Thanks to Chris Wooding for bringing my attention to an excellent and carefully researched article by Lloyd Shepherd over at The Guardian, written in response to the endless doomsaying about the imminent demise of publishing, which pretty much reflects my own much less carefully researched feelings.
Namely that – despite the big trouble in the area of dedicated Brick and Mortar stores that have left Waterstones as pretty much the only big player in the UK and Barnes and Noble in a similar position in the US – there are still a lot more paper books being sold than you might think. That – despite understandable but in my humble opinion overstated fears of piracy – as e-readers become mainstream the legitimate e-book market continues to rapidly expand. That – despite the fact advances are trending downwards overall and it’s never been easy to make big bucks from writing – there’s still, and probably always will be, a good living to be made from good fiction – or even my fiction – and that edgy fantasy ain’t a bad place to be right at the moment, as it happens.
Business is probably going to get tougher. Margins will get tighter. Certainly in retail I suspect there will be blood and perhaps some serious redistribution in the medium term. But I think paper books will be with us as a significant part of the market for some time to come. And if publishers can learn the lessons of the music industry and see e-books as an opportunity rather than a threat (which many are well on the way to doing), sort out the pricing and the frustrating rights issues, offer products that make use of the unique advantages of e-readers rather than simply emulating the paper versions, and ensure that the majority of readers are willing to pay a fair price for their e-books, the future don’t look so bad to me.
Cheer up. It might never happen…
As a related addendum, I get a lot of emails these days from folks complaining that they want to give me money but can’t, since they live in Australia, or Dubai, or somewhere else that isn’t the UK or US and therefore are blocked from legitimately paying for and downloading an ebook of mine. Which seems insane to them. And kind of is. I feel your pain, believe me. I’d really much rather you were paying for that ebook as well, and I continue to agitate as strongly as possible for my books to be available in every language, format, size, scent and colour imaginable. However, the gears of publishing law grind with excruciating slowness, and ebook rights are still inextricably bound up with paper rights with publishers fiercely guarding territorial borders that should mean nothing to the frontier-less internet. So it may be a while before all this gets sorted to everyone’s satisfaction. I remain confident it will be. Until then, might I suggest you order a hardcover, and get it helicoptered out to you in the jungles of Borneo, or wherever it is you may be?
35 comments so far
I have yet to read an ebook but notice that a growing number of books are only being published as ebooks, presuambly first time authors whose work, no matter how good is not worth the risky investment of a print run. This is surely a good thing for new authors or self published authors.
Personally I like the feel of paper and having a hardback copy of a well designed and much loved book on my shelf. Your books are a good example of this as they have beautifully designed covers.
That said I can see the convenience of digital books. I actually suffer from muscle problems in my left hand from holding heavy hardbacks over many years, so am serioulsy considering investing in a kindle or similar, but am reluctant to buy both hard and digital copies. I wonder if publishers would consider selling their hardbacks with a digital copy, much as some movies and cd’s have?
Pete I personally hope that’s how it will eventually turn out. I could see it working with Amazon orders especially, but I doubt we’re going to see anything like that for ages.
Agreed. The answer to all this, in my opinion, is to sell hardcopies with e-book version included for slightly more. Just like they do with DVD/blu ray/ digital combo packs.
As devices become more ‘all in one’ and there are fewer disparate pieces of technology doing individual tasks I think the e-market will increase. The iPad is the closest thing we have thus far to a universal device and it is not nearly so versatile as Apple would have you believe with limited processing power, a burdensome network contract for optimal function and laughable storage. Other tablet style devices have yet to garner a great deal of public support which further limits them from having a hope of becoming a true ‘all in one’ device even if they had overcome the iPad’s failings and they have not. People don’t care to carry around a phone, a laptop, an e-reader, an MP3 device… so, we pick and choose which pieces we want. A few more years and the tech hurdles will be cleared, only then can we really start to get our e-market going at its true potential.
I personally despise E-Books. What can I say? I believe in the artistic value of the product. I’d still to this very day rather purchase an “overpriced CD” to support an artist I feel deserves their money for the sweat, blood, and tears they put into their work. My feelings apply equally to the areas of books, TV, movies, or any other medium. Downloading and piracy have cost the art industry big time in the recent decade.
