Is it tidings of comfort and joy or is the party over?

Some random thoughts about the state of ebook publishing at the turn of 2012.

This morning I picked up 4 ebooks for under £2. I don’t mean under £2 each (which would be a good enough deal) I mean all 4 for under £2. And one of these was a bestselling book which is soon to come out as a movie. Life of Pi (to give it an unnecessary plug!) It cost 20p.  Seriously. 20p. How do they do that? For me as an indie publishing on KDP I HAVE to price at 75p minimum which converts to 77p minimum for the consumer. And if I do that I make approx 20p per copy.  If I COULD sell for 20p a copy I’d make 6p per copy.  I guess that’s a kind of answer. If you are a mainstream publisher you can make 6p a copy because you’re making a load of 6p’s.  As an indie I’m NEVER going to make enough at 6p a copy to wash my face. I’m priced out of the market (even if I could get into that 20p market!)

And it’s not just in digital publishing that you face a war of big versus small.

Whether you liked it or not, Fifty Shades of Grey would set you back no more than £3.99 ANYWHERE in paperback and if you hang round supermarket shelves for your book purchasing you’ll find that you can pick up plenty of books for this price. 3 for a tenner deals are no longer just for wine. They’re for ‘culture’ as well. And if you like the kind of throwaway books that dominate mass market ‘culture’ then you’re probably as happy as a pig in muck these days.

If, however, you have (dare I say it) a more discriminating palette you may find things aren’t quite as good. And if you’re an indie writer/publisher, I suggest that it’s time to wake up and realise that everything in the brave new world of digital publishing isn’t a) rosy or b) fair or c) tailored directly to help YOU make money.  The marketplace is bigger than ever before and that makes indie visibility even harder than before. Sad, but true.

I could have filled my boots (and Kobo/Kindle) with free and very cheap ebooks relatively easily (though I find that going through the Amazon free Kindle sections pretty soon palls – and makes you realise quite how many books you DON’T even want for free) and I’m guessing that’s what a lot of people who got Kindles for Christmas will be doing.

I know several indie authors who have put their ebooks on free promotions over the Xmas period in the hope that they will soar up the rankings and that when ‘newbies’ to the whole ebook phenomena start surfing for product, they will be well positioned to be ‘the freebie to click.’ I was sceptical. Before the ‘event’ I thought that if indies were working out that this was the time to ‘hit the consumer’ then big publishers (for all they claim to hate ebooks) would have worked out a similar strategy. And bestsellers at 20p does seem to do it.  I reckon everyone has a tolerance level beyond which even the free downloading frenzy cannot be sustained indefinitely.

Okay, you might buy Life of Pi for 20p and you might have come to that decision by looking at the side by side list of 100 bestsellers and 100 top free ebooks.

But I decided to do some personal research. To try to replicate what a new ereader consumer might do. I clicked and then clicked KINDLE STORE and up came 1883 results. The top one was The One You Love (for free) a suspense mystery by Paul Pilkington which is an indie book (I assume) with some 494 reviews and it’s been out since mid 2011. I guess he’s the man all indies are jealous of.  But not being a fan of the genre I scrolled down a bit to find a mixture of things. This wasn’t the place to find EBOOKS as such now was it?  I got down to Peter May (I’ve heard of him) The Lewis Man (another book from 2011 published this time by Quercus) at 20p.  So I clicked on it and went down to the product details where I could find a link to the top 100 paid Kindle books.

I think the ‘newbie’ would take some time to find this sort of link. They would probably just go back to the previous page. I don’t think that Amazon makes it easy for the customer to find the free stuff by indies (not that I’m suggesting they should –their job is selling ebooks!) But I’m trying to look at the process with fresh eyes (rather than the year long jaded ones I currently possess)  So leaving Peter May on the shelf (even at 20p) I tried another tack.

I clicked on Kindle store and ignored all the myriad of ebooks in the centre of the page (which surely WOULD be the starting place for the new purchaser) and on the left clicked on around the store/kindle bestsellers. It took me some time to find this when I was a ‘newbie’ a year ago and even now I can’t always find the FREE listings without going to a book I KNOW is up for free and then clicking on its product description placing.  Anyway, this left hand side click is what took me to Life of Pi for 20p as #1 bestseller in Kindle store.  There is NO list of free kindle books beside it. I wouldn’t know there WAS a list of free Kindle books unless I KNEW of this already! It’s not that easy to find. If you happened to chance upon the #1 free Kindle ebook you’d get the list, but how would I do that? And would I bother when I can see all sorts of things for 20p in front of my beedy greedy eyes?

Instead, faced with a list of 100 books I could lose the will to live surfing down that lot and get enough to keep me stocked for a while without ever thinking of finding ‘FREE’.

