Review: The Death of the Necromancer

The Death of the Necromancer
The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read this years ago – maybe when it first came out. It’s one that’s stuck with me, and when I saw the Kindle version on sale, I snapped it up.

I’m glad I did.

Some books, when you read them a second time, years later, have lost their lustre. This is not one of those books; I enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time round.

So, what did I enjoy?

The Characters
All the characters are just a bit larger than life – the gentleman-thief, the actress, the sorcerer, the great detective, and so on – but not so much so that it disturbed the enjoyment of the story. They felt real – they lost their tempers, sniped at each other, and made mistakes.

The Plot
There’s an awful lot of running around, and a fair number of corpses. To be fair, I think the actual plot was the weakest point of the story, because there were a few holes in it, and things just got wrapped up a bit too neatly and too quickly at the end, but…

The Setting
I think this probably the main reason why Death of the Necromancer stayed with me for so many years. Wells writes the city of Ile-Rien vividly enough that I could see the dark, foggy streets in my head. It had weight and depth – it felt real.

Conclusion
Thinking on, this is the book by which I measure all other gaslight fantasy.

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Review: The Gate of Sorrows

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The Gate of Sorrows
The Gate of Sorrows by Miyuki Miyabe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is definitely Young Adult fiction – but it has a distinct lack of romance (let alone a love triangle featuring the protagonist) and a refreshingly low angst quotient. And at 600 pages or so, it’s about twice as long as your typical YA novel. I found myself wondering whether this book was unusual, or whether that’s just the way Japanese YA writers write. If the latter, Japanese Young Adults are very fortunate.

The Translation
I found the translation pretty good: there was only one instance in which an obviously wrong word was used (people don’t ‘audit’ a lecture unless they’re doing some kind of quality control, despite the fact that the root of ‘audit’ means ‘to listen’). Furthermore, the translation seemed to me to have kept the ‘Japaneseness’ of the setting and the people.

The Characters
Once again, this story is different from the general run because our hero (Kotaro) is just an ordinary 19-year-old student who gets involved in paranormal goings on. He’s not some kind of superhuman ‘chosen’, and he doesn’t have amazing powers. Nor is he the only one who can save the world. This means that the scope of the story is somewhat smaller, but it’s more realistic. Kotaro is dealing with issues that ordinary people deal with – although most people don’t get the paranormal angle.

Another interesting difference between this and many other YA books is that in this one, the adults aren’t all stupid and/or oblivious. People are people: they have their own concerns; they make decisions – good and bad; they live with the consequences. Kotaro is the main character, but he moves in a web of associations – friends, family, colleagues. It all felt refreshingly normal.

The Plot
There were at least two intertwining plot strands – the murders, and the school troubles of Kotaro’s younger sister’s friend. Both of these were very much in service to the book’s overall message: the power of words and communication, for good or for evil. There were definitely times that the author seemed to be speaking directly to the reader – which is one reason this is definitely pegged as Young Adult, in addition to the age and situation of the protagonist. That said, the author did put together an interesting plot – and I found that the pace definitely picked up in the last 25% of the book, as things start to come together. This is a long, slow read – but rewarding.

The Conclusion
Definitely a Young Adult book, rather than ‘adult’ as it’s labelled on Goodreads. However, refreshingly free from angst, and rather more thoughtful and less dramatic than most.

Am I glad I read it? Yes, definitely – although YA isn’t a genre I enjoy as a rule. Would I read anything by this author again? Yes, if I can find an adult book translated into English.

Definitely several hours well-spent. ūüôā

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Review: A Discovery of Witches

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A Discovery of Witches
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You can definitely tell that this book was written by a historian – and an academic at that. Not only are there lots of bits of history in it, but the author’s love of learning, of acquiring knowledge, shines through. Not simply because Protagonist 1 (Diana) is an academic, and a historian of science at that (just like the author!), but Protagonist 2 (Matthew) is a centuries-old vampire. Interestingly, the author doesn’t chart his long life in terms of money, or power, or sex, but in terms of scholars known and books read and/or acquired. Similarly, Diana’s reaction to old manuscripts is entirely believable.