Sad to say however, we live in a time period where the kids growing up in the ‘downloading era’ aren’t going to want to revert back to the old standards of things. It’s free to them, therefore they want it. That’s their overall mentality and they’re sticking to it. The music industry fell into a state of financial collapse because of it all. Books may be slightly more protected given the fact that many STILL prefer (thankfully enough) the feeling of holding a physical copy in their hands…but you never know. Things might soon change with the recent trends, economical failings of bookstores, downloading, etc.
Almost done with “Best Served Cold”. Made it to the “Faithful Carpi” portion of the novel. I read the end of that section three times. Damn stunning and heartfelt. All I have to say. Thanks Joe.
Jacob, I agree that piracy has cost the industries a lot of money, but over the last few years the number of people who have ignored the traditional route of a publisher/contract etc and creating a good following is incredible. These creative people could probably not have done this before the download age. There are many fascinating, talented, unusual performers, comediens, musicians,filmmakers,comic creators, videobloggers etc out there, many with large followings but probably not enough to be commercially viable.
The internet and downloading gives these people a creative forum. Lets hope authors also make themselves part of this.
Having owned a Kindle for a few months I’ve finally been able to take a look at the startling world of self-published e-books.
Of course, as with anything you have to wade through the mire to get to the best stuff, but there are legions of writers out there who are getting their stuff professionally edited and cover art made. And they’re SELLING.
In fact, the most famous case is a writer who goes by the name ‘John Locke’ who has sold well over a million e-books.
There will always be detractors who look down on these writers as not being ‘legitimate’, but some of them are selling twenty thousand copies of their novels, and pocketing most of that money instead of it going to a publisher.
It’s weird. When people make their own films or record and release their own music they’re applauded for their go-getting attitude. But it seems there is still a lot of snobbery in the literary community towards self-published writers.
If people are buying it then surely there can be nothing more legitimate than that.
I share your views, Mr. Abercrombie.
I’ve got a Kindle and use it for some books but not others. The screen is excellent, delivery almost instanteous and the price is often cheaper (as it ought to be) than a hard copy. But, I still buy physical books sometimes (usually if it’s history or from an author whose books I’ve already bought in physical form).
It’ll also enable good authors who might not otherwise get published to be able to self-publish, and whilst there will be wheat and chaff hopefully we’ll see some good self-published writers emerge [like me, in a few months, hopefully!]
For some reason my name wasn’t saved and a different one got used. Morris Dancer is me, not an evil imposter wearing my clothes and smoking my cigars.
I live in Australia and I say this to those people who complain about book pricing: boo hoo! It’s not that much effort to go into your local Kmart or Big W (or even Readings or Collins) and pick up a latest release for $20. Hell, you probably spent more on junk food snacks each week. Stop with the complaining.
A friend introduced me to the concept of “better than free.” The idea that where the price is reasonable enough most people will prefer to buy a legitimate copy over pirating a copy.
That jells with my experience with music, having purchased albums and songs off artists’ websites even though I could torrent the material for free. I was happy to do so because the albiums weren’t overpriced and I knew the majority of the money was going to the artist.
With such a purchase, I get the product, don’t have any concerns about legality, feel good about supporting the artist(s), and they got their cut of the dosh. The only people missing out are the high street retailers who have been ripping me off for years.
I love e-books. I live in New Zealand and have a Kindle. Between Amazon (for new books) and Project Gutenberg (for free classics), I feel spoiled for choice – and I can have a new book in seconds. Plus there are plenty of new websites springing up (like http://www.webscription.net) where e-books are available for legal purchase at reasonable prices. Magic.
I unashamedly worship at the Kindle altar. And like it or not, digital media is the future. Just as streaming is the future for music and film, so e-readers will become the dominant force in publishing and the written word.
I convinced a friend to acquire a Kindle, and said that I would pay for it if he disliked it. I saw him last week and he said that his most favourite thing was that he could rest it against something, pull his head to within 12 inches of the screen, and put both of his hands behind his head – creating his own little ‘book reading universe’.
And Joe, I have just finished listening to The Blade Itself on Audible read by Steven Pacey, he does a wonderful job of bringing your characters to life. I tend to read quickly, and was amazed at how much I had forgotten or hadn’t taken in in the first place. And I did laugh quite a lot.
