Archives for July 2014

Netflix for Books

Over the past few days Amazon has once again shaken up the world of ebook publishing by announcing its Kindle Unlimited (KU) program, a subscription service which allows members (currently in the US only) access to a more or less unlimited number of ebooks and audiobooks for the payment of a $9.99 monthly fee.

This is being touted as a Netflix for Ebooks in some corners and it has caused controversy and much fevered discussion among indie authors. Lots of people have expressed opinions about the upsides, downsides and possible strategies for indie authors. For what it’s worth these are mine.

Of course, KU is not the first attempt at such a subscription model. Oyster and Scribd are attempting something similar although neither of those seemed to have a sustainable business model on their current terms.

The deal both those services offered indie authors was great. Basically each read of more than 10% of a book was counted as a sale and was rewarded as such. If your price was $4.99, you got paid as if you had made a $4.99 sale. Since the subscription fees were $9.99 per month, you can see how there might be a problem. Most of the people to sign up for an all-you-can-eat buffet of ebooks are likely to be heavy readers. Simple math says those rates of pay were unsustainable when the company is only collecting $9.99 a month and would need to go down. Getting your book read on one of those subscription service would in the long run most likely earn you way less than selling it. Think of Spotify and musicians and you could see where that ends up.

Amazon has chosen a different payment model, essentially the same as the one it already uses for its Kindle Lending Library. It allocates a fixed pool of money for the purposes of payment and this pool is divvied up among all the eligible recipients based on the number of downloads their books get. If things follow the Kindle Lending Library model, this payment will likely work out at somewhere around $2 per reading but at least Amazon has (sensibly from its point of view) capped its potential liability for payments here. $2 is around what anyone enrolled in KDP (Amazon’s self-publishing program) gets for the sale of a $2.99 ebook.

This seems like a more sustainable model for a subscription service but it still has the net effect of probably paying authors less than they would get from making a sale unless their books are priced at $2.99 or under. On the upside, people who price their books at under three bucks are going to make more.

Of course, the main difference between Amazon and Oyster/Scribd is not their payment model. It is the fact that Amazon is a dominant player in the e-reader/ebook space, not a startup with an unsustainable/unproven business model. Amazon has very deep pockets, has shown itself willing to lose money for long periods of time to gain market share and has already capped its potential financial liability anyway. Amazon’s entrance into this space means subscription services for ebooks have just gone mainstream. They are here to stay. Writers are going to have to live with the consequences of that.

These don’t just take the form of potentially lowered royalty payments for those who price their books at higher than $2.99. The subscription service model has other ramifications. Based on my extremely unscientific survey of one person (myself) and taking Netflix as the model, here’s what I see happening:

  • Binge reading becomes a distinct possibility. When I find a series I like on Netflix. I watch it until I run out of episodes. I tend to do the same thing with books (I’m looking at you Matt Scudder and Harry Dresden) and I can’t see taking price out of the equation will intefere with that. This is good news for prolific authors with series.
  • Purchase price will no longer a consideration so people may well be tempted to sample authors unknown to them. If Amazon’s recommendations engines are anything like as good as Netflix’s (and I strongly suspect they are) then people may well find their way to lots of new authors. There’s no financial risk in it. I’ve started watching a few series I had never heard of based on Netflix’s recommendations.

Those are the upsides that I can think of, and I am sure there must be a few more. Here are the downsides I can foresee.

  • People may become less willing to spend on new e-books. I know I have bought far, far fewer DVD boxed sets than I once did since I joined Netflix. These days I am only likely to purchase something that is not available on Netflix.
  • Those things that I do buy tend to be things I already really, really like. I am far less likely to risk money on a DVD set for a series that’s unknown to me. Why cough up the cash when there’s plenty of alternative viewing that I have already paid for with my subscription fee? I’ve become risk tolerant within the system and risk averse outside it.

Of course, films and TV programs are not books and we should be wary of making too exact a comparison between them, but these things don’t sound too far-fetched.

If we have moved into a new world, what can indie authors do to adapt to it?

Well, we can start by looking at Netflix and seeing what happens there. One thing that’s immediately obvious is that Netflix is not the place the film and TV companies put their front list. It’s where the deep backlist goes. The studios stripmine their content before sticking it on Netflix– movies go into cinemas and DVD before they get released on Netflix a year or two later. The same thing seems to happen with most TV programs.

This suggests to me that the studios see Netflix as a revenue generator for backlist stuff and a way of developing audiences for the new stuff. This would perhaps be a reasonable way of looking at Kindle Unlimited.

Except of course for one thing– in order for an indie to be in KU, they need to be exclusive to Amazon. Their books can’t be available anywhere else. This means that in order to get access to one source of revenue, they need to cut themselves off from others. For many this will be a no-brainer. I am not one of them. I earn a significant portion of my income outside Amazon– around 20% and that’s been rising over the past few months.