Many people don’t seem to like the amount of detail in this book – myself, I loved it. I loved the way Diana and Matthew discuss history, alchemy, genetics, the eating habits of wolves… It was a real treat to read two protagonists who are highly intelligent, very well-educated, and have an insatiable desire to learn.

The plot – well, there are two. The love story between Diana and Matthew, and whatever is going on with Ashmole 782. The first got rather more advancement than the second – I expect Books 2 and 3 will have more about the mysterious manuscript. If you are looking for a fast-paced plot with lots of excitement, this book is not for you. This is a slow-burn sort of book, and I expect the story will play out with a lot of finding of information, and putting together of puzzles, rather than explosions and car chases.

Urban fantasy done with academics.

I love it. ūüôā

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Review: 13 Bullets

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13 Bullets
13 Bullets by David Wellington
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have not, hitherto, considered myself to be a reader of horror fiction – mostly because I’m a wimp and I don’t want to have nightmares. But I really enjoyed this one.

To be honest, it’s gory rather than scary, per se. Body count in triple figures, mostly courtesy of vampires who are actual monsters. These are not your wishy-washy sparkly vampires: these are predators. (Admittedly, I have a few minor quibbles with the way Wellington does vampires, but really, it’s his train set and he can play with it however he likes – and minor quibbles did not significantly detract from my enjoyment [during daylight hours] of the story.)

Laura Caxton, highway patrol trooper, makes an unpleasant discovery at a routine traffic stop – and gets conscripted as junior van Helsing by the United States’ best (only) vampire hunter: Special Deputy Arkeley. There must be something special about Laura, beyond the fact that she’s the only one who’s read Arkeley’s report of his last (only) vampire killing – mustn’t there?

The narrative follows the confused, scared Laura as she struggles to meet Arkeley’s expectations (if she can figure out what they are) and to work out why he wants her at all. And why the vampires seem to want her, too. I have never hunted vampires, but Laura’s reactions seemed to be pretty realistic – she goes through the gamut of this is cool/horror/fear/despair/terror/etc that a real person thrust into such a situation might do, rather than instantly becoming some kind of superpowered vampire killer. This was a nice change.

And I did like the twist at the end. Some might find it disappointing, but I thought it gave the whole book a new layer. You end up looking at the whole thing from a slightly different angle, and thinking yep, that’s life.

Thoroughly recommended.

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Writing for the in-crowd, or writing for everyone?

Let’s say this right now: nerd culture/pop culture/geek culture leaves me cold. I read a graphic novel once (one of the Jim Butcher ones – so one of my favourite authors) and didn’t like it; I just ended up thinking “This would have been so much better as a real book.” Superheroes? Well, I saw¬†Batman¬†once. I think. Or maybe it was a trailer. There was a lot of dark and rain. I also saw one of the¬†Star Wars¬†films: there was desert. I’ve been forced to play tabletop games, when I couldn’t think of a sufficiently good excuse to avoid it.

I’ve been to sci-fi/fantasy conventions three times.¬†Never again.¬†The last one, the best day of the entire weekend was when I put my foot down and stayed in our room in the second-worst hotel I’ve ever encountered (the worst one was in Paris, on the edge of the red light district).

So, despite being a keen reader of sci-fi and fantasy, my geek cred is zero.

I don’t think anybody writes urban fantasy better than Jim Butcher. And, of course, Harry Dresden‘s pop culture credentials are established pretty early on, with¬†Star Wars¬†references and then the weekly gaming sessions with the Alphas. That fits in well with Harry’s character; he isn’t just a vehicle for plot: he’s an actual person, with hobbies and a life outside the hell Butcher puts him through.

Lately, though, the pop culture references have been getting more frequent – a particular example is the Butters short story Day One, which makes a lot less sense if you don’t do roleplaying games. It’s possible to read it and more or less understand what’s going on, but it’s a bit like when I read in French: I can get the gist of the action, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of the detail is going over my head, and I may be missing some important stuff.

For me,¬†Day One was the least-good story of Butcher’s that I had read up to that point, and I finished it with a dull sense of disappointment: Was that all? I also felt that a story that could have been pretty amazing – Butters the polka-playing medical examiner becomes a hero in his own right – flopped because poor Butters took a backseat to all the pop culture references in his own story.

And that, I think, is because I’m not in the target audience for it.