The argument that one would buy a CD to pay the artist over digital downloads is simply wrong. The digitalization of music has allowed artists to create a more rewarding link between themselves and fans, and the ability to buy more directly from them strengthens that bond. Sites like bandcamp, that list a minimum price, allow fans to pay a bit more if they think it’s worth it.
Honestly, I much prefer e-books for reading. Maps and other images leave something lacking. But I would much rather read a page that is as easy to read on the top as it is the bottom, as easy on the left as it is the right. I don’t have to deal with printing errors or quirks, and, ideally, the book can be updated if any edits are still needed post-release (like the First Law Trilogy, which was double-spaced when I bought it, making scene changes difficult to pick up on).
The pricing still needs to be sorted out as people like myself want to buy legitimately, but feel that old pricing was unfair to consumers. $25 for a new book is ridiculous. A new book should be $10-15, and once a book is in paperback, it should be $5-7. I’m sure the author and/or publisher have a much more structured thouht process on this, but much like $60 games now compete with $0.99 iPod titles like Angry Birds, so too must books contend with cheaper artists who don’t have to prop up a publishing industry with inflated cost.
Consumers are here, and we want to pay. Publishers and artists just have to take that sacrifice to meet us in the middle.
And having a blog where you interact with your fans goes a long way. I know I bought The Heroes on Kindle on Day One. The price of $12.99 was reasonable for a brand-new book, and this Joe Abercrombie fellow is so nice and convivial on his blog; how could I refuse?
There has been a lot of comparison of books and ebooks to cd’s and downloads.For many books are like vinyl, we love the look and feel of them, they are a pleasure to have on the shelves. I personally love first editions, signed if possible, I don’t know why, the stories are the same whatever version you have,but for me they have to be firsts. I suspect I’m not alone in this.
We haven’t even mentioned audio books. I’ve loved all the unabridged versions of Joe Abercrombie’s books.
Joe, I live in U.S. and i bought all your hardcovers in english, but I prefer to read in russian, so I also bought russian print. I hope you get some commission of the russian version. They did a great job translating your books (so far only the first law trilogy). If you interested check out your section in this website. You are ranked second in favorite foreign author section.
The reason brick and mortar book retailers are going out of business is simply because their ambition overreached. Here in the U.S., I’d never seen a “little” Borders Books store – those things were HUGE. What must the leasing and upkeep on a place like that be like? Plus the multiple personnel required to serve it?
Everyone expected downloadable content would impact sales in the big box outlets, but even wehn so much pb and hc book sales were being lost to online retailers like Amazon, Borders was still building their colassal book emporiums. They took what I call “The BP Approach,” which is to say that when sales flagged, their only answer was to buy or build another store and hope presence saturation would bring more sales.
So people panicked – “Oh noes, the book industry is in big trouble!” without looking at what poor business was being done by Borders.
@Adam – Borders may have made mistakes, but I still think the larger picture is that so many avid readers like me have switched over to eBooks. I was once an unbeliever but bought a Kindle for a business trip and never looked back – the reading experience is better in every regard, and it’s reassuring to carry around the Conan omnibus complete Jack Vance everywhere you go.
The bookstores that will survive are places like the Poisoned Pen here in Phoenix that sell autographed copies, host author events, and develop loyal customers. I picked up my signed copy of A Dance with Dragons a while back, and the guy told me that their business is better than ever. (I did actually read ADWD on Kindle, though.)
Adam and Tim,
Yeah, the problems in dedicated book retail are as much, if not more, the result of the rise of Amazon and (at least in the UK) the muscling in of supermarkets with heavy discounts on vast orders of leading titles, as they are the growth in e-books. But e-books are only going to make matters worse. The future of brick and mortar bookselling may well be in more boutique-y, specialist stores the likes of Toppings and Forbidden Planet.
By all means I wholeheartedly agree in some respect. Downloading and being able to “check things out beforehand”. I’m a major fan of the metal scene. A good amount of the bands I listen to now would have never even heard the light of day or made it internationally outside their countries if it were not for the availability of downloading that this past decade has offered.
