My year in ebooks by Cally Phillips

And what a year it’s been.  Just over a year ago I came to engage with ebooks and I have to confess my interest was as a writer rather than a reader. I have to admit I still don’t actually enjoy reading on a 7 inch screen, I’d much rather have a paperback in hand. I don’t have a real need for an ereader because I don’t travel much beyond my upstairs office and my downstairs couch or outside to the swing seat (in the couple of days when the gales aren’t blowing and the rain isn’t raining) and a paperback is perfectly sufficient for these needs. And I’ve had nearly 50 years curled up with paperbacks. What’s not to love?  But as a writer I could see the value of epublishing. And so ebooks became a daily part of my life.  Formatting, distributing, promoting and last but not least READING. I have read well over 100 ebooks this year.  (And probably around 100 paperback/library books too.) I have a good 500 on my Kobo.

Which leads me to reflect. Many of us writers are too busy being writers and don’t spend enough time being readers.  I set up IEBR with the express intent of developing both a system of quality peer reviewing for books you wouldn’t find otherwise and the hope that this would engender a sense of reciprocity amongst writers and readers of digital fare. That we could escape the tyranny of the 5 star system and start ‘sharing’ writing we’ve enjoyed and thus develop our own ‘market’, based less on money and more on free choice and collaborative exploration.  It hasn’t been wholly successful in that respect. Engagement with the site seems to be firmly on the side of the writer whose goal is: ‘let me submit, get my good review and bugger off and live my life’. It doesn’t seem to have engendered an understanding from many of those whose work has been reviewed that they might feel some responsibility (and even desire) to  regularly engage with the site; buying, reading and themselves reviewing (not on IEBR but anywhere) ‘indie’ work.  In that respect it’s been a tough row to hoe. And, in that respect, not totally satisfying.  Helping writers is often a very depressing task with little sense of reciprocity most of the time.  I’m afraid the ego is firmly established within the psyche of most writers. Most writers (be they mainstream or indie) seem to think that it’s all about them and their own work. And until and unless that changes then the whole ‘indie’ market will suffer.  Too many people see the ‘indie’ route as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself (in my opinion.) A rites of passage before they a) become millionaires or b) get a publishing deal and become famous (and millionaires). And so they submit their work anywhere and everywhere to get themselves noticed and to help them on their way. We are an ‘opportunity’ for them rather than a community of interest.

At IEBR we drown in submissions. Good, bad and indifferent. And over 50% of them seem to totally ignore what we are looking for and what our stated aims are.  All of which sucks up our time. And irony of ironies, prevents us both from writing ourselves and from ‘marketing’ our own work or indeed the ‘community’. It seems writers are more interested in throwing their precious mud at a wall, any wall, and if ours is available ours will do; rather than engaging with the process as a reader (and dare I say purchaser) of indie work.  But it’s not the time for a lecture. This is the mellow time of year yes? Or a time for new year resolutions. For doing away with the old and bringing in the new.

Well, for me the real value of ebooks this year has been as a reader, not as a writer. Yes as a writer it’s given me freedom to publish and be damned (or not). To get my work ‘out there’ and then struggle to get it visible amidst the ocean of other work. That can take up all your time. And that’s not a good thing.  But for me time is valuable and so I tend to put the work out there and rely on the ‘kindness of strangers’ to help with the promotion. It’s a business model like no other and I won’t say it’s been hugely successful this year. Perhaps that’s because it wasn’t meant to be about ‘business’ but about community. But a community needs to nurture its members and pull together to survive and thrive. Having something ‘go viral’ requires commitment and active engagement from a lot of people on an ongoing basis. Getting visible in publishing requires this too. And site stats (and personal sales) suggest that IEBR is no more visible now than it was twelve months ago. It’s being kept afloat by a few, a dedicated few, working very hard.  For what?

On the up side, as a reader I have got so much from ebooks this year that I don’t regret setting up IEBR at all. It’s been a hell of a ride and I’ve learned a lot from it. And I hope I’ve contributed a lot as well.  Is it better to give than receive? Often. But a symbiotic relationship between the two is what’s needed for a community to flourish.