Day One¬†was written for people who¬†do¬†like the whole geek culture thing, who enjoy the constant gaming references. It is, essentially, a¬†roman¬†√†¬†clef:¬†a book that sort of makes sense if you aren’t in the in-crowd, but in order to appreciate what the author is really doing, you have to be in the know. It’s also obvious that there are jokes and references that you (as a non-member) don’t get, so you¬†know¬†you’re in the out-crowd.

I think, as an author, it’s important to realise what you’re doing. Making fun references is one thing – Easter Eggs (see, I do know some of the terminology) for the in-crowd to find, to give them a little extra. However, the more numerous and plot-central these Easter Eggs are, the more likely they are to push the novel into¬†roman¬†√†¬†clef¬†territory, when the novel stops working for people who are¬†not¬†in the in-crowd.

If you want to write a¬†roman¬†√†¬†clef, then go ahead. If you want to exclude a large part of your potential audience, that’s up to you – maybe the¬†roman¬†√†¬†clef¬†is the book of your heart, and you really don’t care that it will leave the out-crowd bemused (and probably less likely to read any more of your work). After all, you can’t please everyone, and it’s best not to try.

But know that that’s what you’re doing, and do it intentionally. If you’re going to write a¬†roman¬†√†¬†clef,¬†then write the best one you possibly can, and be damned to anyone else.

However, if it’s¬†not¬†your intention to exclude people who are outside your circle, then sprinkle your Easter Eggs with a light touch. After all, too much chocolate is bad for you!

 

Book Review: Oracle, by Susan Boulton

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Star rating:¬†‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ

Sometimes, you know you’re going to enjoy a book within the first page. This was one of those books; Boulton hooked me almost immediately. Her characters are likeable and well-drawn – she avoids the pitfall of making her villains too villainous to believe – and the plot is just what I like: politics and manoeuvring, rather than a lot of screaming and rushing around. (OK, I also like violence, but even then I like it to come with actual plot.)

Boulton’s world has a lot in common with late 19th-century England, just as the industrial revolution is really starting to kick in with the accompanying riots, but with some extra twists – a species of villeinage (“bond-servants”) seems to have survived (or been resurrected), but the monarchy has not, although the country is ruled by a hereditary aristocracy.

This was a solid four star read – at times, I thought it might even make five stars (which I don’t often give). There were only two things which let it down: firstly, the resolution seemed to come a little too easily to the characters. At a cost, yes, but still… And secondly, there was a definite feel that this would have done best as Book 1 of a series, or at least a duology. There is sufficient world-building for an excellent series, and also enough plot is left unresolved for certainly a second book. So much so that I do wonder whether that was Boulton’s original intention. If so, it’s a pity that she never wrote a follow-up.

A sense of place in fantasy

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Every book is set somewhere, whether that’s a quasi-medieval world or a space station or a modern city – or even in someone’s mind. An interesting question, though, is how much influence the setting has on the story being told. Lindsey Davis, who writes the Marcus Didius Falco and Flavia Albia historical detective series set in ancient Rome, particular dislikes “books set in Birmingham but you can’t tell that it’s Birmingham.” (Along with some other things – I went to a reading by Lindsey Davis (in Birmingham!) a year or two ago, and she was brilliantly funny.)

Jim Butcher was initially intending to set Harry Dresden in¬†Kansas City (Butcher’s hometown) but his writing teacher persuaded him not to, because it was too similar to Laurell K. Hamilton’s¬†Anita Blake¬†books set in St. Louis. He didn’t want to pick Washington DC because it would mean incorporating politics into the books and didn’t want New York because that’s where all the book editors live; he picked Chicago pretty much at random, and the rest is history… or fantasy. I remember reading that when Butcher started writing the¬†Dresden Files, he hadn’t even been to Chicago or really done any research on the city (the research came later). I don’t know how well Butcher portrays Chicago in general, but an important part of the¬†Dresden Files¬†books is ‘Undertown’ – supposedly the result of the original streets sinking into the swamp and then being built over. Butcher seems to have taken some creative licence there; Chicago does indeed have tunnels – the Pedway – but the first tunnel was built in 1951, as an underground pedestrian route between two underground railway lines. It just sort of expanded from there, without any real plan. A little different from Butcher’s version, although possibly nearly as mysterious! If Butcher had picked some other American town – Miami, maybe, or Philadelphia – would it have made any real difference to how the stories played out?

