My Ha'porth on ebooks

Well, sooner or later I was going to have to cave in and write something.

As one or two of you might know, there was a panel at last weekend's Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate under the title Wanted for Murder: The E-Book. It was ably chaired by Mark Lawson, and featured as panellists writers Steve Mosby and Stephen Leather, Bookseller Patrick Neale, agent Philip Patterson and publisher and Vice President of The Publisher's Association Ursula McKenzie. I got in early and sat right at the front, so missed most of the dissenting murmurs which seemed to be coming from the back of the hall. I certainly missed the infamous 'tosser' remark. From where I was sitting, the audience weren't particularly hostile to any of the points made, even Mr Leather's deliberately controversial ones.

As far as I can tell, the subsequent debate has centred on three main points: predatory pricing; the use of fans/crowdsourcing for editorial work; and dubious marketing techniques. I am guilty, to a certain extent, of the first two. My marketing is dubious only in as much as it doesn't really exist.

Brian Lindenmuth posted an interesting little piece yesterday about cheap books. They're here already, have always been here. In libraries, charity shops, jumble sales and the like. I'll happily pay full price, in a bookshop, for the latest Terry Pratchett hardback. I'd have picked up Steve Mosby's Dark Room at Harrogate, if they'd had it in anything other than the hateful over-sized "mass market" paperback edition (but that's a rant for another day). I did buy Chris Ewan's Safe House, and then couldn't find him to get it signed. Still, there's always next year. I like hardback books, particularly when they are well made and nicely designed. But even with sales of The Book of Souls bumbling along nicely, I can't afford to cater for all my reading needs that way. And I'm a slow reader.

Those voracious consumers of books (I've had emails from people claiming to have read all four of my self-published ebooks in a weekend), and those who haven't got a lot of cash to spare, need reading material at a reasonable price. They can go to libraries, scour the charity shops, pick up stuff from jumble sales, and now trawl the free charts on kindle and nook. Does this devalue mainstream authors? I don't think so. The sort of person who complains about a book being too expensive was never going to buy it in the first place. The sort of person who habitually downloads free books is not a lost sale. More a work in progress.

That's not to say that readers shouldn't be reminded of how much work goes into producing a book. I just don't think it's particularly helpful to moan about it when someone else is prepared to work for less. Nobody owes us a living; we have to earn readers through the quality of our writing.

Quality is, of course, the key. It's not enough to write the best book in the world to have readers throwing themselves at you, but if your prose is muddled and you don't even know how to spell grammar, then you're stacking the deck against yourself from the off. Poor (or non-existent) cover design and bad formatting scream of amateurism in a world where first impressions really do count. Someone should probably have told the major publishing houses this before they rushed out a lot of their early ebooks. Or indeed some of their more recent efforts. That's yet another rant for another time, though. It doesn't really matter that some big name authors are let down by their publishers' ebook attempts, us self-published authors have to work twice as hard to make sure what we offer to the public is as error-free as possible.

But - and there's always a but - professional editing is expensive, proof-reading even more so. To get a 100k word novel line-edited and proofed could cost anywhere upwards of £5000 if you want to make sure the job has been done properly. I don't, as yet, have that kind of money to spare. I do have a small army of literate friends prepared to read my manuscript, make comments and note any typos (although not, obviously, my inability to spell 'lead'). I'm well aware that this isn't as good as the best a top publishing house can do, but it's also a lot better than the worst, if some of the stories I've heard from really quite well known authors are anything to go by. Stephen Leather might have been unwise to denigrate his editors so publicly, but he's not the only one who gets a very hands-off approach. I suspect that figure of £5000 is a large part of the reason why.

Despite the best attentions of my friends, all of my self-published books have gone out with typos in them. I have made it clear to my readers here on this blog and elsewhere that if they find a typo or other error in one of my books and let me know, I will give them a free copy of the next one in the series, or something from a different series if that interests them. This isn't my only form of editing, it isn't even my third pass of editing, but it's a perfectly valid way to proceed, I think. Especially given how easy it is to upload new, corrected versions of ebooks. Without wishing to leap to Mr Leather's defence - I don't know the bloke and have never read any of his books, after all - I suspect that he doesn't use his readers as his first pass editors either; it just came across that way.

Which was much the same as his comment about pirates doing his marketing. As a sound bite, it was quite neat, though rather glib. I understood what he meant, but others at the event seemed to be determined to take it the wrong way. Put like that, it does almost sound as if he welcomes pirates with open arms. And in the rapid flow of the discussion on the panel, the point didn't really get the examination it deserved.

Piracy is, of course, illegal. It's wrong. Bad. Stealing. Etc., etc., But it's here, it exists and it's not going to go away. DRM isn't the answer - that's like punishing the whole class for something only one pupil has done wrong - the surest measure of a really crap teacher. All my books are DRM-free, and surprise, surprise, there's torrents for them (even the free ones). It's possible that some of the few thousand people who've stolen one of my books might buy another, but very unlikely. What is likely is that some of the people who stole my book did so because they weren't able to buy it; not because it was too expensive for them, but because it was simply unavailable legally in their territory. That there are still publishing territories, even for ebooks, shows just how far the industry still has to go. Publishers need to understand that the only way to minimise the damage of piracy is to make books available everywhere at the same time. That's how the internet works, after all. Every barrier you put in the way of a sale increases the likelihood of theft.

