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Friday, 29 April 2011

Ebooks versus Paperbacks: when business models collide

I’ve been having many discussions lately with various people about Ebooks and paperbacks, or as most people see it today, Ebooks versus paperbacks. There seem to be at least four main players in the discussion: publishers, authors, retailers, and readers.

I’m going to start – and finish – with readers, because they are why we authors write, even if they don’t actually drive the market place (currently big retailers and some publishers do that). There are many readers who are sceptical of the whole E-revolution.

“I like the feel of a paperback. I don’t want to read from a screen. I don’t have/want a Kindle,” etc.

All valid points. I used to be one of these. I only bought my Sony E-reader because my novel was coming out as an Ebook. But I travel a lot, and I was impressed how much the non-luminous screen resembled reading from paper. I got a ‘jacket’ for my Sony so it felt like holding a book. I travel internationally almost every week, and have lots of books stored on it. Frankly, I haven’t bought a paperback since.

But let’s assume that not everyone will want to read electronically. Let’s say 20% will. It’s already taken off faster in America than in Europe, but give it another year… Young people will be more inclined – many kids these days get taught at school using computers, have I-Phones, etc. They’ll say “What’s the big deal?” Demographics will most likely tilt towards Ebooks as time goes by.

A reader might say, “Hang on – there’s all these different models of Readers – it’s like Betamax and VHS all over again (younger readers, substitute BluRay and DVD).” Don’t worry, download Calibre Ebook Management (freeware) and you can mix and match.

“Why should I fork out $111 for a Kindle?”

I agree. They are all too expensive. Amazon’s Kindle is price-pitched to just undercut the competition (Sony, Nook, etc.) and way undercut the IPad. But Amazon should stick with their business model and go for economy of scale, and cut the price to $50. They’d recoup it in Ebook sales inside a month (as long as they don’t get sued for unfair business practices a la Microsoft). In any case, prices will come down, and software like Calibre will level the market, so that people can buy an E-Reader based on design options, rather than market share. 

Well-established authors can take it in their stride – they sell lots of paperbacks anyway, and their publisher will push the decision onto them, both parties ending up seeing an e-version as an ‘extra’, increasing market reach. Most authors however dream of seeing their work in print, on paper. Ebooks are still perceived by many authors, particularly those who are either as yet unpublished or at the start of their writing career, as somehow second rate, not the real deal (incidentally, isn’t it funny how environmentalism hasn’t affected writers much, given where paper comes from, even those authors who write about environmentalism…).

“How can I sign an Ebook for somebody?” I hear authors say (people in the US are working on it, by the way). “I want to keep the book industry alive, including the small indie booksellers, not just Amazon!” I hear another.

But smart Indie bookstores (aka survivors) and some libraries are already thinking of how to address Ebook demand. Think Starbucks, add E-Readers, and hey presto!

The real Ebook concerns for many authors are (a) money, (b) sense of achievement, and (c) lowering the general quality of literature. Money first.

“If my book sells as an Ebook for $2.99 how am I supposed to live on that?”

Well, it depends on the royalty rate. Most Ebooks today are digital versions of paperbacks which sell for 10-15 bucks (whether dollars, pounds, euros, etc.). The publishers, unashamedly, and with no justification I can think of, knock off a couple of dollars/pounds/euros and sell it to the reader as an Ebook as if they are doing them a big favour. Well, if it’s Iain Banks I’m buying, then I’ll probably fork out the money. But for a new (or new to me) author? Forget it. I already know that with Ebooks there is no printing cost, no warehousing cost, no distribution cost, and marketing is viral rather than paying reps to sell it to bookstores. So Ebooks should be considerably cheaper, probably 30% of the cost of a paperback. There is still the cost of proofing, type-setting (formatting, complex at the moment with up to nine different E-formats), and giving the author something to live on besides dreams. In the US, a market ‘correction’ has already occurred in some places – Ebook prices are coming down, and there are some stunning successes (Amanda Hocking being number one) of making huge amounts of money (self-published originally) by very low-priced Ebooks that sell in six figures (unfortunately, I don’t write about vampires as Amanda does). She’s cleaned up. Good for her!