I bought 3 out of the first 5 (yes, 2 of them I couldn’t be arsed with even for 20p) and then as I scrolled down and the prices started going up, I just jumped ship.  I know that when one first gets an ereader one thinks that filling it up with books is the best game in the world, but there’s still a bit of me as a reader that says,  why download something you will probably never read.  One wrong click and I found myself out of the store anyway.  Needing to find a way back in.

At this point I question: as a new ereader consumer, wouldn’t I just abandon this? I’ve had enough turkey now haven’t I? Surely easier to sit down and READ the ones I’ve just bought and come back again in a few days or weeks to get to grips with it all.  So the ‘indies’ didn’t get a look in on this trip.

This Christmas there were lots of mainstream bargains to be had and I’m not sure indies would have got a look in with the general public. But do they ever? Do Indies not really just keep plugging their work to the same group/s of people and will they thus not suffer a sort of diminishing return? That’s certainly been the result of my research over the last year.  But I’ve decided to have a regular slot looking at the ‘game’ of digital publishing and see what it can teach us all about the brave new world of digital publishing.  Join me here. And feel free to add comments to my observations. They are my personal observations and I’m really happy to hear other views!

Of course one thing I haven’t taken into account is that I don’t actually HAVE a kindle and so I don’t wirelessly connect direct from my device like you are supposed to. I do it on my pc.  Maybe it’s all different if you are doing it direct from your Kindle. But I suspect that if you do that you are even more prey to being ‘sold to’ the things that Amazon want you to buy. And as we all know, their algorithms are legendary (and scary for those of us with conspiracy theory syndrome) and very very deviously clever.

BrandLoyaltyOne thing they WON’T be plugging you is my ebook Brand Loyalty which is a near future look at the sort of world we’ll inhabit if we allow this to go too far. If you want to find out about the fictional Ultimate® corporation (I promise it is fiction, but with each year it becomes a little less so).




Download it as KindleAMAZON or Kobo kobo(or indeed buy a good old fashioned paperback copy)


It’ll set you back £2.95 though. But then, if you balance it out with all those BIG boys you got for 20p, you’ll still get change from a fiver won’t you?  And it might just change the way you look at our interactions with the cyberworld!

I’d like to point out that at one point last year Brand Loyalty sat up there at #1 FREE Kindle book in UK and #6 in US.  It gave me a sense of satisfaction. Which was just as well because it sank back to invisibility pretty soon after I asked people to pay for it!   The moral is folks, if you want a wide choice of fiction, sometimes you have to pay. I suggest you get the free stuff from the big boys who make profits hand over fist and pay the small guys who are more or less paying you to read it anyway!  But that’s just my warped view of fairness in the publishing world.


RIP Emily Bronte

It’s a little/well known fact (depending on if you know it or not) that Emily Bronte died 164 years ago today.  It’s also a well/little known fact that she wrote a lot of great poetry as well as her one novel Wuthering Heights. I used the poetry and juvenile prose of all the Bronte’s in my play WE WOVE A WEB IN CHILDHOOD which was performed 20 years ago.

Here is a clip of the opening prologue scene. The video quality is POOR, the lines not word perfect (it was a dress rehearsal) but it gives you a flavour. You’ll have to wait till August next year for the whole play to come online and be republished in ebook format – it will be ready by the time of the 2nd Edinburgh eBook Festival!  Something to look forward to eh?

And as an extra – because it’s a day to remember, I’ve taken the liberty of copying one of Emily’s poems below:

Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
Thy noble heart forever, ever more?

Cold in the earth—and fifteen wild Decembers,
From those brown hills, have melted into spring:
Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!

Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee,
While the world’s tide is bearing me along;
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!

No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.

But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.

Then did I check the tears of useless passion—
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?


It has come to my attention that the world is going to end on 21st of December this year (again!) Now generally I’m pretty risk averse, but I’m betting that it doesn’t happen and so am laying my plans for next year out already.

I decided to pick 12.12.12 as a suitable date to get my head round the changes I need to make and while now’s not the time to make ‘announcements’  I am constantly happy that unlike traditional publishers my engagement with publishing is not that of a supertanker and directions can be changed with relative ease. I am in a process of streamlining and ‘chucking out’ the old and bringing in the new.  Reduce, reuse, recycle is the message and not just for waste, for life priorities and work in general.

The big change coming up for me is that I’m setting THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY on the back burner for a while.  I have 100,000 words of a second draft but it’s lacking something – as yet I don’t know what – and so I need to think about it for a bit longer.  That sets the whole Trilogy back a bit. But means that I’m going to put out Another World is Possible (back in the original episodic version) as an ebook and reprinted as a paperback.  Assuming the world doesn’t end.