A quick aside on the whole DRM thing. Ursula McKenzie, who I would assume must be a smart cookie to be in the position she is, seemed terrified of the idea of books without DRM. One particular point she made stuck with me, concerning the lending of ebooks by libraries. She seemed to think that this would kill sales stone dead - why pay for a book when you can borrow it electronically? You don't even need to go to the library, just log in. And no waiting for someone else to return it - there's endless electronic copies to be had. Everyone in the world can have one.

Except that only an idiot would set up a lending system that way. The electronic format makes it simple for a library to be allocated a set number of copies of any book, for each one to be available to lend for set periods - two weeks perhaps. If all the copies allocated are 'out' then you'll have to wait - just like with paper books. Yes such a system can be circumvented - just like DRM can be circumvented. But to do so is to commit a crime and face the (admittedly not very onerous) consequences of that. Most people won't, and if you catch someone systematically cheating then you have recourse to the (existing) law.

What the publishing industry should be doing, instead of faffing about with DRM and making life difficult for honest readers, is using their collective resources to come down hard on the distributors of illegal copies whilst educating the general population as to the benefits of actually paying for stuff. Unfortunately that's not as sexy and proactive as DRM, so it probably won't happen.

And finally we come to the other aspect of marketing; the one that has caused the most heated debate post-panel: sockpuppetry. Apparently Mr Leather creates fake online Amazon and forum accounts so that he can have conversations with himself and create a buzz about his books. I'm mostly disappointed that the twitter handle @sockpuppet has already been taken but appears to be defunct, as I wanted to set it up and have arguments with myself. Seriously though, the practice of sockpuppetting is troubling in two ways. First it is just basically wrong - it's cheating the system and by doing so devaluing it. We use the Amazon review system to judge a book, even as we know it to be not the perfect thing it should be. Anything that devalues that hurts us all. But we know the Amazon review system is flawed, and that's my second point: why are we surprised and horrified that this goes on? 

I can put my hand up and confess to some minor sockpuppetry (and I'll stop using that word now). When Natural Causes first came out, I persuaded the Horse Doctor to write a review under the name Tegid. I asked my beta readers, Keir and Heather (Betty) if they would write reviews, which they subsequently did. I didn't tell them what to write, and Keir (bless him) only gave me four stars. All the other reviews for that book, and all the reviews for my other books, have been genuine readers, completely unprompted by me. But my first instinct, when faced with the thought of my book disappearing into the faceless maw of Amazon, was to game the system. Everyone does it to a certain extent - asks a parent or loved one to say a few kind words; sends a copy to someone they know will be sympathetic. Mr Leather takes this to a staggering level, and was really very stupid indeed to admit to it in, of all places, a room full of people who love books, but were the muttering hundreds really so naive as to think this never happened before?

Surely you read a single Amazon review with the full understanding that it might be utter bunk. It's a self-selecting survey, after all. Only when you've got a reasonable volume of largely corresponding reviews should you begin to trust the general message emerging. If fifty or a hundred people give a book five stars and all rave about the excellent plotting or the tight dialogue or the neat way the author melds the supernatural into a standard police procedural, then you can begin to suspect there might be something in it. And if the book only has one or two reviews, then download a sample and decide for yourself, or try to judge it by the quality of the blurb. No sample available? Move on to the next book; there's plenty more out there.

So much has been written on the subject in the week since the panel that the it gets difficult to keep track of who said what. I think however that it was Steve Mosby (insightful as ever) who summed it up most neatly. The Stephen Leather approach, which is also the approach of another self-publicist whose name I won't mention here, is the approach of a money-maker out to exploit the new system for maximum profit. There didn't seem to be much love of writing; that's just the product. The true excitement seemed to be in the selling.

My own approach would appear to be the polar opposite. I hate the selling, and my marketing plan is probably as simple as you can get. But I've tried to write the best book I can, and I've used my meagre resources to make it as professional a product as possible. Beyond that it has to sell itself. I'm too busy writing to worry about all that stuff.


ZoĆ« Sharp said…
Wonderful, James. A very reasoned and reasonable account of the panel, that ties in remarkably well with my own recollection of the event. I didn't hear the "Tosser" comment, either, and I was sitting much further back than you.

Excellent stuff!
Chris said…
Ah, James, I'm sorry we missed each other. Thanks for buying Safe House. Would have been a pleasure to sign it for you
pulphack said…
Pretty much agree with everything you said here, sir. The problem with writers who are as commercially oriented as Mr Leather are that they risk the commerce overtaking the love of the job in the first place. I can see the sense in going hell for Leather on marketing your work in such a crowded forum, but I'm crap and lazy at it, and also a bit worried it might not be fun any more if I have to do so much marketing and not enough writing. But having said that, there are ways and there are ways...
Anonymous said…
I'm late to this discussion but I have to say well said. I'm an avid reader and own a Kindle and yes I trawl the free books. Having read Natural causes I purchased Book of souls. I then downloaded Dreamwalker for free and followed that with purchasing The rose Cord and The golden cage. I'll be the first in the queue for the next novels to both the series.

ebooks are here to stay and as long as the pricing is reasonable I'll pay for books from authors who write well and tell good stories. Making the first novel in a series free seams a reasonable marketing ploy to me and good authors should never be afraid of doing this as they will sell later books.

Al a recent fan

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