Anatomy of an E-Book Sale

I just bought an e-book, Yesterday’s Spy, by Len Deighton. So what, Bill, I hear you cry– you buy ebooks every day. Most of us do. What’s there worth writing a blog post about in that?

Well, it’s a process I usually do unthinkingly and today I actually analysed it on the level of both my intellectual processes and the mechanisms of sale. (Forgive me if what I am going to say sounds entirely obvious, but sometimes it’s worth thinking about the obvious.) Here’s what happened.

This morning I was reading an article on Slate about how Len Deighton wrote Bomber which may well have been the first book ever written on a word processor. (It’s a fascinating article, you should take a look.) This reminded me how much I enjoyed his writing. I went to Amazon, did a search and found a Harry Palmer book I could not remember having read before so I bought it. The whole process took a few minutes from start to finish.

Since I am ultimately in the business of selling books, I started thinking about what was involved in this? How did I go from not even thinking about an author to buying his book maybe ten minutes later?

There were a few steps. First I needed to be reminded of Deighton’s name. Then I needed to remember the fact that I had really enjoyed his books. Then I had to be able to easily find this particular book. Then I had to be able to buy it.

Much of this process was based on the technological miracles of our age. I was sitting in a cafe in Prague, reading an article on Slate, an American website magazine. The fact that I was on my laptop meant I had only to click on a link and I was at Amazon, looking at Bomber. I clicked on Deighton’s name and got a list of all his books currently available there. I narrowed the search down to kindle books since I wanted something to read now, not weeks later when the book might come in the mail. I noticed a title I did not recall, clicked on it. I read the product blurb and did not remember any of the details of the story. Could it be I had found a Deighton book I had not actually read before?  Clicked look inside and read the first page. The writing was as good as I remembered Deighton’s writing being and I did not recall the opening so I bought it. A few seconds later it was on my phone and I was reading it.

Some of them echoes the experience of conventional book buying, such as reading the back cover blurb and then scanning the first few pages of the book. The rest of it is a product of the technology of our time.

Think about how this would have gone in the pre-Internet age. If I was reading about Deighton, it would most likely be in a newspaper and probably round about the time when there was a surge of publicity based on his new book being released. I would then have had to physically go to a book shop. The book I bought, part of Deighton’s deep backlist might well not have been in stock. If it wasn’t, I would never have had a chance to notice it. I might have bought another Deighton, since I was there anyway. Chances are it would have been the big new release that had generated the surge of newspaper hype. I would probably have started reading it a few minutes later on the bus. The whole process would have taken a lot longer than a few minutes, and would only have happened if I recalled the Deighton article a few days later when I was in town shopping on the weekend. There are a lot of chances for the sale to have been missed in that process. All of them were short-circuited by the Internet and the technology.

The convenience of the Internet enabled the sale. A complex web of sophisticated software engines drove it. The fact that I had a phone in my pocket as powerful as the computers of my youth (hell, the computers of ten years ago) let me download and start reading at once. One of the powerful promises of that one-click buy was instant gratification. I could get what I wanted in seconds. The one-click made it easy to make an irrevocable commitment to the transaction.

All that said, I think it’s important not to forget the most important part of the equation. I already knew who Deighton was, and I have always loved his books. Without that, I would not have bothered at all. Even in the age of the Internet, an author’s name still means something.

17 Replies to “Anatomy of an E-Book Sale”

  1. We do indeed live in an age of wonders. And it gets better (or worse). You won’t be suprprised, since you introduced me to Lawrence Block’s ‘Matt Scudder’ books, that I have copies of all of them, and multiple copies of some. A few months ago,LB put up a facebook message saying that one of those books (it might have been Eight Million Ways To Die) was on offer at Amazon for £1.99. Well, I thought, less than two quid isn’t a lot to pay for the convenience of having that fine book on my iPad. I think it took 3 clicks and 30 seconds to buy it.
    You know I like reading in bed. So when I reached the depressing and yet satisfying end to that book (did I mention the Lawrence Block is the Bill King of crime writing?) did I think, “Oh, I must get out of bed and walk to the lounge and check amongst the thousand or so books there to see if I have “When The Sacred Ginmill Closes”? No, I damn well clicked the links and paid £3.99 for the convenience of not getting out of bed. As you say, I’d never have done that if I hadn’t recognised LBs name, but I’d also never have done that if he hadn’t shoved the offer at me. So well done you, with the blogging and the FB account.

    1. I’ve done the very same thing after some of Block’s posts, mate, right down to buying books I own, some of which may even have been sitting on the book shelf across from me when I pushed the buy it now button. It’s combination of price– which I should have talked more about in the post above– and ease and that hoarder instinct that I think most book lovers have. I know I am hugely looking forward to the upcoming digitalisation of most of Michael Moorcock’s works, just so I can have access to them 24/7.

  2. I’m still slightly staggered by the ease at which I can get new books with todays technology. The amount of times I’ve finished a book on my Kindle while commuting, and then using the 3G connection to immediately get another one in a few moments. Chain reading has never been easier.

