Harry Potter and the Dam-Busters

The dam is about to burst, with the announcement that JK Rowling is negotiating for all her Harry Potter books to be released as e-books.

Not only will this trigger a huge rise in e-reader sales, on top of the phenomenal expansion already happening, but more importantly this will be the day e-books come of age.

At the moment most paper-based publishers treat the e-book market as a useful sideline to their main business of selling books on paper.

That point is worth dwelling on.

Publishers have spent their entire past existence selling paper with a book attached. Just as, until oh so recently, the music industry sold first vinyl and then CDs with music attached.

When music downloads first became available, the music industry went out of its way to dismiss the digital alternative as inferior quality that would open the flood-gates to any old Tom, Dick or Harriet producing their own music and making it available to the public.

How dare the up and coming musicians think they could by-pass the music industry’s gate-keepers?!

What about standards? Quality? Professionalism? The gate-keepers ensured the public’s well-being and protected them by preventing the market being flooded by rubbish music from wannabes who hadn’t followed the rule book.

But despite the music industry’s best efforts to ignore and belittle them, digital music downloads just got better and better, until finally a tipping point was reached and the music industry embraced them.

True, CDs are still available, and even vinyl, but the main delivery system is now digital.

And the key factors in making that happen were consumer choice and technological innovation.

Consumer choice meant that suddenly a music lover did not have to restrict themselves to whatever their soon to go out of business local store could offer, nor even to the bigger but oh so predictable and commercial range offered by the music superstores.

Technological innovations meant you could carry around with you more music than you could ever listen to in a life-time.

Books were slow to follow suit.

Technology held back progress and consumer choice held back progress.

Reading a whole book sat at a computer screen was never going to be a pleasant experience, and consumer choice was pretty much non-existent.

As e-readers became better and cheaper that began to change. Barnes & Noble’s Nook was a reasonable success, but as it did (and still does) prevent anyone outside the US actually downloading anything it never deserved to do better. The limited competition from Sony and the cheap Korean imitations had the same problem of limited consumer choice.

Then along came the Kindle…

We all know the Kindle’s success story, and we can see, day by day, how the Kindle is transforming the e-book market.

The CEO of Barnes & Noble conceded last month that digital downloads would be the primary delivery system for books within two years. This hard on the heels of Amazon confirming they sold more e-books than paper books last year.

The next twelve to eighteen months will see e-readers radically improve in quality and rapidly reduce in price as the trend to e-reading accelerates.

At the moment the one big advantage paper has is that it is universal. Language aside, a paper book is a paper book. Whether you buy it from B&N, Amazon, your local book-store or a charity shop you can read it. Sadly my Kindle cannot easily download a book from B&N or Waterstone’s, so if Amazon doesn’t have it it’s not an option.

Sure there are numerous apps and other ways and means to transfer books between devices, but it’s not straight-forward.

It looks like we’re in for a year or so of mix-n-match marketing, rather like the old days with Betamax and VHS, until an industry standard is agreed for delivery and all devices will be able to receive e-books from all suppliers.

And all books will be avalable as e-books.

Like it or not, it’s going to happen. Your personal preference for a good old fashioned chunk of a dead tree in your hands will still be an option for a good while yet, but the direction is clear and nothing is going to stop it.

Borders paid the price for ignoring it. B&N are desperately struggling to keep up with it.

For the big publishing houses it’s crunch time. The publishing world in five years time will be a wholly different place from what it is now. Paper books will be a niche market. Lucrative for the few, but most definitely a niche.

The Barnes & Noble CEO predicted it would be two years before the balance swayed in favour of digital. This despite Amazon already having reached that point.

But this before the announcement that the venerable JK herself was about to go digital.

That’s the same JK who has previously deliberately distanced herself from the e-book markets.

Not that she needs it, but Rowling expected to net one hundred million pounds from the deal – and that just a small percentage of what her publishers will make.

Make no mistake: e-books have arrived, and the other big names will soon follow suit in a big way.

No timetable has been given, but safe to presume Christmas 2011 will see e-reader sales hit the stratosphere as a Kindle / Nook/ Sony / etc becomes a must-have accessory, and Harry Potter will hold the top seven places in the e-book charts.

For anyone still on the fence about e-publishing, now is most definitely the time to take the plunge.

In a year’s time it may be too late.

At the moment very few publishers seem to be taking e-books too seriously. Just as Borders didn’t…

There will be a huge shake-up as e-publishing hits their margins and those that emerge stronger from the battle will almost certainly become the gate-keepers for the new e-book publishing world, able to introduce loss-leaders (as we saw at Christmas on Kindle) and able to invest huge sums in promoting the select few, just as they do now.

We (Saffi and I) been extraordinarily lucky. We’ve beaten the likes of James Patterson and Steig Larsson in the Kindle charts and are currently locked against the almighty Wilbur Smith for third place.

