Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Aakash

One Year Old Today!

Happy Birthday Sugar & Spice!

Yes, our debut novel was released one year ago today. And what a year!

From unpublished and unwanted (agents called it “unsellable” and “the last taboo”) to the UK’s biggest selling indie ebook. And to celebrate our first anniversary we find ourselves not just in the top five in the e-charts of Waterstone’s, the UK’s equivalent of B&N, but our second release, Snow White, is in the top ten just behind it! You couldn’t make it up…

But success on Waterstone’s has been slow coming. No question Amazon led the way and no question Amazon has provided most of our sales so far. After all, Amazon is the biggest ebook store in the world,  and can only get bigger, right?

Well, it’s the biggest at the moment, but for how long?

* * *

Over at WG2E last week I was talking about the future of ebooks. Or rather, what will be in them. I return to that subject today over at WG2E in a post entitles Back To The Future II. But First A Word From Our Sponsor. If you think the big downside of ebooks is no more advances, think again. Advances will be back, and bigger and better than ever. But not from the trad publishers. Pop over to find out more.

As I said there last week, 2012 is going to be a whole new reading world from 2011. 2013 will be different again. And what 2015 may bring really takes us into the world of science fiction. If I said that by 2015 the Amazon Kindle empire could be eclipsed by the Third World, you’d probably think I’d let the West African sun frazzle my brain completely, and have overstepped the mark from fiction into outright fantasy.

But think back. Two years ago the USA was just coming to terms with the impact of the Kindle. E-readers weren’t new, and the first Kindle looks a cumbersome beast compared to the KindleFire. But it changed the world in a way Sony and the rest failed to do.

That a revolution was taking place seemed clear, but no-one could have predicted just how big and how fast it would take hold. Last year the UK caught up with its own Kindle site. As 2011 draws to a close we have France and Germany with Kindle sites too, and while nothing’s official there’s every chance we’ll see an Italian and Spanish site very soon. Quite possibly before Christmas.

It’s very tempting to get excited about the Spanish site as an inroad to the huge Spanish-speaking markets of South America (always assuming we can sort reliable translations) but realistically it will be no such thing. Buyers in Mexico and Argentina will no more be able to buy from amazon.es than they can from amazon.co.uk, amazon.de or amazon.fr. It will be a closed shop serving Spain.

Yet as we run up to 2012 the USA and the UK are unquestionably the two largest e-reading countries in the world, and Amazon reigns supreme.

We all know Christmas and the New Year is going to see another huge leap in e-reader sales, and the Kindle will be even more firmly entrenched as the market leader in the USA and UK.

Moreso in the USA where the KindleFire is released in a week or so. It’s yet another minor setback for the satellite Kindle sites, where the KindleFire won’t be available for the foreseeable future. Bear that in mind when you American indies look at your hopes and expectations for sales on the UK site going into 2012.

But as indie authors, wherever we are, we know we’re in for a treat. Of course there will be an Amazon sale of cheap trad pubbed titles to compete with, but the pie is getting bigger. More readers to go round. It seems like we can’t lose.

By 2015 I expect Amazon Kindle to continue to dominate the US and UK e-reading market. And that’s great. The USA has a population of 312 million people. The third largest country in the world by population. And they speak English! Well, after a fashion. 🙂

The UK clocks in at #22 in the population stakes, with just 62 million. But it will be the second biggest English language e-reading market as we start 2012. That’s nearly 375 million people who might read our ebooks.

And as Kindle prices come down (free with content packages is my prediction for Xmas 2012) it’s a safe bet Amazon will still be dominant by 2015. Its position is pretty much unassailable. But for the rest of the world Amazon is a lumbering giant, at best lacking vision, at worst with tunnel vision dismissing the Third World, even the English-speaking world, as unworthy of its attention.

* * *

As a resident in West Africa my own ebooks, let alone yours, are unavailable to me on Amazon. Luckily I already had a UK account set up, and with some playing about I can still download ebooks through Kindle UK. But for anyone without a UK account Kindle UK is off limits and they have to use amazon.com. Only, amazon.com does not provide downloads to “Africa”.

By the way, six of those countries shown above (I’m in that tiny litle yellow strip called The Gambia, far left) are English-speaking, with a combined population of 200 million. That’s 200 million people who cannot buy your books through Amazon, just in that part of West Africa…

And for those countries where it does offer a download via am.com Amazon then adds a $2 surcharge, regardless of the ebook price. As David Gaughran pointed out way back in May, this has nothing to do with local taxes or any other charge outside Amazon’s control. It is a charge Amazon deliberately chooses to impose on customers outside the Kindle zones (when it offers ebooks at all). And none of it goes to the authors.