Right at the other end of the scale, you’ve got the urban fantasy classic¬†Neverwhere, where the nature of London permeates every page and London locations are vital to the story. If you set¬†Neverwhere¬†in, say, New York (or Chicago, or Miami), you’d end up with an entirely different story. Not only would the details have to change, but the feel of the story would have to change too. London has nearly two thousand years of history behind its mysteries, but New York is very much a new city.

Likewise, York (the original one) is only about thirty years younger than London, but the cities are now very different, so urban fantasy set in York would be different to London – and different again if set in Birmingham. Birmingham is a relatively new city – the first documentary evidence of its existence (as a manor worth 20 shillings) being in 1086, although a settlement is thought to have existed earlier. But although Birmingham is the UK’s second-largest city, it’s only a seventh the size of London. It has a different feel to it – newer, less steeped in history, less sure of itself. Birmingham is still a provincial city, without the effortless superiority of the capital. It’s also a manufacturing town in an area hard-hit by the decline of heavy industry, not a political and financial centre. Brummies have made knives and guns and chocolate and jewellery, not financial crises and political scandals.

What would you get if you set an urban fantasy in Birmingham? Less politics, less glamour. People say a lot of things about Birmingham, but none of those things are, “if you want glamour, go to Birmingham.” You’d have to think,¬†why Birmingham? Because the house prices are cheaper? Do vampires care about that? Because it’s in the centre of the UK – that would work, but only if your characters had a reason to need to be somewhere in the middle of the country. What makes Birmingham special, and how can you bring that out as part of the story?

What would you get if you set an urban fantasy series in your town?

Book Review: Half-Made Girls, by Sam Witt

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Half-Made Girls

Star Rating:¬†‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ

Characters
Joe Hark is definitely a flawed hero, maybe even an anti-hero. He’s a violent alcoholic who shoots first and doesn’t bother to ask questions because he thinks he already knows the answers. Or he doesn’t care. But according to his lights, he’s doing the best he can to keep the darkness out of Pitchfork County – the job his father died doing.

Stevie Hark is as complex a character as Joe; her dark heritage is almost as big a barrier between herself and her husband as the curse her mother laid.

Interestingly, Joe and Stevie’s children – thirteen-year-old Alasdair and eight-year-old Elsa aren’t just the ciphers or cute comic relief that children often are in books. They have their own darkness and their own power, and take an active part in the story as something other than hostages to fortune.

I’m looking forward to reading more about these characters – especially Stevie. Sam Witt seems to be an author who writes women well – like Jim Butcher, he treats his male and female characters the same. Both get the same level of thought and development put into them, and there’s the same sense that they have history that the reader doesn’t know about yet.

Setting
I loved Pitchfork County. I wouldn’t want to live there, mind you. I wouldn’t even want to visit. But as a setting for a dark urban fantasy/horror novel, it works <i>really well</i>. It’s a place of grinding poverty, drug addiction, despair, and black magic, and it suits the storyline perfectly.

I’m British, so the setting of Pitchfork County is pretty alien for me: the nearest we have is probably run-down council estates, or pit villages where the closing of the pit left poverty and despair. Come to think of it, Pitchfork County is similar – just bigger. And with more black magic. Probably (but you never know). However, Pitchfork County is definitely quintessentially¬†American.

Plot
To be honest, this was the weakest aspect of the story – Joe does a lot of driving around shooting people, but not a great deal of thinking. This means that the plot isn’t as complex as it might be. However, the setting and characters are more than solid enough to make this a minor quibble rather than a dealbreaker.

I could have done with a bit more explanation – the girls are half-made, but what would they have been if they had been fully-made? Why does it make a difference? I suppose the problem is that Joe isn’t really the introspective type. Maybe future books will have more Stevie in them – she seems to be quite a bit brighter than her husband. ūüôā

Summary
The Pitchfork County¬†series has been compared with the Dresden Files¬†and while it’s closer to Dresden than some other series, if you’re expecting humour and pop-culture references, go elsewhere. This is dark, gritty, and violent in a way that the Dresden Files¬†books just aren’t. It’s closer to Stephen Blackmoore’s Eric Carter books¬†(which aren’t available on Kindle in the UK, dammit).

