What price ebook fame?

We all like free yes? We all rush to download free ebooks and resist paying good money for something that’s ‘virtual’ – yes? And we all want to buy from Amazon. We all want a simple, quick, one click experience. Preferably for free. Okay. We’re all readers. Let me turn the tables slightly and suggest you look at it from another point of view. The perspective of the independent/self publishing writer.

The author John Logan has had a long and arduous journey towards publication. So what? Many of us share his experience, and his pain. But John has recently both written extensively about his journey and, had a meteoric rise to ebook ‘fame’. Including the all important ‘stats’ that go with sales, free giveaways and the aftermath.  It’s outlined here

One thing we can say about The Survival of Thomas Ford is that it is a good read. It’s more than a well written thriller but it will engage those who love thrillers as well as those who enjoy literary fiction. No mean feat. And that is one reason why it might sell. The other reason of course is that John has given it away for free and promoted it heavily.  But John has also written about the Survival of John Logan  (on this site and authors electric blog) John’s journey is a good paradigm for the trials, tribulations and general fickleness of the ‘industry’/marketplace’  He’s also a human being. Like you. He’s offering you a precious thing. The opportunity to have a one to one relationship – writer to reader DIRECT.  People. Not just producer/seller/consumer relationship. Something more profound. Something people have paid for since Caxton wasn’t a lad. Something that’s always had a number of values, extrinsic and intrinsic.

Alan Pearce recently ran a typically radical and subversive marketing campaign to promote THE GOOGLE QUESTIONS (a novel which is an example of a truly interactive and revolutionary ebook and would be worth buying even if you didn’t like the ‘story’ simply as an example of what an ebook can be/might become)  which got him into trouble from LBF.  Desperate times provoke desperate measures and I’m not going to tell you exactly what he did, (for fear of repercussions)  but it was VERY CLEVER and it REALLY PISSED OFF a lot of ‘corporate suits’. And all he was trying to do was promote his book. And using the ideas of his book as a way of promoting it. Some might have called it hacking but I call it genius! But at the end of the day, he has had to resort to free giveaways to get readers attention as well. This is a man with a long professional track record.

Alan’s current stats re ‘giveaway’ are not as impressive as John’s (but then I know that Alan was out to lunch – literally – during his free giveaway period) whereas John (I believe) was locked to his computer promoting hard.   John shifted 17,500 or so over 2 days and Alan has shifted around 300.  John hit number #1 slots in a number of Amazon categories and Alan hit about #25 in Action and Adventure.  Latest report from Alan at midday today is with about 500 downloads over both .com and UK, I am now back in the charts pretty much where I started.

John is still reaping the ‘benefits’ by selling steadily (with a few blips) while Alan is waiting to see whether he’ll get sales post giveaway period. There are many other examples of ‘stats’ from writers making a killing from their ebooks (or at least making a living) I’m not going to give you any that I cannot personally corroborate at this point. Reality and myth are already becoming mixed up. And the cynical among us wonder just how many ‘units’ (that’s books to us) you have to shift for free to rise up the charts. Those stats would be interesting.

The  salient point here though is that both John and Alan (and many others) are publishing good ebooks. That’s without question. It’s the next step where things get somewhat less clear. It’s over to the ‘reader’ (or consumer/purchaser).  Would you pay for them? Why not? Why pay when you can get it for free? Why go looking for a good read when there are loads of free offers that are on bestsellers lists?

You’ve got to remember there are a number of types of people publishing now. There are the mainstream publishers. These are the people for whom the London Book Fair is designed.  We don’t cry for them. They set what price they want and they do what they want and they are entitled to do so (I think you’ll find their ebooks are usually about the same price as their print books). Whatever they say about the death of the book/publishing etc, believe me, it WILL go on as a business/industry/money making enterprise on a large scale. Yes they will have to change their ways but the likes of John, Alan and myself are no real threat to them.

At the other end of the spectrum there are people who should never be let near a pen, a computer or a means of disseminating their tripe. They tend to give their work away for free, or sell it cheap. Sometimes they have an inflated sense of their worth though and they expect you to pay handsomely for it. You can get burned. But even if you waste your time downloading their stuff for free, somehow you’ve been duped haven’t you?

And there’s a third way. The true independents. Writers who are taking the means of production into their own hands. We’re talking about writers (individual human beings) who have track records; ex mid listers or bright young things or haggard ex professionals whose work is out of print and want people still to be able to access it.  It’s a disparate bunch of people. Real people. A bit like you. Quite a bit like me, some of them. Some of them hang out at Authors Electric blogsite in the UK. I’m sure there are plenty of other virtual ‘chapters’ like this around the world. You may never have heard of them. You may never come across them. They are good writers, doing it for themselves.  How do they fit into the pricing structure?  I suggest that at the moment this group is the ‘squeezed middle’ of publishing.

