quality of the stories in it is too variable. But hell, none of the stories are bad, and the collection as a whole is decent. ‘Decent’ isn’t that great, though, and if I do another anthology I’ll spend more time honing it rather than rushing it out. But still – no, I feel confident saying that my books don’t suck.
Is there a market for my writing? It’s certainly possible to write material that is good but that simply doesn’t appeal to anyone but a small audience. Certainly the kind of new weird/paranormal fantasy/horror in those books doesn’t align that well with the popular titles and concepts in those genres. I’m writing niche stuff and I know it. But I also know that the three free short stories I have up on Smashwords are popular; last year I had 417 total downloads of those stories through Sony and 2339 (!) through Barnes and Noble/Kobo. That’s close to a thousand people that have read (or at least thought about reading) those stories, which is both a massive egoboost and a sign that there’s an audience for my work.
Do I need to do more marketing? Well, yes, obviously. You always need to do more marketing. I certainly haven’t done much, and that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure – and when I have done some, I’ve seen results. Well, I think I’ve seen results; there seems to be an Amazon sale or two popping up in the weeks after I get a review or a retweet or whatever. But at the same time, it’s a question of return – will the (potential) sales I get from marketing my stuff compensate for the time and effort I spend on marketing my stuff? Time and effort that could otherwise go towards writing new books. (Or to playing Dragon Age 2. Whatever.) Marketing’s important but it’s not the magic bullet.
Are my books too expensive? Having thought about it for a month or two, I’m gonna say yes. And move out of bullet-point-time to talk about this more.
There’s a definite desire – hell, an expectation – in the ebook market that 99 cents is the standard price for an ebook. Not the baseline, the standard, just as it’s the standard for a iPhone app. As a reader, I don’t share that desire; I think 5 bucks is a better baseline for a full-length novel, and that shorter work can justifiably be set at 3 or 4 dollars, working all the way down to a short story at maybe a dollar. Those are prices I’m happy to pay, and that’s as a starting point for epub-only work; I’d happily pay more for work that I think is worth it.
But that is not a common view. As usual, Chuck Wendig has written a terrific essay on this that is worth reading, and I’ve been mulling over that piece and readers’ comments on it – comments that showed that a lot of readers, people who love books and fiction, felt that a dollar or two was still all that they were prepared to pay for an ebook. And I’m not egotistical enough to tell them, and all the others with the same attitude, that they’re wrong to feel that way. I don’t have to like it, but I do have to accept it and work with it.
Author Mur Lafferty also wrote a blog post recently about her own experiences in repricing her e-novellas down to 99 cents, and the increase in sales that followed, and that’s what prompted me to give it a try as well. So as of today, I’ve dropped the price of both books to 99 cents (US) on both outlets, and presumably on all the other sites that Smashwords distributes its files to.
Once again, it’s an experiment, and if the sales stay the same but pay me even less, well, that’s an experiment that Armin Zola will be confining to a cage and never letting out again. I don’t know that I’ll up the prices of those books again – I think that kind of sends the wrong message and makes it look like I’m just throwing shit at a wall to see what sticks, which is true but I don’t want other people to realise that – but it’ll inform the pricing decisions I make for The Obituarist and any other work I publish online. And, more than likely, cement my desire to focus on shorter works like novellas and anthologies for self-publishing, while trying to find a print publisher for Arcadia and other full-length works.
Because I don’t want to put a 90 000-word novel up for sale for a dollar. Even RPG writing pays better than that.
In any case, the takeaway here is not doom and gloom, and it’s not grumbling about cheapskate readers who aren’t prepared to spend the price of a takeaway coffee on an ebook. (And I’m not even talking the good coffee, I’m talking McCafe-level shit, but whatever.) The takeaway is, like always, what happens when I do this? And all I ask is that the world not end.
…if the world does end in 2012 as a result of me making my ebooks cheaper, you have my sincere apologies.
And if you read the above and feel like taking the 99 cent plunge, some links to make it a bit easier:
Many, many electrons have been killed in arguments about the decline of the old publishing models and the death of the gatekeepers and the new ebook democracy where we all have the power to publish really shit books for free and blah blah blah. I know; I’ve said my piece more than once on the subject.
But something that tends to get lost in the shuffle as people argue about whether ebooks are better than physical books is the question of where you find the damn ebooks in the first place. Not where you buy them – we’re all pretty clear about that – but how you learn that an ebook you might like has been published and is now lost in the overflowing intershelves.
Yeah, I’m talking about book reviews. Ebook reviews. E-reviews. Fuck, I can never keep up with the lingo.