Recently I’ve watched loads of programmes in the Why Poverty? series and last night endured a ‘documentary’ on Cuba with Simon Reeve who kept telling us that the Cuban economy was in meltdown and had been badly managed – unlike the economies of the West then? – but paid scant regard to the fact that the biggest problem for the Cuban economy has been the iniquitous US embargo. History was reinvented as he showed us a ‘closed Sugar factory’ but failed to explain that the reason it was closed was ultimately because Cuba was effectively prevented from exporting Sugar (it’s main export) by the West and THEN had to turn to the Soviets and THEN when the Soviet Union collapsed… yes, guess  what.  Reeves timeline was somewhat less obvious!   It is this kind of misinformation regarding the Cuban economic system that lies behind the story of The One That Got Away but my big personal struggle is finding a way to render this story into accessible fictional form.  I’m not trying to write propaganda, I’m interested in looking at the comparison between cultures which are driven by material and moral incentives.  Coming up to Christmas in the consumerism centre of the world is not the time to do this with a calm mind.

And thus, it’s put to the back of the queue behind several other novels that are vying for place to be published.  So I can’t tell you exactly WHAT or WHEN I’ll be publishing my next novel in 2013 but I will be publishing something. I shall just leave you in suspense. Although of course if the world does end in 9 days time we won’t even be bothered about it will we?  I look forward to seeing you the other side of the apocalypse!

For those of you getting used to reading plays on your ebook, I can announce that in March I’ll be publishing another 4 titles and the last of my Anniversary Plays series will come out in August.  After that it’s novels all the way.

A few Home Truths!

Today I’m blogging on the Authors Electric site about KEEPING IT CLEAN in Word.  ePublishing is like anything else, getting into it can be a steep learning curve and a lot of people seem to enter the fray without really working out what it’s all about and how to go about it.  They learn by bitter experience.

But here on my own site I’m freer to say things that are my personal opinion without fear of implicating others in my views. So this is the place for that opinion – and with the opinion I’ll try to give a few helpful tips and guiders to make the journey of epublishing easier for all.  But I don’t expect or require people to agree with my opinion. I’m offering you my personal experience and FOOD FOR THOUGHT. Take it or leave it.  Here goes:

My main advice is to make sure you do your research into ebook publishing in  advance. Yes it can be easy as pie to stick a word doc (though not for everyone) up on Amazon or Kobo or wherever and then wonder why you aren’t selling. But there is so much more to it than that. As an indie writer (who becomes an indie publisher when you PUBLISH) you need to understand that while you may just be ‘playing around’ or ‘having a go’ or ‘fulfilling a lifetime dream’ or whatever, once you engage you are part of an industry, subject to the marketplace and all sorts of things that normally you wouldn’t consider.  It’s a deep, deep well and you need to know where you are swimming. And how and why.

There are loads of other things to consider when you’re starting out. If you don’t have professional experience (and sometimes if you do) in publishing or broadcasting, you need to wake up and learn a lot about the business before you commit yourself to things. Or you will inevitably be confused and disappointed.

Here are some of the things I come across time and time again which make me smile/wince/despairing of humankind!

Amazon Kindle (Direct and Select)  – read the small print. The contract you enter into with Amazon is IMPORTANT and you do need to get your head round it.  If you put your ebook on Select for 3 months you are tied NOT TO SELL IT OR GIVE IT AWAY ANYWHERE ELSE.  With Direct there are price matching issues. Like it or not Amazon IS the main outlet for ebooks in the UK at the moment and if you piss them off – beware!

Kobo –  remember Kobo is NOT Amazon – at the moment anyway. They do not and may not want to have the same sort of system as Amazon (which does favour indie authors). They are selling books. They do NOT HAVE to make it easy for the indie to get their book noticed. We do not have a RIGHT for them to do this. You engage with THEIR system.  On their terms.

And yes, for me there’s a much better system which would be a sort of compilation of Amazon and Kobo but it’s one that suits ME as an Indie and I’m not expecting them to adopt it any time soon. I appreciate (as I fear many indie authors don’t) that I am neither a) at the centre of the universe for Amazon/Kobo (or indeed readers) or b) that important as a writer that the whole world should revolve round the way I want it done.  Publishing is a HUGE business. ONLINE SELLING is a HUGE business. Online selling of ebooks and books is a GARGANTUAN business. And we, my friends are plankton in the bottom of a very large ocean.  Get used to it.  I can think of many ways to make Kobo better for me. I don’t sell anything off there at the moment because I can’t achieve visibility. Now either they will sort this or I will move elsewhere. But I’m accepting of the fact that they are doing what they can to build THEIR business and I need to be patient to see whether its a business model that will help me in any way.

