State of Play in the UK – Opportunities Ahead As Britain Finally Embraces eBooks

As regulars will know, I’m not normally the flag-waving type. I may be be born and bred in Britain, but I’m about as un-British as you can be.  For my money, the best thing about being British is having a UK passport to go abroad, where I spend most of my time.

But this week I’m going to talk Britain. Ot at least, about the British ebook market and what the future holds, because suddenly things are looking very bright indeed.

But first, a word about KDP Select.


Amidst the gleeful cries of those who have had a good bounce from going free with KDP Select there is clear evidence of a fall in ebook sales overall as we hit February and into March, and especially so in the Amazon UK market.

Of course, we all expect the natural post-season slump. But for many, both in the US and UK, the anticipated Christmas bonanza with all those new e-readers coming onto the market, simply didn’t materialise. Partly because many new devices – the KindleFire, all the nooks, etc, were not and are not available outside the US, which rather skews international sales.

But both sides of the pond many writers, who were surging ahead in the latter part of 2011 and seriously thinking about giving up the day job, were brought down to Earth with a bump in 2012 when, especially from late January, their world stopped spinning.

For many more, the early success of Select, with the fabled post-free bounce, also faded as the five free days were used, the post-free bounce disappeared and Amazon’s spotlight moved on to the next lucky winner. Did the eighty days exclusive with Select after the free and post-free bounce justify the experiment as the flood of millions of free books through Select saturated the market?

From the feedback I’m hearing that’s at best 50-50. And of course it’s impossible to tell how many sales were “lost” on the other platforms as all those new iPad, nook and Kobo devices were fired up for the first time Christmas Day.

For many more in Select there were no lucky winners, period. It’s easy to get carried away on the euphoria whipped up by those who did well with Select and assume it’s a guaranteed winner. Just sign-up and reap the rewards.

But I’ve seen email after email from authors bitterly disappointed that thousands or even tens of thousands of free downloads converted to post-free sales in single figures or even zero. Needless to say they’re not rushing about on the blogs broadcasting their results like those who hit the jackpot. Which begs the question just how many it didn’t work for that we’re simply not hearing about…

In the UK of course the benefits were skewed from the start. Kindle UK isn’t privy to the borrowing option, as with so many Kindle US benefits. There’s no gift option on Kindle UK, for example. No KindleFire here, just the old b&w e-readers.

And as we all know Kindle UK is a smaller market place than Kindle US because e-reading has yet to take off in Britain.

But that could be about to change significantly. My prediction is the UK e-reading market is going to explode in the coming 12-18 months. Reaping huge rewards to those in the right places at the right time.

So a brief overview of the state of play in the UK.

One of the reasons Apple’s iPad is not leading the way with ebooks is that Steve Jobs famously dismissed ebooks as a waste of time. Citing the possibly accurate figure that 4 out of 10 Americans read less than one book a year, Jobs saw no future for ebooks, which became a sideline for the iPad.

It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” said the person with a vested interest in people reading less and spending more on music and games. So much for Steve Jobs the visionary.

By the time Apple realised their mistake Amazon had stormed ahead and seized the high ground. Of course they then responded with the Agency Agreement to try fight back. We all know the repercussions now as legal proceedings are prepared both sides of the Atlantic.

Not here to discuss that. David Gaughran has covered this issue far better than I could on many occasions. most recently here. But what’s significant is to grasp that Apple are belatedly taking ebooks seriously, and safe to say Steve Jobs’ successors will be revamping the iBooks store and making it a lot more user-friendly in the near future.

Apple has about twenty stores internationally, not least in the UK, and this is and will increasingly become a significant player for the UK market.

Leaving aside the accuracy or otherwise of the forty per cent of Americans who only read one book or less a year, it’s generally accepted that the UK is the world’s leading book-reading market per head of population.

It may not seem so when you look at your UK v US sales figures on KIndle, but that’s primarily a matter of ebook awareness.

