Over the festive period much has been said about ebooks and online selling, and in particular how rapidly sales are growing in this part of the bookselling market. Responses vary, with me sounding extremely encouraged by this, and some bookshop managers sounding worried – if you look on the Bookseller website you’ll see all sides to the argument.
The truth is that we absolutely need the ebook market to take off – whether we’re authors, publishers or booksellers. The crisis in bookselling is far more extreme than authors and readers realise, and publishers don’t want to dishearten authors by letting them know just how difficult it will be to sell their books should they overcome the first hurdle of getting published.
Ebooks also let publishers take on authors who are difficult to promote, perhaps because they live in another country and aren't available for the many events needed to help a book take off. Or they might write short stories, which are even harder to sell than poetry as there's no network of live events for short story writers. It also means publishers can take on long novels by debut writers, whereas the pagecount usually means the cost of printing and postage can't really be recuperated without a high cover price and/or high sales.
Bookshop managers tend to get defensive when they see the way ebooks are taking off. The Kindle sales this Christmas show that the UK is finally following in the footsteps of the US and the many people getting a Kindle as a present will no doubt follow up by buying some books for it. This is great news for publishers and authors at a time when companies are closing due to the difficulties selling our one product – books.
I do think bookshops can get in on the act too, rather than trying to defend an either/or position where ebooks are seen as killing the traditional bookshop which stocks books in print. There’s no reason why bookshops shouldn’t also have a screen where customers can buy the books they can’t find on the shelves and have them delivered straight from the publisher’s distributor to the customer’s home.
It would be just like buying on any other online bookseller site, but would be managed by the bookshop. And at last we would be able to order literary fiction, poetry and short stories through our high street bookshop if we wanted to, and not just the few they have in stock. Even the excellent bookshops that do stock plenty of poetry and literary fiction can’t stock everything, and they could offer everything publishers have registered on the central Nielsen database. Bookselling websites update automatically by feed from this, so it’s easy to manage.
Bookshop managers also complain that customers say they can get the books cheaper from Amazon, but customers know that Amazon isn’t reliable when it comes to supplying some of the books they take orders for, particularly poetry. Emails arrive for a few weeks saying the book is temporarily out of stock and finally that it’s unavailable. So I would certainly trust a bookshop more. I just feel that bookshops need to see this as an opportunity and adapt more than they’ve been doing so far.
With ebooks it’s tricky at this stage because Amazon dominates the market due to the popularity of the Kindle. But I’m not going to hold that against them and fight them over it. The situation will change. At this stage it’s helpful that Amazon is creating the market with the Kindle and Kindle books. We’d be doing a disservice to our authors if we didn’t go along with that and make all of their books available for the Kindle. Our fiction is all available for Kindle and we’re working hard on getting the poetry perfect at the moment – we didn’t stop over Christmas!
Amazon has a monopoly on Kindle ebook sales. But we’re also working on Epub versions which provide ebooks that can be sold on any website. This will provide even more of an opportunity for bookshops, authors, publishers, and anybody else, to sell direct from their websites. Amazon and Kindle are paving the way but it would be impossible to keep a monopoly in this market. It’s only possible to get an early lead.
What has surprised and encouraged me most this Christmas is seeing how ebooks have levelled the playing field between authors and publishers of all sizes. The major publishers have their huge budgets for promotional activities, which usually crushes others out. It’s impossible for a smaller publisher to get books stocked in bookshops over Christmas when major publishers have bought all the best space and there isn’t even shelf space left for new books by others.
I would have thought this would also affect ebooks and that titles by major publishers would dominate the list of bestselling Kindle books. And yet two out of the top four Kindle titles were by self published authors. They weren’t expensive ($3 and under) but they were for sale, so they weren’t just downloaded because they were free.
While one was a genre novel, and various genres do well on Kindle (it was the crime novel The Abbey by Chris Culver), the other novel sounds like literary fiction - Darcie Chan's The Mill River Recluse. The sales figures are also much higher than you might imagine and the books get into the New York Times bestseller list. High advances will be available from major publishers for those authors next time I think.
I’m not quite sure how these authors managed to compete with the promotional activities of the major publishers but I’ll be researching it in detail. If it really is possible to compete and win with ebooks then that certainly makes a major change in publishing, and we all need to take an interest.