Will Libraries Stop Amazon Dominating Ebooks?

Stockport Central Library, how I love you
Stockport Central Library, how I love you

I recently started using the ebook lending section of my local libraries, and in doing so made an interesting discovery. Having downloaded a book file, I quickly realised that I couldn’t read it, because it was the wrong file format. I read ebooks on a Kindle Fire, which uses Amazon’s exclusive .mobi format, whereas the library books were in the .epub format used by all other e-readers.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious that the library would use epub files. After all, a publicly funded service wasn’t going to use a proprietary file format that only works with one brand of e-readers, even a brand that has two-thirds of the market share. In Britain at least, public services are still meant to be about accessibility and providing an even playing field for different suppliers. And in keeping with that ethos, there was a way around my file format problem, through a browser-based reader that works on my Kindle Fire.

To me, this is also a sign of the future of e-books. Using an exclusive file format has helped Amazon fence its readers in, keeping them using its e-readers with its e-books through its online store. But through this slightly grasping, territorial approach to its market, Amazon has excluded itself from a big public service chunk of the market. As library e-book collections grow, and people get used to using them, this is likely to become a more important part of the market, given that it’s as easy to borrow an e-book as to buy one, and often significantly less costly.

By using epub, libraries may provide a larger service than making ebooks more accessible – they may help to prevent Amazon building a monopoly.

Riding the Mainspring out in other formats

A steam-powered cowboy with a taste for death. A daring art heist in a moving city. A zeppelin flight through the smoke-filled skies of a Europe torn apart by volcanoes. This collection brings together nine stories of mechanical adventure from worlds where pistons and clockwork are king.

Like any author, I want my books to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. And so Riding the Mainspring, my collection of steampunk short stories, is out now on all sorts of formats via Smashwords. I’ll be adding Mud and Brass there tomorrow, so that both books are available to those of you who use epub or other non-Amazon formats. From Smashwords they’ll filter out to other stores over the next few weeks.

Riding The Mainspring - High Resolution

As with the Kindle release, one of the best ways for my books to gain readers is through reviews. So whatever format you buy the book in please leave a review in the appropriate online store. And if you include a link to the review in the comments to the original book release blog post then I’ll include you in a draw to win a free copy of my next release, coming soon to all your different e-reading platforms.

I hope that you enjoy the book, and if you do please let me know.

Happy reading!


Subscription services – adjusting our thinking

The rise of subscription services like Netflix and ComicsFix changes our relationship with the culture we consume. As I mentioned way back in the distant past of Monday, I think that this brings great benefits, but also some psychological challenges.

And by ‘psychological challenges’ I don’t just mean cutting through the hype to remember that Amazon aren’t offering the only, or necessarily even the best, subscription service for books (thanks again to Felipe for another useful link).

I don't care if the world of reading has been transformed, I'm still keeping my GGKs.
I don’t care if the world of reading has been transformed, I’m still keeping my GGKs.



Part of the appeal of owning our own copies of books is that we know that we can keep them, that we can access them whenever we want. We know that they won’t just disappear, and we’re the ones who control that.

With subscription services we have to trust someone else to keep those books available for us. That involves letting go of some control, which can be difficult and daunting.

Letting go

This isn’t just about letting go of control, it’s about letting go of the need for a sense of ownership. At the risk of revealing what a ridiculous hippy I am, I really do think that there’s value in letting go of a need to own things in favour of focusing on doing things. It’s about seeing life as a matter of experience rather than accumulation, and it runs counter to a lot of the habits we build up from very early on in life.

This isn’t a clear-cut issue. Accumulating and ownership can lead to some great experiences, and up until now they were the best way to ensure access to an experience like instant access to your favourite books. Disentangling the two is difficult, and I think that’s why the shift to using more subscriptions might become a generational one, as people grow up with different habits.

We’ll see.

Not being a dickhead about it

In the same way that some people are very attached to old patterns of collection and ownership, others are becoming very attached to the potential of our electronic future. I’ve seen a lot of this in debates over the merits of e-books, and particularly the on-going Amazon/Hachette squabble. Those in favour of new models start to attack those who cling to old ways of working, because they feel frustrated at the pace of change.

But attacking someone else’s choices just because they don’t match yours isn’t being right. It’s being a dickhead.

I love my growing collection of e-books. The writer of this article likes Scribd’s subscription service. My dad loves his shelves and shelves of cheap Penguin paperbacks. My friend Ben loves his collection of classic August Derlath printed editions, some of which are probably worth more as individual volumes than my whole Kindle collection.

All these different relationships with books are perfectly valid. I think that letting go of owning them, of disentangling reading from collecting, will be good for a lot of people, me included. But that doesn’t mean that it’s for everyone, or that people who still want publishers to create nice hardbacks are in the wrong.