In this, as in other things, Google fails us, because when you search for ‘ebook reviews’ or similar what you get are hundreds of hits about hardware and reading devices. Ditto ‘ebook readers’, ‘ebook recommendations’ and ‘where the fuck can I find a good ebook’. We messed up when we named the platform after the thing you read on it; we should have called them something totally different, like boners. Except then you’d be Googling ‘boner reviews’ and ending up with something that doesn’t resemble a Kindle Fire. Well, not the current model.
So what I’m wondering tonight – and hoping for comments, as I often (and not all successfully) do in these mid-week posts – is where you/we go to find ebook recommendations and reviews.
The Kindle Store
Don’t get me wrong, ebookstores like the Kindle Store, iBooks, Smashwords and so on are great, because that’s where you get the sweet digital wordcrack. And the reviews that go against books, while variable in quality (to put it mildly), can be useful in helping you work out whether a given ebook that you’re looking at is worth the $2.99 of your hard-earned money.
But for finding the ebooks in the first place, store sites are pretty much useless. Genre subdivisions and user-generated tags are crude sorting tools that don’t provide much nuance and require you to read reviewers’ minds so that you pick the same words they used to categorise the work. The other core tool for pretty much every site is a star rating, which again is largely useless; it’s far easier to find a book with just a single review, but that got five stars, than it is to find one with a hundred reviews but only a 4.75 rating. That book may as well be invisible, lost behind a thousand crap books that were well received by the author’s mum.
Or Konrathing, as it is sometimes called. Talking loudly about your own new books, old books, upcoming books and books you dreamed about writing is a key activity for any ebook writer, and can easily eclipse actually writing books in the first place. (See the URL of this blog post for Exhibit Fucking A.) Like it or not, it has to be done, because it’s not like the marketing department will do it for you. The marketing department is a cat, and he’s busy licking his rear while become a Japanese internet sensation.
However, self-promotion is advertising and as such it’s not very useful if you want an unbiased idea of whether a book is worth reading. More often than not, if you even pay attention to the self-promotion, you end up overlooking the work to examine the writer and the way they present themselves and their work. And that can be great; look at how Chuck Wendig creates and pushes his creative voice/persona. But it too easily takes the spotlight away from the work and gets in the way of finding out whether the stuff they write is as good as they sound.
Word of virtual mouth
The prevailing wisdom is that this is how the word gets out in the modern age – people talk about the books they like online and in social media, other people see it and check it out. Probably true, but not exactly the kind of thing that you can bank on as a writer or navigate effectively as a reader; it’s little better than basing your TV viewing habits on how many Facebook sites are trying to get one million signatures to get it back on / back off the air.
At the same time, sure, I blog/tweet/update/iVerb about cool new ebooks being published by my friends and contacts, and about things I’ve read that I really like. This is what people do; we get enthusiastic about the stuff/people we like and tell other people/stuff about it. But I don’t know how useful that is if I don’t articulate why this news is worth disseminating.
I’m also skeptical about how useful sites like Goodreads and the like are for ebook readers, or in truth for readers in general. When I look at these sites I see a lot of hardcopy books being read, and not usually new ones at that; I also don’t see much in the way of substantive reviews for them. In the end, they’re not really about sharing information about the things you read, but about sharing the fact that you do read. The act itself is the thing being broadcast, like a personal affirmation that you like the things you like and want others to know that. And hey, that’s human nature and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t provide all that handy a service.
Ebook review sites
Do these really exist? No, this isn’t a rhetorical question – I really want to find some! I know they’re out there, somewhere, but they shift and fade like Brigadoon. And even if you find one, it’s a drop in the ocean, because they can only review so many ebooks a day/week/whatever, and I imagine most are labours of love that get put aside when time runs too short.
But damn, a smart, regularly-updated ebook review site with a stable and decently-sized readership base would be my Holy Fucking Grail. It’s all I want for Christmas.
Dumb fuckin’ luck
And sometimes you just see mention of an interesting-sounding ebook in a forum discussion or in someone’s sig block or a stripper has a URL tattooed around her navel and you check it out and it’s the best thing ever.
But that happens less often than you might think. Honestly, that stripper’s novel needed a serious edit.
So anyway, all of this bitching and moaning about not being able to find ebooks to read is self-serving, because it’s also bitching about how I struggle to get reviews and word-of-mouth for Hotel Flamingo and Godheads and how it’s likely to be difficult for the new novella I’m currently planning and that you heard about here first OMG. Let’s be honest, nearly everything on this blog is a desperate (but genuine and hopefully interesting) cry for attention and sales.
But still. It would be good to find stuff to read. And to help others find good ebooks, whether or not they’re mine.
So chime in, please, with ideas, recommendations and stories about how you find the good word. I want to hear.
A couple of years ago the big argument was about whether ebooks would inevitably replace physical books. Depending on who you believed, print was so past dead the fumes were making our eyes water and physical books would go the way of the buggy whip within a matter of months, or ebooks were pathetic fads that everyone would abandon once the batteries on their Christmas Kindle went dead.