I confess I am troubled by Kindle Unlimited. All-you-can-read subscription services are a very good deal for readers, but not such a great deal for authors. The first part of that sentence means that I think they are here to stay. The second part means I suspect that life as an indie author is about to get a lot more difficult.

(This is my immediate emotional response to the KU announcement. For an alternative and considerably more upbeat view on the subject, complete with a lot more math, take a look at what the always interesting Rachel Aaron has to say.)

If anybody has any other thoughts on the matter I would be happy to hear them.


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Second Kormak Saga Omnibus Released

The second Kormak omnibus has been released. It’s a three-for-the-price-of-two bargain available at all the major e-book retailers right now.

Here’s the blurb.

THE SECOND KORMAK SAGA OMNIBUS

From the rat-infested streets of nightmare-haunted Vermstadt, to the ruins of the greatest of all Dwarvish nations and beyond, Kormak must battle demons and monsters and the worst evil of all, that which lies within the human heart.

The Kormak Omnibus compiles three of Kormak’s greatest adventures into one massive volume packed with action, adventure and magic.

CITY OF STRIFE

A sinister conspiracy brings the great city-state of Vermstadt to the edge of civil war. A brutal murderer slays the poor and eats their hearts. A plague of supernaturally intelligent rats threatens to overwhelm the metropolis. The invincible Silent Man rises from his grave to kill again and again.

Join Kormak as he attempts to piece together the links between these terrible events and put an end to them before catastrophe befalls the city.

TAKER OF SKULLS

Kormak is ordered to guard the enigmatic sorceress Karnea with his life as she ventures into the Dwarven city of Khazduroth. It is a quest that begs many questions. What awful knowledge is Karnea really seeking amid the ruins of an ancient civilisation? Why has the sinister and mighty Old One known as the Taker of Skulls chosen this moment to return to the place where he was once worshipped as a god? And will anyone survive the deadly journey into the forsaken homeland of the once proud Dwarves.

Join Kormak as he battles his way through a gigantic underground city in search of one of the most dangerous secrets of the Old Ones.

OCEAN OF FEAR

The survivors of a burned out village set Kormak and a crew of bounty hunters on the trail of the pirate known only as the Kraken. The hunt leads from the haunted ruins of a cursed city to the buccaneer stronghold of Port Blood and reaches a bloody conclusion far beneath the waves of the ocean.

Join Kormak and his crew of bounty hunters as they battle pirates, sea monsters and ancient evils.

The Second Kormak Saga Omnibus is available for $9.99 or the equivalent in local currency at Amazon, Amazon UK, Amazon Germany, Apple, B&N, Kobo and Smashwords.

I am currently out of town in parts where internet access consists of a six mile hike to the nearest village. It may be some time before comments are replied to or moderated. My apologies if it happens! WordPress automatic scheduling failed to post this yesterday so I am doing it manually today. It will probably be Sunday before I am online again.


If you’re interested in finding out when my next book will be released as well as in getting discounts and free short stories, please sign up for my mailing list.

Ocean of Fear Author’s Notes

With my usual relentless lack of efficiency I have finally gotten round to writing up the author’s notes for Ocean of Fear only two months after the book was released. Here they are now.


The tortured girl is dying, slowly and in agony. The brooding stranger who has come across her broken body by the side of the path listens to her tale of murder and rapine with mounting rage. As the girl passes, his wrath explodes. “Men shall die for this,” he says. And you, the reader, know they will. For the stranger is Solomon Kane, the puritan adventurer who has some claim to being the first great hero of the sword and sorcery genre, and when he makes a threat you know it will be carried out.

The opening of Red Shadows has stayed with me for decades, and even shorn of Robert E Howard’s muscular prose, you can understand why. It has a very real power. This scene came back to me in force when I sat down to write the sixth volume of Kormak’s adventures, Ocean of Fear. It’s not the situation so much as the emotional resonance. Kormak is hunting a pirate chieftain and when he comes across his handiwork, he finds he is motivated by the same rage and thirst for justice.

Solomon Kane is a driven wanderer, a righter of wrongs, a man willing to hound evil-doers to the ends of the earth to see that they get justice, or at least what Kane’s dour Calvinist conscience sees as justice.

Howard’s characterisation is more subtle than he is often given credit for. The puritan is depicted as a man who uses his religious faith to rationalise his own desire for violent adventure. He does good but often not for the reasons he would have himself or others believe.

Solomon Kane was a huge influence on my idea of Kormak.
Like him, Kormak has followed many a malefactor to distant corners of the world, and he too thinks he is religiously motivated. He is, after all, a champion of his Solar god albeit one with more than his share of doubts.