Why does Amazon do this? It just doesn’t make any sense.

Many of these countries are, to put it mildly, not as financially developed as the USA and UK. Why charge $2 more to a buyer in, say India, where most prospective readers would struggle to raise 99c? Equally, why charge $2 extra to a buyer in Europe just because they are outside the Kindle site zones?

As a writer I want to reach as many readers as possible. As a writer in the English language I realise that my market is restricted. But it extends far wider and is far bigger than the USA and UK.

Consider. Some sixty countries in the world speak English as their primary or official language (as a point of interest the USA, UK and Australia do not have an official language). Some are pretty small. The Gambia has just 1.7 million people. Liberia 4 million. Sierra Leone 5 million.

Not worth bothering with? Amazon think not. In fairness to Amazon, they have an arrangement where you can download some ebooks in South Africa. But they seem to think no-one speaks English in the rest of Africa, so who cares?

Well, Zimabwe has 13 million people. Zambia 11 million. Uganda 30 million. Tanzania 40 million. Malawi 13 million. Kenya 37 million. Ghana 23 million. Cameroon 18 million. Nigeria 148 million. And don’t go thinking it’s all mud-huts and famine. This is downtown Lagos, Nigeria.

The point is, this is some 350 million people in Africa who Amazon have decided cannot read your ebook. If we count countries where English is the second language the numbers increase still further.

Nor is it just Africa. Five million people in Singapore, as but one example, cannot download from Amazon, and for those in the other English-speaking countries who can, that nasty $2 surcharge makes is most unlikely they will.

Do we care? We should.The above image shows the world by population density. The darker the shade, the more people. Compare with the map below that shows the English speaking world

English is the second language of the rest of the world, and the official language of many. In countries like Pakistan and India English is the de facto language of business, commerce, and leisure. All schools teach in English and the younger generations are fluent and affluent.

Pakistan has 170 million people. India rather more.

In fact, at 1.2 billion it is well on the way to eclipsing China. And because we’re writers and don’t always understand numbers, let me put that into perspective. The population of India alone is four times bigger than that of the USA.

Further, most educated people in China speak English as their second language. The population of China is also four times that of the USA.

Yet Amazon only sees India in terms of cheap labor to fob off customer complaints on KDP. It has a China site, but no Kindle site there. Nor in Japan. And KDP only supports the standard Latin alphabet, so it’s of no use to indies if we can translate our books into Hindi, Mandarin or Japanese. KDP cannot even cope with the variant alphabets of eastern Europe and Scandinavia.

But let’s stick with the standard English word for now. Even here we’re looking at two billion potential customers in India, China and Japan who if they do speak English will still have to pay the $2 surcharge if they want to read our books. Somehow I think they’ll look elsewhere.

Ebook stores are opening everywhere, and while Amazon plays games in Europe and grows increasingly complacent, the rest of the world is moving on.

But, I hear you say, most of the rest of the world cannot afford books, let alone Kindles, so it doesn’t really matter.

Rest assured it does and it will.

I live in one of the poorest countries in the world. Yet the fact that I haven’t got a cell phone makes me quite an oddity. Almost everyone has a cell phone. The biggest companies in the country, by far, are the cell-phone operators. Technology is changing lives here. Smart-phones that can read books are becoming common.

The same goes for wi-fi internet. Having a landline phone connection is an unheard of luxury here. But now we can buy up cheap pre-owned laptops and smart-phones discarded as the rich West upgrades to the latest luxury, and link to the world.

And in the richer parts of Africa, like Nigeria, they’ll soon be sending their hand-me-downs to Europe and the USA as they expand.

In India, they’ve just gone one whole step further. Rather than wait for the West’s fancy tablets to come down in price, they’ve taken matters into their own hands.

Say hello to the $35 tablet. No, that’s no typo. India has produced its own Android tablet, the Aakash.

So okay, it’s not going to win any awards for cutting edge technology and design. I’m sure you’d rather have a KindleFire or an iPad. But at $35 (£23 for you Brits, $34 AUD down under) I’d be very happy to get hold of one.

More importantly, e-reading technology in tablet form has now joined smart-phones as an affordable option to more than half the English speaking world.

Will they now rush out and download the Amazon app so they can pay the $2 surcharge and buy our books from the Kindle store?

Exactly. They’ll look elsewhere, where ebooks are available and affordable.

As indie authors we need to do the same. We need to be looking at alternative outlets and local pricing to suit local pockets, not based on what we’d pay and expect back home.