They face the intractable question which is also before us in this post : how do good writers a) get their work out there and b) capture the attention of the readers.  Without selling themselves cheap to do so?  (Ideas on a postcard please!) One of my many concerns about the whole thing is that in my years as a writer in residence I learned a valuable lesson time and again. That often the ‘good’ writers were the least self confident, whereas those who were ‘in your face’ and knew how to shout very loud to get attention, rarely had anything worth saying.  I’m not totally naïve. I do understand that writers in the modern world, and especially indie ebook writers, do have to engage in some way with promoting their work, but it worries me that writers and readers think that a) it’s okay (or necessary) to give away your work to get attention and b) that being on a bestseller list is a dead cert that a book is qualitatively good rather than just ‘popular’ in terms of ‘flavour of the month.’

In 2012 the market is saturated. That much is clear. It’s very difficult to pick the gems from the rubbish, BUT that doesn’t mean the gems aren’t out there. Just because anyone and his dog can upload and self publish on Amazon doesn’t mean a) the end of the world as we know it b) that print publishing it totally finished or c) that good ebooks don’t exist.

I’m not really interested in either the corporate mainstream product or the deluded wannabee ends of the spectrum. Yet this is where the debate seems to currently focus and flourish. We’re all being ripped off, we’re seeing the end of publishing, the lunatics have taken over the asylum, standards are dropping and everything will be rubbish in the future. You could spend all day responding to comments and blogs on this issue. All or none of these predictions may come to pass. I don’t care. Well, of course I care, I just don’t want to lose myself in the morass of debates which just waste my time and energy and stop me from writing. I’m more interested in trying to do something positive. To show that there are good writers and good ebooks out there, worthy of a readers attention and worthy of a readers cash.  If you don’t want publishing to go to hell in a handcart then don’t expect to get good quality writing for free. C’mon folks, wake up and smell the coffee. You really can’t eat your cake and have it (note that’s the correct semantic order for that cliche). You can influence the situation.  Do your research, yes. Make use of Amazon ‘look inside’. It’s like browsing in a bookshop and it’s there to help you make a choice. Don’t impulse buy just because it’s FREE.  Find out what books are out there that you will enjoy and PAY for them. And remember that there are other retailers apart from the big A.  Find out how the books have been produced. Who is getting the money? And factor that into your purchasing equation. Go to Project Guthenberg for free books yes. Get all the free you can get from those who are happy to and can afford to give it to you (once you’ve ascertained that it’s worth the time and effort to download) and spread the word about the good stuff. But don’t become part of a rip off culture. Take some responsibility for your purchasing and pay good work what it’s due.  I don’t know any good independent author at the moment who is charging anything near what the work they’re publishing is worth on the digital format. Or who is living like a king off the proceeds. They may be doing better than before but that’s as much an indictment on the ‘traditional’ industry as anything.

Remember that everyone takes money OFF a writer – Amazon, distributors, book publishers, but precious few people ever give money to a writer. Fine if they’re not worth it. Not fair if they are. If you want good ebooks to survive into the future you need not to kill off the source of the good writing

It would be foolish of me not to plug/promote my own work in this slot, now wouldn’t it? I only do so, because my novel Brand Loyalty explores a lot of the issues I’m writing about here (though they are turned into fiction to make the socio economics a bit more palatable!) It is priced somewhere around £3 (available Amazon and epub formats and they change prices at will) It makes me just under £2 a copy I think. I think it’s worth £3 of anyone’s money. I’m not forcing people to buy it. They can read reviews at http://www.hoampresst.co.uk and here, sample at Amazon and see more about it before they choose to buy.  It’s also available as a paperback. Due to some incredible stupidity on the part of my distributor (because I tried to go the ‘professional’ route and not simply direct publish on Amazon) if you can find it for sale as an epub today I’ll be amazed. More of this another time… I am now too angry to write about it more.

Generally though, I’m happy for the reader to decide whether they want to buy it or not, and in what format,  but without giving it away for free it seems unlikely ever to find readers. Should I give it away for free? Jury’s out. Principles are at stake here. Real people, real lives, real belief systems.  I leave it up to you to decide. It’s the readers choice after all. At present, in order to work through the issues for myself, I am also conducting an experiment. I’m giving away a book for free on Amazon. I too will dance briefly with the devil.  It’s a volume of short stories in Scots entitled Voices in ma Heid.  (Free for 48 hours from some time tomorrow)  I would expect it to be a lot less popular than Brand Loyalty (a smaller market for Scots writing and for short stories) but I’ll be interested to see which sells most in the next week – or if either sell any at all.  That’s the thing about the present for us indie ebook writers. We have to try experimenting and learn to love both technology and statistics without losing our souls in the process.  More about my work in general is available http://www.hoampresst.co.uk.