Back to royalties. Traditionally, give or take, a paperback author gets ten per cent. So, say a book costs $10, then each sale brings the author $1. So, say an Ebook costs $3.99. The author should get 30-40%, so at least $1 and probably a bit more. First, the publishers have to accept the 30% lower limit, and probably 40%, rather than the 25% which is being mooted right now. 25% will not be enough for the author unless the Ebook is priced higher than the reader will buy it for… And if you don’t accept these economics, add electronic piracy into the equation. Remember Napster? Remember how expensive ITunes used to be? The prices now for buying music online have been driven down by a number of factors, but one is piracy. There is a ‘switchover’ point at which a person thinks, well, that’s a reasonable price for something, so I’ll pay it, rather than commit a very ‘minor’ crime (not minor to me, by the way) by clicking on this illegal (and untraceable) download button. It’s shocking that petty crime for many of us is relative rather than absolute, but there it is. Until online music stores dropped their prices, piracy was widespread. Same with new films, etc. (e.g. around 12 million illegal downloads of Avatar last year). So it will be with Ebooks. The writing is on the wall (and/or in the digital ether). Hackers will always be one step ahead, and unscrupulous people are always looking for the next thing to make an illegal buck (or million) out of. If Ebooks are priced right, there won’t be (much) of an illegal market.

Back to authors, and sense of achievement. At the moment I don’t have a paperback out there, just an Ebook. When someone reviews it and says they couldn’t put it down, that they can’t wait for the sequel, do you think I lie in bed thinking, “If only they’d read it in paperback?” I admit that I’d like to see it in paperback, because a paper book is an artefact, a cultural icon with an identity we have an unidentifiable relationship to, so I do understand. But above all, as an author, I want my writing to be read. This is particularly the case for new authors trying to break into a very skewed and cautious industry, where agents and publishers are looking for the next big one, or playing it safe with known successes. Their fear is well-placed – a good many publishers and some retailers went out of business during the recent economic crisis, and a good many editors lost their jobs: one reason I understand the big publishers holding onto high Ebook prices now, trying to re-capture some of their lost profit, or just to pay their staff and overheads. But the large publishers are still looking for big game, or for 2-for-1 deals they can sell to the hypermarkets. There are some new E-publishers out there, like the one I went for (Ampichellis Ebooks), who have divorced themselves from the previous paper-based business model, and who are prepared to try out new talent. These are the new ‘Indie’ E-publishers, and any new author who has spent a few years with a good novel (one which literary consultancies say is good enough to be published) but who can’t find an agent/publisher because it’s ‘not quite what they’re looking for right now’, should consider this path. Get on that train while it’s pulling out of the station. As my E-publisher (Robert Brown) said to me one day: “Fed up of hearing what publishers and editors and agents think of your writing’s suitability for the market? [Incidentally, agents and publishers are at least as much, if not more, interested in your ‘platform’ for selling than your writing capability]. Want to see what readers think?” A good point, which brings us to…

Lowering the quality of literature. This is a natural concern, but relates to self-publishing more than it does to E-publishing. E-publishing just makes it a little easier. Anyone, more or less, can take a manuscript these days, and publish online, e.g. Smashwords being one of the better places to do it (set up by a writer for other writers). These online venues allow (pretty much) anything – good, bad and terrible, to go online. But you don’t have to read them. You can choose. You, in this sense, means you the reader, not you the publisher acting in the reader’s (or in some but not all cases publisher’s) best interests, nor the supermarket chain’s interests, etc. And of course there are quality E-publishers who reject many submissions, and work hard on getting re-writes, on proofing and formatting etc. But again, there is a market void here. There is currently almost no viable, independent Ebook review system. And we need more Indie Ebook stores. They will come, because markets abhor a vacuum. Favour the bold and the quick…

Ebooks also offer tremendous advertising potential, as yet unrealised by publishers. Maybe that’s a good thing, but someone will spot it sooner or later (quite a few writers have spotted it already, because they’re interested in sponsorship).

So, to wrap up, Ebooks are currently seen by most publishers as an add-on. The Ebook is part of the ‘traditional publisher’s’ paper-based business model. But the Ebook market deserves its own business model, because the digital world and digital products are so agile. Ebooks are faster and cheaper to produce, distribution is virtually instantaneous, Ebooks need never go out of print, they don’t need trees, etc., and especially for youngsters (and they’re the ones who have/will have the disposable income), the E-Readers (or I-Phones) look ‘cool’.