However, it’s the mentality of “screw the industry, the band doesn’t make any money” (not trying to turn this solely towards musicians and the such) that makes certain artists and bands STAY at certain levels as well. The sales of albums go towards the growth of the band itself in some respects. I can’t help but think of the vast multitude of artists that would have otherwise made it is their numbers and sales had properly shown it through corporate eyes. The things which “sell” and make the major dollar signs are those who are…not of the highest, artistic merit. People could have combatted this by buying and therefore truly supporting their favorite band. The same applies in my mind, though the conditions are arguably different in some manner, to all the types of mediums you just mentioned.
With all that’s been said about Borders closing, them not adjusting to business practices…all I have to say on an unrelated note is this: Borders had atmosphere and offered something above the average bookstore experience that people take for granted. The employees were always friendly, the prices were manageable, the arrangement made you happier to go and “search out” a good novel, marvel over the cover art, read the back description, etc, etc. Not to mention they had several live bands at a local one back in one of the hometowns I am from. It was a laid back jazzy atmosphere that will be heavily missed.
While technology may contain may blessings it also contains many evils as well. Evils which I don’t feel benefit the artistic community in the longrun and only serve the purposes of the technological industry. Which by all means, is in my opinion no longer serving public interest in such cases. It’s becoming an industry hellbent on packing every single commodity into a single device, then in the end claiming it’s better in the longrun for many. All it does in my eyes is make the widespread, various forms of differentiation irrelevant when it was not meant to be so.
I think there’s a common misconception, though, that e-books should mean an end to the publishing houses. No matter what the end medium, a book that has gone through the gears of publishing (editors, proofing, more editors, spare editors and proofers, folks that lob scimitars at the book to pick what the cover art will be, etc.) tend to be of a higher caliber than the self published e-book. Its not about paper vs. electrons, its about quality and vetting. Sure, crap makes it to market from the publishers (and we, the union of hopelessly aspiring writers, hope to be said crap someday), but you know that the medium isn’t what matters, its the material. Shoot, I read the entire First Law trilogy on a kindle. (hats off on that, btw). Should we ever hit the tipping point of sales leaning more towards ebooks than paper, I expect we’ll still have the publishing houses around.
I bought a Kindle last month and I have got to say, it’s pretty damn excellent. It’s lighter than most paperbacks, you can changed the size and style of the text, you can buy books instantly, and they’re cheaper. There’s not really anything negative to say, though I do find there’s something comfortable about seeing exactly how far through the books you are (percentages just aren’t the same) and when you say “I’ll stop at the end of the chapter” it’s nice to know exactly WHERE the end of the chapter is.
I generally think the people who pirate are the people who wouldn’t read/watch/listen to it otherwise, even if it was ridiculously cheap. The vast majority of people are happy paying for things, and we aren’t just going to stop because it’s digital. Add to that the fact they’ve made it as easy as possible to buy books on the Kindle. Too easy, in fact. I’ve accidentally bought books twice now! X)
The main problem I have with ebooks is the fact that it’s difficult to see what’s new and what’s good out there. When I walk into a book shop, I can see all the books at once. Not just the most popular or the latest or whatever, like on Amazon. I find it extremely difficult to find anything new to read on the Kindle, because I have to keep scrolling through pages and pages, and tiny, black and white, pixellated pictures really don’t sell books all that well.
At the end of the day, I’m still going to enjoy walking around a bookshop to look for books… even if I end up buying them on my Kindle… :S
Anyways, one question I have… don’t authors get paid the same for e-books as they do for paper books? I know they’re cheaper, but that’s just the printing costs, right? I don’t know much about how it works, but as long as the author gets a fair deal I’m happy.
Joe, I’d forgotten the days of paying full cover price for hardbacks before Amazon came along. And now people whine about paying more than $10 for an eBook.
Count, It is tricky buying books directly from the Kindle (in fact, I never do), but I find more serendipity on the Amazon website than in most bookstores (The Poisoned Pen excepted). I do feel a little guilty when visiting The Poised Pen because the books I find I usually get on Kindle. But I do buy one or two signed books each time I go, so I hope that’s a fair enough trade for them.