Now that the smoke and rhetoric has cleared, I think it’s safe to say that ebooks are here to stay, but that printed books aren’t going away any time soon. We live in an intersticial time when both forms are popular and both easily available, and as someone who likes both books and ebooks and most of all the text and words and ideas both carry and beam into my brain, this is a good thing. It’s a crazy time when all the old rules are being questioned and the new ones still being written, when we have the opportunity to experiment, to play, and to get into interminable arguments about what format or publishing model or piece of equipment is superior to all others.
Case in point – e-readers. There are a bunch of different ones out there now with different features, and tablets that can be used as e-readers, and smartphones, and emulators for PCs, and they all seem to do different things and it just makes my head hurt. Some people say Kindles are best, some say the Nook is best, someone somewhere probably thinks the Kobo is best, other people think you’re crazy for not just having an iPad, and now the Kindle Fire is coming and to be honest I’m not even sure what that is but it’s very shiny.
For my part, I run a Kindle emulator and Adobe Digital Editions on my PC and little eeePC, and that works pretty well. Well, mostly. The eeePC is great, but it’s not designed for reading ebooks, and thus there are always little problems of readability, of page size, of display and of trying to balance it on my knee as the morning bus goes around a corner. And the other problem for me, as an ebook publisher, is that the display I see in the emulators doesn’t really match the way the book will look in a proper handheld reader.
So I’m thinking of getting an e-reader of some description, preferably a cheap one (unless someone really wants to get us His and Hers iPads for our wedding, and if you do I am prepared to allow it). And the relative merits of each brand and type isn’t as interesting to me as to what it does, why that’s a good thing and what impact it all has on the most important feature, which is that it lets you crack open an ebook and slurp up the juicy words inside.
I guess what I’m asking isn’t ‘which e-reader’ is best, but the more general question of what does an e-reader need to be and do? Forget the technical specs and the display sizes – what functionality do you, as users of these devices, want and need in order to read an e-book to your satisfaction? E-ink? E-paper? E-spines? Web browser? Tags and bookmarks? An actual physical book instead?
This is a call for comments. Forget the brand, forget the model, forget whether you can play Angry Birds between chapters. Tell me what matters to you as a reader of books, and why.
I have no idea what I will do with this information. But it all helps my buggy whip business.
Let’s kick off tonight’s post with CRAZY CASH GIVEAWAYS!
Well, okay, that’s a lie.
However, I am giving away free stuff!
Specifically, I’m giving away a free short story for download, with the deliberately unwieldy title of ‘The Recent 86 Tram Disaster as Outlined in a Series of Ten Character Studies’. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like, and also a bit of metatextual musing on what a character study is and does – yes, I’m once again trying to be Italo Calvino, and as usual not doing a very good job of it. But what the heck – it’s free, right!
You can download the story at Smashwords if you’re after a Kindle or e-book version; I’m not 100% pleased with the way the Kindle version came out, because it’s indenting the first line of every paragraph for some reason, but I’m tinkering with it and it remains perfectly readable. If you prefer a PDF version, you can download a fine-tuned version directly from the Downloads page here at PODcom, which is better than the one SW produces. If you’re after a HTML, Word or text version, then it’s really time you started rethinking the way you read ebooks.
(And while you’re downloading this story, you of course can also grab ‘Watching the Fireworks’ and ‘The Descent’ for the same low price of nothing at all, if you haven’t already.)
This isn’t a new story, mind you. I wrote it about a year ago, put it up on my LJ to some praise and some criticism, and then left it gathering electron-dust on my hard drive until earlier this week. When I decided to add something to the free download portion of my portfolio, I had a look at this piece and decided it would be a good choice. It has some intricacies of voice, some reasonably good jokes and I don’t think there are any Oxford commas in it.
But like I said, not every reader was positive about it when I first posted it – a few thought the concept just didn’t work, while some others felt it needed polishing. (Don’t get me wrong, though – most of ’em dug it, or else I wouldn’t be trying to disseminate it further now.) When I pulled it out, I thought about whether to give it another redraft to make it really click – and then I didn’t do that. Because I like the immediacy of a finished piece, and don’t much like tinkering with multiple drafts of a story, especially a short story. In, out, done.
Plus, of course, it’s free.
And a lot of ebooks are free, and a lot of them are crap. And it’s hard not to wonder whether these two things are connected. The bar is set very low in the current market, both in terms of quality and of price. Is it any wonder that many writers don’t give their work the time and effort it needs, knowing that they’ll be selling it for 99 cents or even giving it away?