When business models collide, the result is a market correction or a new business model, and a shift in perspective. Ebooks have to reflect their true cost and value to the reader, but give the author enough back, which means lower Ebook prices and higher royalty rates. We need more ‘pure’ E-publishers and independent Ebook stores, and they need to set up Ebook review systems to be taken more seriously and to ensure there are some basic levels of quality, and also to tell the growing population of readers of Ebooks what is good to read.

So, I’m a SF writer, so you may think I’m biased, but answer me this – in fifty years, what do you think the Ebook market share will be? Now, hold that number in your head, and think fifteen years… That’s one generation.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Writing the first scene - a checklist

In writing groups we all have our favourite 'How to write a successful novel' books. Mine is Beginnings, Middles and Ends, by Nancy Kress, because most writers are good at one or two of these, but rarely all three - the 'middle' is a danger point for any writer. But it is the beginning that is critical these days to attract an agent or publisher, and of course the reader, too. Most readers when thumbing through a book will read the first line, the first paragraph, or the first page, and most E-stores now allow you to read the start of books. If you don't hook the readers there and then, they will put your book down and pick up the next interesting cover...

Here's my own checklist adapted from Nancy's book:


First Scene
  1. Does the first sentence hint at some (future) conflict?
  2. First paragraphs – an individualised character, with fresh, specific details, in conflict? Telling details, telling us about the character.
·      Not the first details that come to mind; not more of the same old thing
·      Specificity (e.g. 'the reflected police lights on Lily’s hands')
·      Reveal that the writer has a fresh and meticulous eye
·      Details that convince the reader/editor you know what you’re talking about
·      Details that anchor your story in concrete reality
·      Good (fresh, assured) diction, no clich├ęs
·      Would 9 out of 10 people behave like this? If so, then change it!
·      What’s interesting about this person?
  1. Last paragraphs of first scene – evoke an emotion relevant to what the book is about, through detail or dialogue.
  2. Hold the first scene to three named people.
  3. End of scene – something changed from the beginning?
·      A character discovers something is more complicated than he’d hoped
·      A character learns a disturbing piece of information
·      A character arrives some place new
·      A character meets someone who will significantly alter his life
·      An event occurs that will lead to a significant change

  1. What kind of book does this first scene promise?
  2. Do you set the tone for the rest of the book, and stay true to that tone?
Not so easy, right? I just looked through a dozen books on my shelf to see which ones held up to this kind of scrutiny. Then I got to Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, a forebear of some of today's gritty crime novelists, and read the first few paragraphs. Straight away I wanted to read it again...

Saturday, 9 April 2011

'I am number 4', The Fringe, and Heroes - Blurring SF and fantasy

I went to see the SF film 'I am number four' [titled 'Numero 4' in France] which was supposed to be a Science Fiction film. The storyline certainly sounds like SF: a young man from another planet is being hunted down by aliens who destroyed his world. He finds he has special powers... Hmm. Hang on a minute - that last part sounds like a Marvel Comics blurb...

The hero looks and acts human, having grown up on Earth under the watchful eyes of his mentor, also from his planet, and is suffering the pangs of teenage love for a cheerleader... A Paris review said it was a cross between SF and Twilight, and I agree. It plays too much to the unrequited love aspect, including one horribly cheesy line: "unlike humans, when we love it's forever" which elicited groans from the audience, especially the girls.

There is no explanation of his powers, except the nice-and-easy 'I'm from another world' line. Doesn't cut it for me - SF should have some scientific plausibility that is not only skin deep. The TV series Heroes, which for me started off really well then lost it completely in succeeding seasons, was more fantasy than SF, but at least the heroes' 'gifts' were interesting, and the acting was better. The TV series The Fringe has more attempts to be scientific, usually by one of the characters uttering a complicated but mercifully brief pseudo-scientific - or rather, paranormal - rationale of what is happening. Sometimes this works and sounds plausible (I used to study both science and the paranormal). Other times it reminds me of the first series of Star Trek, and good old Scotty saying something like: "I cannae do it, Cap'n, the warp engine hopple scramblers just cannae take it anymore." [If you're a 2nd gen ST fan, then Scotty = Geordie, Deep Space Nine = O'Brien, etc.]. You can cheat like this on screen, never in a book, though. But I enjoy The Fringe because of the tight, gritty script, and its cheese-free diet. And I've watched DS9 four times now...