Charging a dollar for an ebook might seem like we’re giving it away, until you consider a dollar can feed an entire family  in some parts of the world. Besides, the sheer volume of potential sales in a country with a billion people means a lower price can pay off big time.

* * *

Amazon isn’t going to disappear any time soon. But you can bet when JK finally releases the Harry Potter ebooks they’ll be snapped up the world over, including in India, Pakistan and Nigeria and by the ESL speakers in Bangladesh, China, Japan, etc, by people who don’t have Kindles and either cannot or will not buy from Amazon. There’s plenty of other outlets available.

Chances are Harry Potter will be the first ebook they download.  For many it will be the first western book they read. But when those readers then move on to look for their next ebook, will it be one of yours? Or will you be a prisoner of Amazon?

  1. Great post, Mark. So, what I’m wondering is, where are people in India, China, “Africa” buying ebooks? If India has the Aakash, an Aakash store is sure to follow. It would be GREAT if we indies could load our books to those stores like we do for Zon, B & N, Smashwords, etc.

    • Good point, Shea. there are numerous small and not so small outlets forming, but at the moment there are issues acepting western authors because of currency exchange / payments etc for indies, and rights issues for trad pubbed books.

      We’re in discussion with a number of outlets looking a ways round this, and we plan to have our own ebook store open before end 2011 to join in the fun directly.

      The big problem with small prices is the payment processing fees. Minimum fees charged by Paypal and Google Check-Out are just too high to deal with small fees to Third World countries.

      We’re investigating micropayment options where buyers can pay and download by phone. We’ll have something functional for 2012, fear not!

      • Cool! I wait with bated breath. 🙂

        I do try to steer my “non-Golden Zone” readers to Smashwords, but with limited success.

  2. Wow, this is all rather daunting! I don’t know whether to be intimidated or simply curious :S

  3. So what you’re saying is that the Kindle will end up like the razor: price the razor cheap (or give it away) and then sell the blades (v. expensive here in the US). Except that blades will = content. Very interesting & potentially v lucrative.

    • Inevitable, I think, Ruth. It’s what happens with cell phones now in the UK, and I presume it’s the same your way.

      And yes, razors are same in UK. Ridiculous prices for a sliver of metal.

  4. I’m no longer in prison. I’m no longer in prison. 🙂


    This took me about 10 minutes to set up. I will write a blog post about it. But it will work for anyone with a wordpress installation that they pay for hosting (not a wordpress.com site, but a wordpress installation on hosting you pay for). I used the PlugIn EasyFileShop and the money goes directly to my Paypal.

    I LOVE this application too for coupons and free books! I hate using Smashwords, and many people do not like having to register with another site just to get a free or discounted book. If I want to offer a discounted book as part of a guest blog post, NOW I can make a page, set the price (discount or free) and add the link to the guest post. AND it helps drive traffic to my author site. WIN-WIN

  5. Excellent post. I was thinking the same thing. I read recently that India’s growing middle class, while only 25% of the population, still makes it about 300 million people! That’s a market I’d like to tap into.

    • Too right, Mary! Our MWi ebook store opens later this year, and while we haven’t figured out how yet, we hope to reach a small portion of this and the other English-speaking markets in 2012.

  6. Hi Mark,

    I really, really loved this post (and congrats on your one year milestone – it’s amazing what you have achieved).

    This had me thinking in multiple different directions.

    1. The International Market

    I think the “third world” will eclipse the “West” soon enough (in terms of book sales). The potential is staggering – Asia, India, Africa, South America – simply huge.

    I think most analysts, writers, and publishers hugely underestimate the potential. They look at crude metrics like per capita income and write off those markets. I know from living in South America and Asia in several supposedly poor countries that smartphones are ubiquitos, the internet is hugely popular, and e-reading will be MASSIVE.

    This is a global $90bn business. The US is by far the biggest market at around a third of that. The (offically measured) book market in somewhere like, say, Argentina is much smaller. But what you have to remember is that books are much, much cheaper there. If you were to measure the respective size of the markets by units sold, you would have a very different picture. The US would probably be smaller than China (and perhaps India if you included the huge amount of print book piracy).

    Why is this important for indie writers? We sell books cheaply. Our books will be much more affordable to the average reader than trade published books.

    If you think how much US readers (with much more disposable income) baulk at paying $14.99, you can imagine how much more attractive an indie book at 99c or $2.99 will be to someone in Mumbai, Lagos, or Buenos Aires.