Ebooks came late to the UK. Or rather, the Kindle came late, which was much the same thing. Other devices were available, but the introduction of Kindle UK in 2010 quickly gave Amazon dominance in the UK ebook market.

And despite appearances sometimes, it’s a significant market. Plenty of books are selling in six figures, and as e-reading in Britain increases so will your potential sales.

But unlike in the US, Kindle UK was pretty much unopposed. Apple, as above, simply wasn’t taking ebooks seriously. Kobo was barely established here. As for Barnes & Noble…

Amazon’s biggest competitor in the US simply doesn’t exist here. B&N doesn’t sell to the UK,and except through Smashwords it doesn’t allow writers to self-publish from the UK. No wonder Amazon took the UK by storm.

The only competition was the (at the time) small and neglected Waterstone’s ebook store and the equally pitiful W.H. Smiths ebook store. Yet Waterstone’s is the UK’s biggest book shop chain, and W.H. Smiths (stationers and general goods along with books) its nearest rival. Borders UK had gone to the wall several years before it happened in the US.

The Waterstone’s story was a sad tale of neglect and decline, as this company was passed around several buyers none of whom had the least interest in books until, most recently, it landed in the hands of a Russian billionaire, by when I had, Kindle UK aside, all but given up hope for ebooks in the UK.

Which was tragic. I loved Waterstone’s. It was my second home in the UK, especially where they had a decent coffee bar. The staff knew their products and would perform cartwheels to meet the customer’s requirements. Impossible to fault them.

Compare W.H. Smiths, where the girl at the book-ordering point, on being asked for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, asked which group it was by – and when I finally found the book and went to pay the checkout girl said she’d studied that book for her degree course. You couldn’t make it up…

But back to Waterstone’s.  Last year we found we had two top ten hits in Waterstone’s ebooks. Nowhere near Amazon sales levels, but still a worthy achievement. I happened to be in the UK and we tried to arrange a photo-shoot at Saffi’s local Waterstone’s store, so asked to speak to the manager.

“We have an ebook store?”

We contacted Waterstone’s HQ in London. No response. Meanwhile over in America B&N were inviting ebook sellers to do in-store readings and signing, introducing ebook booths, and pushing ahead with the nook.

This was about the time Waterstone’s was sold yet again. I despaired of Britain’s book future, let alone ebooks.

But the new man in charge of Waterstone’s, James Daunt (left, no tie), apparently with the full backing of (left, with tie) said billionaire Alexander Mamut (so there may just be the funds available to make it happen) is intent on transforming the stores nationwide and taking it into the digital age to compete head on with Amazon in the UK.

I’ve been following Daunt closely ever since, and have been very impressed with the way things are shaping. Rumour and speculation abound, but it seems some sort of partnership with B&N is imminent, at the very least to sell a branded in-store e-reader in the UK, and possibly much more.

This month B&N holds its first workshops in the UK, and a B&N presence of some sort, again almost certainly with Waterstone’s, seems just a matter of time.

Even as this happens Kobo, recently bought out by a huge Japanese corporation, so suddenly not short of cash itself, has appointed a new director of UK operation, has e-reader distribution deals with several major UK retailers, and just happens to run the ebook store for the UK’s second largest book-seller, W.H. Smiths.

All this just as the early adopter phase for e-readers comes to an end and the reticent late-comers stage begins. Lost? See my post Are The Big Six Publishers Really Dying?

Suddenly the UK market is being transformed. Kindle UK is facing serious competition here for the first time, and we can expect a very rapid uptake of ebook reading in the UK in this coming year. I strongly suspect the Christmas 2012 season will be a bonanza like none before for ebook sellers in the UK market.

Of course, accelerated ebook sales means the closure of the bricks and mortar stores is brought forward too, right? The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away…

But it needn’t be so. Over at Anne R. Allen’s today I explain why, far from seeing bricks and mortar stores close, the digital revolution could give a whole new lease of life to “real” bookstores, even as print inexorably disappears from our shelves.

