Meditations on 99: eBook pricing in science fiction publishing

What one image on Facebook can tell us about the state of science fiction publishing

To me, publishing is fascinating landscape. One dotted with rabbit holes. Usually I skip over them – I have a day job to concentrate on, after all – but sometimes I fall through and find myself in a warren of juicy titbits.

Here’s an example of a hole I fell into back in May after a friend put a “Hey look, my new book’s charting” post on Facebook.

From that starting point, we can explore how the ‘tsunami of 99p crud argument’ has rolled through 180 degrees in less than a decade to mean the opposite of what it did in 2011 (or does it?!?), how the balance of success between different publishing models has changed over that period, and how the disconnect between readers and SF reviewing has not. There is much more besides, and there will be graphs!

Incidentally, the eagle eyed among you will notice I’m posting this in July.

Why the delay?

Well, the world’s been busy. And so have I. But I’ve just finished a book revision and sent it off to my lovely Chimera Company Insiders, so I’ve taken the day off to do my annual blogging.

I told you this was a rabbit hole, and I wasn’t kidding. In this article, I explore multiple areas of science fiction publishing in 2020. The whole thing is maybe 10-15 minutes to read. So grab a coffee and get comfortable. Are you ready? Then we’ll begin…

This all kicked off when an author friend of mine on Facebook posted to share his excitement at charting well in the Amazon space opera bestseller list. This was specifically the UK chart, which to be honest I rarely look at (unlike the US one that I’ve studied for almost a decade.)

My Facebook friends include a large proportion of professional authors, so I get this sort of thing every day. But something caught my eye in this particular post.

Most of the books were on sale at 99p.

I opened up the live version of the chart and saw this was true throughout the top 20, sixteen of them being sold at 99p. For the reasons I’ll set out below, this was a big surprise. Even more so when I noticed that the more expensive books were self-published and the 99p ones came from traditional publishers.*

I like change.

It’s at the heart of science fiction literature and one of the reasons science fiction publishing in the past decade has fascinated me (in addition to the obvious: publishing puts a roof over my head). There’s much that has changed and rapidly. There have been waves of innovation that have come and gone in an industry that has sometimes seemed conservative to the point of being reactionary.

* (TradPub in the sense that the authors were being published by imprints they were not themselves part of running. I’m excluding some of the highly innovating small presses that have been so enormously successful in science fiction publishing – the likes of Aethon and LMBPN. What I call NewPub).

For most of the last decade, I’ve studied the Amazon bestseller charts obsessively. Back in 2011-12, a space opera bestseller list chock-full of 99p or 99c books from self-publishers was commonplace. Five or so years later and you’d still get the occasional 99c books, but they were heavily outnumbered.

I think the explanation is that once the more successful self-publishers had established themselves as perennial bestsellers, they could up the price and earn more for their labor. There’s no longer such a compulsion to compete on price when you have tens of thousands of avid followers eager for your next novel.

First $2.99 became more common. Then $3.99 and $4.99. To a lot of readers, that price is still cheap.

That’s why one of the most noticeable things in the chart my friend posted was the number of 99p books from the major publishing conglomerates. The likes of Hachette and Pan Macmillan.

At the start of the last decade, 99p Kindle books were frequently sneered at by legacy commenters, described as a tsunami of self-published dross that couldn’t possibly be any good if authors had to ‘give their books away’.

If you took that argument at face value, then it would now appear that it is the major publishers who are hurling a wave of dross onto eBook readers, driven – presumably – by desperation because no one wants to read their eBooks at full price.

Of course, neither argument was ever true. Readers do buy dollar books on a whim to try them out, but no one will repeatedly invest their time in reading an author who writes dross. And yet by 2011 it was obvious that certain authors who were selling cheaply, were consistently writing bestsellers, and many of those books were in series. That last point is significant. Why would a reader buy the second, third, seventh book in a series if the first was poorly written?

The answer, of course, is that they wouldn’t. Not unless they were stupid.

It’s my opinion that when commentators propose a model of publishing and reading habits that only makes sense if readers are stupid, it tells us far more about them than about readers in the real world.

I’ll step back a moment to make two brief points.

First of all, let’s name my friend flush with success. He’s Ian Whates with his Pelquin’s Comet trilogy. Congratulations, Ian. I read the first one and it’s an excellent slice of space opera fun. If you like my writing, it’s worth checking out Pelquin’s Comet.

The other thing you might have noticed is that I’m flitting between £GBP and $USD. That’s because when I’m thinking about pricing or royalties, I usually think in dollars and cents.

Relatively speaking, I’m about as successful within the American science fiction book market as I am in the British one. But the American market is many times larger, so when I said I’m used to studying these bestseller charts, I mean the American ones. When I look at pricing points to make my pricing decisions on books I publish, I always do it in dollars.

