This was a funny old year, in many ways. In personal terms, I had the perfect holiday of a lifetime in February (a month in
Middle Earth New Zealand), followed almost immediately by a major
outbreak of doctors and hospitals (now resolved, but scary at the time). In
reading terms, I came across some awesome work that proved that traditional,
hybrid and self-publishing can all produce the goods, yet I also came to the
conclusion that editing standards are slipping across the board.
I bought 118 books this year (down from 149 last year). Only 9 were free, either permafree, special deals, birthday gifts (thanks, relatives!), or came as part of a Kickstarter package. Last year I picked up 40 free books, so either I’m getting more wary of free stuff, or less of it caught my eye. A few books were non-fiction, which I don’t show on Goodreads, and 10 were Audible audio-books, which at £7.99 a pop (about $12) were cheap for audio-books, but more expensive than I’m used to paying for fiction. I don’t think I’ll be buying any more of them. I didn’t buy, or read, a single dead-tree book this year, everything was digital. The audio-books and fewer freebies meant that the average price of my purchases over the year was £3.20, up from £2.15 last year (approx. $5 and $3.50). The most expensive books this year were ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ and ‘Dragon Queen’ (both £8.49, about $13), and ‘Emperor of Thorns’ (worth every last penny of £8.11, about $12).
For anyone who really wants to know this stuff, since I bought my first Kindle in October 2010 I’ve bought 428 books for it (including the audio-books, which work on the Kindle keyboard model). Total cost was £1200 (about $1800), which works out at £2.80 per book (about $4.20). Fortunately, generous gifts meant that I didn’t have to find all that money myself (Amazon gift cards are a wonderful invention). My gift to myself this year was a new Kindle, a Paperwhite, which allows me to read in pitch darkness or sunlight, and has a touchscreen to boot. This just may be the perfect e-reader.
2013 was a slower year for reading. I started well, with a number of quick reads and novellas, but then hit a streak of epic tomes, which slowed things down. My Goodreads challenge target was 100, but I only managed 83, down from 102 last year, and there were a further 9 books I started but abandoned. 16 books were rated 5* (17%), 30 were 4* (33%), 32 were 3* (35%), 4 were 2* (4%) and those 9 abandoned books were 1* (10%). For anyone whose maths is good enough to say: hey, there’s one missing, well done. You’re right, one book was unrated. These proportions are not dissimilar from last year, except that there are more 5* books this year (17% against only 7% in 2012). Am I getting softer? No, I just read a lot of cracking books this year.
Of those 92 books that I read, or attempted to read, 52 (or 57%) were self-published, as far as I can tell. Two thirds were fantasy, with the rest a mixture of sci-fi, mystery and general fiction. I don’t take much notice of the gender of authors when I buy a book. I choose based on whether the story sounds appealing to me, not on whether the author has boobs or not, since it’s the creative mind behind the book that interests me more. But for those who are interested in such matters, 50 of the books I read this year were by female authors as far as I can tell (that’s 54%).
I’ve already listed my best of the year over at Fantasy Review Barn in the Barney Awards and my list of self-published gems, so I won’t rehash that. The highlight for me was Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy, which I sailed through in a couple of weeks, completely awestruck, and then found it almost impossible to read anything else for an age afterwards. Proof that mainstream publishers, despite their many weaknesses, can sometimes get things totally right. Elsewhere in traditional publishing things were rockier. Brent Weeks’ ‘The Black Prism’ was one I just couldn’t get through, despite my best endeavours. Implausible characters and motivations, combined with a whizz-bang approach to plotting AND some ropey editing turned me off. And Bradley P Beaulieu got caught up in the Night Shade implosion just before the release of the third book in the trilogy (cue loud groans from fans), and enterprisingly turned to Kickstarter to fund its release. The upside was that I got the set for a knockdown price, lucky me.
Self-publishers proved, once again, that they can be just as professional as anyone else. Authors like H Anthe Davis, Intisar Khanani, Nathan Fierro, Duncan M Hamilton, Tristan Gregory, Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto shone this year, and produced fantasy that’s comparable in quality with anything out there. Self-pubbers have the freedom and creativity to follow their imaginations wherever they may lead, but there are signs that perhaps the pressure to churn out books on a regular basis may take a toll. One or two of my favourites put out new work that didn’t quite set me on fire.
Part of the reason for the pressure may be that returns for self-publishers aren’t quite as good as they once were. There are reports that promotions and free days don’t produce the same bump in sales, and it’s harder than ever to get noticed on Amazon. It’s just an impression, but it seems to me that self-pubbers now need a much larger stable of works (10 or more) to hit the best revenue stream. Plus, traditional publishers are muscling in at the cheap end of the marketplace, putting an author’s earlier work out for a short-term special price to help promote the latest one. I picked up ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ for only £0.99 (about $1.50), and far more new books are at sensible prices nowadays (again, only an impression).
So it may be that the glory days for self-pubbers are over. A lot are still making a living, or topping up the income very nicely, but it’s harder to make sales. Not that life’s a bed of roses for traditionally published authors, either, and most of them have no choice but to have day jobs. Advances are down, contracts are more restrictive than ever and they have to do most of their own marketing into the bargain.
But savvy authors can get the best of both worlds. Hugh Howey self-pubbed his way to a print-only contract with a traditional publisher, putting the paperback into every bookstore in the world, but retaining the ebook rights. Michael J Sullivan has a traditional publishing deal for his adventure fantasy, used a Kickstarter campaign to fund his edgier sci-fi, and cannily sells the audio-book rights before shopping his new work around, thus keeping the big margins for himself. These hybrid authors straddle the worlds of traditional and self-publishing. Combined with lower trad prices and more professional presentation from many self-pubbers, the distinction is increasingly blurred. And readers just don’t know or care who published what. They buy and read what appeals to them, which is why a sizeable proportion of ebook bestsellers are now self-published.
So what of 2014? I’ll still be reading and reviewing books, of course, both at my own blog, and at Fantasy Review Barn, in combination with Nathan and Anachronist. As always, I buy everything I review, and I review everything I read. One objective this year is to reduce my backlog of books still to be read, now hovering around the 90 mark. These are all books I’ve bought and paid for and want to read. So I’ve long since stopped looking for new material, I avoid Goodreads and I no longer consider review requests from authors new to me, which is sad but necessary for my sanity. And this year I intend to be more ruthless about giving up on books: if it hasn’t grabbed me by the 20% mark, it’s over.
I have one other project in the pipeline for this year. Like a lot of avid readers, I also have stories running round inside my head. I’ve dabbled at fiction writing for years, but last year I actually got a fantasy novel finished. I set it aside to brew for a while, and wrote another one. No one could have been more astonished than I was. But were they any good? For the last three months, I’ve been workshopping the first one at Scribophile, and now I plan to post it, chapter by chapter, at my writing blog, so that anyone who wants to can read it, comment on it, trash it, whatever. Maybe, if responses are positive, I’ll consider self-publishing later this year. Which would make 2014 a funny old year, too.
Wishing both my readers a very good year, and plenty of excellent reading.
My writing blog: everything you never wanted to know about my fantasy world and the people in it
Fantasy Review Barn: where Nathan, Anachronist and I all post reviews