Occasionally you hear, usually in defence of piracy, arguments that the digital revolution will somehow lead to a free-love era in which the writer and reader will be directly connected in a symbiotic mutual love-in from which both benefit, while the evil publisher is righteously consigned to the flames of mount doom. This is bollocks. For one thing, as has been said, the publisher serves a vital function as gatekeeper, and that’s going to be more true than ever if you’re scratching your head and staring at a sea of unvetted unedited self-published e-titles. You might think a lot of crap gets published (like mine), but, believe me, look at a slush pile and you will swiftly be redefining your definition of crap. Cream still rises to the top through word of mouth, and there are self-published success stories, but word of mouth gets a big old leg up from professional publicity, marketing, sales and artwork, believe me, and it’s noticeable that a lot of those self-published successes use it as a gateway to traditional publishing if they get the chance. They’d rather be writing, and why not?
The other thing is that the ignorant tend to assume that of the price they pay for a book, a miserly proportion goes to the enslaved author and the rest is profit pocketed by the cackling fat cats in the publisher’s boardroom. This is even more bollocks. There are costs to doing a book properly. A lot of skilled specialists are involved and they need to be paid. Editing, design, strategy, logistics, managed relationships with retailers, international rights sales, publicity, marketing, etc. etc. It’s all stuff that needs to be done just as much in the digital arena as the paper one, and very few writers have the skills, or the time, or the desire to do it all themselves. God, I hope publishers stay around, I owe my career to mine. And I’m sure they will.
e-books are the future.
On the other hand, there IS something “bookwormishly” awesome in opening an Amazon (pre-ordered) package to find the latest Abercrombie hardback in there, embossed golden letters and all…
Personally I can see myself in 20 years buying the 14th Joe Abercrombie book as a “hardback printout with custom cover – choose from a selection of 3!” from a future version of Subterranean Press (custom hardback printing for book aficionados or something along those lines).
Joe, you make a good point about appreciating the skills of specialists but I’d disagree that the role of publisher as gatekeeper is a vital one. I think discerning buyers are capable of separating the wheat from the chaff quite well. I take a 3-step approach myself:
1. I judge a book by its cover – if the cover sucks then, to me, that suggests a lack of time/effort/professionalism/taste. Anything with stock art, questionable typography or rippling six-packs is unlikely to be what I’m after. You can recognise the really amateur stuff a mile off.
2. I read reviews.
3. I read the free sample to decide whether I like the book before parting with my hard-earned cash (there are examples of traditionally published works that I’ve chosen not to buy after a less-than-scintillating sample, even very cheap on special promotion).
I still find it astonishing that VAT is charged on e-books and not on paper copies. Given the green and sustainability aspect of e-books – to class them as a luxury just seems insane.
1. But if you had no publisher all books would look equally amateur, or at least those well designed would be because the writer had a gift for art or had spent money on commissioning art, not necessarily because the book was good. What you’re saying, in effect, is that you can tell professionally published books from amateur ones and can dismiss the amateur out of hand, which only reinforces the point about the importance of professional publishing.
2. Finding a reviewer whose opinions you value and trust is vital, of course, but reviewers get their review copies from publishers. They often won’t read self-published work at all because the quality is so variable, but will take seriously releases from well-respected, long-established imprints supported by well-respected editors and publicists. Again, the work of the publisher is vital in getting books reviewed.
3. But what brings the free sample to your attention in the first place? A certain buzz, recommendation by a friend, a mention on this site or that, in this magazine or that, an amazon.com suggestion or pairing? I think you drastically underestimate the importance of the publisher in making a lot of those things happen. Word of mouth can and will still do the job in some cases but the process is hugely accelerated by having a heavyweight publisher behind you.
In a world where you did not have certain titles pushed not only by the efforts of the publisher, but also by virtue simply of having the seal of approval that being traditionally published by a significant imprint gives you, I think the vast majority of readers would find it a great deal more difficult even to find the right samples to read.
God, yes, the VAT situation is completely absurd. But good luck trying to get the current administration (or any administration for that matter) to cut tax on anything. Once something becomes a source of revenue there’s massive gravity towards keeping it.
From a personally viewpoint I doubt I’ll ever buy an e-reader. I find it difficult reading large amounts of text on a screen. Blogs, forum posts, bite-sized buzz text I’m OK with. A novel, no chance.
I like the feel of a book in my hands, sure they take up a lot of space on my shelf, but replace them with an e-reader and what have you got – an empty shelf.