In May 2020, when Ian’s book hit the charts, all brick-and-mortar bookstores were shut in the UK COVID-19 lockdown. It might seem reasonable to think therefore that major publishers are selling so many Kindle books at 99p as a temporary measure because their main channel has dried up.

Perhaps. To a degree. But the majors have been pushing 99p and 99c for some years now. I think it’s more likely that this is an existing trend that has been COVID-accelerated, and I suspect it will not go away. Indeed, when we look back in a few years at the publishing changes wrought by the pandemic, I think it will be a common theme that those changes were already in train.

Treasure hunt: More on this ship a little later…

A brief history of 99

When I became a full-time writer/publisher at beginning of 2011, there was a rough and ready frontier sensibility to a lot of the self-published science fiction books.

Covers were often amateurish compared to what we see today. Mine were no exception! I remember one bestselling title in the short fiction chart where the cover art was a webcam snapshot of the author that she had stretched from square to portrait. Heady days. 😉

Copyediting was not always at a professional standard. Some of the prose was rough too. Not all by any means, but much more than now. However, it was obvious at the time that an ever-increasing number of readers were appreciating something in these books that they weren’t getting from the major publishers, and sometimes they were getting it from some of the roughest books. The publishing world was changing.

A prominent feature of this frontier-world scene was the number of books retailing for $0.99, which was the lowest you could set by Amazon. There was, in part, a race to the bottom.

In the US and UK, the rate at which science fiction books were published in 2011 was a fraction of what it is today. Nonetheless, it was far higher than at any previous time in history. There was a sense of mutual support, of a rising tide floating all boats. At the same time, self-published science fiction was always a competitive environment, increasingly so as the years progressed and ever more authors were being attracted by money, and some of them going on to succeed handsomely.

Earning a proper living as a science fiction author was then and remains now extremely hard, but by around 2013-14, it had become obvious that a career as a science fiction author was a realistic proposition in a way that it had never been before.

Writing excellent books is essential if you are to succeed in your career, but in the self-publishing world, the quality of your writing means absolutely nothing until you can get readers to read your book in the first place. But with so much competition, how do you stand out?

Write a better product description. Always a good move.

Get a better cover. Done that. It works!

But in 2011, the quickest and easiest of all was to undercut the ‘opposition’ on price.

When detractors sneered at 99c books for being obviously junk, it was easy to dismiss such people as bigots, intolerant of the success of a class of author that they did not wish to see succeed.

However, when they complained that racing to a pricing bottom would devalue books and make it impossible for ‘proper’ authors to earn a living, then that’s something that troubled me. And many others too. It’s a question that keeps popping up among self-published and other authors.

For example, if every one of the top-40 space opera books were on sale for 99p, then why would anyone pay more? In particular, why would anyone pay more for a new author they hadn’t encountered before? A logical conclusion would appear that 99c would become the standard fare, with only a few superstar authors able to command a higher price. However, as the years rolled past, that isn’t what happened.

(1) Standard US price for a Starbucks skinny vanilla latte grande + blueberry scone is $6.60. (2) Starbucks and its peers are extremely popular, absent any pandemic. (3) Ballpark figures: it takes eight hours to read a novel and half an hour to enjoy coffee and a bun. (4) Whatever the price or quality of a novel, you invest the same amount of time and effort to read it.

Somewhere in the confluence of these four statements is the explanation for why the race to a 99c bottom petered out.

That’s why it caught my eye to see in Ian’s bestseller post that the new advocates of cheap-as-chips Kindle books were imprints from the likes of Pan (Macmillan), Gollancz (Hachette) and Hodder (Hachette). Like I said at the beginning, parts of science fiction publishing have been changing at a ferocious pace since the advent of Kindle Direct Publishing. It looked as if the ‘cheap eBooks’ story had gone completely full circle in less than a decade.

A little later in the space opera chart, showing Neal Asher and Ann Leckie at 99p.

Today, the cheap-as-chips, frontier, fly-by-night “amateurs” who are cheapening eBooks and ruining it for respectable self-publishers are imprints such as Hodder and Stoughton, Pan, and Gollancz. We’re witnessing a tsunami of crud from major publishers who are flooding the market and making it difficult for readers to find quality books they actually want to read.

Or at least, that’s the logical conclusion for anyone who persists with the idea that pricing a book at 99c means it is of poor quality.

CASE STUDY FROM 2015

Here’s an example from Jan 2015.

When I launched the first two Human Legion novels at 99c/99p, I saw it as a risky gamble, because by then the period of the charts being full of 99c self-published books was already over. Only one other book in the top-10 at that time was 99c. Note the #3 title, the opening book in the new series by Joshua Dalzelle. He already had a successful series called Omega Force and decided to launch Warship at $3.99. It’s an excellent novel and went on to knock me off the #1 spot and lodge at about the same Kindle Store rank as Marine Cadet. So pricing it at four times as much did no harm. Not that I haven’t forgiven Joshua or anything 😉

This is actually the military science fiction chart, BTW. Pure vanity means I prefer this sub-genre category. The UK and USA space opera chart that we’re mostly looking at in this article was essentially the same in terms of 99c pricing. The only difference was that I couldn’t dislodge AG Riddle’s Atlantis Gene from the #2 slot, so I only managed the #1 and #3 places in the US and UK.

As you might imagine, I took a lot of chart screencaps around this period! They do confirm that at this period, 99c books were unusual and came (almost) entirely from self-publishers. The only exception I can think of was Titan Books in the UK, who we’ll meet again in a moment.

Trend or Blip?

A week after Ian posted to Facebook, I dug into the stats in more detail. I also wanted to check whether the chart the previous week had been a blip.

If I were wanting to provide definitive proof for anything, I’d track data over time and share hard evidence. That’s not what I’m up to here. This is a snapshot dataset that I’m using as a starting point to discuss various topics that I’ve been aware of (mostly) for years.

Here’s an overview of the stats for the amazon.co.uk space opera (kindle) top-50 bestseller chart on 28 May 2020. I’ll go through some in more detail later in the article.

I’ll rattle through a few here.

A very successful publishing model that especially suits prolific authors is to release eBook box sets, typically six months after the initial titles are rapid released. The small press is particularly adept at this. At various points, these box sets are often discounted to 99c.

It can be daunting to look at your single title and compare it to a stretched six-pack of titles at 99c.

In the data, I counted 22% of top-50 titles were a box set/ omnibus. From experience, that seems on par. It is a very successful strategy, but not so dominant that it crowds out single titles.

Today we’re focusing on 99p books, so how common were they?

  • 44% of bestsellers were priced at 99p. (That’s very high)
  • 50% of 99p bestsellers were self-published. (Perhaps of more significance, 50% were not)
  • 82% of box set/ omnibus bestsellers were priced at 99c.

The bestseller chart I looked at was amazon.co.uk, which is the home Kindle Store for the UK. (Also for plenty of Irish and other people too). So I looked at nationality and found 36% of bestselling authors were British or Irish. That’s a significantly higher proportion of Brits and Irish than the equivalent US bestseller chart on the same day.

Going by name & bio and making a calculated guess, 88% of bestseller authors were male and 22% female. No one was obviously non-binary. Apologies if I accidentally mis-gendered anyone.

The Diversity Question

That last stat felt unusually male to me. A scan of the day’s US chart showed it had more female authors and that’s the chart I’m more familiar with, which may explain why the UK felt so male.

All the same, in my experience, the military science fiction and space opera charts (probably the two most popular science fiction sub-genre categories at Amazon) have featured a higher proportion of male authors than female for many years now. However, sidestep to even other popular charts, such as urban fantasy and YA, and you see a very different picture indeed.

I recall a 2018 writers conference called 20BooksLondon where the single biggest bloc of professional science fiction and fantasy authors I encountered were urban fantasy authors, of which the numerous British contingent was predominantly female. So are there proportionality more women writing science fiction and fantasy professionally than a decade ago or not?

Throughout the last decade, there has been a lot of talk about increasing diversity in science fiction and fantasy publishing. It’s impossible to draw conclusions about that from a single top-50 sub-genre bestseller chart. On the other hand, I’ve been publishing professionally for a decade now, and that means I’ve picked up a lot of anecdotal evidence. So if I’m pontificating about the state of SFF publishing in 2020, I’ll add a few thoughts to this topic too. I won’t point to numbers here; this is highly anecdotal.

Of course, there are an infinite number of ways to slice humanity into categories. Some categorizations are given far more prominence at the moment than others, and it’s probably correct to do so in many cases.

Unfortunately, where I am clear that diversity has increased is in categorizations that are rarely, if ever, mentioned. They may not be as important as others, but I happen to think that as a general principle, having a wider variety of people in the mix is a good thing and helps to drive better fiction, more varied fiction, and more authentic storytelling too.

For me, these categorizations of science fiction and fantasy authors are clear wins. There’s more variety here than there used to be:

  • Professional background/ job before becoming a writer (or the ‘day job’ for part-time authors).
  • Social class.
  • Highest educational attainment level.
  • Possibly variation in geographical location (esp. not such a focus on New York/ London/ Big City or even living in an Anglophone country).
  • Dare I say it? Yes… political stances of the author.
  • Publishing model.
  • Does the author use a literary agent for primary book deals? This one is clear cut. I strongly suspect that the majority of titles in our bestseller chart were unagented.