We can all benefit from making some adjustments to this new age. And the hardest adjustment may be not trying to make everyone think the same way we do.

Moth City by Tim Gibson

I love the way that e-reading allows stories to be presented in whole new ways. Sometimes it’s bold experiments in multi-media like Device 6, sometimes it’s just drawing your gaze through a comic slightly differently like Comixology can do. The comic Moth City by Tim Gibson does something in between.

Tim Gibson by Tim Gibson
Tim Gibson by Tim Gibson

Moth City is a dark historical thriller, set on a fictional island during the civil war that racked China from 1927 through to 1950. There’s a speculative element to it, the dieselpunk-style device of a high tech industrial island producing weapons of unimaginable devastation. But I’m only one issue in, and I don’t know yet whether this story will see many wild, fictional technologies, as opposed to just one to drive the plot forward. Either way, the island’s an interesting idea.

What’s really interesting is the way that Gibson has used the potential in digital comics to change the way that the story is revealed. Rather than show you a whole page at once, or guide you through panel by panel without showing the whole page, he’s set his comic up so that panels are added to the page as you read. This allows you to enjoy the extra surprise of not seeing what’s coming up, while also getting to enjoy the dramatic art of a good page layout. Sometimes panels even replace other panels, creating an added sense of movement, of passing moments.

You can get the first issue of Moth City free from Tim’s website or through Comixology. If this has piqued your interest then give it a go and let me know what you think. I’ll certainly be going back to read more.

I found out about Moth City when Tim appeared on an episode of the Rocking Self-Publishing Podcast, so if you want to know more about Tim and his comic you can listen to that too.

Finding authors

We mostly don’t start reading new authors by buying their books.

I can’t remember where I read that insight – with all the self-publishing advice I’ve been reading I lose track. The main thing was that an author polled their readers and found that less than 20% had started reading their books by buying one.

Take my reading this weekend.

On Friday I finished Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air, a second-hand copy picked up in a charity shop. Sure, that’s buying a book, but not in the way that profits the author.

Having finished that I picked up Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman Histories, leant to me by everwalker.

On Saturday I went to the library to borrow the third in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, because I’ve enjoyed the first two and people seem to enjoy reading my opinions on those books.

OK, this isn’t the first time I’ve read King, but it still shows something about my reading habits.

There’s a lot of fuss about piracy of books, music, etc. But the truth is that we’ve always discovered new artists by trying their material for free, whether borrowed from a library or a friend. These days that can be sampling a free story on the internet or watching videos on youtube, but it does lead to sales. My last five album purchases were all bands I fell in love with via youtube (albums by Frightened Rabbit, Moon Hooch, OK Go, Frightened Rabbit and, um, more Frightened Rabbit – I’m getting a bit obsessed with their records). I could have carried on listening to them for free, but I liked them enough to want access to their music in a more convenient form, and wanted to reward them for putting some brilliance in my life.

Sure, there are people who will constantly seek something for nothing. But most will eventually start paying to get what they want faster, quicker, better, to have the latest album on their iPhone or read the new book straight away (damn you George R R Martin, the only man whose release dates I pay attention to, how I love the pain you inflict on your characters). Kickstarter and Patreon prove that people will pay extra for what they really want.

I’m not saying the piracy of intellectual property isn’t a problem. I’m just saying that it’s not the problem we think it is. That it is, to some extent, filling a hole in our lives made by not having lendable physical objects. That its role is more nuanced than either the Pirate Party or the corporate lawyers give it credit for.

And here’s a Moon Hooch video – let me share some of that free cultural goodness:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxzHwXvG_5Q&w=560&h=315]

Changing the way we read

In among all the palaver about how e-reading is changing book distribution, we often forget that it’s also changing the other part of the business and art of books – the reading experience

Comixology, Device 6 and navigating books

I recently raved about the unusual reading experience of the story/game DEVICE 6. One of the joys of that experience was the way in which the reader navigated the text. Sometimes you had a choice of two ways to read, scrolling in different directions. Text layouts reflected the story environment. Visual puzzles and audio elements were interspersed through the surreal short story. All this was possible because of the different formats that e-reading allows.

Believe it or not, this logo represents a sophisticated leap forward in comics reading. More importantly, it let me read the new Gillen & McKelvie comic, which is awesome.
Believe it or not, this logo represents a sophisticated leap forward in comics reading.

But this is also being used in more low-key and more widely read formats. I recently acquired a Kindle Fire and the Comixology app, letting me indulge in my neglected comics habit.* Comixology changes the comic reading experience. You can view one page at a time, enjoying the art of the layout as in a print comic, though without the intrusive adverts. But you can also view the comic one panel at a time. This means that elements later in the page come as more of a surprise, but that you miss out on the tricks of layout that truly great comic writers and artists use. The pacing and tension of the reading experience is subtly changed, and as creators adapt to this new format so will the medium.

Joanna Penn and intertextuality

Look at me, pulling out the ten dollar words. But intertextuality – the relationship between texts – is transforming and being transformed by e-reading as books start to adopt the tricks of the internet.

I recently read Joanna Penn’s Author 2.0 Blueprint, which is essentially a beginner’s guide to self-publishing.** Joanna includes a lot of links in her book, letting you read more on particular topics without slowing down the main points. It’s a smart approach, one we see all the time on websites but could not do in paper books. With e-readers we can.

And this is changing the way that we validate knowledge through references. It used to be that a factual book would provide a footnote referencing the source of information, but now you can provide direct links to that source if it is web-based, for readers to go and check the information themselves. How long before this is used to connect between books as well, giving readers a more inter-connected reading experience and marketers a way to sell you even more books? Could this be the future of academic journals?***

Mo Options Mo Awesome

The Notorious BIG provided a powerful metaphor for the dangers that come with a growth in our wealth of creative options.**** But the flip side of this is that these options let us do ever more interesting and creative things. They let us connect ideas together in new ways, experience stories in new formats. That’s great. The old forms aren’t dying – they’ll still be there if we want them. But new forms are rising up to join and in many cases surpass them.

What are your thoughts on this? Are you enjoying the experience of e-reading? Have you seen it used in interesting ways? Share your experiences below.



* Turns out that freelance work from home does have a downside – not working within walking distance of a comic shop.

** Joanna actually covers the full range of publishing options, but the emphasis is on the tools, techniques and challenges of self-publishing. I’ll be returning to this another day I’m sure.

*** It should be, but for smart people academics can be very slow to change.

**** Or maybe he just wanted to show off. So hard to tell with champagne-swilling jewellery-covered superstars.

A slow fast change – music sales show publishing’s future

The music industry’s a pretty good harbinger of where publishing’s going. Books might be a decade behind records in the shift to digital, but many of the same issues are arising. So the news that digital sales are now half the UK music industry’s income brings relevant lessons for those putting words on the page.

What, this picture again? Yes, because I enjoy its melancholy beauty. And also because I really need to do other work.
What, this picture again?
Yes, because I enjoy its melancholy beauty. And because I am lazy.


The sprint of progress

Think how quickly we’ve shifted from CDs to downloads and streaming as the main way of acquiring music. You think that won’t happen to your precious books? That’s what the old vinyl fans said, and sure they’ve still got their specialist shops and collectors bins, but in the space of two decades they’ve become an obscure cultural niche. Change is coming fast.

The Titanic turned

Some people predicted the downfall of the old music industry through the democratising power of digital distribution. It’s a wonderful dream, and one I hope to see fulfilled at some distant time. But companies aren’t vast ships heading inexorably towards the dooming iceberg of progress. They change. They adapt. They find ways to turn a profit. They’ve successfully ridden the wave of digitisation in music and, much as they’re struggling with it right now, they’ll adjust successfully to the changes in publishing.

Did the Earth move for you?

The current period of upheaval has potential to change the balance of power between authors, publishers and readers. But exciting as it is, it’s unlikely to change the fundamental landscape of the industry, at least in the medium term. Authors can now live without big publishers, but the publishers will find ways to make themselves valuable to authors again. What we do right now will affect the details of the future shape of the industry, but much as it might pain me to say this, the broad picture will be pretty similar twenty years from now.

So what?

So this: Things are changing fast. In ten years time publishers and authors will be making more money off e-books than physical ones. But the big publishers will still be making most of the money, even if more diverse voices are making a living pecking away at their market.

Current changes have the power to democratise the industry. But while these changes will happen quickly, that democratisation will take time.

Now I’m off to write a novel. Better make the most of this chaos while it lasts.


Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons

Think of the children – e-reading’s messy future

Have you thought about where e-readers are taking us? I don’t just mean emptier shelves round the house and less weight to pack for holidays. I mean the bigger changes that they’ll bring, as change ripples out through the institutions built on old technology.

Yesterday’s post provoked some interesting responses about publishing, and I’ve written before about why kids will still want old style books. But there’s so much more to it than that. Because our default concept of reading is based on privately owned paperbacks, but the reality of books is far more complicated.

Mike Licht


Glenatron mentioned textbooks in response to yesterday’s post. And he’s quite right – they could be vastly improved by using the benefits of an electronic medium. They could be repeatedly revised and updated, colleges and schools buying into the updates instead of whole new books. No more battered, out of date books with notes in the margin and penises crudely scribbled onto the photos.

