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.

How to get noticed – a FantasyCon panel

BFS_Logo_red_SMALL‘How to get noticed’ was probably the most practical of the panels I went to at FantasyCon. As an indie author it was the one thing that looked pretty much compulsory on the schedule. Embarrassingly, it’s also the panel for which I have the worst notes on who people were. But in as far as I can cover that, the panellists were…

  • Graeme Reynolds – author and independent publisher
  • Ruth Tross – an editor I think, chairing the panel
  • Allen Ashley – author and editor
  • Sophie Calder – publicity manager for Gollancz
  • Nazia Khatun – a librarian and bookseller at Waterstones
  • Ewa S-R – OK, Ewa had a proper surname but I didn’t get it, and the internet has not helped me solve that problem – she’s a blogger and an ex-bookseller and if anyone knows who she is please tell me because I want to go read her blog [edit: I found Ewa on Twitter thanks to Carl Barker – cheers Carl – this also means I’ll now be spelling her name right].

I’ve read and listened to a lot of opinions from authors on how to get noticed. Getting the perspective of other professionals with different views on what works was fascinating, if not always surprising.

Libraries and bookshops

For Sophie, events at bookshops and libraries are key in promoting a book. Libraries are in the top six ways people discover authors, so it’s good to be present in them. Graeme said that approaching libraries hadn’t worked for him. Allen pointed out that a lot of libraries are looking for a purpose to justify their existence as people come to them for books less, and if they have some autonomy then they can be a good way of getting some publicity going.

For Graeme what’s been more useful is local bookshops, though he’s found it hard to get into big chain Waterstones. Sophie mentioned that 65-70% of booksales are still through physical bookshops, making booksellers and word of mouth very important.

Nazia and Ewa both enthused about how much they’ve enjoyed selling the books of authors they like. Pushing a book in a shop is an extension of word of mouth publicity, and pushing books others don’t know about can be very exciting.

So the main lesson from this part was to make friends with local booksellers and librarians, because they could be a big help and support.


There was general chatter about that fact that both being a fan and engaging with fans can be exciting. According to Sophie even an imprint like Gollancz has its fans. They’re often loyal to the authors and will buy both print and hardcopy versions of books. And apparently genre fans are more likely than most to visit author websites and engage on social media.

So yay, this site isn’t a waste of time! (Just kidding. I waste hours just looking at my stats.)

Social media

This got into the nitty gritty, so it’s time for bullet points:

  • You have to show respect to fans and readers – don’t ever be dismissive or rude (Graeme).
  • It’s important to cultivate your own distinct voice (Sophie).
  • Pick a platform you’re comfortable with to focus on (Sophie).
  • Promoting fellow authors, making friends with authors and bloggers, and talking with excitement about your own work can all help (Sophie).
  • Be subtle in promoting your work – everyone rebels against being told what to do (Nazia).

All of which reinforced the good practice that’s cited elsewhere, providing useful focus.

Always more

There was talk of other subjects, including book launches, promotions and the value of building relationships with reviewers. But what a lot of it boiled down to was that if you work well with others, if you’re positive and supportive and take the time to interact in a meaningful way, then that good stuff will come back to help you.

Persist, be positive and help one another – that’s right, good author marketing is about good old-fashioned hippy values, and that makes me a happy guy.


So there you go – another interesting panel and hopefully useful for some of you. As we’re talking marketing I should point out that you can find links to buy my books here, and you can find me on Twitter as @gibbondemon . Now go forth, have conversations, be positive and persistent and all that good stuff.

As Bill and Ted said, be excellent to one another.

Subscription services – a bold new future?

Amazon have recently launched a subscription service allowing what they refer to as ‘unlimited access to over 600,000 titles’ for $9.99 per month. Given other recent fusses around Amazon this has inevitably led to both praise and attacks from writers and publishers. But what interests me is how this sort of services affects us as readers and consumers of culture. Is this really a bold step forward?

(Spoiler alert: librarians can relax, I’m going to remember you this time)

Look, it’s the Netflix of potatoes!

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited isn’t the first subscription service to crop up in the past few years. The extraordinary success of TV streaming service Netflix means that these usually get dubbed ‘the Netflix of x’, whether x is books, maps, comics, llamas, potatoes, whatever.

I recently did a little freelance work for subscription comics service ComicsFix, and it highlighted the obvious advantage of these services for customers. This is a company charging $9.95 per month for access to products that normally cost more than that each, and that take less than two hours to read. Sure, they don’t have the big popular titles, but for voracious comics readers that might not matter next to the cost saving.

Wait, are you comparing comics with drugs? Short buzz, high cost, obsessive habits - alright, that's fair.
Short buzz, high cost, obsessive habits – comparing comics with drugs seems entirely fair.

So this isn’t exactly a high risk move for Amazon, and it’s one that we as customers have already proved that we like.

If it’s not bold is it at least fairly new?

Exhibit A: libraries

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

Libraries have been providing unlimited access to books for many times longer than Amazon has existed. And they don’t charge us (directly) for the privilege. And these days many of them provide access to e-books – in fact this one in Texas is all about the digital (thanks to Felipe for the link).

So no, not new, but headline grabbing.

So what’s in it for us?

For all that I’ve poked holes in the innovation side, I do think that subscription services have huge advantages for us as readers, viewers, listeners, and general cultural audiences.

They give us huge choice and variety.

They let us instantly access that variety without it taking up space around our houses.

By doing this, they may free us from an attachment to possessing things as a key part of the cultural process. This moves our focus more towards enjoying the experience of those things. I think that this is, by and large, a liberating change.

By removing cost-per-unit for the consumer this could also encourage us to try new things, supporting independent and obscure creators. I’d be wary of laying down a tenner to buy something like Tony Keaton and Andrew Herbst’s Wolves of Summer, an indie comic about werewolves and the Hitler Youth. But if there’s no extra cost we’re far more likely to dip in, try something new and find out if we like it – and having tried it on ComicsFix I loved Wolves of Summer.

Yes, but…

Of course it’s not all roses and sunshine. So later in the week I’ll be looking at the adjustments, the psychological shifts, and to an extent the limitations of this move towards paying for access rather than ownership.

In the meantime let me know what you think. Do you use any of these services? Have they affected your reading/viewing/listening habits? Would your attitude be different for books?

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