Few artists can say they’ve had a number one. For every Adele and Stephen King there are a million creative people who will never experience any kind of commercial success.
While digital downloads have made the music charts more susceptible to changes in the public mood (celebrity deaths being the obvious example), they’ve hardly created a level playing field.
But there’s something a bit different going on in the strange new world of the e-book. Uncharted territory? Not exactly. Amazon, which has more than half the market sewn up with its phenomenally popular Kindle device, has positioned its own bestsellers chart at the heart of the e-reading experience, and it’s not the impenetrable domain of big names you might expect.
This week, Edinburgh-based author Doug Johnstone saw his fourth novel Hit & Run soar up the rankings after his publisher Faber & Faber pitched it to Amazon as one of their cut-price daily deals.
With a price tag of just 99p for 24 hours only, Johnstone saw his work rise thousands of places before his eyes.
“The whole day was surreal,” Johnstone recalls. “I woke up in the morning and the book had gone from around #40,000 to #19. Then it kept creeping up. I became hooked on it. Then it sat at #2 for ages behind Fifty Shades of Grey (by best-selling erotica writer E.L. James). So I went and took my kids swimming. When I came out it was #1.
“I realized Amazon had massive marketing power, but I didn’t realize it could have this much effect. I was gobsmacked. Once we got the kids to bed, my wife and I opened a bottle of fizz and I sat shaking my head a lot.”
Hit & Run is an Edinburgh-set thriller which explores the huge implications of one split-second decision. Driving home from a party one night through Holyrood Park with his girlfriend and brother, Billy Blackmore accidentally hits someone. They decide to drive off, but the next day Billy reads in the local paper that the man he has killed is the city’s biggest crime lord.
It gets worse. As a trainee crime reporter on a fictionalised version of the Edinburgh Evening News, he must return to the scene of the crime.
Johnstone, 41, believes the exposure to thousands of new readers is worth the temporary drop in price.
“Which author doesn’t want more readers for their work? The knock-on effect has been fantastic,” he says. “Not only did the Kindle version of Hit & Run stay at #1 well after the low-price offer finished, but the paper version of the book got a big nudge in sales, and my previous novel Smokeheads got a massive boost in sales as well. The feedback from new readers has already been amazing as well, so it’s all good.”
Exact sales figures, it appears, are a closely guarded secret. “I’m not allowed to say,” Johnstone confirms. “Amazon are very secretive about that sort of thing, which is their call, I guess. Let’s just say sales were very healthy.”
While he acknowledges the fact that the rise of the e-book has only increased the competition for writers, Johnstone is positive about the technological impact on publishing.
“I think there are pros and cons to e-books,” he says. “On the one hand, the ability to self-publish can free up writers to take chances, unconstrained by the conventions of the mainstream publishing industry. On the other hand, there’s such a mass of ebooks out there, how do you get yourself noticed amongst the throngs? I got incredibly lucky, basically.”
With Amazon, an early adopter, gobbling up such a large market share, there have been some who have expressed concern about their dominance. It’s safe to say that Johnstone isn’t losing any sleep over this.
“It’s a worry if all the power in any industry is in the hands of too few companies or institutions, but conventional publishers and other online players are holding their own and fighting back at the moment,” he says. “These things come and go anyway, and there are various legal wrangles going on at the moment that could have far-reaching consequences for the whole industry, so who knows where the power is going to lie in the future?”
Ironically, Johnstone currently has to make do with plain old paperbacks, while his own novel maintains its top 10 status in the digital world.
“I did have a Kindle but it got stolen when my house got burgled recently!” he says. “I guess that’s one of the drawbacks of e-books, the devices are nice and nickable compared to cheap paperbacks. Luckily I didn’t have too many books loaded on it.”
The publishing industry is facing up to its most critical revolution since Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type printing in the 15th century. Currently, debate rages over whether e-books will supercede their print forebears.
Johnstone sees the two formats continuing side-by-side: “I think e-books will eventually outsell paper books, but there will always be a place for both. I think it’ll become like vinyl versus downloads, some will prefer the desirable physical item, most will just get a download. It’s a generational thing, probably. I do like a physical book, but I’m happy to read in any format.
“The story is the most important thing, let’s face it.”
• Hit & Run is out now, available on the Kindle and in your local bookshop
KINDLE SUCCESS STORIES
• 28-year-old Amanda Hocking, a self-publishing American author, became a millionaire when her teen fiction e-books started clocking up thousands of daily sales.
• Joe Konrath, an independent US writer of mystery fiction, earned $150,000 in six weeks from e-book sales over the lead-up to Christmas last year.
• Kerry Wilkinson, a sports journalist from London, set himself the challenge of writing a novel when he turned 30. He sold his 100,000th copy on Christmas Eve.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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