But getting there is very complicated. Because for schools to use e-books in classrooms they first need e-readers, but to justify the e-readers they first need the textbooks to go on them, so there’s a tricky circle to be broken. Not to mention the risk of e-readers going missing – schools will probably need them cheap and sturdy.

Then there’s a bigger academic issue, because part of how we legitimise knowledge as correct and of value is by publishing it through established academic houses and then keeping that edition of the book set, unmoving and easily referenced for years. That’s an approach that doesn’t work so well with the changes going on.

E-readers have the potential to radically change both education and the knowledge economy around it. But it’s going to be a tricky thing to do.


This was another point raised in response to my post yesterday, this time from Sheila. Our model of publicly shared books – which is to say the library system – is built around books that are trapped on the physical page. New lending models and legal frameworks will be needed to cope with lending e-books. Those new models could make books more accessible than ever, or shackle the electronic age with assumptions from the paper one.

And what about libraries as public spaces? If we start borrowing and referencing by download from library webpages, how will those centres of communal activity be supported, never mind the experience and wisdom of the librarians?


When a book’s published electronically it’s much harder to stop people copying it, just like with music. And that has huge implications.

I could go on for hours about this one. Suffice to say that old models of intellectual property are poorly designed for the modern age, but big companies insist on wielding them to hold back their profits against the inexorable tide of change. It’s not just copyright – look at the pharmaceutical companies getting outraged about life-saving knock-off medicines, or King’s battles to protect its dubious gaming trademarks.

The best companies will respond by innovating to appeal to customers and by finding ways to profit in an age when you can’t realistically stop low level copying. Others will continue on the defensive, keeping the lawyers busy as they go down fighting. The end results should be innovation and a richer culture, but the journey there may be messy.

What have I missed?

What are the other implications to the shift to electronic books? What angles have I missed? Leave comments, share your wisdom.

Just don’t try to stop people copying your opinions – that one’s a losing battle.


Picture by Mike Licht via Flickr creative commons

E-readers and the urge to control

Part of our desire to own and collect books stems from an instinct to control. As in many areas of our lives, we assert that control to feel more like agents of our own destiny, like masters of our world. In business, this manifests as managers setting strict rules. In politics it’s both the intellectual struggle to create orderly systems of thought and the ballot box battles for control of the country. And in reading it’s our book collections, knowing that you have a book to hand even if you’ll never read it again, that it’s there inside your sphere of influence. You own that story, just a little.

Yes, little man, it really is that awesome
Yes, little man, it really is that awesome

I got a new e-reader this week, having broken my last one in a moment of clumsiness at the gym, and it made me think about this issue of ownership again. Because in a digital age we can get hold of many books at a moment’s notice just by going on an e-reader and downloading them from the appropriate store. We can even access books instantly for free through the growing electronic collections of libraries. It can liberate us from the clutter of books, but involves a change of mindset, from one of control to one of flexibility, feeling safe that you can get what you want when you want it if you just let go of the need to own. The book is just as available as before, even more so as you don’t have to work out which shelf or box it’s in. But some of the romance is definitely gone.

I doubt many people of my generation, entrenched like me in thirty-something years of habit, will make the most of this liberation. But the shift from functioning by controlling to functioning through flexible networks is one that’s also emerging in other areas like business management. Maybe, as future generations give up paper pages in favour of networked e-readers, changing reading habits will be symbols of a wider social change.

And that’s enough intellectual posturing for today. I’m off to the gym with my new e-reader. And this time I’m going to be very careful.


Photo by Zhao ! via Flickr creative commons

Art from books – de-fetishising the medium

Changes in technology change our relationship with the printed word. The printing press spread literacy. Cheap paperbacks allowed every home to be its own small library. E-readers are moving us away from buying printed books, within certain limits.

These changes in technology allow us to be less protective over the material possession that is a book, as content is now widespread, preserved and made available in libraries, bookshops, and electronic form. And whether or not that’s the artist’s intention, it’s one of the things that I ponder when I see pictures of these beautiful sculptures being produced from books in Edinburgh. These works have been appearing anonymously in public spaces for a while now, and thirty delivered to the International Book Festival include a tribute to the great Iain (M.) Banks.

I find it delightful that someone can now use the physical materials of books for something else, safe in the knowledge that the part that’s truly precious, the content of those books, can always be found again. It’s particularly liberating to see something we often fetishise, the paper volumes themselves, treated so playfully.

These are beautiful works, worthy of whatever books have been sacrificed to make them. I can’t wait to see more.