Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Essay: Review of 2013

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 Im getting more wary of free stuff, or less of it caught my eye. A few books were non-fiction, which I dont 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 Im used to paying for fiction. I dont think Ill be buying any more of them. I didnt 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 Cuckoos 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 Ive 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 didnt 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, theres one missing, well done. Youre 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 dont 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 its 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 (thats 54%).

Ive 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 wont rehash that. The highlight for me was Mark Lawrences 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 couldnt 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 thats 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 didnt quite set me on fire.

Part of the reason for the pressure may be that returns for self-publishers arent quite as good as they once were. There are reports that promotions and free days dont produce the same bump in sales, and its harder than ever to get noticed on Amazon. Its 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 authors 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 its harder to make sales. Not that lifes 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 dont 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? Ill 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 Ive bought and paid for and want to read. So Ive 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 hasnt grabbed me by the 20% mark, its 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. Ive 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, Ive 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, Ill 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


  1. Pauline, that's a shrewd assessment of the self-publishing scene. It's getting tougher out there. But I'll take that against submitting to agents and no one reading my books :o)

    I hope you have a good year reading and writing.

    1. Thanks. It's tougher for everyone just now, but I still think self-publishers have the best options available to them. All the best for 2014.

  2. I also went the self-publishing route due to frustration over constantly submitting and getting form letters. Of course, submitting a self-pub book for review and getting no response at all is also frustrating, but at least it's out there. Different problems. Just glad I like my day job.

    And some day I will read Mark Lawrence. I can't say that the reviews paint a picture I particularly like, but I feel I should try it.

    1. Just remember that virtually all the traditionally published authors have to have a day job, too. :-)

      Not everyone likes Mark Lawrence. If you read the first couple of pages of the Amazon sample, you'll know whether it's for you or not.

  3. The reader in me found this very informative, but the mathematician in me loved the statistics! :P

    I tend to agree with most of your assessments as well.

    Going over to read your best of the year post now.

    1. I wondered when I was writing this whether anyone but me would find all the statistics interesting, so I'm glad someone did. The best of the year comments are scattered over the Barney Awards, our sideways look at our year's reading. You can find the full list here: