Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday 28 August 2011

Has the novelty worn off yet?


Novelty is always welcome but talking pictures are just a fad – Irving Thalberg

The Kindle was launched on 19 November 2007. It wasn’t the biggest hit at first. In its first four months it only sold a paltry 100,000 copies and I wonder if Amazon thought it was going to die a death like the laserdisc. E-book readers had been tried before – Carrie bought me a Rocket eBook in 1998 (it, along with the SoftBook were the first handheld e-book readers available) and although I liked the product very much it never set the world on fire. Things are very different now. By January 2011 there were 12 million Kindles in homes and the conservative estimate for the end of this year is that that figure will grow to 22 million and to 35 million[1], again a conservative estimate, by December 2012 assuming the world hasn’t ended by then. And that’s just the Kindle. According to the research firm IDC the Nook is now outselling the Kindle. “IDC forecasts the worldwide eReader market to ship 16.2 million units in 2011, a 24% increase over 2010.”[2]

Of course that’s just dedicated e-readers and all you have to do is look at the list in Wikipedia to see that there is plenty of competition out there with the Sony Reader, the BeBook Neo and the Kobo eReader Touch to name just three. Fashion is a fickle thing though and technology moves at a ferocious pace. How many mobile phones have you been through since, say, 1983 which is when the first 1G network launched in the USA (make that 1981 if you’re Scandinavian or 1979 if you happened to live in Tokyo)? I hardly ever use my mobile phone. If I spend £10 in a year on calls that’s a lot because basically I only call two people, my wife and my daughter, and somehow I am on my fourth phone! Okay, I lost the first one but you see what I mean. Of course my daughter gets a new phone every year. And many of those phones double as e-readers anyway.

RocketebookPersonally if someone were to point me in the direction of a software upgrade for my Rocket eBook I’d be happy to keep using that. Carrie gifted me the Kindle but I was in no rush. I’m still stinging after buying a Betamax video recorder in 1982. I would have been happy to wait until we see what format comes out on top. Besides I prefer the Rocket’s shape, the backlight and the stylus and I don’t see that the text is any more readable on the Kindle. I would have expected the technology to have improved far more than it appears to have since 1998 but I don’t really care.

I’ve seen a number of major changes in technology in my life. Music is the best example. When I was a kid it was LPs and singles until, in the sixties, the audio cassette arrived and look how long it lasted – about forty years – before being superseded by CDs which, for all intents and purposes, were defunct within thirty years although I expect it’ll be a while before they vanish completely. Maybe once my daughter’s generation is done everything will be downloaded. Who knows? I’ll be dead and buried by then.

For the moment though e-books are something people want to play with and I suspect they will stay flavour of the month for a while. People are confessing to buying their first Kindles daily online and reporting back when they’ve read their first books – “Look at me! Look what I done.” And I am one of them. I’ve bought and paid for a couple of e-books and even read one of them. Mostly I’ve used the thing to read stuff I would normally read on my laptop. I proofread my last book using the Kindle. I didn’t make the corrections on the thing itself – sod that for a game of soldiers (the interface will have to improve considerably before I’d even think about that) – but I did use it as a way of making the text look new to my eye and caught a lot of things I’d missed on the computer.

I’m not going to tell you which e-book reader is the best. There are plenty of sites out there presenting the pros and cons. I suspect most people will not want to spend too much for their first one and so will veer toward the cheaper options. My daughter decided to go for a tablet PC which has an e-book reader programme on it and if I was to put a bet on it I think that this format will win out over a plain ol’ reader. Who buys a mobile phone that just makes phone calls these days? Does anyone even manufacture such a beast? Personally I’d be perfectly happy with that. I’ve only texted a handful of times in my life anyway.

That’s not the reason for this post. I’ve said as much as I have to say about the pros and cons of e-book readers apart from this: if you have bought one and are looking for something to read on it and are generally bowled over by the ridiculous choice available – as of July 4, 2011, there were more than 765,000 books available for download and the last I read that was up to 950,000 – let me draw your attention to three more releases.

Truth Fiction

My first two novels, Living with the Truth and Stranger than Fiction are now available in all the popular formats. In addition an omnibus edition, The Whole Truth, is obtainable combining both books. The prices are as follows:

So, yes, for the moment you can save a whole 1¢ by buying the two books separately but, obviously, when the price for the first book goes up to $1.99 The Whole Truth will be a real bargain. Or you might want to read the rest of the article first.

There is a lot of debate at the moment about how much e-books should cost and what some people are griping about is the fact that there is often little or no difference between the cost of a paperback and the cost of an e-book. I have even seen cases where the e-book was dearer than the paperback and I don’t care how anyone does their sums, that does not make sense to me. On the other hand there are a number of authors who are selling all their books for 99¢ or even giving them away (if only for a limited time) and why would anyone pay £7.99 for a book when there are loads of books out there free and for gratis?

maltesers_boxTo my mind it all boils down to quality and what the market will bear. If you shop in Poundland (which I do) you can pick up real bargains as well as a load of crap. At the moment, every time I’m there (which is not so often you have to understand) I come away with four boxes (120g) of Maltesers at a pound a piece. In Tesco I’d pay £1.50 for the selfsame product and why would I fork out another two quid for my teatime treats if I don’t have to? You’re not telling me that Poundland isn’t making a profit on those boxes. So, they’re happy, my tummy is happy and who cares what my waistline thinks? Tesco does do a 360g box for £4.00 but, again, why would I bother when I can get 480g for my money in Poundland? And there is no difference. The products are all in date. Only an idiot (or a rich bugger) would buy their Maltesers from Tesco. (Shocking Amazon are charging £2.49 for the 120g box!)

I thought long and hard about what to charge. I’ve never been greedy. All you have to do is look at the prices I charge for the hardcopies to see that (£5.99 including postage in the UK and £7.99 to the States) and I could say, to hell with it, let’s just get as many readers as I can and see if I can develop a bit of a fan base so that when the next books come out (I have another three novels, at least one collection of short stories and the poetry book) I might reap the profits later. There are too many conflicting schools of thought out there to know for sure what will work. Some are putting their prices up and down like yoyos trying to see what the optimum prices are and I may do that. My basic logic is that the prices I’m asking should be a fair price. If I went into a shop and there was a sale on I never thought twice about buying a cassette tape or a book for a couple of quid, £2.99 was okay too but once they started asking £3.99 or more then I began to scrutinise the product and swither. I have a tape of Vaughan Williams’ Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9 that I bought in Stranraer about twenty years ago and I remember how long it took me to decide to buy it because I wasn’t flush and I think it was £2.99.

So, why am I not selling the omnibus for £2.99? If people didn’t have the whole world to choose from I would because so often things that sell for $2.99 in the States retail for £2.99 over here and there is no reason why they should other than the fact that is what the market will bear. Besides, like I said, I’m not greedy. I want to be read but I also want to be appreciated. There is an old argument about appreciation, that people don’t value things that are given to them and I believe that. If you’ve worked for something then you have a whole different perspective on the item. If it’s cost you, whether in time and energy or simply in funds, then you might not be as inclined to put it aside and never look at it or give it away to a charity shop some years down the line.

On BBC radio [on 16th August] the chief executive of Harper Collins UK said she believed e-books would go from 14% of their book sales to 50% within three years. She also said that whereas the e-book would become the paperback of the future, she believed the hardback would see a revival and become the sought after, special item, bought as present or treat, and likely to increase in price. Who knows? I don’t. I’m miffed though that in the UK the government has decided to add VAT to the price of e-books (which is probably why some e-books are dearer than their paper counterparts) because love them or loathe them e-books are the necessary future and this is something we have to embrace no matter how much that goes against what we would prefer. Trees are finite, digits go on forever and ever.

If you’re new here and know nothing about my books let me give you a brief summary. The rest of you can skip to the extra special offer at the end.

Living with the Truth

Jonathan Payne is a jaded bookseller at the end of a wasted life which has been spent in a dull north England seaside town. He could be an everyman, but seems to have missed the boat somewhere. He's both distastefully pathetic and oddly sympathetic. A passive character, he has been happy to read about life without experiencing either great joy or great despair. If Death were to knock on his door it wouldn’t trouble him greatly.

The knock comes. Only it’s not Death. It’s the truth. Literally. The human personification of truth.

Truth proves to be a likeable, if infuriating, character with a novel mode of expression: “glib dipped in eloquence and then rolled in a coating of irony,” to quote one reviewer. He knows everything and has no qualms revealing intimate details of lives of the people who cross his path while he’s with Jonathan. He’s quite indiscriminate. The same reviewer described him as “one of the most endearing antagonists I have come across.” Comparisons with Peter Cook’s devil in Bedazzled are not unreasonable.

Jonathan learns what he's missed out on in life, what other people think and the true nature of the universe which is nothing like he would have expected it to be. At the end, having learned far more than he ever wanted to know, he finds out that it's usually never too late to start again. Only sometimes it is: no Ebenezer Scrooge or George Bailey-esque turnaround for poor Jonathan.