Cally Phillips (editor)


The purpose of this site is not to endlessly debate the above issues but to cut to the chase and SHOW you where you can find some good ebooks, some great writers and where you can make an informed choice about what you might want to read. We are tackling the problem head on, with a positive approach. The marketplace will evolve, things will be shaken up or settle down and no one knows what pricing structures will eventually be set. Here at IEBR we are just PEOPLE who want to READ good ebooks written by authors who know how to write good books (and convert them to ebook formats). It’s not about anyone getting rich (or necessarily famous) it’s about using the technology in a positive way to promote that which a virtual chapter of professional writers think are good books. Books we’ve enjoyed that we hope you may enjoy too. And to challenge you to start your own journey, going beyond Amazon rankings or likes, beyond hype and paid for marketing campaigns. We offer genuine reviews without fear or favour, of books we have liked, designed to let you know what the book is about and who else might enjoy it.  We’re not trying to take over the publishing world. We’re not trying to put anyone down or ruin anyone’s day, we’re just trying to do something positive to ‘be the change we want to see.’


I spent all day yesterday ‘virtually’ at the Digital Minds Conference which kicked off the London Book Festival  and here are some links I gleaned from there which might be of interest

Publishing talk live blog gave a 5 minute update on what was happening (easier to follow that twitter)

I also came across the Future Book site which probably bears more exploration

Looking on The Guardian online  it does seem that most of the ‘heat’ is about China  this year. I’m interested in China, and publishing, and human rights. I haven’t got the time to follow this debate myself right now. I do wonder whether there’s more apposite things that could be being debated locally (is China a good way to bury other news?)

But for more about China and ebooks (which has to be interesting) click here

Children’s books also were hotly debated at Digital Minds (we all know that there’s money in them there children!) Link here

And something I found about promoting your work. Looks good. Then one sees that audible is part of Amazon (hell, it’s getting so I’m wondering if even I’m part of Amazon – see Brand Loyalty for more thought in this line!)  But check it out.

Largely I seemed to be tweeting to an unlistening universe – story of my life – (I’m probably not tweeting in the right accent, or tone, or volume, or place) but something came of it in relation to FREE… I got a message from Neil Addison who has a sort of pay what you think it’s worth scheme going down.  You can sample his work (as you would on Amazon) before downloading and then pay what you think it’s worth. I will certainly investigate further.

There are lots of writers, with lots of personal beliefs, trying to work out how to get their GOOD writing directly to the reader. Dan Holloway  writes (and thinks) on ‘free’ a lot He has a blog up this very day on Authors Electric  and writes the kind of fiction he knows won’t ever get a massive audience, but I tell you, there’s plenty of folk who WILL like his work who may never hear of it. Review of one of them here. This is the eternal dilemma. How do we resolve it? It’s a question which involves us all, as writers and as readers. But mostly as individual human beings.  We are all independents in that respect aren’t we?


4 thoughts on “What price ebook fame?

  1. Damn good article. The problem with most people is laziness. It only takes a small bit of effort to locate the good stuff, pay a nominal fee and enjoy a very good story. Far too many people want to complain about what isn’t right, instead of discuss the good things. Then there are those who wish they had the idea first, or are afraid of the new kid on the block upsetting their domain. Yes, I’m looking at you, Big Six.

    Spend the time to find the gems, you will be amazed at what you will find and pass on to others.

    And for those always seeking the worst in life, stop being so negative. No one wants to hang out with you.

  2. Very thorough and fascinating examination of many of the issues (oh, and Neil Addison is A Good Thing – you should definitely explore further!). I will wait to see what others say before getting involved in any argumentations 🙂

  3. Hi Cally. From someone who’s about to take the self-publishing plunge (as A.B.Wells) this is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit. I think your take on it is just about where I stand too. I have no problem with people being able to read my work for free. I’m happy about it. It’s been posted on blogs and been part of free anthologies. Also in the name of ‘making my name’ I’ve done a lot of writing both fiction and non-fiction that I haven’t been paid for nor expected to be. Some of this is done within a reciprocity or bartering framework, and I am recompensed by help given to me in some other form. As a writer, I want to share what I write with others, that in itself is an intrinsic reward. However whether I do it traditionally or as an indie, once I create a product, not only doing the writing but putting in extra hours (so many hours! ) to make it a quality item that someone can take away with them then I think it’s okay to put a value on it. If I hand weaved a basket I would ask something for it. For me, it really comes from the other side. Knowing what i know about writing and what goes into it, I want to reward writers, particularly those of quality. I want to pay a decent price to them for what they’ve given me. I might download something for free if the author seems to want me to do this for altruistic reasons or if it helps their exposure but it doesn’t seem right, given what’s gone into it. There are so many angles. Like you I’m still figuring it out.

  4. I thought that this was a particularly compelling article and enjoyed it immensely. I am still very new to self-publishing and I found this very helpful.

    What I am quite familiar with however is that creative works from many different genres are susceptible to: ‘You enjoyed making it, why should you charge for it?’ type of thinking. I’m not sure if this is exclusive to creative industries as a whole, but at times it feels like it is so. I imagine that there is a far more complex nature behind my simple observation (likely you could draw certain sociological parallels), something that I am not qualified to comment on, so you can have this comment for free!

Comments are closed.