The new world of e-publishing gives everyone an opportunity to be heard – even those who don’t want to put any effort into being heard. That’s a strange situation, and hopefully an untenable one, because that ease of access doesn’t just let in the dreadful unwashed masses who want to press their grubbly little texts upon us worded gentry; there’s a lazy gravity to that ease that drags at a writer’s heels, tempting all of us down towards that low-set bar. Any lower and snakes would lose limbo dancing contests under it.
None of this incoherent rambling is meant to suggest that you shouldn’t download ’86 Tram’ and read it. OF COURSE YOU SHOULD. But it makes me realise that I get into a different mindset when writing for eventual sale – even if the work is only going for a dollar or two – and writing for free dissemination. And it’d be better for me – and you, and the great wide world of letters as a whole – if I stayed in that first mindset as much as possible. Even for the free stuff.
After all, you pay for those stories with time. And attention. And your sweet, sweet love.
Kind of an unfocused post tonight, I know. I’ve been distracted. Will try to lift my game next weekend.
Wow. Way to bring the mood of the party down, Ewan.
Morrison brings up a lot of interesting points, but he takes a very pessimistic stance in his article. I think he’s done so to get people talking and thinking, and that’s important, but so is maintaining some optimism and some perspective.
Here’s a rebuttal of sorts by writer Lloyd Shepherd, which provides facts and figures to argue that while the publishing industry isn’t what it was, it’s premature to sound the death knell yet. I don’t have that degree of recourse to facts – not that that has ever stopped me – but speaking as a writer, an online self-publisher, and a commissioning editor at a major publishing house (albeit in education rather than fiction), three things in Morrison’s article leap out at me.
Piracy – and look, I say ‘pirate’ rather than ‘file-sharer’ or ‘unauthorised copier’ because it’s shorter and pithier, okay? No value judgement. Anyway, piracy of straight-up fiction is not that big a deal. Pirates focus heavily on sharing electronic media, music, movies and games; they generally don’t care about books, and book readers generally aren’t pirates. Even those publishing arms that are hit harder by piracy, usually fan-media or roleplaying, are seeing data that suggests piracy isn’t hurting them as much as they thought, because many people who torrent scans and PDFs generally wouldn’t have paid for that product anyway; they would have simply gone without. Over in fiction publishing, piracy of things that aren’t mega-bestsellers is minimal, because most pirates don’t want to read/share that stuff, and the people who want to read it are generally happy to pay for it. Maybe books would make more if piracy was impossible, but they wouldn’t make that much more.
The death of the mid-list and the loss of advances – yes, this is true, this is happening. More precisely, it’s been happening since the 1990s; it’s not as new as Morrison implies. Much like in film, publishers are under pressure to produce nothing but blockbusters – they want to publish either JK Rowling or the next JK Rowling, and that gives less room for writers that will never be JK Rowling but will produce good books nonetheless. This has been the case for years, and it sucks, but at the same time it’s not exactly a surprise. And for all the pressure on them to produce high-selling books, most publishers – the people, not the companies – care about good books, and will push to get worthy-but-lower-selling books out there. If anything, it’ll be interesting to see how the success of ebooks affects this – midlist titles are starting to find a larger audience, and the value of establishing writers who continue to sell, but never need to be reprinted, is becoming more obvious.
The race to the bottom for pricing – okay, this is a real concern. Books shouldn’t be priced as low as the market will bear, and 99 cents is too little to charge for a book. But there’s a growing realisation that digital products are priced too low, not just in publishing but in the more commercially powerful world of iPhone apps, and the prices are starting to bounce back. Are there consumers who will balk at paying $4.95 for your ebook when they can get someone else’s ebook for $3.95? Yes. But those are generally not the consumers you want – these are people to whom books are essentially fungible, and often they just want extruded word product to fill up their Kindle. I’ve come across so many people with Kindles who only use them to download free books – and then almost never read them, because it turns out they don’t want to read Moby Dick, they just want to feel like they own the book. Many readers are prepared to pay more sensible prices for books they want to read from authors they respect, and we should see that happen more often within the next couple of years.
(There’s been a good discussion recently of e-book pricing and the .99 cent model over at Terrible Minds; go there to see some more and different takes on the topic.)
This is a time of transition, and it’s one where things are happening quickly and the old order is being torn down faster than it can adjust. It’s all very much like Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga – THERE CAME A TIME WHEN THE OLD GODS DIED! – except that we don’t have any villains as cool as Darkseid.
I’m not saying it’s the Golden Age of publishing, because it sure as hell ain’t. But it’s not the End of All Things either. Large established presses will either adapt and survive or sink, but they won’t drag everything under with them. Small and independent presses have the chance to craft something new and be at the forefront of change. And for writers, there are opportunities that there never were before, even if we have to work harder to get money from those opportunities. So less doom and gloom, and more optimism, please.
The New Gods may yet come. If we believe. And keep writing.