The author Kay Sexton had this to say:

Kay-Sexton-stripes“In all, this is one of those novels that bookshops must hate: not hard enough to be spec fic, not weird enough to be fantasy, too realistic for the humour section and yet too humorous to shelve easily with the lit fic. And that, I suspect is going to prove to be its charm; for those who do read it, it's a singular take on the world, and it will either resonate with you or leave you cold. … But I can recommend that you try it—if you like distinctive fiction that rings no bells and blows no whistles but creeps up on you with its absurdities, this book will satisfy you, as it did me.”


Stranger than Fiction

Living with the Truth was set in the drab reality that is Jonathan Payne’s life, its sequel is set in the drab reality that is Jonathan’s afterlife. He awakes to find himself inside a landscape entirely generated by his own memories of his past life which means it looks pretty much identical to the seaside town in which he spent his entire and mostly uneventful life.

Whereas in the first book Truth could only confront Jonathan with people who were alive at the time Truth can now raise the bar and put Jonathan through a whole other level of embarrassment and misery including meeting his battleaxe of a mother and being forced to attend a conference made up of versions of him from all the other alternate realities. All to a good end of course.

It’s hard to describe this book without revealing much away. Suffice to say the universe has ended. And apparently, not for the first time. When Jonathan was alive he got to spend his final two days in the company of Truth—not he gets to meet some of the others, a group known as The Dunameon, with whom God is seriously ticked off because they keep running his creations into the ground.

As in the first book Jonathan is taken to some dark places but no matter how dark things get Truth is always there to make light of them. Like its predecessor (no pun intended), the book is shot through with wry humour and off-hand allusions to all manner of people from Kafka to Einstein via Frankie Howard.

Very much like Living with the Truth this is a hard book to categorise. As the author Guy Fraser-Sampson said at the end of his review:

gfs1“It is difficult to describe Murdoch's prose and do it full justice. You really have to experience it for yourself, and I sincerely hope you will. Go out and buy Stranger than Fiction. You won't be disappointed.”

Here’s the link to the Smashwords page and as a special rewards to my loyal readers for getting to the bottom of this page if you enter coupon code SJ39T (not case sensitive) on the Smashwords site you can order The Whole Truth for $1.99. This offer lasts for one week only.

I also have a new and improved (actually new and simplified) website here where you can read excerpts from the books and a whole whean of reviews.


[1] Steve Windwalker, ‘Just How Big Is the Kindle Revolution?’, Seeking Alpha, 14 January 2011

[2] ‘Media Tablet Sales Lag Optimistic First Quarter Targets, But Forecast Remains Strong, According to IDC’, Business Wire, July 8 2011


Glenn Ingersoll said...

I am reading the Aunt Jane's Nieces series on an iPad. The series was one L. Frank Baum (author of The Wizard of Oz) wrote under a pseudonym for teenage girls, so you won't be surprised to learn that the series has been out of print for many many years. It is in public domain. It is possible to find it free online. But I paid $5 for several books, paying mostly for the ease of getting them. The way they are formatted for the iPad you don't really get much in the way of special features - you can't book mark a page, for instance, only by chapter.

I know people who've fallen in love with their Kindles. But I have so many hard copy books unread in my library; it seems a waste not to catch up on them before I buy more.

Not to say I don't.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Jim .. I don't have an eReader - though sometime I'll get one. I'd love to read your books (sometime) .. I like your description of the choices now - we'll see as you say.

I've read one shortish (150 pages) on the computer via Smashwords .. which was manageable and a better experience than I expected.

Have a good week ahead .. cheers Hilary

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m the same, Glenn. I just think it’s silly in this day and age not to make one’s work available in the media people are using. It will be interesting to see if e-book sales calm down in a few years. At the moment I suspect people feel like books are suddenly all on sale. They can buy seven or eight for the price of a single new paperback and it’s hard not to. I remember a sale once – in Boots the Chemist of all places – cassette tapes for £1.25 (this was over twenty years ago) and people were going round with armfuls of them. There was this one particular guy that sticks in my mind who literally had tapes stacked up his arm past his elbow. Why he never thought to get a basket I have no idea. And I have to say that I did listen to every tape I bought but I also bought some things that, in a saner frame of mind, I might not.

Like you I have a shelf of books to be read and yet whenever some publisher drops me an e-mail I find it so hard to resist the pull of a free book although I have been getting better at it.