So where is the line between SF and fantasy? There is a movement in SF called 'mundane SF' which dictates that SF must be a reasonable extrapolation from what is known today about science. So, faster-than-light travel is (just about) conceivable, but you need to specify your warp drive mechanism (Alcubierre being one of the more credible options) and your fuel (I opted for dark matter). But telepathy is not 'mundane SF', because there is no evidence for it and no scientific rationale of how it could work.

To me this goes too far, and limits us to what we know now, which is changing usually by the year. SF isn't just about working out what is possible technologically - that's what the magazine New Scientist is for. It's about exploring humanity's response to different possible situations and worlds. Like all fiction, it's about trying to know who we are, whether in normal life (as in fiction or memoir) or in abnormal life (SF, Fantasy), and what we're capable of, good and bad. Something like telepathy or teleportation might have no scientific basis now, but could have one in the future, and would change our lives in ways we can imagine, via SF.

Like all fiction, the idea, be it an alien with special powers, warp drive, or telepathy, or vampires for goodness sake (sorry), is only half the story. It's how you build a convincing world around the idea, and compelling characters who we believe in, and since they believe in the world they're in, so do we. This is what great writers do: Tolkein created Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings; Frank Herbert created an entire universe (Dune), and Iain Banks more recently created The Culture.

So, back to the film: SF or fantasy? To me it fell between too stools, and for that reason, along with an entirely predictable end followed by yet more cheese, was unsatisfactory. Mainly fantasy if I had to choose. If they'd worked a little harder on either the fantasy or the science, and less on staring into a cheer-leaders' eyes with a mournful look, and if the film hadn't killed off the best character too early, and if our hero had gone for the other far sexier alien instead, then maybe. Too many 'ifs'. And one last thing for the film director who I'm pretty sure isn't reading my blog, again from the end of the film. A Ducati is a serious motorbike, and should never, ever, be shown driving along at 30 mph, no matter how hot the blonde who's riding it.

I suspect the SF/Fantasy blurring trend is likely to continue, however. Fantasy is very popular now, including an endless procession of my boyhood comic heres thanks to Marvel-inspired movies. A lot of SF writing these days is great, but difficult to transpose onto screen. Hollywood is there to make money. Can't you just imagine somewhere some film producers kicking around a SF plot that isn't quite working for them, and someone says: "Hey, why don't we make the female astronaut a vampire?"

How people react in abnormal worlds...

One last thought. Life today would have been seen as science fiction by some people fifty years ago, and as pure fantasy by others. Maybe it's the viewer/reader who gets to decide.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Telepathy and Trust

Telepathy is interesting for two reasons: first, we'd all like to know what other people really think about us - does the girl or boy we meet every day at the coffee machine know we exist? Is (s)he maybe interested in us? Does my spouse really love me, or someone else?

The second reason is that we all have thoughts we hope no one could guess. Gosh - if she really knew what I was thinking right now... Love and fear: the two great motivators.

SF writers have long played with the idea. The norm, especially in TV or film, is to have a small number of humans able to reach into other people's minds. This is like active listening, or learning a new language. I live in France, and if I'm on a train I can easily block out the French spoken around me because my French is not brilliant - I have to actively listen to translate. But a native or very good speaker often has no choice but to listen. Such SF usually casts telepaths as outcasts or as being persecuted by the non-telepathic majority - in this case driven by fear more than any positive emotion. The TV series Babylon Five had an interesting take on this aspect, and implied that a war would come between telepaths and 'normal' humans. Sounds reasonable.

The other, less trodden SF route is to consider an alien race of telepaths. What would society be like if everyone was telepathic? Would there be lies or manipulation? There could be no deceit. Love could exist, but would flirting? Could violence against one another exist, when you would feel another's pain as your own? Most likely such a race would be pacifist. It might not be where you or I would choose to live, but it would be a precious race, because the 'love' part of us, the part that needs to be loved, would yearn for that open-ness, that degree of honesty and trust based on direct understanding. It is something that many seek in an intimate relationship. Telepathy would deliver intimacy in spades.