Thanks for the head’s up about the article at the Guardian website. I found it a very good read. I especially agree with his remarks here:
“Meanwhile, in Amazonia, Kindle versions of new books are outselling hardback versions – at similar prices. So is there not another view: that people are paying relatively high amounts for books a year before their paperback release, because they want them quickly on their digital devices? That convenience trumps pricing and format every time?”
I debated with myself for a long time before finally buying a Kindle in May of this year. In my case, the deciding factor was ultimately the convenience of instant delivery and being able to store a library’s worth of books without installing shelving on every available wall in my house. I have *greatly* enjoyed reading on it.
I agree with what you say about the fears of piracy being overstated. A person I greatly respect once commented that people who love books don’t steal books. She made this remark to the owners of a small mom and pop bookstore because they did not have anti-shoplifting check points at their exit doors.
Yes, people will pirate ebooks, that’s a given. But, in my very unsubstantiated opinion, people do not pirate what they value. Or, rather, they place no value on those things they do pirate. People who value what they are choosing to read will always pay for their books, whether hard copies or electronic.
I’ve purchased your books in ebook format and have just begun reading the fifth (Heroes). If you should publish another book at some point in the future, the chances that I will purchase it are very good . . . not because I think to myself, “Mr. Abercrombie needs to eat and pay his bills,” though I am sure those things are true. I will purchase it because I value the hours I have enjoyed in the universe you have created, reading the (mis)adventures of your characters.
What you produce has value to me, so I shall happily continue to buy it. I am not certain what that says about me and my judgment, but that is a subject for another discussion 🙂
1. No, what I’m saying is that the quality of the overall package is often consistent throughout. The self-pubbed stuff that’s had time, effort and nous put into it will stand out, and is more likely be of higher quality throughout than the stuff with the MS Paint cover. Therefore even without trad publishing gatekeepers, the casual observer can still discern the wheat from the chaff. If a shit book’s got a great cover, I’ll be able to tell if it’s shit when I get to step 2 or 3.
2. I’m also talking about peer reviews like on Amazon and discussion on online fora. Of course traditional reviews are helpful, but they’re just one channel (and as self-pub gets bigger, I suspect more traditional reviewers will review these books too).
3. I pick free samples by following steps 1 and 2. Of course I read books from the big genre publishers, all my favourite authors are traditionally published; but just because this is how things work at the moment doesn’t mean it’s the only model that is workable.
P.S. I am not a self published author.
On a side note, is the ‘enhanced ebook’ of The Heroes likely to be out before the end of September? I’m going on holiday and I don’t want to buy the vanilla version if there’s a bells-and-whistles version ’round the corner.
Joe, not sure who your last post was directed at, but I was in no way trying to advocate piracy. Seems to me that it’s like stealing from your mother. I prefer my books on Kindle, but I’m happy to pay for them. I’d even splurge on a promised enhanced eBook….
I downloaded your books because I heard they were must reads, it turned out they are and I said to myself: “I have to pay for these books so he can make more.” That’s the end of my awesome personal growth story. Thanks for writing Joe, Stick with it. Fuck what everyone says about you, I like what you’re doing.
Just wanted to pop in and say thanks for what you said about ebooks (“if publishers can learn the lessons of the music industry and see e-books as an opportunity rather than a threat”) and especially the part about piracy (“overstated fears of piracy”).
The latter, in particular, is a point that the publishing industry keeps trying to convince us of, and we’re just not buying it. In fact, it’s having the opposite effect. With every article that comes out where a publisher is crying about “lost sales” I become more convinced that it is untrue. A way to excuse the fact that there might be other reasons (some of the publishers’ own making) for the decline in book sales.
Aussies reading? You certainly mean inbreeding, right?
I’ve completely converted to the Kindle. It makes particular sense when you have to buy thick fantasy tomes – far more convenient to carry around and I still have what matters: the words.
I’m far less convinced about pricing issues and, even more so, territorial rights. Living in Ireland, it’s unbelievably irritating that I can’t buy from the UK store and have access to a smaller subset of the books through the .com store. Not to mention price differences.
On a slightly beneficial note: It seems Kindle release dates are sometimes in our favour. Peter F. Hamilton’s latest got delivered to me 10 days before publication date and a certain other book, due this month, also was recently delivered to my Kindle.