I’ve never used an iPad so I really don’t know how they compare to Kindles. As I’ve said many times, I think the Kindle is fine if all you want to do is read a book from beginning to end and do nothing fancy in fact I’m reading a book on mine at the moment that I own a paper copy of too. I read the first half the old fashioned way and now I’m finishing it off on the Kindle. There are pros and cons both ways but the thing I find I hate about e-books is the fact I can’t flick to the end of a chapter to see whether I’ve got time to fit in another before it’s time to watch TV or something like that. Yes, it’s tells you what percentage you’re through the book but I find I get less of a kick out of learning I have x% left to read than knowing I have, say, 80 pages. I know how long it will take me to read 80 pages. In most cases I don’t know how long the e-book is when I start and so that percentage figure is less helpful than one might imagine.

I’d be delighted if you felt like adding my books to your to-read stack but the bottom line really has to be a real desire to read the book. If I’m honest I could give most of my current to-read stack to charity and not miss it. In fact I’d feel a sense of relief. Reading shouldn’t be a burden.

And, Hilary, thanks for commenting. The books are going nowhere. I’d be delighted if you came back at a later date once you’ve finally bitten the bullet but, as I’ve said, if my wife hadn’t bought me a Kindle I would still be waiting to see which direction the technology went. As far as reading the books on a laptop goes you would actually get a more authentic feel for how I read the book because, for me, that’s how the books exist and I must have read every single book I’ve written from beginning to end on a computer screen dozens of times. Seeing them as physical objects on my shelf actually feels a little odd. Yes, of course, it looks nice but it still feels strange. I imagine playwrights feel the same when something that has existed in their head comes to life on a stage and no one looks (or acts) they way they imagined it.

Loren Eaton said...

To my mind it all boils down to quality and what the market will bear.

A-yup, and that (to my mind) is where much of the value of e-readers lies. The provide value by allowing us to easily purchase titles without running to the bookstore. They give us access to out-of-print and niche titles. But apart from those benefits, I agree with you about the novelty appeal: It will likely soon fade.

Jim Murdoch said...

Fade, yes, Loren, disappear, no. (Seriously, did I need a comma after every word in that sentence?) I believe that ebooks have finally arrived and I do think it’s a good thing or at least it has the potential of becoming a good thing. The good thing about it all is that we’ve already had the revolution with digital photography and digital music and lessons can be learned from both. Each medium has its own unique set of features and problems but who would want to go back to LPs and darkrooms?

Look at books though. There are books out there for all sorts of tastes and they’re all printed on the same presses. The key is knowing who stocks the kind of books you want to read. Where it’s a genre like romance all you do is go to the ‘Romance’ shelf in your local bookstore or look under ‘Romance’ in Amazon but what if, like me, your tastes “the unusual, the quirky, the literary, the speculative, and the not-easily-classified.” Those aren’t my words, they’re how a book reviewer I’ve just written to describes his tastes in books. Type all of that into Amazon and Christ knows what it would spit out at you. But as far as I’m concerned he’s just described my first two books to a T.

I foresee the rise of more specialist websites. They already exist for all manner of things. The problem will be, as it is now, finding out who out there is like you and connecting with them. And that I can’t see changing from the way it is right now, stumbling into people, that and blind luck.

Art Durkee said...

A dedicated e-reader such as the Kindle simply isn't enough for my needs. They're fine for some folks, and for one or two people I know with disabilities they're a godsend, because this one man I know who is half-paralyzed can now actually read again; he can't handle turning the pages of a physical book anymore, so the Kindle really allows him to read again. I think that's fantastic.

But I'm not going to get a Kindle myself, although recently several friends have, and have been recommending it. Not going to get one myself mostly because I'm going to be getting an iPad later this year. That's more of what I need. Getting a Kindle for someone like me would just be redundant.

Besides, although it's a great option for publishing for writers, and I agree that writers making their books available on e-readers makes lots of sense, I still like actual physical books. I have several thousand of them still, and like all the sensual pleasures involved in them.

Conda Douglas said...

Ooh, yay, your books are on Kindle! I'm the proud owner of one, just this month! And yes, there's a lot of content out there, but I'm looking for a lot of content...and yours is great.

Conda Douglas said...

PS: I love my Kindle. I'm about to embark on a major trip and carrying enough books to read? No worries.

Dave King said...

My daughter gave me a reader for Christmas. Not a Kindle, but the W H Smith's version. It has somewhat influenced my thinking and I have read a few books (pre-loaded) which I ought to have read years ago but didn't. I still haven't fully made up my mind. I did read the other day that for the first time the sale of E-books at Amazon had overtaken that of printed books. I keep thinking that can't be true, that I misread it or something, but I'm sure that's what it said.

Jim Murdoch said...

Carrie’s about due a new computer, Art, and her daughter’s bringing over her iPad while she’s in the States just now so she can have a play with it. My daughter showed me her tablet last time we had lunch and it was cute but I personally couldn’t live without the keyboard. You and I are old school though. We’re intelligent enough to see why the world needs ebooks but too attached to what our own personal libraries have come to mean to us. I can imagine a world without paper books – that in itself would be no great loss – but the loss of wonder one gets when one walks into a great library (or, to be frank, even a second-hand bookshop will do it for me) now that would be sad. But I don’t suppose it’s any different to how Christmas has changed. Once upon a time all kids hoped for was a single item, a book perhaps, whereas now kids expect so much and if you gave them a book all they’d say is, “Oh, a book. Next!” Or am I being too cynical?

Conda, my books would be delighted to go on holiday with you. Since I’m not having a holiday this year at least one part of me deserves a break.

And, Dave, I’ve not seen that one. The reviews on their own site were all across the board. I’m sure in time we’ll see much better products come on the market but I am tempted to think that the dedicated e-reader might fade into the background to be replaced by some new gizmo that doubles as a computer, a camera, a phone, a music player and a Teasmade.

Elisabeth said...

The novelty hasn't worn in for me yet, Jim, but I am curious and one day, when things settle down for me I might invest in a kindle. Until then, and given that no one else in this household possesses one, I can only imagine. Thanks for a terrific post.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy my Kindle quite a bit, mainly because -- thanks to Amazon Visa points -- I get all of my eBooks for FREE. And I appreciate the fact that it's a dedicated eReader -- no Internet distractions. And the lack of a backlight is great -- no eye strain. But I realize it's not for everybody, and I still read "dead tree" books half the time.

After I get a few short stories published with recurring characters, I plan to make them available for eReaders, but I don't have a clue how much to charge.

Dave King said...

I think you are probably spot on. I heard a guy only the other day talking about a reader-cum-T.V. machine.

Jim Murdoch said...

My personal advice would be to hang fire and see what the next generation of readers is like, Lis. As I’ve said before, if all you want to do is read a book from start to finish then a Kindle is as good as anything else but, and here’s the rub, as soon as you want to start doing clever stuff you start to realise how awkward its interface is, and once you’ve got a document full of notes and highlights then you wish you had a book with post-its and underlining. And if you want to read PDFs with a Kindle just forget it. Yes, it reads them but not very well.

There is much debate about what to charge for ebooks, Milo, and I’ve only just touched on the subject here. Checking Smashwords this morning I can report that although a few people have looked at the books no one has actually bought any which kind of saddens me but what can one do? These are hard books to sell because they fall in between the cracks. To my mind that should increase their potential audience because there’s something for everyone but what do I know. Write, I can do but sell, meh, not so much.

And, Dave, we’ve had Internet TV for ages. I’m terrified to investigate further because I already have more TV to watch than hours in the day. I’m actually (and I’m being serious here) getting a little concerned about the constant influx of information. I never seem to have time to process the stuff before there’s more and more data demanding my attention. I swore I’d never let myself burn out again but I can actually see the early signs. That’s why, when I do go out, I never take any mobile devises with me bar a phone (and it’s not a Smartphone either) for emergencies: I enjoy the break. But then, of course, I feel guilty for wasting time and I worry about the amount of stuff I’ll have to catch up on when I get home. I need my head seeing to.

Brad Murgen said...

I proofread my novels on Kindle as well... what a great way to do that, particularly when you can add notes on the device.

I'm fully embracing the eBook format at this point. Over the last two decades of reading, I realized that I only read most books that I buy once. In the end I found myself with some 600 books gathering dust on my shelves and when it came time to move cross-country, I ended up donating 400 of them to a library. I'd much rather just buy the digital copy, read it the one time and move on without having to worry about getting rid of a physical book.

Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t care much for the Kindle’s extra options, Vyrastas. The search facility is handy but the buttons are fiddly. Seeing the book look like a book was satisfying though and, of course, as soon as you change the shape and the font it’s amazing what you can pick up. I also have shelves full of books many over thirty years old that I’ve lugged from house to house and can’t bear to part with and are really too tatty to donate anywhere. I’ve just got to own the fact that I’m too old to value electronic copies of anything as anything more than data. I have hundreds of articles and essays that I’ve downloaded from the Internet but I have absolutely no emotional connection to them and I think that it what will be lost in the future when all books exist as nothing more than electrons.

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