This was a very solid four-star book for me – it didn’t quite have the zing that would have made it five stars, but I’ll definitely be reading more of Sam Witt’s work.

Amazon and Apple: why they succeeded, and why tradpub is failing

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I wrote a blog post on adaptation – and why I have an Amazon Kindle, not a Sears Kindle. A tweet from Mark Huntley-James (whose books you should definitely read, but not while drinking a hot beverage or wearing nice clothes) prompted me to give my totally-unasked-for opinion on exactly what Apple and Amazon did right, and what various other businesses (including most of tradpub) are doing wrong. It’s probably not terribly unique, but this is my blog and if I want to be opinionated, I can. ūüôā

Answer: they gave customers what they really wanted/need, not what they said they wanted/needed, and not what the company wanted/needed.

Amazon

Amazon, for instance, operates at the bottom end of the market – and is now so successful that the bottom end reaches most of the way to the top. But its dominance stems from three things:

  1. Sell people the item they want.
  2. Sell it at a reasonable price.
  3. Make it convenient for people to buy from you.

Amazon is the only retailer who has lockers¬†in my office building¬†so I can have purchases sent to work. Where I actually¬†am, most of the week. I don’t have to spend hours going to fetch stuff, or have the delivery person put it in a ‘safe’ place (like the bin), or bother one of my neighbours.

People might say that they want ethically sourced local produce, or all sorts of other things (and there might be people who have the time and money to act on this) but in the real world, most of us want the thing we want, when we want it, with the minimum of disturbance to our already busy lives.

Amazon gives us what we really want/need, and does it very well.

Apple

Apple’s philosophy is different. It operates at the top end of the market. Apple’s philosophy is:

  1. Do everything you do very well.
  2. Don’t do anything until you can do it very well.

People point out that iPhones didn’t have NFC technology until even low-end other-manufacturer phones had it. What they don’t point out was that until Apple introduced NFC and Apple Pay, NFC was a bit of a gimmick. It was useful for finding your¬†car keys, but not for muhc else. When Apple got into the game, it changed the playing field. Suddenly, NFC was useful. Part of that was that Apple waited to introduce NFC until they had Apple Pay ready to go – and partly that they waited until the technology was mature enough to make Apple Pay possible, and viable (e.g. the availability of contactless payment terminals in stores).

Apple doesn’t go chasing after every cool gimmick its clever tech people can think up; it waits until the technology is something that people can use for something¬†real (hence we roll our eyes over the Google Glass, not the Apple Glass).

Traditional Publishing and Bookselling

Traditional publishing and bookselling have a major problem: ebooks. For the first time ever, an author with no money and no connections can publish his or her book and make it available to every internet-capable person in the world without any middleman.

There is no need for a publisher, and no need for a bricks-and-mortar bookshop.

Therefore, in order to survive, publishers and bookshops need to re-evaluate what they can provide to their customers which ebooks and ebook-sellers cannot.

Traditional Publishing

The first problem is that tradpub has failed to identify its customers correctly in this brave new world of publishing. Traditional publishers are used to thinking of bookshops as their customers; the bookshops then pass on whatever they bought to their customers. Who had no choice but to accept what they were given.

Since readers can now buy books directly from the author or second-hand (via Amazon or other online outlet) the bricks-and-mortar bookshops, instead of being a vital part of the book world, are now optional. So tradpub needs to start thinking about how it can contact its real customers, and keep them happy.

Tradpub has also alienated many of its suppliers: authors. Predatory contracts and long lead-in times have led many authors to move away from traditional publishing and towards self-publishing. Tradpub’s response to this seems to be to carry on doing what they were doing before – only¬†more. More predatory contracts, less willingness to let authors’ careers develop, and so on. And this will only lead to more authors jumping ship and going indie.

Tradpub is also trying to shore up its old customer-base (bookshops) at the expense of its real customers (readers) by raising the prices of ebooks above the prices of paper books. The thinking is that this will force people to go back to reading paper rather than ebooks, and thus return to bookshops. Unfortunately, this course of action is doomed to failure, because tradpub doesn’t have the power it thinks it has. If self-published titles were the tidal wave of dross that certain articles would have us think, they might be onto something – but self-publishing authors are just as good as tradpub, and the production standards are now equal or better, and rising all the time. Readers just don’t care who publishes a book, as long as it’s good.