There could be a downside. Would such a race be advanced technologically? Would there be competition, drive to achieve, or invent? A lot of our advances and research is linked to defense and to War, and competitiveness borne of conflict. Pacifism could breed indolence in this respect. So what? Wouldn't it be a worthwhile trade, I hear you say? Well, yes and no. The 'no' part would arrive when a non-telepathic race came a-knocking...

So, what would happen if such a race stumbled on humanity, or if we stumbled on them? How would they perceive us? Sad? Tragic? Undisciplined with our thoughts? Dangerous? This is what I explored in my short story The Sylvian Gambit, and I took it one step further: how would they defend themselves if we were the aggressors? What if they needed to deceive us in order to survive? Could they do it?

It's an issue I intend to explore further in the last part of the Eden Trilogy, Eden's Revenge, where there will be an altogether different take on it: could a pacifist race of telepaths use telepathy as a weapon?

Incidentally, for any SF buffs reading this and the Sylvian story - the Syvians were inspired in me by Orson Scott Card's (brilliant and unique)  Ender series - I'll leave you to work out which one.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Why films don't always make good books

I saw the SF movie 'World Invasion' (aka Battle for LA) last night, and it got me thinking about why films written from a script don't always tranlate back into books. For those who haven't seen it, World Invasion is about a platoon trying to fend off aliens in modern day Los Angeles. Unusually, it's more about the platoon and the interactions between the 'team' led by Aaron Eckhart, than cool computer graphic images (CGI) of aliens.

The aliens themselves look techy but are fairly flimsy and terrible shots, judging by the survival rate of the platoon members. There is a lot of 'handcam' filming, and although I'm not a fan of handheld camera work, it's appropriate as it gives the sense of disorientation in battle a gritty realism. Not sure how a Kindle would handle it, though - maybe the Kindle could shake the words around on the page?

The film kicks off well with good battle scenes which establish that the world is in serious trouble, and then flashes back to 24 hours earlier before the invasion began. Having had a good start, the next fifteen minutes quickly establish the characters, such as they are, and then the action ramps up again.

Incidentally, this trick of having a 'guns blazing' start and then slowing down to introduce the charatcters while the reader/viewer gathers his or her breath is called the swimming pool technique - kick off hard, then glide before you start swimming again. Excellent pacing technique, whether film or book.

I enjoyed the film - it was better than I expected, and executed well given its theme. The main problem however, is the concept, and here is where it would be difficult to translate it back into a book, because once you start to think about it, you quickly realise it's full of holes.

First hole is that these aliens come from space, but decide to engage in a good old fashioned infantry-style battle. Why? Why not just blast cities from space? Second hole is that although they can obviously travel between the stars, their weapons are barely a match for our tooled-up marines. Does that make sense to anyone? Third - there was no nuclear response (as in the film Independence Day). Why not? Given that the aliens ships looked as if they'd been borrowed from the site of the quirky but excellent film District 9, they'd have been vapourised in micro-seconds.

What I did like about the concept, and its (more polished) forebear Independence Day, was that the aliens used a co-ordinated attack, hitting major cities at the same time, causing mass global shock, and preventing a co-ordinated reponse. The confusion and the despondency of the platoon members was palpable in the film (though I didn't need the camera shots of crying kids to ram it home). I also liked the inferred reason for the invasion, that the aliens wanted our water as so few planets have liquid water - a nice SF touch.

In my book, The Eden Paradox, the build-up to the attack on Earth occupies three quarters of the book, and when it finally comes, it is savage and devastating, and above all, quick. This makes more sense to me. And the aliens find a sneaky way to neutralise nuclear and nanotech defences...

A lot of Hollywood blockbusters these days are not based on books but on scripts and screenplays. These often work well while watching the film, but if you really think about it after the popcorn is finished, you'll often find holes in the plot. If it's a book, such holes are spotted and plugged long before the book gets published.

Still, I love movies, and am willing to ramp up my 'suspension of disbelief' for a couple of hours and just enjoy the moment. And there are exceptions, like Inception, for me the best SF film for a long time (but the script took a decade to deliver, longer than most books). At which point I'll declare my favourite SF film ever, Blade Runner, based on the book by Philip K Dick. Here is a great film, and a great book, though they are very different. A rare win-win in the ongoing debate over films vs. books.
 
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