‘A solid, stable business’ by Quentin Bates

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eBooks. There, I’ve said it. They’re everywhere but still nobody has a clue as to quite where the eBook is going to take us. It’s something that had to happen. The CD revolution in the 90s (was it really that long ago…?) and the advance of digital in all its forms had to hit the world of books sooner or later, and so it has.

Luddite that I am, I wasn’t going to buy a Kindle. It was a present from my daughter who loves her own Kindle dearly. When the book-shaped package was handed to me and it didn’t contain a book, I was a little taken aback and didn’t quite know what to do with it. So I did what a man should do with a new toy – I tinkered with it and pressed all the buttons. And it worked.

To my surprise, I like the Kindle far more than I expected to. I don’t know if others have had the same experience, but it hasn’t stopped me reading ol’ fashioned dead tree books. The house I live in already has several gradually expanding piles of books waiting to be read and now the Kindle is starting to see a To-Be-Read pile of its own accumulating as well, but the Kindle TBR pile is different.

Without expecting to be a fan of an eReader – there’s more than just the Kindle, there are Nooks, Kobos, iPads, etc as well – I’ve found that it has allowed me to read in places where I wouldn’t normally dip into a few pages of a book. I’m also reading stuff that I might not otherwise have picked up. A good few interesting books that I would probably otherwise have never seen or got round to buying have appeared on the Kindle.

Would I have read Jørn Lier Horst, Declan Burke, George Arion or Bogdan Hrib without stumbling across their Kindle versions? Come to that, I’d certainly not have got round to reading Damien Seaman’s The Killing of Emma Gross or Anya Lipska’s Where the Devil Can’t Go, both of them excellent and both only electronically published. This is where I also put in a small plug for the self-published The Dukkering Boy by my friend Fran Lewis. It’s young adult stuff, not crime. But Fran writes beautifully and deserves to be receiving the attentions of a publisher, one of those staid, august companies that do the dead tree books.

With Amazon, Smashwords, etc come the inevitable downsides. It’s so easy to publish that there’s now a huge volume of stuff out there that should probably never have seen the light of day, and to all intents and purposes probably never will. But self-publishing like this is new and this is where 50 Shades of Grey and doubtless future word-of-mouth bestsellers will gestate. The accessibility of the wider audience is also has a few murky depths. Reviews can be dashed off in the blink of an eye and clearly often are. Then there’s sockpuppeting, something that has gone on for a while and a subject that surfaced recently at the Theakston Crime Festival in Harrogate when one well-known author admitted to using false electronic identities to puff his own stuff online. I’m not going to go into it here, as I wasn’t there and an online argument has already been raging about this. Just google ‘Leathergate’ if you want to know more.

It’s worth pointing out here that if you like an author’s work, apart from buying their work to start with, there’s no bigger favour you can do him or her than come up with a few Amazon stars. It seems that these really do make a huge difference in the big scheme of things and a series of 4- or 5-star reviews are calculated into the mysterious algorithms that Amazon uses in promoting that author’s books to a wider audience. In the same way, there’s a huge disservice to be done to a writer by posting bad reviews. All of us have seen a few of those and you have to shrug them off, reminding yourself that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But some writers have attracted stalkers who post not just bad, but maliciously bad reviews in forums and chatrooms. It’s part of the territory, but no less unsavoury for that.

It’s Amazon that has become the behemoth of the book business in a few short years. Now Amazon is shifting gears and moving into publishing as well as selling books, garden tools, electronics and pretty much everything other than cars, so far, at any rate. The juggernaut growth of Amazon seems unstoppable and for publishing there are still plenty of unanswered questions, and probably a good few nervous publishers. Amazon’s move into publishing means that it is chasing with the hounds as well as running with the hare and it’s something none of us can ignore.

However, this is still a whole new world for writers, booksellers, publishers, agents and the whole gamut of the the book business. One writer I know who has been negotiating a publishing deal with Amazon tells me that they ‘prefer not to deal with authors who have agents,’ which sounds unsettling.

For a writer, Amazon can be daunting and the Amazon rankings that show a book’s position in the charts are one of the great mysteries of the age. Although there’s plenty of guesswork, nobody outside Amazon seems to know how these are compiled other than that the rankings are far more than a straightforward number based on sales. There are even rumours of black magic and voodoo being behind the mystery of the Amazon rankings. It’s almost on a par with the mystery of Atlantis.

A book can magically leapfrog half a million places places if half a dozen people buy it within the same half-hour, and drop back down just as fast. How’s that worked out? No, actually I’d rather not be told. I don’t have a degree in mathematics and statistics and would prefer not to have my own ignorance on public display. Maybe it’s best of we just live in the knowledge that Amazon’s rankings are best left shrouded in mystery.

But at the moment we have to live with the fact that the world of books is in turmoil and is going to stay that way for a while as books are sold at knock-down prices, and the future of paper, agents and traditional publishers remains open to question.

As John Steinbeck observed: ‘The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.’

Never more so than now, it seems. Steinbeck knew a thing or two and he was absolutely right, but it’s anyone’s guess what he would have made of eBooks.

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