There’s never been a better time to be a writer or a reader. Or a publisher. Or even a book-store owner!

The future is bright. The future is digital, with coffee.

  1. Fingers crossed, eh?

  2. Great post, Mark. I love reading your take on how the e-book market is taking off over in good ol’ blighty. Being detatched from it all, I thank you for keeping us up to date. I was excited when you first told us Kobo was partnering with WH Smith. I have already seen an increase in my Kobo sales through Smashwords. Not very big but better than zero for the past year 🙂

    I am equally excited about the news of B&N teaming up with Waterstone’s. Hoping that it means our B&N books will automatically transfer over to the UK. More than 50% of my sales (surprisingly) come from my Nook readers.

    This is all very exciting stuff!!

    • Thanks, Alison. You have the advantage in that these names will be familiar to you.

      I could also mention Tesco ebooks (imagine how big that could be if they got serious!), Foyles and numerous others.

  3. Mark, you are always informative, readable and clear-headed with the facts. This is an exciting time. Just last week, I was told that one of my novels, Best Friends, was #5 on the Daily Mail bestseller list. The UK was very good to me when I was trad published and is continuing to be good to me in this phase. I’m looking forward to the future.

    • #5 in the DM list?! That’s pretty good going!

      Fellow MWiDP author Catherine Ryan Hyde does pretty well in the UK too, I understand.

      As ebooks become more wide-read this side of the pond that can only get better and better for those like you two who have a loyal fan-base already.

  4. I entered the indie market just a little over a year ago. I am absolutely astonished at the changes that have taken place in that year. I love your analysis here. And, of course, it makes total sense. Why wouldn’t this be the UK’s big year? All of the players are in place to make it happen.

    I’m just glad that I don’t have to try to keep track of all of this. Rumors abound. Myths and downright falsehoods are accepted and passed along. One thing is for sure – it is an exciting time in the world of publishing. New technology and new ways to distribute books are always on the horizon. The only thing that remains constant is that writers write and readers read.

    Me, I’m just happy that you are on it. I can’t keep up. Signing with MWiDP was one of the best decisions I ever made.

    Now – back to writing.

  5. Another highly informative post, Mark. I for one am glad that you’re out there scouting fot us.

    • Cheers, Tom.

      As with Cheryl and Conseulo above, there won’t be any over-night miracles, but good novels will always do well in the UK once they’re discovered.

    • Miriam Joy
    • March 11th, 2012

    I like Waterstone’s. There’s one in Piccadilly which is enormous with most of the ground floor being a coffee shop, and that’s where the NaNo London folks have had write-ins. I went several times, although I didn’t this year because the write-ins had moved (there were too many of us and the staff got annoyed with all our laptops!). =D It’s also where I bought Writing Magazine for the first time… that reminds me, I need to renew my subscription!

    You’re right that e-reading hasn’t taken off (yet) in the UK – especially among younger readers. I only know about two other people my age who have a Kindle, although I know a few with the Kindle app on their phone. That means that teen books are mainly print.

    • The Piccadilly store is the largest book-shop in Europe, and would be a wonderful place to get lost in for a week.

      I can’t imagine many benefits of living in London, but being so close to stores like that is certainly one of them.

      I suspect as prices of ereaders and tablets come down more and more teens will embrace digital. Just in time to make St. Mallory’s the #1 YA book in the UK! (Hopefully we’ll have the print version sorted by Christmas, once the ebook is released).

        • Miriam Joy
        • March 11th, 2012

        It can’t be the largest – what about Foyles on Charing Cross Road? I can certainly get lost in THERE! (And have. It’s so confusingly laid out.)

        • Foyles is pretty impressive, no question, and sprawling! Incidentally, Foyles also have their own ebook store.

            • Miriam Joy
            • March 11th, 2012

            They do 🙂
            So, is Foyles bigger? It certainly seems it to me.

            • I understand WS has the rputation as the largest, but by what criteria (floor space, shelf-space, number of books, number of sentences observing the Oxford comma, I know not..