The apparent maleness of the UK space opera chart I’ve just shown is not so pronounced in other genre charts. I’m fairly convinced that adult science fiction and fantasy, as represented by Amazon bestseller charts, is not as dominated by males the way it was a decade ago, although I suspect there remains a bias toward men. However, if you include YA science fiction and fantasy in with the adult, then I think the data would show a bias in favor of non-male authors.

I don’t feel the bestseller charts can provide data to comment on sexual orientation. Guessing how individuals classify their ethnicity from bios and names is also hazardous, but I remain disappointed that there aren’t more obviously non-white authors in the self-published and small press contributions to the bestseller charts, or authors not from US, UK, CAN, AUS, NZ.

Treasure hunt: Spiders & ants. In space!

99 is Not New for the Majors.

When self-publishers would get together discuss the industry a decade or so ago, one of the things that weighed heavily on our minds was the notion that at some point the major publishers would get wise to the techniques that gave self-publishers an advantage and steal them for themselves.

“Thank you very much,” they would say (at least, one would hope), and then using economies of scale and the potential to dig into much deeper pockets when they chose to, they could outcompete isolated publishers. I’ve seen it happen in other industries.

This has, in fact, been taking place ever since. It’s just happened a lot slower than I expected.

Major publishers started off by heavily discounting their backlist of classic titles from yesteryear. Titles such as The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974), and various books by Robert A Heinlein. Octavia E Butler’s backlist went through several attempts to relaunch them as eBooks before hitting success and discounting was a big part of that.

By the middle part of last decade, major publishers were regularly discounting science fiction titles to $1.99 and $2.99, and they were dominating what had briefly been a key indie marketing secret of Bookbub. (I’m talking of the major international conglomerates, such as Hachette. There are other publishers who have significant market share within the science fiction world, such as Black Library and Baen Books. Baen, in particular, were possibly the first publisher of any size to have a highly successful eBook strategy and used the tactic of making the first book in a series free or heavily discounted, amongst other innovations.)

The majors were still allergic to the idea of selling books at the 99c/99p price point at all, and definitely not frontlist titles (recent books that they had pushed hard, especially in hardback).

Slowly that changed. I think the larger small presses went first. I remember picking up Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley (Angry Robot) for 99p. I think that was on a Bookbub deal.

Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’ Tale was 99p in what I presume was an attempt to generate interest in advance of her new 2015 release The Heart Goes Last.

Gollancz in the UK (part of Hachette) frequently issues batches of books at 99p. I’ve picked up Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, Principles of Angels by Jaine Fenn, Glorious Angels by Justina Robson, I was Dead for 13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough, all for 99p. Orbit Books does too (also part of Hachette)

Another book I picked up for 99p was Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time (Tor/ Pan-Macmillan). It won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2016. After that, the Kindle edition was on sale in the US at 99c for a long time (I’d hazard 18 months??). It was on Bookbub and was so heavily advertised to me on Amazon that scarcely a day went by when I didn’t see an advert for that book.

So, this heavy discounting isn’t new. And I don’t think it’s going away. But, wait. What about the claim that bothers me sometimes that ‘Pricepoint 99’ devalues books? Isn’t this giving books away?

It costs publishers nothing to set a book for $0.99 for a few weeks and advertise the sale with their newsletter and a few posts on social media. There will be the opportunity cost of foregone revenue, but only from the handful of people who would have bought those books anyway at the full price. If people try the author out at this discovery price, and find they enjoy the book, they can go buy more of the author’s work at full price. This is not exactly a groundbreaking new strategy in retail.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time is an interesting case that’s a little different. I’ve advertised in the same places I saw that book advertised. That was a serious advertising budget. So much so that I doubt they made that ad spend back from sales at the time, but I imagine Tor saw it as a long-term investment in an author. Some people like to say that publishers don’t nurture and support their authors other than the super famous blockbuster stars. Clearly, that’s not always true.

As for 99c books being ‘given away’? I know that’s nonsense because I’ve used that tactic myself. I know it works. And I know at least one reason why.

The Economics of 99.

I started a 99c book promotion a few weeks ago. It’s something I do a couple of times a year. This time I picked Marine Cadet. It’s the first of a series of seven books that’s now complete. Add in the spin-off books and it’s sold over 200,000 copies.

There were times in the past when I gave books away for free. I did that briefly for Marine Cadet in 2015. I never consider these ‘sales’. However, thinking about market penetration is the one case where I add free downloads to paid sales to my figures. It’s also the one time when I listen to Amazon’s site average of ebooks being 80% completed to re-estimate how many people have really read my books in Kindle Unlimited. Combine all that and I come up with a combined figure for Marine Cadet of around 75,000 sales/ downloads/ listens.

My best guess for the Amazon market for space opera/ military SF is around 1.5 million readers.