We’re not so arrogant as to think our book, Sugar & Spice, is better than theirs, or that we are actually out-selling theirs, of course.  Obviously we can compete with mega-stars like these only because most of their buyers will still be opting for the paper version.

Nonetheless, despite being complete unknowns without an agent or publisher, and with no loyal following from previously published works, we’ve come from nowhere to sell over 20,000 e-books on Kindle so far (no, you won’t see that on Novelrank, but we have sent Mario our figures) and are on target this month to double that, with sales edging (slowly!) towards 1000 a day.

That’s nothing compared to Wilbur Smith, of course, or even our main chart rival Stephen Leather, who has consistently held the top places on Kindle UK.

Our point being, it’s 20,000 more than we would have sold if we’d sat back waiting for a paper publisher…

The fact is, 15,000 of those e-books have been sold since we last sent our manuscript to an agent, and we are still waiting for a response…

And much as we’d love to straddle both paper and digital markets, it has to be said we’re doing pretty well on our own. So far we are ONLY selling to Kindle owners. Next to target B&N on the Nook, Waterstone’s on Sony, etc, etc.

And if the right offer comes along, maybe to go to paper too, while it’s still an option. There’s no question that a good contract with a paper publisher could offer opportunities  we as “indies” could not take advantage of. Again, Stephen Leather leaves us looking on enviously as he gets his paper works translated and sold across Europe while simultaneously keeping us off the number two spot on Kindle UK.

But Stephen is an old hand at this game, and has been on the circuit a long time, with a raft of published books to his credit. He also has a little help from above, as this never before seen in the UK photo shows. (Oops! That’s us two off his Christmas card list!)

This blog is aimed at the new and up-and-coming writers who are currently on the fence about e-publishing. At the moment the door is wide open and those with a combination of energy, good marketing, a reasonable product and a degree of luck have a golden opportunity to jump the queue, get a head start and establish a brand.

An opportunity that almost certainly won’t exist this time next year.

Christmas 2011 is pretty much guaranteed to see Harry Potter sweeping the board, and where JK leads, the rest will surely follow.

This time next year a new and unknown “indie” publisher will be lucky to get into the top hundred.

Which is why we are now going full out now to get as many titles out there as quickly as possible to establish a brand and develop a wide readership that will hopefully carries us through the turbulent waters ahead.

We thought we had a period of grace of maybe two years, as the B&N CEO suggested, but JK Rowling has just upped the ante.

Carpe diem! Make your lives extraordinary!

  1. Terrific post, Mark. Thanks for keeping us abreast of so many new developments, and thanks a second time for keeping our hopes alive and well. Fine job.

    Tom Winton

  2. Eek – panic stations!

    I agree with most of what you say but the e-publication of Harry Potter might not have such a big impact that indie publishers will be blown out of the water. The top 100 is dominated by cheap books, and that will continue unless Amazon change the rules, or the big publishers start selling JK Rowling and co cheap too.

    Before the Beatles went onto iTunes, all the experts predicted that when they finally did go digital they would dominate the entire top 100. In fact, they barely made an impact. All their fans have their music already. The same with JK Rowling – surely everyone who wants to read HP has either already done so or can pick up the paperbacks now dirt cheap second hand. The are zillions of copies floating around already.


    • Interesting about The Beatles. But I suspect that may be a generation issue? The people who were Beatles fans are probably those least likely to have gone forward with digital downloads, and be comfortable with their vinyl or CDs.

      With Harry Potter the target audience is very different and very techno-savvy. Yes, they may have all the books already, but hands up who hasn’t replaced all their perfecly watchable VHS videos with DVDs of the same film?

      And as said in the main post, it’s not just her books, but her effectively issuing the clarion call to every other author and publisher to jump on the wagon.

      As for pricing… I’ll be returning to this in a future blog, but suspect it’s just a matter of time before some sort of pricing agreement takes place, officially or unofficially, that will make life difficult for the indie sector.

      We saw at Xmas (and now with Stephen Leather and Hard Landing) how publishers can choose to run a loss or at least dip profits short-term. Stephen has made clear his 49p price is not of his choice. But what it does is attract lots of buyers who then get all his other books come up alongside.

      The dead-tree publishers who do not move with the times will surely join Borders. Those that do will bring old methods to the new market place and do what all businesses do: try to maximise profits and eliminate competition.

  3. My April 25th release date is looking better and better.

    • April 25th should be declared a national holiday and hereafter be known as Wearing The Cape Day!

  4. Hmmm. I’m not sure that she will dominate the eBook bestseller list 1) because they are unlikely to be cheap 2) pretty much everyone who wanted to read Harry Potter already has… In the same way Grisham and KIng and the other giants sell well as eBooks but they’re not in the Top 20…. But interesting times, that’s for sure…

  5. I hope you’re right and we have a chance to emulate your success last Christmas.

    No chance of you retiring soon, I don’t suppose? 🙂

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