Looking back over a year of reading ‘indie’ ebooks (because believe me I’m NOT paying over inflated prices to read mainstream work in digital format!) I have learned so much – and had a lot of enjoyment along the way. Previously my interest in contemporary fiction was limited to what I’d term ‘literary’ fiction but I generally found this quite disappointing.  This year has taught me why.  Without wanting to go too closely into socio-economics and the like I’ve realised that the ‘mainstream’ fodder is always going to displease me because those writers are not writing ‘for me.’ I do not recognise myself and my life experience in their work. It all comes from a different place and it’s a place I do not aspire to belong.  Reading indie ebooks has a) taken me out of my comfort zone and b) refined my understanding of what writing can be and how it can connect with a reader ‘like me’ (ie a non standard consumer.) This is really powerful. Finally I have been able to hunt down and read contemporary fiction by people who write something I want to read, who question and challenge and engage with the world outside that rarified atmosphere which is inhabited by the mainstream ‘poodles’ (sorry don’t mean to be insulting it just looked like a funny line!) It’s our world too is the message I want to get across.

The ebook revolution is allowing everyone the chance to publish. On balance that’s a really good thing. It’s a huge world out there and everyone can be catered for.  Once we get beyond the oldstyle hype that only work which has been given the seal of approval by a publishing company (and perhaps edited to within an inch of its life into a homogenised literary version of McDonalds) we can start finding what WE like to read, each of us as individuals and stop feeling that somehow we are falling short of a perfect Platonic form of literature appreciation.  It’s our world too!  Okay, loads of people might like to read erotic fiction. I don’t. Loads of people might like to read thrillers, horror, crime, romance genre fiction. I don’t. That’s just my personal choice not a critical judgement on other people! It’s a big wide world and there’s room for all of us and all our preferences. At IEBR we’ve tried to share our interests and enthusiasms with a wider world.

More surprisingly, what I’ve discovered this year is that there are also a fair number of people something like me, (as writers and readers) who want their fiction to do something quite different. To make them think, to challenge their perceptions, to form a personal bond between reader and writer and to be an organic part of their whole life. Who want to read writing that SPEAKS to them personally. We are like the designer label purchasers (but without the pretensions). We are those who appreciate artisan craftsmanship or that quirky, original, unique thing that no one else ‘gets.’ We are those who can look beyond ‘what you should read’ towards what ‘you can discover’. At least that’s what I think I’ve learned as an ebook reader over the past year.

And as a writer who reads (and there should be no other kind) I have a desire to share what I’ve found with other people. That’s one of the rationales behind IEBR. As a writer, writing reviews is a good way to share and spread the word. Writers are attuned to the construction of narrative and as such are perhaps best placed to comment on elements of fiction (and non fiction) which the ordinary reader only understands subliminally. For a reader ‘I like this,’ is good enough. For a writer ‘I like this because…’ is the correct response. And the ‘because’ should be followed by good reasons which are more about how the piece works rather than just ‘it’s great because I like it.’   Think Top Gear. They have more than their fair share of humour (stupid and childish as it is) but they do actually also review cars from a point of view which while on the surface might seem irrelevant to most of us – torque, handling and all that sort of thing – is interesting because they KNOW things about the functioning of cars. They can explain to you WHY a Ferrari isn’t an Aston Martin etc.  Well, in reviewing books, writers are doing the same thing (it seems to me).  It’s not that indie ebooks are Trabants and Booker Prize winners are Ferraris. It’s that the ‘marketplace’ tries to conceal that you can actually have a brilliant car that does all that a Ferrari does for an nth of the price. And our job is to say – look at this one. It’s got everything a Ferrari has AND it’s a uniquely creative work. And be able to explain why others might like it. Elucidating what its good points are. Illustrating what sets it aside from the crowd. Getting people interested because of your own enthusiasm.  Saying ‘it looks cool and it goes fast’ isn’t good enough.  That’s the 5 star system and that’s what IEBR was set up to avoid.

I guess my end of year message is ‘ask not what IEBR can do for you, ask what you can do for IEBR – and the writers showcased there.’  And the answer is really simple. Buy the work, read the work, review the work, tell people about the work and ‘pay it forward.’  It’s simple but it’s a message I’ve delivered several times over the past year and which has largely fallen on deaf ears. Folks, the use it or lose it motto applies. A few people have put a hell of a lot into the IEBR ‘adventure’ over the last year. I thank them wholeheartedly for their engagement.  A lot of people have used it quite selfishly and the consequence is that many more people don’t even know about the site or the books and writers reviewed. Which is a shame. IEBR continues to punch well below its weight.  Because of a lack of reciprocity. Without that reciprocity IEBR joins the ‘throwing mud at a wall’ model which I’m not a great fan of.  The lifespan of IEBR is limited and its role in the ebook revolution is transient. No point crying in your beer after the event.