That volume of downloads is crucial to our story. It means that not only are there a large majority of readers in Marine Cadet’s sub-genre who’ve never read the book, but there are also probably tens of thousands who have read partway through the series and become distracted by something else before they finished. Advertising the first book leads to a powerful upsurge in strayed readers returning to the fold and buying back into the series.

Since putting the price down to 99c about six weeks ago, when somebody in the US acquires and reads Marine Cadet, Amazon pays me on average $1.24. On a sale price of 99c.

If you don’t know much about publishing, you might well be asking how can I earn more in royalties than the price of the book?

The key to the puzzle is that that Marine Cadet is available to borrow in Kindle Unlimited. This is an Amazon subscription service. It is not free – it costs £96 per year in the UK – but the incremental cost to the reader of borrowing one more book is free.

People see the $0.99 price tag and it looks like a bargain to them, but instead of paying a dollar, a substantial minority of Kindle Unlimited subscribers borrow it for free instead. In fact, Amazon defaults the purchase button to borrow it in Kindle Unlimited. They’re not daft, that Amazon bunch.

Doing this might be free for the reader, but it is definitely not free for publishers. Amazon’s KU payout rates vary but have always been generous in my view.

When someone buys Marine Cadet at 99c, I earn 35c in royalties. But when you include KU borrows and average it out, I am right now earning $1.24 when someone reads the book, and something similar in the UK.

And there’s more. I won’t get the sales figures for the audiobooks for some months, but experience says that a proportion of people buying the book will immediately add in the audio narration. Once that has come through, I will have earned about $1.45 for each 99c book.

If someone buys my book, there’s a chance they’ll enjoy it and want to read more of my work. Especially since it’s part of a series. Estimating how much a new reader will spend on me requires a lot of guesswork. When I go through the figures after each campaign, I get a different number. But my conservative estimate on the income I will earn on future sales after someone picks up Marine Cadet is about $7.50.

Add that all together, and if someone wants to try out my book at 99c, then on average, I will earn about $8.95 in royalties.

I would be even happier to live in a world where the impulse buy price point was $2.99. Nonetheless, during my 99c promotional period, I will probably sell around 5,000 copies of Marine Cadet, which will eventually bring in total revenue of about $45k. I’m advertising the book, so that’s not all profit, but it’s a glimpse into how 99 can work financially.

Diverse publishing models.

Before the launch of the Kindle, the Amazon science fiction bestseller charts were utterly dominated by major publishers. Occasionally, in niche segments such as anthologies you might get a look in from the small press. But more popular areas, such as space opera, were completely owned by major publishing.

Then along came self-publishers and everything changed. Sure, you still had people such as Peter F. Hamilton or Ann Leckie appearing in the charts, but they were being outsold on Amazon by the new stars of self-publishing.

Before long, some of the stars were being picked up by Amazon’s own imprint, 47 North.

One of the early self-publishing successes I read back in 2011 was Marko Kloos with Terms of Enlistment, the first of his Frontline series. Amazon picked him up for 47 North and republished his book. Nine years later and Kloos is still in the space opera charts, and he is one of the most successful authors of the last decade (and still a great writer).

For a while, it seemed 47 North was going to swallow the world. After all Amazon can and does lean on the scales, not least with a Kindle First program, which they use to propel sales off the charts and into the stratosphere. Amazon held back. Just enough. And allowed another new force to rise up: the small press.

I’m not talking here about the old small press publishers, many of which were based around selling to convention-going science fiction fans, and often focused on anthologies. This article kicked off with Ian Whates shouting about his success. His Pelquin’s Comet is published by Newcon Press, which is run by Ian himself. I’m proud to say I once worked for Newcon myself, producing the eBooks.  

Newcon was clearly successful with that particular title (I’ll tell you why in a moment) and well done on Ian’s success. However, when I talk about the rise of the small press in the bestseller charts, I’m predominantly talking about small presses that often emerged from successful self-publishers, and often doing so in partnership. Sometimes they put heavy focus on selling the books of the founder authors, and sometimes not.

Examples include LMBPN, Aethon, Seventh Seal Press, Theogony Books, Galaxy’s Edge Press. And I’m just covering space opera here. There are many other examples.

I don’t think small presses have dominated the way that self-publishers once did, and Amazon appeared to be on the cusp of doing with 47 North at one point.

In fact, at the top of our snapshot UK chart, it does look attractively balanced, now that the major publishers are reappearing more frequently in the upper echelons (although major publishers are less in evidence in the US equivalent).

So Much for the Bestsellers. What About the ‘Better’-Sellers?

This has all been about the top half of the top-100 bestseller charts. These can be misleading because what it is telling us about the authors who top the charts might be a different story to that being lived a level or two further down. For example, what proportion of the books ranked 400-500 in space opera are priced at 99p? I don’t know. It might be a very different figure, but it’s extremely difficult to tell.

And yet at this level of a few steps down from the top-100, we’re not talking here about the outer reaches of publishing in which authors are only selling to their Auntie Flo and that bloke they met in the pub the night before.

Hidden in the reeds beyond the top 100, a lot of authors are earning a living, something that used to be exceedingly rare.

Let me give you a personal example.

Last month, my best performing title sold enough to have been in the top half of a hypothetical top-500 space opera chart all month, and three more would have grazed the outer edges of the top-500 at some point. (I’m talking the US store here). I had another 20-odd titles that sold something but not as well. I’m not exactly making waves here.

However, most of the royalty revenue from last month’s sales is either already fairly visible, or I can make a confident guess. It’s going to be around $5,000 – $5,500. I don’t get a personal rocket ship on that amount, but I do earn a living.

I know a lot of the authors in the space opera bestseller charts. The same with military SF chart, space marine, time travel, exploration, science fiction romance etc. But I also know plenty of authors who rarely place in those charts and yet they still earn a living as a full-time science fiction or fantasy author*. Bestselling authors, and better-selling authors, if you like. For the most part, both sets of authors are never mentioned in newspapers, review sites, Locus, Tor.com, or fan journals such as BSFA Vector and BSFA Review. Most don’t attend national science fiction conventions. It’s easy to overlook what happens in the reeds.

It’s one reason why it’s so very difficult to get an accurate picture of what’s happening in science fiction and fantasy publishing. It’s also why I get the occasional thrill of bumping into a fellow author I didn’t previously know and learning that they are successful enough to be doing this for a living.

*I also know authors who sell well but don’t write as their primary career, and in many cases wouldn’t want to unless the sales figures became ridiculously large. I don’t want to imply that writing as a career elevates authors to a superior state over those who don’t. I have a lot of respect for authors who sell tens of thousands of books every year and have no desire to become a full-time writer.

The Death of Newspapers

Did someone mention newspapers?

Yes, I did. Four paragraphs ago.

This all started when my friend Ian said, “Look I’m in the charts!”

When Ian launched his book, I saw him wave his new title around on Facebook. No doubt he pushed it elsewhere. Ian’s a sufficiently popular and admired author that the book sold respectfully. But we’re not talking top-20 space opera kind of sales.

Then a positive review came out in the Guardian newspaper, a publication also available for free online, hence easy to share around.

The review was for the third and final book in the trilogy. Overnight, Amazon sales rank shot up. But it rose even more for Pelqiuin’s Comet, the first book in the trilogy, which reached such an impressive height in the UK space opera charts that Ian was prompted to shout about it on Facebook.

The sales ranks also shot up in the US, though not to the same extent.

When I checked a week later, the book had disappeared out the top 100.

Which is the way it works. Ian understands that. I’m sure he’ll have been very pleased with the boost.

I point this out because there is a narrative that says mass media doesn’t sell. Nobody reads newspapers anymore.

Well, clearly somebody does.

I mean, I don’t personally. Having spent years reading new newspapers, genre magazines, Locus, BSFA Vector, attending conventions, reading review sites etc etc., I’ve learned that by far and away the best route for me to discover new titles is via Amazon. Second best: Facebook. Third: trying authors from group promotions.

I now regard all those ways I used to discover books as worse than useless because I’ve been disappointed so many times. But that’s what I’ve discovered works for me. No one else. It would be ridiculous to suggest that these forms of book discovery are inappropriate for other readers, just because they don’t work for me.

And yet there’s a narrative that goes around that these old ways of doing things are now irrelevant. They aren’t. Ian’s write up in the Guardian shows us that.

They clearly are still relevant for other people, and good luck to them.

Treasure hunt: That spaceship looks familiar…

 The Great Schism?

I’ve been doing ‘state of science fiction publishing’ posts for a few years now. I have a pretty good strike rate for seeing the coming trends, but one thing I got wrong is in predicting a gradual coming together of different strands of science fiction publishing. Or at least an increasing acknowledgement of each other’s existence that progresses to a vague mutual respect.

To be fair, I have seen a little of this take place. For example, at a professional writers’ group I’m a member of called SFWA, there is occasional evidence of people from different parts of the publishing world rubbing shoulders (pre-pandemic, obviously).

I did a video reading last month for a virtual conference called Lavecon. In the same author readings slot was a self-published author, a small press (and self-published) author, two authors with major publishers, and me (self-published, published by small press, and publishing other authors too).

That kind of mash-up is still very rare (well done to Allen Stroud and Karen Fishwick for supporting that varied approach). In fact, I suspect it’s becoming rarer.

I think it’s an aspect of science fiction that I am doomed to be disappointed about forever. I know why I’m disappointed, too. I grew up on a heavy rock/ metal magazine called Kerrang! From about 1984 to 1995 I read it every week. Although there were various strands of metal music in existence, and several that emerged during that decade, the editorial policy was always very clear that all good rock music was something that deserved to be celebrated, whatever the style.

