Sunday, 22 May 2011

Who chooses what you read?

The answer to this question is not as obvious as it may seem.

For starters, people only get to choose a book from what is available, that they get to hear about. Impossible not to know that Kate McCann recently published a book about her missing daughter, for instance, given the huge publicity and controversy it attracted.

If you go to a bookshop, what catches your eye, the piles of books in the window or on a table near the entrance, or books spine out on the bottom shelf at the back of the shop? Most members of the public are unaware that the prominent books are not those the manager has selected on merit; publishers have paid a lot of money for particular books to be well displayed.

As a self-published writer, I love Amazon because it has given me the chance to prove there is a market for my novels. At the moment, the playing field is nearly level for indies and mainstream; but is that going to last? Amazon has its own version of the table at the front of the shop; its various recommendation pages, Kindle Bargains, Editors' Picks, New to Kindle etc., all of which have a dramatic effect on sales. And publishers are turning their attention (somewhat late) to the rich pickings to be made from ebooks - which, although they will never admit it, cost them nothing at point of sale.

I subscribe to emails from The Bookseller's FUTUReBOOK. In the last one, Philip Jones said:

"At a time when agents and Amazon are moving into publishing, the ability of traditional publishers to demonstrate digital success along with physical dominance will be important. One sign of progress will clearly be when the digital book charts begin to resemble the physical book charts–since it will show that publishers can still make and break bestsellers and that price is not the only determining factor in what sells in e."

Kick out all those presumptuous indies cluttering up the top 100 just because their books are cheap and popular, then. Publishers will decide what sells.

"...crucially publishers have learned and perfected many other strategies [besides price cuts] to push books into the bestseller charts (window displays, handselling/bookseller recommendation, reviews, serialisation, POS, dumpbins, the list goes on . . .), they simply have to also now learn the skills for the digital arena."

So, who is going to be choosing what you read on your Kindle in the future? You, or the Big Six Publishers?


  1. Yes, I'm afraid the Big Six are going to catch up with us very soon. That's why we need to make our mark now.

    Good post.

    Margaret Lake

  2. I can't guess about the future of Kindle reading cos I haven't got one - a Kindle that is - I do have a future, honest! LOL!! But as for general reading at the present time, for me, it's both - big bucks publishing houses and the fab writerly grapevine of blogging! Take care

  3. Margaret, I fear this is a golden window of opportunity that will be closing quite soon. And if that just leaves us with traditional publishing, given their reluctance to take a chance on unknown authors, it will be a bad day for writers and readers alike.

    Kitty, I'm betting you will have a Kindle within the next two years :o)

  4. Exactly the point. Few dead-tree readers have any idea of the extent to which their purchasing decisions are made for them by marketeers. Many will claim, no doubt, that they are indifferent to hype. But today's marketing is far more subtle than that.

    The relationship between the big booksellers and the big publishers is not just close: the booksellers are in the pockets of the publishers, and vice versa.

    The determination of the marketeers to control ebook sales will increase in direct proportion to the increase in the size of the market. The likelihood is that they will buy out those indies they think are worth it, and render the rest invisible. It's not an enticing prospect.

  5. Too true, Iain - luckily I am prevented from dwelling on this dismal scenario by trying to envisage booksellers in the pockets of the publishers, and vice versa. How does that work?

    It's slightly doing my head in, like when the offspring attempts to explain a pure maths concept to me.

  6. What a great point to make, Lexi Will this be a case of watch this space and weep, I wonder?

    It would be nice to think we Joe Public could decide for ourselves

  7. The public could decide - but without Amazon, it would take so much effort to track down and select books from indies that it's unrealistic to expect people to.

    By definition, readers won't know what they are missing. What brilliant books languish in drawers and on hard drives because their authors gave up after many rejections?

    People quote JK Rowling as an example of rejection then triumph through persistence, but she was only turned down by twelve publishers before being offered a contract. It's way tougher now.

  8. Hi Lexi thanks for putting in those snippets from Philip Jones those are all very valid points he makes about the experience and actions of the Big Six in the book marketplace. Now I am not one to underestimate their overwhelming urge to crush or swallow the growing plethora of Indies, power, greed and the corporate bottom line are great motivators. However that also assumes that these Big Six were cruising along quite happily before the advent of ebooks. As we know that was far from the case, in fact for the decade before ebooks these companies were skirting the edge of disaster due to a generation’s worth of poor corporate practice and abysmal financial management. Yes it is true, they will try to strike back. We can see they’re hysteria already in various blog screaming about the plummeting quality of Indies and the imminent demise of literature and books as we know them. And so on…While those actions are a real threat to Indies the Big Six have however proved that despite a century plus of experience they still do not understand the reading public. Our dear readers (bless their little cotton socks) like books in a genre or theme once there they will happily munch all the way through the entire genre. For instance in the past historical genre novels unless heavily slanted to ‘romance’ fiction were disregarded by the Big Six as too small to bother about, limited markets and so on. For Indies though this is a niche like SF we can happily populated and I believe will do so successfully. I also suspect like the Titanic heading for the iceberg the Big Six have gained too much forward momentum in their current business model to be able to change direction quickly enough to capture the new market. So do not despair we still have a golden opportunity write on! Publish! Spread the word!
    Regards Greg -Author The Liberties of London on Amazon Kindle

  9. That's a scary thought. It's certainly possible, but I think we have a few things working in our favor. The first is that Amazon considers those publishers to be competition. Amazon is more than just a distribution center. The Big 6 can pay bookstores for better placement and it's a win-win, but how much would that arrangement cost Amazon in lost revenue? There will be some serious number crunching before we see anything like that.