I think over the last year IEBR has proven that there is a huge amount of really great indie work out there for us to discover, read and enjoy. That the devil (mainstream publisher) doesn’t have all the good tunes (books).  What it hasn’t done is find a way to spread the word very effectively. Certainly what it has become is too much of a drain on my own time. I can’t put in the time to promote the site on top of administering the site and selecting, reading and reviewing books.  I know that without the reciprocity of site users I need to spend at least 3 full days a week on IEBR to keep it swimming never mind flying and I don’t have that much time to give away for free indefinitely.

At this time of year I generally refocus myself and plan ahead. I look at what’s worked and what hasn’t. At how I can best use my time and skills going forward. And at the end of this year I realise that in refocusing myself on writing and publishing, the experiment of IEBR will have to be sacrificed. I know it’s a valuable ‘tool’ for others but I’ve given it my all and the reciprocity equation just hasn’t worked out.  A few people putting in a lot and a lot of people taking out a lot isn’t a sustainable model.  We can’t move IEBR to a new level without my putting in even more of my time and I’m afraid I don’t have that time. I had hoped to set up a community not a charity! So I have to tell you that IEBR will finish in its current format on the 21st February 2013, which is the anniversary of its inception. We’ll have about 150 reviews up there by then. And that’s plenty to show the world that there’s really a lot of good indie ebooks out there to be read. You just have to put in some effort to find them. We’ve given you the outline of a map – but we can’t pay your airfare!

And on that bombshell, as Jeremy Clarkson would say – I leave you. I throw down the challenge for each of you to pick up the baton from IEBR and think about how you can work to make indie ebooks something that people know about and value and choose to read. And if you’re a writer that means Not just your own ebook. All ebooks. This is our chance to re-vision and indeed re-invent the world of publishing. For writers but mostly for READERS.  Let’s not waste it by being self-serving and inward looking. I hope I’ve shown you something of ‘a way’ forward through the year of IEBR and look forward to seeing how people embrace this and make it ‘their own way.’ The responsibility is on readers and most definitely on writers. We’re being given a chance to make a new world. Let’s make it a better one!

Happy Hogmanay and thanks to all who have made this a great year for indie reading and writing! 

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13 thoughts on “My year in ebooks by Cally Phillips

  1. Hi Cally. I have just read your adieu, adieu remember me blog and feel quite saddened. Many of your thoughts ring a familiar and very tired bell. Over the years at both First Base and the Artists Cafe we tried to set up different things which required some input and enthusiasm from others. Net result? You always – always – wind up doing everything yourself and getting more and more wound up at those who talk the talk and do naff all. Here’s my halfpenny’s worth. In terms of getting readers to maybe take a look at the world through different eyes I have been amazed at the effectiveness of blogs. Since I got stuck into it in the late summer, the page has had 21500 hits and loads of feedback from many different quarters. I am just starting out on the books side of things – 15 titles are now up in the Kindle store and there are now only 4 left to go. My first venture into the world of putting one in the free section and attempting to use Twitter/Blog to launch it goes live on Jan 7th. It might be interesting as the story is set half and half in D&G and Montana. Can I use Twitter to launch the book in the ‘Big Sky Country’? We’ll see. Promises to be interesting – all those small town papers and radio shows looking for content….. The thing is that the whole e book for sale world to me looks and feels very commercial. Getting a toehold is little different than a wannabe band frantically dishing out free CDs having played a free gig at a half full pub. I am not surprised to hear that writers have let you down in your vision. Most writers I have met have been something of a pain in the neck and make pro footballers look quiet, unassuming and modest! I am not surprised that they don’t see beyond their own dreams of daytime TV and invites to the right arty parties. I reckon your plan to do your own thing is the smart play. I have always found readers way more interesting the writers, particularly the unexpected ones. Though I have never earned a penny from my popularity within the Scottish prison system it has always pleased me! I have a mental image of the bog standard reader getting to know their Christmas present Kindle trawling through the Kindle store looking for something to buy for a quid or so or even better something free. Something new. Something from somewhere nearby but unvisited – the sink estate, the jail, the social, the Brew, a world vaguely hinted at on the news but never visited in person. For me I try and picture someone who listens to the Clash, nods when Owen Jones speaks on Question Time and has maybe watched ‘Edge of Darkness’ three times. Oh my, what I would give for an e mail list of those who have shelled out 50 quid for the full The Wire boxset! ‘Give me ten divisions of men like that and our troubles here would be over very quickly’ as the man once said. In a nut shell, to find a road to the interesting people – readers – you have to use old fashioned commercial tools. At least using the Twitter/blog road there is no need to dole out free CDs in a pub on a Wednesday night! Anyway, good luck with whatever road you choose and I hope we stay in touch. I will tweet you the results of my upcoming Montana campaign!
    All the best
    Mark

  2. I feel sad about this and hope that there will be some way for IEBR to continue after Feb 2013. I should miss the morning recommendations dropping though my email letter box

  3. You talk a lot of sense in this post, Cally, and I can see where you’re coming from, however I am saddened at the thought of the loss of IEBR, although realise how time consuming it must be, particularly when you’re not getting the input of those who clamour to get their books reviewed. All my best wishes for you for the future, we’ll miss you.