Thrash metal was something that developed at the beginning of that period. Not everyone enjoyed it, but if Kerrang! reviewed an album or live performance by a thrash metal band, the review would be written by someone who enjoyed men with long hair growling over riffs chugging along at a million beats per minute. They might write a bad review, but they would never write a bad review because they didn’t get thrash metal. And if the metal public was into thrash, then thrash would be covered in Kerrang!

The approach seemed so simple, so obvious, that when I joined in with science fiction fandom in the early naughties, I went looking for the SF equivalent of Kerrang! I wanted to be plugged into the scene, to know all the key developments the way I had with metal.

Unfortunately, Sci-Fi-Kerrang! didn’t exist. The review and news section of every publication I encountered only covered the parts of science fiction and fantasy their contributors and editors happened to be interested in – which is perfectly fair enough, just personally disappointing.

I put this to the test by looking at the authors in the amazon.co.uk space opera top-50 and looking at the review publications from a group I used to belong to called the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA). These were Vector and its successor called the BSFA Review. In this period, they typically had 15-20+ reviews per issue and came out 3-4 times a year.

I wondered how many of the bestselling authors in the charts had ever been reviewed in one of the BSFA publications. To be clear, I’m not talking about a review of the title in the charts, I’m talking about whether the author had ever been reviewed for any novel (I didn’t check for anthologies). (You can see Vector contents here and BSFA Review here. ) Since I had the data, I counted it up. I can’t rule out making a mistake, but I did run through the numbers twice. (This, incidentally, is why I’ve been describing a top-50 rather than top-100: it’s less work and less likely to make a mistake)

Before I go through the numbers, I’m going to step in here and say that this isn’t a criticism of the BSFA. I know some of the people who have been involved with running it. Worked with some of them, in fact. Some good people. This isn’t some evil conspiracy to shut out the ‘wrong’ authors by ignoring them. It’s simply that, like every other publication and website I’ve found, the people involved are interested in some areas of science fiction & fantasy and not in others.

And, as we’ve just seen, if you lack the interest to go out and actively discover which books are being read, you will never hear about many of the most successful authors.

(BTW the chart I picked was for Kindle space opera books. The equivalent ‘books’ chart – which confusingly includes audiobooks — was almost identical. For the US equivalent, the bars on this chart would be significantly lower, but then BSFA does have a specifically British focus).

Who’s that handsome chap with a beard on the right? That’s Gareth L Powell, who’s been doing very well in the UK with his space opera trilogy that kicks off with Embers of War. This is published by Titan Books, a publisher I know well for their 2000AD comic collections but is also an independent genre publisher. Titan Books… don’t they also publish…? Wait! It’ll come to me.

Well done, Gareth, for the success of your books and making it onto the chart because that 6% bar is entirely down to you. And that makes Gareth exceptional, because generally bestselling space opera authors not published by major publishers or Amazon Publishing (47 North) are not mentioned in BSFA publications.

Again, this isn’t a criticism and the same could largely be said of SFCrowsnest, Locus, SciFi Now, all the short fiction magazines, Tor.com etc, although some of them are interested in tie-in books, certain larger US independents, and a few other bits and bobs.

Titan Books and the history of 99.

Here’s another connection. They have the UK rights to the hugely popular (multi-million selling) Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell. I suspect they must have just acquired the rights, or at least the eBook rights, because in May 2015 all books in the series appeared at once in the UK Kindle store, priced at 99p each.

The screenshot is from the overall science fiction chart just after the books switched to full price.

Over in the military SF chart, Lost Fleet held all top-5 slots. Pretty sure no one else has done that before or since.

Also note the #1 book is priced at £1, published by Amazon’s imprint Thomas & Mercer. £1 is 99p wearing a suit and clean shoes.

Back to the chart, I think the first two bars are self-explanatory, but to be consistent for anyone scanning for bold underlined statements,

  • For British & Irish authors of the top-50 bestselling space opera titles, 50% had been reviewed at any point by Vector/ BSFA Review.
  • For other authors, 40% had been reviewed at some point by Vector/ BSFA Review.
  • For authors of the top-50 bestselling space opera titles who were not major published, 6% had been reviewed at any point by Vector/ BSFA Review. (And his name was Gareth.)

Given that only 38% of titles were major published, those figures might look a little screwy. They’re complicated by the fact that proportionately more self-published and small press authors appeared in the bestseller chart multiple times, and also that some titles were co-authored.

Algol treasure hunt

Wait…? Haven’t I seen that some place before?

Earlier, I mentioned Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. One of the things that used to be much more common in the first half of the 2010s was to find multiple titles in the amazon science fiction bestseller charts that shared the same stock art.