AuthorEarnings reported that in 2016 42% of traditionally-published paper book sales in the USA (the biggest book market) were made via Amazon.

And in 2017, AuthorEarnings reported that in the USA, where Kindle was marketed first, 42% of all book sales were ebooks. In the UK, where we had to wait a couple more years for Kindles, ebooks have 34% of the book market.

That’s incredible.

And the numbers for ebooks are different, depending on genre: while nearly all juvenile non-fiction was, in 2016, in paper, 70% of adult fiction was sold as ebooks. Within adult fiction, 96% of romance novels were sold as ebooks (and 55% percent of that market was indie); for fantasy, 76% was ebooks and 37% indie.

The horse has definitely bolted and is now accelerating over the horizon.

Any attempt by tradpub to shut the stable door by raising prices of their ebooks is only going to drive people further into the waiting arms of indie authors. Ebooks are here to stay, and every day tradpub refuses to admit that is another day they inch closer to oblivion.

So what can they do to rescue themselves?

The only thing tradpub can do is reinvent themselves. Their new customer base¬†must¬†be authors. After all, tradpub’s existence depends on authors being willing to hand over their manuscripts – which they no longer need to do. Tradpub needs to entice them by offering high-level support and services, at a competitive price point:¬†sign up with us, and we’ll take the worry and stress out of publishing, and for only a reasonable cut of the profits…

Any other course of action will result, eventually, in oblivion.

Bookshops

Bookshops are in a worse position than traditional publishers. There will always be people who want to write books, and not all of those people will be willing to learn how to produce a high-quality product. There will always be a market for ‘author services’. But bookshops?

When Jeff Bezos picked books as his first product for Amazon to sell, that wasn’t by accident. Books are an ideal product to sell online: they handle being posted very well (unlike, for example, eggs or milk), and if the buyer knows what s/he wants, there’s no risk that the product won’t fit or be the wrong colour (unlike clothes).

Amazon can also offer infinite shelf-space, and a catalogue in the millions. I remember my husband, in the early years of our relationship, wanted a copy of a particular out-of-print book. He went to a local second-hand bookshop which provided a book-search service and requested that – for a price – the bookseller find a copy. It took several months, but eventually a copy was obtained. Now, you just do an online search and buy the copy from anywhere in the world.

In order to survive, bookshops need to do two things:

  1. Prevent books moving wholly to ebook format (or hope that they don’t)
  2. Provide a better experience than online buying, or some other value-added that an online bookstore can’t provide.

I don’t think that books will move wholly to ebook format in the next few years – after all, there are still people who listen to music on vinyl. But the number of paper-book aficionados will gradually decline until it’s a niche interest. And there’s nothing booksellers can do about that.

But in order to keep the paper-book customers they have, they’re going to have to offer something that online shopping doesn’t. There are several options:

  1. A long-hours collection point service (even if it’s a locker outside the store with a padlock to which they email you the combination) for those of us who work full-time and so are never in to receive parcel deliveries.
  2. Coffee (and eventually become a coffee shop with a few books, rather than a book shop with a few coffees).
  3. Community services, like book clubs, craft clubs (and eventually have to hire out rooms for money, because nobody’s going to buy enough books every week to support this).

But personally, bookselling is not a trade I would get into. I think bookshops will die, no matter what anyone does. A few will hang on, just like vinyl record stores, but they will be the exception rather than the rule, and will be patronised by a decreasing clientele of paperbook aficionados.

Isn’t it all doom and gloom?

Not really. This is the law of evolution: adapt or die. The book market has changed completely, and anyone who does not recognise the new environment and adapt to it is going to die. Some businesses will die anyway, because there is no place for them in the new ecosystem – a bit like there are a lot fewer longbow makers now than there used to be. This is the way of the world: no business has an inalienable right to exist. It will only survive for as long as there is a place for it.

And, to be honest, as someone who is trying to write a book – really slowly! – I find the new book world brighter and more full of possibilities than ever before. The new world might be disastrous for those who make money from authors’ work – but it’s downright magical for authors themselves.