Kormak also has a hidden motive and we see this very clearly in the opening chapter of this book. He has just witnessed the aftermath of the utter destruction of the coastal village of Woods Edge by pirates.

A man lay nearby, his throat cut. Maybe he had been forced to watch the woman die before they killed him. Kormak fought to keep his mind from constructing narratives. It was all too easy to picture what had happened here. He had seen the like many times, the first when he had been eight years old and it had been his own people dying.

Two children lay nearby. They stared up at the sky with blank empty eyes. Their throats had been cut too. They bore a family resemblance to the man and the woman.

“It was a mercy,” said one of the soldiers. “The tykes would have starved to death without their folks to feed them.” He did not sound as if he believed it. He sounded like he was trying to comfort himself.

The state of the corpses and the fact that the fires still burned made it obvious the attack was recent, most likely last night, possibly even some time before the dawn.

The slow burn of an anger that he knew, given time, would become incandescent fury started in Kormak’s gut. He felt, as he always did, the need to make someone pay for this.

He unclenched his fists, took a deep breath and forced the rage down into the place where he had buried it long ago. A man in his line of work could not afford to give in to every spark of righteous anger. It was not his job to avenge these people. His duty was to find the sorcerer men called the Kraken and end his unrighteous career. Anything else was just a distraction.

Just for a moment we catch sight of the gigantic engine of rage that drives this otherwise decent man. He looks into his heart, sees it and tries to deny it. He is kidding himself of course. He can no more bury his wrath than he can keep from breathing. Men shall die for this before this story is over and he will kill them.

Ocean of Fear was written in the shadow of two Kanes. The first was Robert E Howard’s reckless Puritan and the second was Karl Edward Wagner’s murderous titan who shares the name Kane.

The influence of Wagner’s work is on the setting. The background of Kormak’s world has many similarities to Wagner’s. It looks as medieval as a conventional epic fantasy but in the background lurk hints of strange magical technology and voyagers who travel, if not between the stars, at least between worlds.

Wagner’s work was influenced by Lovecraft, as was a good deal of early sword and sorcery. There is a sense of weird science about many of his monstrous elder races, just as there is with Yag Kosha in Howard’s The Tower of the Elephant or any of the waifs from interstellar space who haunt the Conan stories. The horror is cosmic.

The greatest echo of Wagner’s Kane is seen in the Quan, modelled on the aquatic Scylrendi, one of the Elder Races who haunt the pages of Darkness Weaves.

The Quan originally appeared in the background of the Terrarch novel, The Queen’s Assassin, and I was keen to revisit them. With their gigantic living submersibles, these aquatic vampires sidled into the background when I was thinking about doing a sea-faring adventure in the Kormak series.

I was happy to throw in the Quan as a link between the Terrarch series and the Kormak books. The series are written in very different styles but they share a common background universe and this book went some way to making that obvious. I’ve always wanted to build my own little cosmos and this was my first real bit of carpentry to join my worlds.

The story of Ocean of Fear involves the quest for a dark sorcerer, the Kraken, who also happens to be a pirate. The Kraken’s dark destiny involves him in the power politics of Kormak’s world and his sorcerous skill and knowledge have provided him with a plan to shake that world to its foundations.

Kormak is hired to track him down and kill him, apparently by the Merchant’s Guild of the port of Trefal in reality by someone much more important and with a far deeper agenda. The hunt carries him from the Blood Coast through the haunted city of an Elder Race to the pirate haven of Port Blood and beyond. It reaches its conclusion deep beneath the waves of the World Ocean and brings our hero face to face with what is quite possibly the greatest monster he will ever face.

I really enjoyed writing this book. I mean what’s not to love about a tale of pirates, naval battles and gigantic sea monsters? Hopefully, it’s as much fun to read.


If you’re interested in finding out when the next Kormak book will be released as well as getting discounts and free short stories, please sign up for my mailing list.

Starting A Mailing List

Every writer should have a mailing list. That’s one of those of those bits of advice that you will get sooner or later if you hang around writers’ boards on the internet long enough. It also happens to be true although it took me a long time to realise it.

I started my mailing list a few years back. To be honest, for the first year or so, I made no effort to attract folk to my mailing list whatsoever. And, oddly enough, it never seemed very useful.

Then I read Your First Thousand Copies which made a pretty convincing case not only for mailing lists but for using the much-hated browser pop-up to get people to sign up for them. Which is why many of you who visit this site get to see the aforementioned pop-up every couple of weeks. Since that time I have collected a couple of hundred names. That is still pretty small as mailing lists go but much better than it was.

