Readers

There are independent readers. They buy online. They do not spend a lot of money with Amazon. If they buy from Amazon it will most like be a kindle. They are comfortable reading eBooks. They will only buy a kindle only if it is significantly cheaper than the alternative or if the book they want is only available as a kindle and there are no alternatives. They have a preference for print. They may only recently have given up reading printed newspapers once in a while.

While they don’t buy from Amazon they buy on Amazon. They use the huge network of second-hand dealers. They may occasionally resort to Abe Books for something that is difficult to get, to a specialist for a foreign-language book or to a dealer who is off the network for something genuinely rare. Abe Books is of course now owned by Amazon. Mostly however when it comes to the time to buy independent readers find the edition they want on Amazon and click on ‘used and new’ to find the dealers they want.

Amazon is so big that like eBay and one or two others it isn’t really an online company any more. It is part of the web. That has a number of advantages for the reader. Most obviously, all the regular publishers whatever their reservations about Amazon think they have to be on it. Because of that you can get everything that’s in print. Since Amazon also makes it very easy for second-hand booksellers and discount dealers to use the network you can get almost everything that’s out of print as well. Additionally Amazon provides a high level of consumer protection. They are good on refunds and returns for example and set quite strict limits for delivery charges.

Amazon is hugely dominant in the book market and any company which has that sort of dominant position in the market will behave in some ways like a monopoly. In principle that’s dangerous. If you want choice you don’t have a choice. You go to Amazon. In the meantime readers and book-buyers are very well served. Publishers complain. If their own practices were more competitive one might have more sympathy.

Independent readers make use of recommendations on Amazon. Amazon don’t sell their recommendations to publishers. Independent readers may make use of recommendations on Goodreads as well. Goodreads is of course owned by Amazon.

Independent readers screen their recommendations. They may download samples even if they have no intention of buying the eBook. The facility of downloading a sample is another and no doubt unintended way in which eBooks benefit the reader. Independent readers look up books on Google. They may search on Google for a wider topic, the literature of a period for example, and then search for a particular title or writer. It has never been so easy to find a book and it has never been so easy to find out about books.

Independent readers buy the backlist. They buy translations. They buy classics. They read books that found their way into print in a time or a place when publishing was less aggressively commercial. They do not buy new books from regular publishers. They do not trust publishers. They do not even look for books from independent writers. There are so many books being published that good new books are hard to find.

Independent readers of the kind I am describing are the kind of reader that independent writers want. Some independent writers at least are probably also the kind of independent reader I am describing. They would get along.

Under current conditions it is very difficult for them to find each other.

Meagre harvest

I have harvested just under sixty email addresses of reviewers from Amazon and just over fifty web addresses of book blogs. I am really surprised. I thought I would be able to get about three times that and I thought I would get them quite easily. I am also surprised – although perhaps I shouldn’t be – at the amount of trash there is on Amazon.

I should say straight away that part of the difficulty is the restrictions I am imposing. If I’m looking for reviewers and bloggers who might like my books I have to limit my search to books I think I might like. That eliminates an awful lot of respectable writers.

I reaped the harvest manually. It wasn’t as difficult as being out in the fields in August with a scythe. But it was quite difficult.

I selected categories to search. That was the only way to narrow down the field. The best results – even though I’m not a science fiction fan or a science fiction writer – were from dystopian and cyberpunk. Literary fiction was a surprisingly infertile field.

I started on the left of the Amazon page. I scrolled through the icons the way I might scan down a menu in a restaurant.

I started by looking at titles. That’s what I normally do. The title is what will normally make me decide to click on a thumbnail and look at the description.

Sometimes I looked at covers. The cover will very often put me off. I don’t like drippy covers and I don’t like crude ones. Covers never make me buy. From which you can probably tell that I am not a genre fiction fan.

Then I looked at the right of the menu.

When was it published? If a book has been published much before 2015, the reviews are not going to be recent and the addresses may not be up to date.

How many stars has it got? If a reviewer has been positive about another book, there’s some chance they will be positive about mine. I found I really wanted a minimum of four stars. I preferred four and a half.

And finally, how many people had reviewed it? I found that to make it worth my while – to help with the harvest – I need a minimum of a hundred. That eliminated an awful lot of interesting-looking books.

This is perhaps the time to point out that I have three books on Amazon, and none of them have any reviews at all. That is why I am undertaking this exercise.

When I clicked on a book I went to ‘See all customer reviews’ and then ‘See all positive reviews’. I scrolled though until I found the longer reviews; the ones that filled my laptop screen. I also looked for reviewers in the Top 500 or Top 1000 rankings, and reviewers who were on the Vine Voice programme. I still don’t know what that is.

I don’t write many reviews and I don’t write long ones. My reviewer ranking on Amazon is about 12,000,000. I don’t think long reviews by a popular reviewer are necessarily better. What I did find quite quickly is that popular reviewers who write long reviews were more likely to publish their email address or the web address of their blog on their website. And that’s what I needed.

I found that I got a lot of my results from a few very popular books, like The Martian or Ready Player One. If they weren’t science fiction they were often books like The Mandibles or The Bone Clocks with an element of that. I write speculative fiction, so that’s not surprising.

What I was not prepared for, although perhaps I should have been, was the vast amounts of trash that there are on Amazon, and the contrast between a few very popular books and a mass of pretty much neglected ones.

I scrolled through many pages, if not most, without clicking on a single icon. Very often if I clicked on an icon I hit the back arrow straight away. Sometimes, for example it’s only obvious from the description that a book is being marketed to ‘young adults’. We used to call them children, back in the day. And sometimes it’s only obvious from the description that a book is a drippy romance.

I was aware of series. I have heard for example that writing series is one way that commercial writers improve sales. I wasn’t prepared for how many series there were in sub-genres like dystopian and post-apocalyptic. The interesting, current, stand alone books would turn up in the first few pages. The other pages might have a paperback re-release of a classic of the genre from time to time – everything else seemed to be series.

Literary fiction if anything was worse. I know literary fiction is bad. I know about pretentious. I was not prepared for quite how much rubbish there was.

Some of it was quite clearly an error, almost certainly by Amazon staff. Or maybe they were joking? I can accept that The Interpretation of Dreams and Investment in Shares for Dummies are fictional. I would however query their literary properties.

What I was most surprised by, I suppose, was the sheer unpopularity of most of the stuff on the site. Now I am not talking de haut en bas. Even if I do know what the French means. I have sold eight units of three books in ten months. I did meet someone the other night who said he would probably read one of my books. But he didn’t say he would buy it.

Most books had less than twenty reviews. Many had less than ten. A lot had none. They weren’t all new releases.

Some of the books with less than twenty reviews had been shortlisted for the Booker. There were a couple of Booker winners. They both had less than fifty.

Now I know this is impressionistic. Hard sales figures might give a different picture. But we all know how hard it is to get a publisher’s contract. We know about the intrusive editing and the constant re-writing. We know how hard the sales and marketing people push for the top slots.

Can it really be the case that most of the stuff that publishers are pumping out just doesn’t sell?

I honestly think it can.

I didn’t learn much about independent authors. It’s quite clear that reviewers get free books from publishers. Some of them talk openly about Netgalley, for instance. They also talk about requests for review. One or two were quite snotty, but only one or two.

It wasn’t clear how many of the requests or the freebies were from independent authors. That interests me.

Perhaps that is something I shall find out more about in the next stage?

Photo credit: russelldavies via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC