Saturday, 20 March 2010


My new obsession with e-books started on a train one evening; the journey between Paddington and where I get off in Worcestershire can be boring. It’s busy and too full as far as Oxford and then we ramble through every one-horse-stop in the Cotswolds till we get home.

Some time can be frittered away watching the other passengers. At first the urbanised city business types, commuting out of London, get off in Slough, Reading and Didcot. Next mixtures of those and more otherworldly academics get off at Oxford, and don’t forget the people toting bicycles. After that, things change as we get deeper into the time warp that is the Cotswolds. I guess it is a little known fact that Morton-in-the-Marsh is actually stuck in 1957; visit and you’ll see what I mean. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard for the train company to run the trains on time.

I digress, the woman opposite me is using a Sony e-reader and is clearly just as engaged in her book as I am in the paperback that I bought on the station. Our house is filling up with those books; we have actually had to take some to the charity shops. After another long delay in the middle of nowhere I ask her about the machine and she talks enthusiastically about it for ten minutes. I get a free demo of how it works and a look at the screen. OK it costs some money but it’s a lot less than building an extension on the library, or even the cost a new set of shelve to match the nice mahogany ones we got years ago.

When I got home I did some research and found I could get a free Amazon Kindle app to go on my Iphone and with that I can access the whole Kindle range of books with my Amazon account. They download straight into the phone.

Can I read them OK on the screen? Actually yes. I find it best to turn the brightness down a long way, which reduces glare and also saves battery life. So far I’ve read seven books and I can’t find much wrong with the experience. This week Kindle for MAC has come out so I can get the same books on my MAC air laptop and on the IMAC at home. What’s more Amazon manages to know that it’s me and doesn’t charge me extra for having the books on all three devices. What’s even more clever, is that when I open Kindle on the phone it knows where I got to when I was reading on the laptop and lets me update the bookmark and start in the right place.

Is there any difference between this and reading a book? I don’t have to find a bookmark, the phone fits in my pocket and I was carrying it anyway. The pages are easier to turn, given that my fingers are getting arthritic, this may be a real plus sometime in the future. It can be hard to know how much of the book is left, you know that rush you get as you get near the end of the book when you know there’s only five pages to go and you’ve still not spotted the final twist. On the laptop version there is actually a percent read score in the bottom left hand corner, which is almost as good as feeling the width of the remaining pages. On the phone version, if you tap the middle of the page a graphic appears at the bottom that shows you how far you’ve got. It looks just the same as the thing that comes up across the top of the screen in ITunes to show how much of a song is still left to play.

Another miracle of modern science is that I can put so many books in my Iphone that I would need a trailer if they were paper, but the phone still weighs the same.

Obviously Amazon has made this move in an attempt to stay one step ahead of Apple’s Ipad, which will be out shortly in the UK. It also means that if I buy one of those I can put the Kindle app on there as well and read my books on that, which means Amazon will still be selling me books and able to compete with whatever book store Apple come up with.

So the only questions I’m left with is why do e-books cost so much, and should I try to sell my book as an e-book? Maybe the answer to the first question is hidden inside the second.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Do literary agents know what they are doing?

Do literary agents know what they are doing? OK I appreciate that thinking about this is a reaction to getting rejection letters. I also do know that there are plenty of stories about authors being turned down and then eventually being successful. Keep trying they all say.

Put all that on one side and ask the question, do any of them keep score. So far, on all of the agent’s web sites I have looked at, I have never found an agent that says how good they are at spotting winners.

The sort of thing I am looking for is something that says we have looked at X number of submissions and approved Y new authors and of all the people we have turned down only Z have gone on to be published by someone else. If Z as a proportion of the rejections, is smaller than Y as a proportion of the submissions, then it would suggest that the agent knows what they are doing. If the numbers were the other way around then you would have to conclude that the average of all the other agents was better than the agent in question.

As I have never found any agent who publishes any stats, other than telling me how many submissions they get, I am leaning towards the conclusion that none of them keep score, or if they do then they don’t want to tell anyone about it.

So what does this tell me? I guess the obvious answer is that one might conclude that none of them are particularly good at spotting talent. Does that matter? Probably not. The key thing is whether the agent is any good at representing talent – getting you a good deal if they do take you on. Some data to help answer that question would be helpful, but I don’t see much sign of that either.

There is another problem, if most agents turn down most submissions then any author who gets accepted is likely to just say yes whether the agent is any good or not, so they are in a sellers market.

On balance then, I guess the right strategy is to get an agent, any agent, and get published. After that it must be a lot easier to get a good agent, because all of them are interested in making money and they would rather take on a published author than an unpublished one.

It actually feels like a rubbish system that is ripe for a new business model – I just wish I could figure out what such a model might look like.