So what are the benefits of mailing lists? Well, it depends on the kind of mailing list you want to run. Your First Thousand Copies recommends using your mailing list in the way most writers use their websites – to promote reader engagement by sending out articles, extracts from your books and other stuff, as well as sales links.

I’d love to do that but I am a bit too lazy, and by the time I had this information I had already spend a lot of time getting this blog rolling and, much as I enjoy writing it, I did not feel like setting out to create something that involved just as much work.

So, in the case of my list (which you can join here if you are interested), people who sign up get to hear about my new releases before anybody else and also get occasional freebies and special offers.

Often I release my new books at a low introductory price and then raise them after a few days and being on the mailing list gives you a head’s up about this.

Last month I gave away free copies of A Cold and Lonely Place to everybody on the mailing list. Amazingly enough a large number of people went off and bought it anyway. So thanks to everyone who did that. I’ll be doing similar giveaways in the future.

What benefits does the mailing list give me? Well, it gives me a bunch of initial sales, which is always gratifying and more to the point, that bunch of initial sales, even with a mailing list as small as mine, gives me a chance of getting onto some of the less important charts at Amazon. This visibility in turn leads to more sales. That’s the theory anyway.

Does it work?

As far as I can tell, yes. The past few times I’ve done a new release I’ve managed to hit the the charts for sea stories, short stories and a couple of others which I can’t be bothered to check my records of right now. My average sales per new release have been higher as well even after the initial introductory price has gone. As time goes on and my list gets larger, I might start to appear on the more important charts which in theory should lead to even more sales creating a virtuous loop.

Now you’re probably thinking that’s all very well for an indie writer but what about folk still with traditional publishers. Well, I reckon there is an even stronger case for them using a mailing list, particularly in the US where, if your book does not take off in the first couple of months it will be stripped and returned.

Having a mailing list means that you can notify your fans that your book is out and that they should go get it. You have a short window of opportunity to make your mark and you need to do everything you can to take advantage of it. It’s a bit like turning the voters out on election day.

Why use a mailing list? Why not just advertise it on your blog or website? Because there is no guarantee that people will be checking those out when you need them to be doing that. Your email will arrive in their inbox, and you can provide them with a handy-dandy sales link to click on which makes the task of buying your book easier. And hey there’s no law that says you can’t also use your website to make these announcements.

So how do you go about setting up your mailing list?

There’s all manner of laws concerning spamming and holding people’s personal data on your computer, so I recommend using a service like Mailchimp or Aweber who have already jumped through the legal hoops for you.

Mailchimp is free until your list reaches 2000 addresses (by which time you probably won’t be too worried about paying). Aweber costs money from the get-go but a lot of marketing professionals swear by it. There are a number of other services which I don’t know much about but which a swift Google search will turn up. I use Mailchimp myself and I’ve never had a problem with it.

Reputable services use what is called the double opt-in system. This means that once somebody signs up for your list they get sent an email and they need to click on a link within that email to opt-in. This gives them a chance to rethink signing up if that’s what they want. Of course, this also means there is a chance that the confirmation email might get caught in a spam filter so if you sign up for my list and haven’t got a response please check your junk mail filter.

Once you’ve uploaded your books to Amazon and whoever else you publish them with, you just need to wait a day or so until the books are live then you can cut and paste the links from the website into your mailing list newsletter and you’re good to go.

The nice thing about having a mailing list is that the list grows organically once its started. Just put a link to the sign up page at the back of your books and on your website and you are set.

Bonus Tip. If you decide to go with Mailchimp the web interface can be a little fiddly. It’s WYSIWYG but to create links you need to select text and cut and paste stuff into boxes. Making headers involves selecting text and clicking on buttons. It’s not difficult but it does take time and getting out your mailing list is one of those things you want to make as easy as possible.

I recommend using markdown and signing up for a free account with Draft. This has a nifty feature that allows you to send your markdown text to Mailchimp and have it transformed into fully functional HTML complete with links.

For those of you unfamiliar with markdown, it’s a simplified version of HTML meant to be easily usable and readable by ordinary folks. You can find out more here

You can learn enough markdown to create you mailing list in two minutes. In fact here is all you need.

To create a header in markdown you enclose your text in hashtags. The more hashtags you use the deeper the header level you get. One hashtag means a level one header, two hashtags means a level two header and so on.

Thus ####This is a level four header#### gives you

This is a level four header

You get italics by enclosing text in asterisks like so *asterisks*.

You get bold text by enclosing your text in **two asterisks**.

You create a link by enclosing the word you are intend to be clicked in square brackets and then placing the target of the link in normal brackets immediately thereafter. The format is [linkword](www.targetlink)

And there you have it. You now know enough markdown to create your own Mailchimp newsletter using Draft.


If you’re interested in finding out when my next book will be released as well as in getting discounts and free short stories, please sign up for my mailing list.