              But as I recall only one has a Costa bar, so I know where I’ll be heading!

                • Miriam Joy
                • March 12th, 2012

                Ha ha, fair enough! Foyles do good author events, though…

  6. Great post. And you’re right, we are slow over here to catch on to anything new! Apart from writer friends and one of my daughters, the only people I know with last Christmas Kindles haven’t fathomed how to register them and download from Amazon! I’m thinking of charging each time I give a lesson. 🙂

    • Sounds like a great business plan, Pam!

      As mentioned in comments above, the sleeping elephant in the room is Tesco. Their ebook store is pitiful beyond belief at the moment, because they just aren’t making any effort with it, and are selling Kindles in many stores.

      But hard to imagine Tesco are blind to the opportunities ahead.

      If and when Tesco put their money and marketing capacity into action – perhaps with their own brand tablet – the situation could be transformed yet again.

      No evidence as yet that it’s happening, but I’m guessing Tesco did not set up the ebook store for nothing, and who knows what might be going on behind the scenes.

      For non-UK readers, Tesco is the Walmart of the UK. and far and away the largest retailer in the country. Walmart actually owns one of its close rivals, Asda, which has a deal with Kobo to sell ereaders and may well have its own ebook store soon. The other of the Big Three, Sainsbury’s, is also tied up with Kobo, and again a branded ebook store is a logical next step.

      Which should be all it takes to get Tesco moving…

  7. The future is bright indeed. Like everyone else, I’ve experienced my own slump (delayed until March, but shared by my entire Amazon category), but I expect it to be seasonal. I’m getting my stuff onto the Nook next month, and look forward to participating in the expanded marketing you’re doing over there, Mark. Thank you for getting me to jump last year; I had more than 1,000 sales last month between my two books. Working hard on #3.

    • For a niche like yours it probably is more seasonal, George.

      I suspect a lot of would-be readers of your books in UK and Europe are to be found on Apple, where graphic novels are popular, and relatively few will be looking at Amazon in Europe because of the limitations of the b&w Kindle.

      That’s assuming a substantial proportion of WtC fans are looking for illustrated comics originally and then discover your texts.

      Once you get illustrated versions out there and have the best of both worlds you should really soar!

      When Stan Lee comes knocking for the rights to Artemis make sure you get his autograph for me!

      • I think your getting ahead here, but I like your confidence!

  8. Very informative Mark. What would you say to a non-fiction writer about ebook potential for an Evolutionary thesis with copious footnotes? Don’t bother with ebook…in fact don’t bother with any kinda book?

    Would be interested. At present am thinking POD only with ebook tasters but it is generally agreed this is a book which if you want it you would want print?

    • Philip I would say tell me more! As reader, writer, and publisher, this sounds most intriguing.

      I’m acutely aware that niche non-fiction has been almost impossible to place with publishers in the old world because of the expense of outlay compared to likely returns. Unless you’re Richard Dawkins then an evolutionary thesis is not likely to rival Harry Potter in the sales leagues,

      But in the ebook world anything is possible, and I’d be inclined to say forego the inevitable expense and hassle of print and look to an ebook asap!

      Ebooks are just perfect for copious footnotes, which can be tucked away out of sight until needed, then brought up with the click of a button, and at a sensible font-size too!

      I can’t imagine why anyone would only want this in print unless they haven’t yet discovered the convenience and pleasure of non-fiction in ebooks.

      I’ll email you shortly to follow up on this.

      • Mark. Thanks for response. very interesting. More than happy to elaborate on book via email. Will give much thought to your opinion and any advice as to marketing??? One thing I failed to mention was that this is an orthodox scientific theory presented in poetic form! NOW what do you say? Yes I know! ( But there are good reasons for it..economy, lightness of touch, humour and other things like the better understanding of the right brain which is seldom addressed by science!

        • Sounds even more intriguing!

