Platform Games

So, how are ebooks doing, really? In recent years, we’ve heard stories – maybe even seen data – that say sales have peaked and are declining, but are they? I wanted to get behind the headlines and find out what was really going on. And it turned out to be more interesting, and more complicated, than some of us might have expected.

For ebook sales to peak, or appear to peak, first they had to surge. Ebooks dawdled for the first few years of this century while we all waited for a user-friendly ereading platform. The Kindle arrived in late 2007, and ebook sales took off, provoking a response from established publishers that amounted to around 2/3 fear and 1/3 excitement. Maybe slightly more fear. Then the iPad came along in 2010, and soon tablets were everywhere, and a great platform for reading. So, over a period of maybe four years, ereading soared.

What’s happened since?

Some technological evolutions, but no revolution. Bigger phone screens mean more phone reading, but that’s not as big a deal as Kindles and tablets. In the absence of great tech leaps forward, there haven’t been the drivers of ereading that kicked in a few years ago.

On top of that, big publishers changed their deal with Amazon on pricing ebooks. And they put their prices up. Amazon had spent years habituating ebook purchasers to a $9.99 ceiling, and prices above this proved a barrier to quite a few. Also, publishers shifted their ebook prices much closer to their paperback prices, drawing readers back to paperbacks.

But that’s far from the whole story. The ebook market was also evolving.

Those stats you see on falling ebook sales? They’re almost all from a limited range of sources, none of which measures the ebook market as well as it measures the paper book market – Nielsen surveys, Association of American Publishers figures, other studies tracking sales by ISBN. When paper books were the market, those measures stacked up reasonably well. But they don’t for ebooks. The AAP might have 1200 members, but it’s not the ebook market, which has an uncountable number of indie publishers, self-publishers and other people bringing books to market without AAP membership or ISBNs. The Kindle Store is full of books that are ducking under the stats radar, and it’s not the only place that works that way. The quarterly updates at the Author Earnings website give a much better idea than some of the figures that are widely talked about.

The book industry is split in two: the companies the mainstream media  often view as the book industry, and the epublishers who are happily doing business anyway and, overall, selling many millions of books a year. While newspaper articles often say ebook sales are falling, they’re actually still growing, if you add them all up, even if not at the spectacular rate they were in 2010-2012.

For the foreseeable future, books will come on paper and as a digital ebook file – and audiobook file – and authors need to think through at least all these formats, if not more.

In my PhD-student capacity, I’ve  written way more about that here at TEXT, but it also made sense to drop in here and spell some of it out, and to say it’s clear that ebooks aren’t going away. Many of the prophets of doom may have a vested interest or have skim-read the stats. Whatever the reason, I think they’ve got it wrong. The ebook market is evolving, as it was always going to, but it remains a place where authors need to be and where readers will go to find them.


Nick Earls was the second author signed by Exciting Press, and the first who didn’t also own the company. His novella series, Wisdom Tree, has just been awarded the Adult Fiction Ebook gold medal at the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Vancouver, one of the novellas in the series is currently shortlisted in the Christina Stead Prize at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and also a contender for the People’s Choice Award. We’re not going to be subtle about it. Please click here and choose it, people!

Either Black Magic or Miraculous

Sometimes I wonder what sort of pen Raymond Chandler used — and if finding out and buying one would somehow imbue my writing with a similar ethic.

Not his voice or style. Already we’re a sentence in and I think it’s ostensibly clear that I’m not writing as Chandler did. I’m usually not concerned with the same themes, and I’m not emulating his rhythms or aping the way he wrote his plots–

“When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to over-reach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.

As I look back on my own stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published.”

A lot of people recall that first sentence of that quote, but I’ve always been drawn to the rest, about writers who are afraid to overreach, and especially that jewel there at the end.

(For what it’s worth, I think Chandler is up there among the great writers of the 20th century, easily earning a place alongside folks like Fitzgerald and Hemingway and King.)

What I like about Chandler is his dedication. I picture him as a clean-cut guy in his 50s (that’s how old he was in he wrote The Big Sleep, as I’ve heard), wearing hard-resin eyeglasses as he sits at his desk tapping out his stories on an old Underwood from notes composed using the flex-nib of a now-vintage fountain pen — probably a Montblanc or a Parker.

As an engagement present, my wife gave me a Montblan pen — an Edgar Allan Poe writers edition. I confess I wish I used it more often, but it has a medium-size nib, and I like when I write to fit the words more closely together.

I wrote this very post with a Pilot/Namiki Falcon pen that has what they call a “soft fine” nib. You can’t tell, obviously, because I typed it out so that I could post it, but what’s neat about this pen is that it produces variations in line width. I’ve purchased a few fountain pens over the past couple of years, starting with a Waterman Expert nearly two years ago based solely on Stephen King’s mention that there’s no finer word processor. Apparently, after his accident, he couldn’t sit as well for long periods of time at a desk, and so he figured out other ways to pursue his stories. Because that’s what we writers do. We figure out a way to make sure the stories get told. There’s something about fountain pens I enjoy, something that brings to my mind a long-gone era in which men always wore suits and locks were always secure and there was always the possibility of a case falling into your lap, whether you were a private investigator or not. Sometimes you just trip and accidentally end up in North by Northwest.

Because it was like anyone could do it, wasn’t it? Anyone could be a PI, and fiction was full of them, the Shaynes and Marlowes, the Hammers and Dupins. That was one of the best things about Marlowe. He was Bogey, played with a slightly worn, hangdog way.

That’s one of the great things about writing, too — anyone can do it. It doesn’t require special instruction or licenses. Nowadays it doesn’t even require equipment any more special than what we all have on our desks — and that’s nevermind that you can post something on the internet for all the world to see using something you normally keep in your pocket when you’re not charging it.

I wonder what Chandler would have thought of that. Probably he would have thought it either black magic or miraculous, depending on how positive he was feeling when you asked.