    Also, Indie writers, publishers, and fans have started becoming an online community. Amazon could go away as our primary market but look at Goodreads for example. They have millions of members, and it's possible to sell directly through their website. And they love Indie writers. The truth is, I think Goodreads and Indie bloggers are just as important for me as Amazon right now, maybe even more so.

    Frankly, I'm a little worried about what Amazon might decide to do to us once the big publishers are gone (or nearly so). Then they can cut our royalties and rewrite our contracts any way they see fit... let's hope that day doesn't come soon.

    By the way, did you see the first quarter stats on US book sales? E-books up 159%! (and that doesn't count Indies). Mass market paper was down 23+%. I'm going to echo Gregory here, this looks a lot like the Titanic. I think the smart editors are already looking for the lifeboats.

  10. 'Who chooses what...? is a good question to raise as it pertains to many other businesses too.

    The professional buyer in a retail outlet chooses; then suppliers can demand how their goods are displayed; we are all then subjected to psychological tricks from the marketing crews.

    Our country once manufactured goods of high quality for the world. We are now dependent of far fewer wealth creating bases than before. Tourism attracts, often through our literary heritage. Shakespeare and Jane Austen spring to mind. Your mind may have others springing away now.

    The loss to the world of talented writers concerns me.

    Money buys a shop window for celebrities and similar others. What a waste.

    My thanks to Lexi for courageously raising questions which should not be swept away.

  11. Gregory, Jamie and Anna, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    It'll be interesting to see what actually happens in publishing over the next few years. I suppose it's even possible that mainstream publishers will ride the ebook wave, make lots of money and feel able to take on more writers again, as they used to...

  12. Jarmara Falconer said :
    It would be nice to think we Joe Public could decide for ourselves
    The public could decide - but without Amazon, it would take so much effort to track down and select books from indies that it's unrealistic to expect people to.

    With a little help I believe that we can decide for ourselves!

    In my experience readers look for authors with a voice that resonates. When found, they are likely to search high and low for that author's back list.

    The way to fight this insidious attempt to distort the market (when it occurs!) is for Indie authors to collaborate in forming a new web site.

    A possible structure would be:
    Every indie author, alphabetically ordered under a chosen genre, will be allowed to post their list of titles and will make one title free to download.
    The free title will include a brief synopsis.
    Reviews from readers will be included on a separate page.
    Reader's will be directed to Amazon for the non-free titles.
    Each reader accepting a free download will be asked to rate the author
    The average rating, together with number of downloads will be recorded.

    In this way readers can sample any author who's work takes their fancy. If the author cuts the mustard for a reader, then they won't need to be in Amazon's 'distorted top one hundred' or whatever.

    Voila! *smile*

    I'm sure it may not be that easy in practice .... but then, I'm a theorist!

  13. Q, I was wondering about this in the bath, where I do all my best thinking.

    A sort of Alternative Amazon... The problem is, to work it would have to be comprehensive and famous, easy to use and as good at suggesting possible books as Amazon is. It would take a very talented person to set up such a site and promote it, the cost would be huge, and most likely it wouldn't catch on. There are many, many writers' sites and forums which are little used.

    But it's a nice idea...

  14. I'm just a very very tiny fish struggling in the waves of the ebook surge, but even I get that sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach when I think of big business and it's greed taking over OUR ebook revolution.
    I like Quantam's idea very much, so just wait 'til I win that damn lottery!
    Then we'll show 'em!

  15. Lexi, It may not be as daunting as first appears. If there is a web
    designer who is also a writer for example.

    I would think that the 'kindleuserforum' site could be used as a template.
    Changing names as appropriate and perhaps deleting or hiding unused areas.
    Speaking nicely to the owner might also get you a space on this site to do
    the required.

    I think that the word would rapidly spread. Every indie author would
    publicize it and readers would advertise it on the myriad blog sites
    devoted to books. Free downloads would be a big draw as well.

    Recently I have been reading about the power of intent. If you can relax
    your mind into the alpha phase, where the alpha rhythms dominate, then you
    can simply visualize what you would like and wish it so. It's the basis of
    energy healing and other dowsing skills and success has been demonstrated
    many times.

    So when you next relax in that bath, focus your intent on this solution.I
    will do likewise. If others join in and we all do it together the power of
    intent could be vastly increased.