It’s never been just the smaller publishers who do this and when I first saw Children of Time, the first thing I noticed was the spaceship on the cover. I’d seen it scores of times before.

The ship was created by an artist called Algol. His art used to fill the bestseller charts. I mentioned Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos earlier. The cover art to the self-published edition also used Algol’s stock art as did my original cover of Renegade Legion, which has been on a host of covers.

I bought royalty-free rights to the Children of Time spaceship in 2014 to place on the cover of Indigo Squad. Like most of my stock art, I bought it from Shutterstock. At the last minute, I rejected it in favour of a different spaceship stock image because so many books were using the Children of Time image. It’s not snobbery; I didn’t want to get my book confused with someone else’s.

With these spaceship stock images, the artist will generally create a design and pose and light it in a variety of ways, posting each one to a place like Shutterstock, where you can purchase the rights to use the image on websites, game handbooks, book covers etc.

Then the book cover designer (which in some cases is also the author) will assemble the stock art and perform graphic design. Obviously, this saves time and money, but it would be a grave mistake to think that this makes the cover artwork ‘bad’. I downloaded a few of the better examples which you can see in the screenshot above. Some of these designs are excellent, and it’s fascinating to see how artists have taken the same stock art and basic idea of spaceship in front of a planet, and arrived at different designs

It’s a design technique that’s been common place in publishing for many years, but what made it stand out in the early days of the 99c eBook was that the demand for starships and space marine images vastly outstripped the supply of stock images and certain ones proved so popular that they have been on scores or even hundred of titles. Hence the flooding of bestseller charts.

The ‘other’ most ubiquitous cover spaceship is pictured from behind with engines glowing. It’s so well known in the trade that it goes by its own name of ‘Starship Ass’.

I still bump into doppelgangers of my own cover art. Here’s one I put together (with a little help from my friends) compared with a version produced by Harper Voyager.

And finally, to bring all this full circle, if you look at the ‘Sleeping Legion’ part of the Legion Armory 2018 earlier in the article, you will see a ‘space marine’ figure. The stock image is from an artist called DM7, except readers of JR Handley will know that they’re really illustration of a character called Lance Scipio. In my case, with a little help from a secret artist friend, Lance manages to change rank in his cover art.

I think one of the best examples of cover art design we’ll see today is the Lance Scipio stock art from DM7 mixed in with other stock images and given a touch of design magic in the German translated edition of a novel by none other than Ian Whates and published by Heyne (Penguin Random House).

Down the Rabbit Hole. And Up Again.

So there you have it. I see a Facebook post from a friend, and it leads me to a meditation on the number 99 and matters arising.

Welcome to my world. That’s how my mind works every day.

I hope you’ve learned something interesting. Or maybe you disagree. That’s great. I’m a writer. I like provoking a response. You can tell me why if you like.

But please don’t expect a rapid response. Having popped up to blog, it’s back to the day job for me: writing books. Love it!

I expect I’ll see you again next year 😊

About Tim C. Taylor

Science fiction publisher and author of the bestselling Human Legion series. I live with my wife and young family in an English village. I am currently writing full time, when I'm not roped into building Lego.
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3 Responses to Meditations on 99: eBook pricing in science fiction publishing

  1. Andy West says:

    Fantastic article Tim, loved it. I think a context for understanding the 99 (which I may have mentioned before, forgive me if so) is that it’s all about selling what amounts to a continuous content stream that lasts at least as long as the author lasts. Longer if there are combined works or other authors who inherit their universe. Each ‘book’ is just a particle in the stream, and its price only serves how best to maximise that stream, so has little to do with the actual book. Software moved to this model decades ago (with ‘maintenance’ or support contracts essentially being the same as subscription). Although if I was running a major trad publisher, I’d long ago have ditched any inconvenient principles and simply bought my way back into the market using deeper pockets. Especially as you point out, it’s really an investment to root their content streams; they will make off it eventually. But beyond that they could be emphasising buy-in for a while even on riskier works; its possible their content streams still depend more upon house name / success than individual author success. And a big market share brings both reader recognition, compliance of partners, and economies of scale even for information sales.

    • Thanks, Andy. You paint an interesting picture of the industry. Beneath the breakout titles that every publisher bets on and hopes will come up each season, I think your ‘continuous stream’ is a good description of the old B2B model relationship between publishing and retail. Old and still very important, but now facing enormous online competition from small presses that had no other route to success than to succeed at B2C. Small press and indie branding and the continuous stream idea you mention “buys” reader loyalty for them. I put the scare quotes around “buys” because it only brings goodwill and attention; regular content releases will only drive away readers if their quality is not satisfactory to the readers.

      • Andy West says:

        Yes. If you ‘buy’ the goodwill and attention, it is at least yours to lose and not someone else’s. But for sure, content is still king. If you systemically screw up on content, you will soon lose it again.

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