    1. My thoughts exactly, Jimmy. As someone who lives in a country where getting even vaguely specialised English language books can be a bit of a chore, I am profoundly grateful.

  3. I think logically a pay to read model must make more sense than buying a copy, but the hoarding instinct is wired into owning something, rather than having access to it. I don’t know why rights owners aren’t rushing all of their old stuff back into digital print right now, before they hit the out of copyright period – I’ve noticed some Andre Norton starting to creep out into the public domain, along with Wodehouse.

    1. I think the Norton thing is an artifact of the way copyright law used to work in the US. Apparently you used to have to register the copyright of a book or it would go out of copyright in a relatively short time. I confess I have never considered the merits of a pay to read model versus outright ownership. I am still stuck in the old ways.

  4. Hi William
    i agree about the ebook thing. I love books as objects (and so on) but the convenience of having my library on my tablet is breathtaking. Ive left too many good books behind in moves due to lack of space to lament moving to a saner model.
    To be honest though I came to tell you how much I love the world you created in Death’s Angels. I found out about you from your interview on 50 k words on background material? It shows. Your worldbuilding is spinetinglingly good. Now I read here that you did the High Elves WHFRP sourcebook (another classic I lost in a move) one of my all time favourite fantasy tracts. And WH40K tie-ins – I only read one of these I think it was a Space Wolves, about a rich kid from the Spire and an underclass dude from Necromunda (and I think a third guy who wasn’t very important). The rich kid ended up scrimshawing his own metacarpals. I swear I knew you wrote that (did you?) 20 pages into DA. Your style stayed with me for what, 20 years? I’m not surprised by the Gemmel award either, stylistically you remind me closely of him. But with that delicious heavy metal GW infusion. I dont think there’s anything else quite like it.
    Red Nails is also one of my faves, moreso than Black River – Queen of the Black Coast, Tower of the Elephant and People of the Black Circle all top it on my subjective list.
    Best, Charles

    1. Thanks Charles for all the kind words and for the link– that’s a blast from the past! I don’t think I actually did write the Necromunda kid piece you recall. I could be wrong though, I’ve written a lot down the years, more than I can remember. All of the Robert E Howard stories you mention are in my favourites list as well, right behind Beyond the Black River and Red Nails.

  5. That sounds like Space Marine by Ian Watson you’re remembering there. It follows three recurits from different parts of the Necromundan hives as they are inducted into the Imperial Fists. That’s an old one, back from the days of the Wolf Riders and Deathwing anthologies.

  6. I have to agree, although I resisted for a long time. I worked in books stores all the way through college and there was just something about meandering through a book store that felt right. The dry paper smell, the colorful covers and the feel of a fresh new book in my hands were things I couldn’t experience with an e-book. I still like to go to a good book shop now and again, but after my wife bought me a Kindle for my birthday two year ago I’ve never looked back. My inner technologist went giddy. I love being able to grab a book from a favorite author without having to hope beyond hope that my local store will have it in. Prime example, I started Jim Butchers Codex Alera series and tore through the first book naively thinking that I would hop down to the bookstore at our mall and snag the next one. Wrong! My choices were a boxed set of the first three or book three. Ruined my whole day. Now I have purchased all of them and the dutifully await me for future reads. This is now the poorly disguised suck up portion of my rant. I wouldn’t have found all your wonderful new (non-40K) novels if it wasn’t for Amazon and e-books. I still love ‘dead tree’ books, but they don’t Whispersync and that is a problem for me know.

    1. Thanks, Damon. Glad you’re enjoying the e-books. I read a lot of books, always have and always will, but I now find they are divided into two classes, the books I just want to read, and the very much smaller class I want to keep. In the past my problem was always that I find it impossible to dump books so I’ve ended up storing huge amounts of dead tree I will most likely never read again. They take up an unbelievable amount of space. These days I am much more likely just to buy a book on Kindle. These take up exactly zero space, not even disk space– I can delete them from my device when I finish and leave them in the cloud. There are books I want to physically own and keep, for all sorts of reasons. These I still buy in paper. They are a lot more manageable now.

      1. Well here is a question for you Mr. King. As a professional writer and fan would you miss having book signings if books went to a completely digital editions?

        1. I would Damon but I don’t think there is much danger of print disappearing completely. Like I said there are books I am always going to want in hardcopy — I just don’t need all of them to be :). Also recently I signed someone’s Kindle!

          1. Very nice. 🙂 If you are ever doing a signing in the South East US I could get you to sign mine. 🙂

  7. Huge disadvantage of e-books is a fact that we cannot lend them. I discovered many good authors (including you, Bill) because someone just wanted to share his favourite book. But this requires making a copy in the digital age. Considering that this is neither legal nor ethical, we have a problem.

    1. Actually mate, I believe you can lend ebooks, at least in the US. I have never bothered to try doing it but how it works is you authorise someone else to read a book you own on the Kindle, and they can read it. It is simply unavailable to you while they read it. I believe the authorisation only lasts for a fixed period of time (so someone can’t borrow a book and never return it) and the author must opt in to allowing the book to be lendable. There is nothing technically impossible about lending ebooks.

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