    I’ve lived in Buenos Aires. That is one country that is passionate about books. There are bookstores EVERYWHERE. Writers are hugely respected. Reading is much more important in cultural terms than in the UK or the US. The Buenos Aires International Book Fair (one of the top five in the world) attracts over one million people each year from the general public through its doors.

    And this is only one country of 40 million people in a region with 400 million.

    I would like to hit all these people. I’m getting “Let’s Get Digital” translated into French and Spanish, and I’m hunting for a German translator. More importantly, I’ll be working hard to get “A Storm Hits Valparaiso” translated into Spanish – South American and Spanish sales could be strong for that one, especially given that it’s a controversial take on two national heroes, two Liberators of South America.

    2. The Surcharge

    You know my feelings on this. In short, its boneheaded. For some time now, I’ve been trying to understand the logic. The only reasonably plausible explanation I have come up with is that Amazon wants to keep these markets cool until it’s ready to launch an offical Kindle Store.

    Their international expansion is speeding up, and when they launch a Kindle Store, they abolish the surcharge.

    They are rolling ALL of their profits into this international expansion. Kindle Stores will open soon in China, Japan, Spain, and Italy. They will be launching Amazon India some time next year, with a Kindle Store to follow suit.

    Personally, I’m really hoping the Spanish Kindle Store serves the 500 million or so Spanish speakers worldwide, and not just Spain. That would be something.

    3. Africa

    I was contacted by an African non-profit called Worldreader – http://www.worldreader.org/ – and I think this is something you might be interested in.

    Their aim is to improve literacy by providing e-readers (Kindles) to kids in schools in places like Ghana and Kenya. They are looking for authors to provide free e-books.

    They claim to have increased the particpating children’s reading time by over 50% and that the children download one e-book for every two they are given for free.

    I think Random House and Penguin are getting involved, but the interesting thing is that they are very open to self-published authors.

    They seem to be partnered with Amazon in some sense, they describe them as their “publishing and distribution partner”.

    I will be doing some kind of post on this next week (either written by myself or someone from the non-profit), but I can send you on the details if you or anyone else is interested in learning more.

    4. Special Characters & KDP

    You aren’t alone on this one, most people seem to think that the Kindle/KDP only supports basic latin script. Maybe they changed something since you started, but when I started in April, that wasn’t the case.

    My first story is set in the Czech Republic and I use several Eastern European special characters.

    All you need to do is use what’s called a HTML named entity – a little string of code that will render any special character you want. It comes out perfectly on the Kindle, Nook, iPhone, iPad etc.

    Asian/Middle Eastern characters are a different matter, but Amazon is working on it. It’s more complex for a number of reasons, including that they don’t read left-to-right like we do. Arabic goes right-to-left, and many Asian languages read downward. This complicates matters, but it should be solved soon enough.

    5. Aakash Tablet

    This is a fascinating development. The reason it is so cheap is that it is essentially subsidized by the Indian government. Whats most important here is that the government plan to order millions of these to be used in schools across India. I can’t wait to see the effect this has.

    • Thanks for the comprehensive reply, Dave.

      Fascinated by the HTML option for the e-readers. Sounds scary to me, but glad to know the option is there. Not that many in East Europe or Scandinavia have Kindles, but other devices will grow and grow..

      I’d love to think Amazon will let the kindle.es site cover Latin America, but suspect that’s just wishful thinking. But you’re right, a perfect market for A Storm Hits V.

      I understand the Aakash will also retail at about $60 to a wider audience, but the basic model is a sturdy, student-friendly device with a thick laminate screen and USB ports.

      i think it will transform education in the major urban centers as text books are shifted into digital format (something I’m similarly involved with here in West Africa) and if a cheap solar adapter can power it it will transform rural areas too. In a country where learning is valued, these devices will be made full educational use of, not just used to play games on.

      India is just going to go from strength to strength.

      I’ve been watching worldreader from afar. I’m always suspicious of big projects like this, having seen far too much well-intentioned aid go nowhere near where it should, but in principle is sounds great.

      A device like the Aakash would be far more use and far more suited to local conditions than the Kindle, but any ereader will be of immense value in the Third Word regions.

      We’re trying to encourage Westerners to donate their old e-readers and smart-phones to schools as they upgrade, but while pre-owned ereaders still have a good resale value that’s unlikely to happen just yet.

      Would love to have any up to date info and news about worldreader. I’ll email you privately on this. Thanks.

    • Jasmine
    • November 6th, 2011

    Yes! You’re so right, Mark. I live in Egypt, which of course means I can’t download e-books at all. But the grand majority of Egyptian schools teach English and French, and being bilingual is the norm. Cell phones and laptops are also the norm and, yes, even reading English books. But they’re just so damn expensive! I devour books, but find myself having to wait months to buy new ones because I need to save my allowance. Last week I bought four books, for a total of 210 Egyptian pounds.