    So I conclude that a synchronized bath time is required.
    I believe increasing proximity can enhance the focus .... but I'm not
    advocating following that route! *grin*

  16. Unfortunately, Q, I need my bath time for brooding about the next novel or life in general. There is a limit to how many thoughtful baths one can take per day before ending up permanently soggy.

    We need a volunteer, keen, able, with spare time. We can only hope badas2010 wins the lottery...

  17. “I suppose it's even possible that mainstream publishers will ride the ebook wave, make lots of money and feel able to take on more writers again, as they used to...”

    I suspect this will be the most likely outcome, Lexi.

    Bottom line is the Big 6 are investing massively in digital. They have the financial muscle to do so, and will almost certainly emerge stronger for the transition.

    True many bookshops will close, printers will be bankrupted and all the middle-men involved in carting shed-loads of paper around the country will be unemployed.

    But I would think the future for readers, writers and those publishers willing and able to move with the times, is brighter than at any time in history.

    Traditionally an author’s chances of being published were governed by one single factor: can the publisher hope to get a return on the huge financial investment needed to bring a book to market.

    The points made about being an anonymous spine in a bookshop are exactly why so many perfectly good books are rejected. It’s because they are not commercially viable.

    That doesn’t mean no-one will buy them. It means not enough people will find them and buy them such that will cover the tens of thousands of pounds outlay required to publish in the first place.

    Suddenly there is infinite shelf space for infinite categories and sub-categories, and the most intimate niche markets can be catered for with negligible outlay by the publisher.

    Far from seeing the death-throes of publishing I think we are seeing a painful rebirth. A revival - dare I say a renaissance? - on an unprecedented scale, where every author who has a good quality book will, in the near future, have a chance to reach an audience.

    But you’re right about now being the indie writer’s window of opportunity.

    If you want to establish a brand on your own terms, now is the time to do it.

  18. Mark, your comment is more thought-provoking than my original post! (Blogger sent it to Spam - why?)

    Before I knew anything about publishing, I assumed that if you wrote an okay book, you would be able to get it into bookshops and see whether the public wanted to buy it. Now with ebooks, one can do this.

    But I'm not sure what publishers will have to offer in a digital world, besides editing, proofreading, formatting and cover design. Their one advantage right now is that they can get a book into bricks and mortar stores, and I can't. Perhaps they realize this, and as Philip Jones says, are looking for ways to dominate digital marketplaces.

  19. Seems to me that Big Publishers can now publish for those tiny niche markets cost effectively.
    Just don't tell them that, since they haven't noticed yet. I'm quite happy to self publish.

  20. Philip, I certainly wouldn't try to tell Big Publishers anything. They wouldn't listen to me :o)

  21. I used to download a lot of books published in the US from sites such as,, About two-three years ago many books that I had already bought suddenly became unavailable for download to the UK. Now I find that many favorite authors, mostly NYT best sellers, are only available for download in the US and Canada.

    Mark: "Suddenly there is infinite shelf space for infinite categories and sub-categories, and the most intimate niche markets can be catered for with negligible outlay by the publisher."

    I really don't think that publishers have yet got to grips with the global digital market; though it is improving slowly and e-books previously only available in the US are starting to appear on Amazon UK.If that 2-3 year gap is indicative of the publishing response time then I reckon that there may be another 5-10 years grace before Mark's observation starts to become a practical reality.

    The fact that the e-books from famous authors often cost readers nearly as much as paper backs is also not a promising sign. I may be getting cynical, but I can easily foresee price fixing, and other unpleasant 'smells' of big business pervading the e-book market.

    As a reader I will support the indies whenever I can!

  22. Q, price fixing has already happened - known as agency pricing. Amazon draws attention to it with the legend, 'This price was set by the publisher'.

    Re downloading from US sites, can you not give a fake address? I used to use Amazon's Seattle headquarters address when I was doing ABNA and needed an American Amazon account. Others used the White House...

  23. Lexi,I tried hiding my computer's IP address, but my location is always taken from credit card details, even when using PayPal.

    I think I will need a credit card with an American bank, using an American Address if I want to access some of the books that I want.

    Harold Wilson once referred to 'The White Heat of technology'. I'm afraid that the publishing world isn't even glowing red yet! LOL

  24. True the publishing industry isn't up to speed with the new technology - but I'm guessing it's more a copyright issue when books are available in one country and not another.

    Pirate sites are up to speed, and of course don't care about copyright, which is why publishers should be taking them into consideration more than they appear to be doing right now.

  25. I'm sure the problem is a legal one. I find it very puzzling that a paper version can be purchased in the UK while the electronic version cannot.

    When filing patents one normally covers all of the major world economies. It seems like basic common sense to ensure that an e-book can legally be sold in any country.

    It seems to me that some e-book publishers are currently shooting themselves in the foot. What other industry would exclude exports to major world economies!

    Don't get me started on the pirate issues .... not over breakfast! *grin*

  26. Q, bureaucracy, red tape, petty, don't want to think about it, even though I've already had my breakfast :o)