Adapt or Die

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Today, Kristine Kathryn Rusch published a blog post about the bankruptcy of Sears, comparing it to Amazon. She thinks that Amazon will also go bankrupt, and probably within the next few years.

I read Kristine’s blog regularly, because she’s both interesting and knowledgeable. But this time, I think she’s – well, not necessarily wrong, more over-egging the pudding.

Not being American, I don’t have any happy memories of the Sears catalogue (we had Littlewoods, and, reading between the lines, I don’t think it’s the same thing at all). Sears started out selling one product (like Amazon) by mail order, then diversified and expanded (like Amazon), became one of the biggest retailers in America (like Amazon), and then folded… like Amazon?

Jeff Bezos has apparently said that he thinks one day Amazon will go bankrupt.

Kristine says the lifespan of a company is about thirty years.

My take on this is as follows…

A company does not have a natural lifespan: it can be immortal. The oldest continually-operating company in the world was started in 578AD. So it’s been operating continuously for¬†over¬†1400 years.¬†There are apparently over 5,500 companies in the world that have been operating for more than 200 years, of which the majority (over 3,000) are in Japan. But the tenth-oldest company in the world (the Bingley Arms, est. 953AD) and the eighteenth-oldest (Otterton Mill, est. 1068AD) are both in the UK.

So what allows a company to survive?

If Kristine’s assertion that the lifespan of a company is usually about thirty years (if it gets off the ground properly) is correct, then I would say that the reason a lot of companies fail at the thirty-year point is the retirement of their founder. To take an example, there was a lot of discussion about how Apple would survive after the death of Steve Jobs. To build a company that lasts thirty years, you have to have vision, guts, and ability – and to keep a company running for another thirty years, you need the same. How many companies are fortunate enough to either have a successor who has those qualities, or an easy enough business climate that a lack of those qualities isn’t an immediate disaster?

The second factor in company survival is related to the first: it’s the ability to adapt to changing market conditions.

I think Japan has such a sizeable proportion of very old companies because Japanese culture places a much higher value on tradition than many western cultures, and also they have not had any major social upheavals. I would bet that until the Chinese Revolution, there were a lot of very old Chinese companies, too. These very old Japanese companies simply haven’t had to face the extreme changes in the market that western companies have.

Kristine sees the failure of Sears and extrapolates forward in time to the failure of Amazon. I see the failure of Sears, and ask why do I have an Amazon Kindle and not a Sears Kindle? On the face of it, Sears was ideally placed to take advantage of the advent of online shopping: they already had the infrastructure in place and the mailing list of customers Рall they had to do was encourage their customers to transfer their shopping from a paper catalogue to a website, and hey presto, no market niche for Amazon.

But they didn’t.

Why not?

I would suggest that it’s because their top management failed to spot the change in their market conditions until Amazon not only had its feet in the door, but had its coat off, and was sitting down at the table eating Sears’s lunch. Even then, Sears could have clawed back their customers from Amazon, but I would guess that Sears banked far too much on customer loyalty and the tradition behind their famous catalogue.

They didn’t realise that there is no such thing as customer loyalty. Customers go where they can most easily (and cheaply) get what they want – and increasingly, that’s now Amazon.

In short,¬†Sears failed to adapt to new market conditions, and now they’re paying the price for it.

To go back to Jeff Bezos and his statement about Amazon’s probable demise: I would interpret that more as a warning, and as an indication that Bezos knows very well that¬†unless Amazon adapts it, too, will die.

So far, Amazon has shown itself to be extremely good at adapting to changing market conditions, and it seems likely that with Bezos at the helm, it will continue in that vein. After Bezos retires? Who knows.

But, if you aren’t the CEO of a multinational company, how is this relevant?

It’s relevant because market forces apply to¬†all¬†businesses – including indie authors. There are trends in fiction, and trends in style of writing. There’s no point slavishly trying to jump on every passing bandwagon, but you can’t afford to ignore the major trends like the rise of urban fantasy and the (relative) decline of epic fantasy – or the trend for sharper, simpler language rather than the purple prose of the ’70s.

In indie publishing, skimpy proof-reading and homemade covers might have been enough ten years ago, but not any more.

Adapt or die.

What do you think?