    If an ebook store ever opened on our end, sans that ridiculous $2 extra, indies would make a killing.

    • Music to my ears. Jasmine!

      We’re opening our own international ebook store before the end of this year, and while it won’t ever compare to Amazon, and will launch with maybe a hundred titles or so, we expect it to expand rapidly through 2012 because it will be open to everyone everywhere.

      We’ll let you know more nearer the time!

  7. Mark,

    I was forced to find some solution to that special character issue. I dedicated my first e-book to my better half, and her first name has a c with a diacritic above it, like this: č.

    Had to get that right!

    I’ve emailed you about worldreader.


    P.S. I just realized we are having three different conversations on three different topics in three different places, and I’m shivering in Sweden and you’re sweating in West Africa. Can’t do that in real life.

      • Cathryn Leigh
      • November 6th, 2011

      Go to love those better halves. They make us do the most wondrous things, we’d have never done other wise.

      As to three conversations in three places in two part of the world. I can relate to that. The digital era is amazing!

      :} Cathryn Leigh

    • Shivering in Sweden? No thanks! We’re down to the high 20s C. some days here as we plunge into West Africa’s winter. And no more rain until July. Bliss!

    • Miriam Joy
    • November 6th, 2011

    Slightly intimidated by the comment essays above me – whatever I write will not be as informed nor as grammatically correct, given how dead my brain is from NaNoWriMo.

    However, that’s a very good point. I think people need to be available on all sorts of sites. Is it possible to sell Kindle format ebooks on a personal website? If so, one could have a shop on one’s own website that had all the different editions of your book so that people with different readers and in different countries could all get it from one place.

    • Precsisely so, Ms Mim.

      It is possible to sell Indle format books, and formats for other ereaders, and the MWi ebook store will be doing just that. Hopefully next month if things go to plan.

  8. Happy Birthday Sugar and Spice. What an amazing year for you both!

    This is such exciting stuff. I think Mark’s international store–with no surcharge–will take off faster and bigger than you expect. The US is fading as a market. Our standard of living is plummeting, So is public education.

    One of the major goals of the cartoon villains who have control of the US Congress is to turn the US into a third world nation–to get cheap, underpaid labor at home. They actively attack education–some advocate eliminating public education altogether–plus they have their own television network/propaganda machine that scorns the educated.

    American companies like Amazon who don’t look to the “third world” will lose. I can’t believe they’re not seeing this. It’s already happening in other industries. The Gap clothing store chain–once popular with affluent college kids–is shutting a large number of its stores in the US and opening them in China.

    Unless something radical happens, in the next decade, the US will become a very large version of Mexico (or maybe Somalia if the T-party has its way), and the big markets will all be in Asia. Being on the cutting edge of that may make you very successful, Mark.

    • The UK and much of Europe are following a similar path, Anne. We live in turbulent times. Europe’s empires are gone and the US empire crumbles.

      No question the future lies in regions we previously regarded as lost causes. How the mighty are fallen.

      As writers we are just so lucky that our tool of the trade happens to be almost universal – storytelling in the English language. Combine that with the internet and we have an unparalleled opportunity to make a difference.

  9. Wow. Between your awesome post and the comments here (getting a bit heavy, seeing as the empires are crumbling… not that i disagree) this is quite the thread!

    I just today set my author page up with photo and bio in the UK, Deutschland, et la belle France. Very international of me, n’est-ce pas? How do you like that, Mr. International? But this brave new world is opening up so fast, I can hardly keep up.

    By coincidence, I got off the phone with my good pal whose doctor hubby is in Nigeria for the week, and his cellphone was pick pocketed not once but twice yesterday. He got it back the first time from a passerby who grabbed it. Not so lucky the second. Clearly, these devices are well-known and in high demand all over the world.

    Congratulations on the one year anniversary of Sugar & Spice! I just finished it two days ago (went with the UK version for authenticity) and I was mesmerized.

    You’re a pioneer in many ways. There aren’t enough hours in the day to take advantage of the blossoming opportunities.

    I sent a tweet out recommending your post here. Thanks for all you do, Mark.


    author of political thriller (2 Women 4 Prez!) RUNNING


    ePublisher of How David Met Sarah, a gentle love story for developmentally disabled readers

  10. happy belated birthday Sugar and Spice! Sorry I’m late to the party.

  11. Congrats and happy anniversary.

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