          I’m on GMT in West Africa with a very slow server, so struggling to keep up with everything just now. If perchance you haven’t heard from me in the next day or so it’s not lack of interest, just overwhlemed. 🙂

          My email – Drop me a line if I don’t get to you first!

      • = Equine Stargazer and Birdy! 😉 For those of you without a season pass to the inner workings of my head and my email exchanges with Mark, this will mean nothing, however, the digi-revolution has opened up massive opportunities for books such as this. We are currently working on a brilliant short, complete with charcoal sketches and notes, perfect for e-readers! Phillip, your thesis sounds intriguing!

        • Saffina, Your interest encourages. Your suggestion of charcoal notes as viable on ereaders equally so! Interesting that a publisher who shall remain nameless said my work could not be formatted for ereaders at all! ( But he wanted full copyright anyway, and I was to pay for the book!)

          A Divine Comedy of science. I’m told unpublishable by anyone mainstream. So going it alone and seeking all advice. Philippa

  9. Thanks for all the good news, Mark. The UK has more readers per capita of any country in the English speaking world, so the UK market is important to all authors. I’m so glad to hear they’re getting into the ebook revolution as well as giving Amazon a run for its money. Nobody should be rooting for Amazon to remain a virtual monopoly. Monopolies stagnate and turn abusive. So all this fresh blood is going to change the picture and make it more open for everybody.

    • An incredibly exciting year or two ahead for us all, Anne.

      Competition is indeed healthy, and I’m sure the likes of Jeff Bezos understand that and actually welcome it, within reason.

    • Charley R
    • March 11th, 2012

    Wheeooo! Not meaning to sound pedantic, but I’m pretty proud of being a Brit, though more for out historical heritage than much else besides 😛

    Ooh, this article really gave me the wriggles. Time to get back to work on that St Mall’s chapter I’ve momentarily abandoned methinks xP

    • As a Forces brat the pride goes without saying!

      But there are some pretty dark sides to our history as well as the good.

      Speaking of history, Anca’s Story should be live on Amazxon any time now. Formal anouncement in next day or so.

      Which means St. Mall’s is next in line!

        • Charley R
        • March 11th, 2012

        Hehe, indeed. Yeah, we do have a flip side, but most countries do if you know where to look.

        Eeek! I wrote two chapters over the weekend (which is quite something as I was in France!) but the school internet’s being a pain and not letting me email hte attachment to Miriam, so I’ll try again in the morning on that front. Curse a tiny broadband width and too many users! 😛

  10. A clear and concise forecast for we writers. And makes me even keener to get the research done for my next so that its out by Christmas.

    Interesting about the lack of uptake of e-readers. Wondering if same in Australia. Husband reports overseas flights to be divided into two groups, not by fight class but by e-readers and magazine readers. The e-readers obviously eschewing their print novels (per kilo travel cost) for the ease of the tablet. The magazine readers (interesting demographic: 17’s-34’s) not ready financially to make the jump?

    As an aside, as a small but steady seller and a non-starter in KDP Select, noticed no change in my sales. Perhaps that’s the advantage of being small and under-rated and niche!!! A sort of hare and tortoise analogy…

  11. Dear Mr. International: Thanks for that very interesting update on the possibilities in the UK. Growing markets for ebooks are good news for all of us!

    I am one of those who saw significant success with KDP Select (and blabbed about it!) because it changed the game for me in a big way. Having said that, sales have calmed down quite a bit since using my free days.

    I need to get more work out there. You can’t sell it if you don’t write it! I’m convinced that anyone with a moderate number of decent books out can start a career and keep it going. One of the challenges is juggling the marketing and the writing at the same time.

    Any moves on the part of Waterstone’s et alia to get more ebooks sold is very welcome. Thanks for keeping us up to date.

    • JensHildebrand
    • March 12th, 2012

    Dear Mark

    I wrote about a possible return of the real, cosy bookshop two weeks ago, in my blog post at

    And Patrice is right, of course: Let’s get some writing done!

    MTFBW us


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