  4. oh cally, not good news for a happy hogmanay. i’ve asked you in the past if your energy is infinite, and now you’ve answered. (not the answer i wanted or expected, either). if i could do something concrete to help i would, but in the meantime, i’ll raise a toast to you tonight. thanks, you dear and generous person. and keep kicking.

  5. A thorough analysis of the situation with many home truths and insights that need to keep on being articulated (unfortunately). Of course you can’t keep on giving up so much time for so little return. Like the others, I’m sorry that you’ve had to make this decision but it’s unquestionably the correct one. Thanks for all the hard work in the past and I look forward to a continuing contact of some sort in the future.

  6. I’ll add my name to the long list of those sorry you’ve had to make this decision – especially for all the reasons you’ve outlined.
    I’ve recently been talking to a young book reviewer who has suffered extreme abuse (written) from a writer who didn’t appreciate the review – and actually threatened to go into print saying some really nasty things. I think this is completely outrageous – anyone who submits their book for comment should be prepared to take what they get – unless the review is gratuitously vile or the obvious work of a troll of course.
    I’ve written more on the subject in my own blog – and I hope it’s not bad blog etiquette to mention that.
    Good luck with your own writing Cally – may 2013 bring you opportunities galore, and thanks for all your hard work on this site. It has been greatly appreciated even though it may not always have felt like it!

  7. Very sad news. With regard to the apparent lack of reciprocity, I wonder whether it wasn’t really a question of that reciprocity taking a long time to manifest itself. I’ve followed the blog for a long time and discovered many gems that I probably wouldn’t otherwise have noticed as a result. Many others are on my ‘to read’ list. I fully intend to put reviews of all of them on Goodreads and Amazon in the future (though of course, like everyone, my time is a bit limited, and it may take a long while).
    I hope that the site will continue in some form after February. Perhaps volunteers could submit reviews on an ad hoc basis, as and when they read something they enjoy? Just an idea.

  8. Thanks folks for your comments and sorry for the disappointment. Let’s try and put a more positive note to this. It’s out with the old and in with the NEW. I’m pretty sure (well, I have a small good idea – not a GOOD IDEA – GOOD IDEAS cost me too much time!) that when IEBR turns its toes up in Feb there will be something to replace it – as good in the quality and ways it needs to be good – quality reviews of great books – but without the hard labour that goes with this version. Remember all good things ‘develop’ and once we mourned the passing of windows 3.0 As an intellectual Daoist I know that sometimes you have to let go of things before you can see the way to something better but I hope that by Feb 21st there will be a ‘new’, ‘improved’ review experience which will be just as good for the committed reader and not as hellish for the undervalued writers! So keep visiting the site while it’s here and expect a knock on the door from me any day soon saying ‘if I can show you a way…’ Ah that training in sales really wasn’t wasted now was it? As I’m sure Bill Kirton will translate for us ‘everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ and with lessons learned we are all wiser (and inevitably all older!) as we go into 2013. So. Have a great Hogmanay,and enjoy the feast of reviews we have in the next 6 or 7 weeks – there are some crackers – and then prepare for something if not completely different, well, completely NEW.
    Orra best folks. Till 2013.

  9. Shame, but completely understandable. I’ve been involved with (and run) many organisations and events over the years that have suffered from the same lack of enthusiasm, where those that “do” end up doing it all, and the rest sit by and applaud. Sadly applause doesn’t pay the bills or in my case give me back the precious time I’ve lost.

    I’ll continue to read, and review indie books and bang the indie drum where it’s deserved. But thanks for doing a fantastic job with such enthusiasm!

  10. I want to cry out, ‘Say it isn’t so.’ But it is and one can only wonder at yoiur amazing, even superhuman, efforts, Cally. IEBR has become my required daily reading and I regard it is an nonour to have reviewed for it and be revewed on it. A reviewing service MUST somehow be n\aintained: perhaps the post-February news may show the way.:Otherw se we must use the interim to organise ourselves afresh.

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