Diverting the Amazon

The Amazon is the largest, but not the longest, river in the world, with an average water-flow greater than the next seven rivers combined. Its width varies from a mile across to six miles. During the wet season, it expands to roughly thirty miles in width, with its estuary emptying into the Atlantic across a broad front a hundred and fifty miles wide. How appropriate, then, that Jeff Bezos named his e-commerce company, with it’s various tributaries and its sheer volume, Amazon.

As an independent author, Amazon has given me, and countless others, a unique opportunity to explore the deep, dark forests of the publishing world in a way that couldn’t be dreamt of a few years ago. In the midst of this, the 99c e-book market has arisen as a niche category, a bargain bin in the basement, something from which readers can take a punt on new/emerging authors (like myself) with dubious literary ability (again, like myself). This is, quite serendipitously, a mirror of the cheap pulp fiction of the 1930-1960s that spawned the science fiction genre.

Most, if not all, of the great science fiction authors like Clarke, Heinlein, Dick and Asimov had their origins in the cheap paperbacks of this era, so there’s hope for me yet. I can’t help but wonder if, with the advent of electronic self-publishing, we are on the cusp of another era of great science fiction. Maybe, maybe not, as the ease of publishing has also led to a lot of electronic pulp, making it hard to separate the chaff from the wheat.

Enter Hugh Howey, the man who diverted the course of the Amazon. The 99c price bracket continues to be a launching point for budding authors, like myself, but it is saturated by trash pulp, some would say my trash pulp, but it is hard to find the gold nuggets. For example, consider these comments selected at random from some of the more questionable entries in the Top 10 Hard Science Fiction e-Books.

…the book quickly descends into moronic drudgery…
…Five star reviews? Amazing. Did they read the same book?
…I wish I’d read something else.
…reads like a massively annoying list of trite sayings strung together with pronouns and adverbs

So how do you distinguish the good from the bad, the great read from the grammatical nightmare? Reviews, themselves, are quite subjective and, it seems, easily distorted if you have 25 friends with Amazon accounts willing to lend you five stars a piece.*

The 99c e-Book pulp fiction represents an interesting dilemma for an author. Amazon pays lousy commissions in this bracket to encourage higher prices, but moving a new book to 2.99 or 3.99 takes it outside of the bargain bin and into obscurity. So the question facing budding authors is, sell your book for peanuts and enter competition with pulp that, in some cases, is a poor substitute for spam in your inbox, or price your unknown work out of the market?

And this is where Hugh Howey had a stroke of genius. He has effectively redefined the 99c price point, reinventing it as the region of high-quality short stories/novellas. His Wool series is essentially a series of related short stories, longer than chapters, but not full books in their own right. They are a return to the spirit of pulp fiction in the 1950s, engaging stories that can be read in a single setting and continued if the reader chooses to buy the next one in the series. Howey has been criticised for short-changing readers, as he doesn’t describe these books as novellas with roughly 20-25,000 words a piece, but he points out that if someone purchases all five novellas they will have spent 4.95 on 100,000 words, a fair price by anyone’s estimate. How much would you pay for a cup of coffee? How much would you pay to rent a Blu-ray for the night? Or to go to the movies to see a new release? (You need a second mortgage to finance a family outing to the cinemas in Australia) Yeah, it puts a 99c e-book in a very favourable light.

What Mr Howey doesn’t point out is that this approach is not advantageous to him, it is something that is advantageous to the readers. The reader starts with a low-cost appetiser. If they don’t like the amuse-bouche, they’ve reached a natural end to the story without wading through 100,000 words, and saved themselves four dollars. I’d be interested to know Mr Howey’s stats on Wool purchases as it would be fascinating to know how many people go on to buy successive editions.

In both scenarios, selling Wool in a series or compiled into a book, the cost to the reader is 4.95. But for Mr Howey, there is a significant difference in commission, 35% or 70%, so he is clearly putting the reader’s interests before his own.

And he’s given himself the time and space to grow as a writer. The stories improved in quality, characterisation and plot as the series progresses. Take a look at the reader ratings for the Wool series.

  • Wool 1 Avg 4.6 stars over 90 reviews, only 2 one star reviews
  • Wool 2 Avg 4.8 stars over 27 reviews, no one star reviews
  • Wool 3 Avg 4.9 stars over 18 reviews, nothing below four stars
  • Wool 4 Avg 5.0 stars over 18 reviews (some duplicated reviewers from Wool 4 but not all of them)
  • Wool 5 Yet to be released

Now, this is not to say Wool is perfect. I picked up a minor blemish today in Wool 3. Will Wool get more one star reviews over time, without a doubt, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but, damn, these are dream stats.

As a writer that’s been harshly criticised for lacking depth, I find the focus on a series of high-quality short stories intriguing. And so, in the spirit of exploration and experimentation that has underpinned my writing with Amazon, I’ve come up with Serengeti using the same concept. Serengeti is the first of five stand-alone short stories in which I’ve focused on the quality of writing, the quality of characterisation and dramatisation over simply trying to pump out 100,000 words to compete with the deadheads in the trash pulp section.

My prediction for the future? The great science fiction writers of this century will come from the high-quality shorts in the 99c bargain bin on Amazon.

Thank you, Mr Howey, for carving out a niche for a series of high-quality novellas and changing the course of the river.

*  In the interests of transparency, two of my friends offered initial reviews of Anomaly, one of whom rated the book with four stars. This review continues to be a popular, judged relevant by a decent number of unknown readers. Both reviews are clearly labelled as being from friends. Also, in the interests of fairness, one of the negative comments above is from one of my one star reviews (ouch).

* Update: Hugh contacted me and let me know that the follow-through rate of readers purchasing Wool 1 – 5 appears to be around 95-98% so there’s a lot of satisfied Wool readers out there.

10 thoughts on “Diverting the Amazon

  1. Pingback: Changing the course of e-books? Really, I didn’t know I was doing that. | Hugh C. Howey

  2. You presented an interesting similarity between the current phenomenon and the “golden age” of SF. It makes sense to me!

  3. Interesting observations. I’ve been watching Hugh’s stories, too. And have been wondering if I should go the same route. Thanks for giving me more to chew on.

  4. I hope you’re right about the new — shall we call it the Silver Age of SciFi? Or is there already one of those?

    I do like the idea of finding short stories, series, and novellas in the e-book bargain bin. Trade publishers vastly prefer novel-length works of science fiction, so self-publishing gives writers the opportunity to offer readers something they can’t easily find at the bookstore.

    A 25,000-word novella sometimes just hits the spot, you know?

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