Smashwords – The meatgrinder. Well, if you don’t like the idea don’t use it. I choose not to at the moment. But that’s the way that business runs so there’s no point complaining about it is there? They do give comprehensive instructions on how to prepare for their system AND they do the conversion for free so IF you need someone else to do the conversion for you then that’s good – BUT at the end of the day remember they are a business and they need you to supply in the format which suits them. That’s the relationship. I hear too many people complaining that the COMPANIES don’t do things the way the INDIVIDUAL wants.  Yes, WE are Indies but THEY are businesses.  We are able to do business with them but we have to do it on their terms.  If we want to be Indie beyond that we have to find out OWN platforms and ways of doing it and – yes – that would be very difficult.

So really – you have to choose who you are going to play with and then PLAY NICE.  Remember, while you are a ‘customer’ in one sense you are also a business partner.  Jumping up and down with angry customer hat on is a bit lame isn’t it?  Learn the skills to work together as business equals might be a better option.

I’m not for a minute saying that Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords and the like don’t make mistakes but remember SO DO YOU! And WE (I’ll include myself in the mistake makers) have very few issues to deal with. They have millions.  We are NOT their only customer/business partner etc and as long as they treat you with respect (if you deserve it) and try to resolve the problem I’d suggest a more tolerant attitude to the business partnership!

Amazon Tax – again this needs careful consideration. It isn’t actually that hard to get the required TAX CODE which means you DON’T have to pay tax in America on American royalties (but you DO need to read the documentation carefully because, guess what, the IRS is not geared up to help every little individual case.) We may think of ourselves as unique individuals (and indeed we are) but when you enter the world of tax you ARE just a number and a case and no one can be bothered explaining to you what you need to do because you’ve misread the guidelines. I have heard so many horror stories of people not a) understanding what the US tax thing is  – read the Amazon contract! – b) not knowing how to go about it (there are 3 ways and you do need to read CAREFULLY and c) not filling out the form correctly (I didn’t fill the form out just so first time and it got kicked back. But it was MY fault. No point bitching to IRS when the mistake is yours. Just bite the bullet and DO IT RIGHT.  In simple terms you have to choose between an ITIN and an EIN (and YOU need to understand what these are) and then choose your way of dealing with them. Phone, in person at an embassy or through the post.  I have many issues with having to get a US tax number (mostly to do with Amazon avoiding tax in my own country) but I don’t have issues with the fact that if I DO have to engage with them I have to PLAY BY THEIR RULES, filling out the forms in a manner and style of their choosing. That’s the game. Play or don’t play.

POD. Another thing I’ve come across recently which has made me ‘smile’ wryly is the shock with which new POD’ers have discovered that when you are selling a physical book to a physical (or even online) bookstore they take 40%.  Yes folks, they do.  That’s standard publishing practice. That’s why ebooks are SO GOOD for us.  I do well remember the day in 2003 when I took my first ‘indie’ published book into the local bookstore to see if they would stock it and they hit me with the 40% discount. I turned around and walked out. It was my choice. I said I wouldn’t sell a book on those terms. No one else cared. It meant more work for me trying to sell through other outlets (on sale or return) and direct.  I didn’t like it and I didn’t PLAY but sadly, them’s the rules. And it priced me out of the market.  Does anyone else CARE about that? No of course they don’t. We should all remember there are MANY MANY books (e and real) out there in the market place and WE as individuals are NOTHING SPECIAL (except to ourselves and our close friends)  That is why so many of the ‘models’ for indie publishing are pushing the ‘true fans’ model.  But it’s a limited one.   If you only sell to your own close circle (however big it is) it’s limited. The world is VAST and selling to people YOU DON’T KNOW is the one way to get any decent returns on what you sell.  And if you want to do that -THEN you enter the world of professional publishing and you have to LEARN and PLAY BY the rules of the business world and marketplace you are in.

We are in a wild west land grab situation at the moment and everyone is trying new ways to reinvent publishing or to subvert it or find their own way to adapt it to suit them. That’s great. But just remember as indies we are NOTHING to the business world and if we want to have a voice and a place at the table (rather than just be the crumbs under it) we need to become professional and work together in a collaborative, co-operative way rather than bitch and whine about why it doesn’t work to our own personal advantage.  And do, at all times be aware that there are many many snake oil salesmen out there.  There are review sites and organisations and all kinds of ways to DO this and you would be well advised to work out what’s BEHIND the great claims that everyone makes. You need to have a business head on to engage with this. The creative head is for the writing.  The business head is for the publishing.  At least if you want to be a professional in any sense.  And is not all the rest vanity?

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