KDP Select experiment over

Six months ago I removed The Unbound Man from non-Amazon ebook retailers and enrolled it in KDP Select to try out the promotional tools and the (then quite new) Kindle Unlimited program.

Three months ago, after a successful promotion and some encouraging Kindle Unlimited sales, I extended the experiment for a further ninety days, largely to see if the KU performance would continue.

Now, with that second period of ninety days almost over, I’m bringing the experiment to a close. In the next few days The Unbound Man will drop out of KDP Select and Kindle Unlimited, and will begin to reappear on Kobo, iBooks, and elsewhere.

The reasons are pretty straightforward. I was never particularly happy with giving Amazon exclusive rights to ebook sales (as I elaborated on in some detail in that first post). Nonetheless, if KU sales had continued to show some momentum, that might have been enough to make me think about extending the arrangement for another three months. But that simply hasn’t happened. At this point I’m in a position of excluding all non-Amazon platforms for the sake of a handful of KU sales, and that’s simply not worth it — on any level.

So the experiment ends. It’s a disappointing conclusion, but not an unsuccessful one. The goal was to discover what KDP Select had to offer, and that’s been achieved. Now I can begin to explore some non-Amazon alternatives, starting with the other main ebook retailers.

So if you’re a KU reader who hasn’t yet picked up The Unbound Man, get it while you can! Soon it will be gone from that program — though it will of course remain available on Amazon as an ordinary purchasable title.

And if you’re a non-Amazon ebook reader, thank you for your patience. The Unbound Man will soon be available at your preferred retailed once more. I hope you’ll check it out!

Quote cards from The Unbound Man

Just a quick update today to let you know about the arrival of some digital quote cards on the new Extras page. Grab your favourite and share it with your friends on Twitter, Facebook, Diaspora, email, or chatting with your neighbour over the back fence.

And if there’s a quote from The Unbound Man you particularly like that didn’t make it into the first set of cards, let me know about it in the comments and I’ll see if we can include it next time around…

Kindle Unlimited, three months on

Three months ago, with a slightly immoderate amount of handwringing, I pulled The Unbound Man from Kobo, iBooks, and other ebook retailers and enrolled in KDP Select. I did this with some fairly hefty reservations about Amazon’s exclusivity requirements, but I felt that a three month experiment was worth running. And I promised that when the three months were up, I’d assess the results and decide whether to continue the experiment or wrap it up and republish the ebook outside Amazon.

So here we are, three months on. What’s happened?

The first two months of KDP Select were disappointing to say the least. Regular sales continued to bump along, but Kindle Unlimited barely registered. Some writers have reported KU taking over half or more of their sales, but in the case of The Unbound Man, KU accounted for little more than 10% of total units sold. At Christmas the result looked pretty clear. KDP Select was doing nothing for me. When the ninety days expired, I’d end the trial and move on.

Then, in the week between Christmas and the new year, I ran a moderately-successful promotion (100+ sales in a couple of days). The residual post-promotion sales tailed off after a week or so… but in their wake, starting early January, an interesting thing happened. Kindle Unlimited sales started to pick up.

In the last few weeks, regular sales have more or less returned to where they were prior to the promotion, but KU sales have increased dramatically to roughly double the number of regular sales. And that’s not just people who grabbed the book during the promo and took a few weeks to hit the 10% mark — the sales rank has had repeated boosts from new KU readers downloading the book. In raw numerical terms, it’s still not huge, but it’s a definite shift from the pre-promotion pattern.

Maybe it’s just a blip in Amazon’s imponderable algorithms. Maybe the book is actually starting to get a bit of traction in the KU market. Maybe it’s a mixture of both, or the result of some other factor I’m not aware of, or mere chance. Who knows?

Whatever the case, I’ve decided to extend this experiment by another three months. If these results are an indication that The Unbound Man is starting to get some traction, it would be silly to throw that away. And if they’re just a blip, well, that’s fine too. Three months from now I’ll have another chance to pull the pin and turn my focus to other distributors.

Medium to long term, my outlook remains the same. Wide, non-exclusive distribution is still where I want my books to be. Perhaps, when I sit down to write another of these updates in late April, that’s where we’ll be headed.

Let’s see what the next three months bring.

UPDATE (Apr 2015): The experiment is now over. Here’s why.

Existential fantasy

In 2000, fantasy author R. Scott Bakker wrote an article about the place of fantasy in contemporary culture. Fantasy, he said, represented “the primary literary response to what is often called the ‘contemporary crisis of meaning.’” Bakker argued that the march of science and rationalism had revealed the world to be apparently meaningless, and fantasy’s response was to present stories in invented worlds which, unlike the real world, had not been “disenchanted” — stories of the fantastic about “individuals certain of [their] meaningfulness in a meaningful world.”

Though I had some quibbles with a few details of the article, overall I found it to be an insightful and compelling piece. As Bakker said, “In a culture antagonistic to meaning, the bald assertion that life is meaningful is not enough. We crave examples.” And if there was one thing that all fantasy seemed to share, it was a commitment to meaningfulness.

But that was then. From the vantage point of 2014, the nature of fantasy no longer seems so clear.

The most significant development in fantasy in the past decade-and-a-half has undoubtedly been the rise of “gritty fantasy” — or, as some would have it, “grimdark”: a term originally used as a pejorative but increasingly becoming a simple descriptor. This is fantasy shorn of its comfortable assumptions. No good characters and bad characters, just grey characters and other grey characters. People die abrupt and messy deaths. On occasion, someone might find themselves trying to save the world; yet on another level, there seems to be profound doubt about whether the world is even savable. It’s hard to characterise these stories as being about meaningful individuals in a meaningful world — and yet, somehow, they’re still recognisably fantasy.

What’s going on?

It seems to me that fantasy is in the process of shedding its pre-Enlightenment heroism and embracing instead a kind of contemporary existentialism. The depiction of a world empty of higher purpose would have once seemed anathema to fantasy; today, it is almost de rigueur. The increasingly tight focus on character used by the likes of George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie makes clear the subjective nature of the tale we’re being told and introduces us to a hundred different forms of existential uncertainty. And many of us reach for such stories because they connect with our experience of life — and without that connection, although we might find a story interesting or entertaining, some part of us will be unable to truly believe it.

It’s important to acknowledge that “grit” is not the only avenue by which this is happening. Existentialism is finding other paths into fantasy as well — I’d nominate the works of Daniel Abraham as a prime example of an alternative, less gritty type of existential fantasy. And I don’t expect traditional heroic fantasy to disappear any time soon. But it’s clear that the palette of fantasy has broadened considerably since Bakker’s analysis in 2000. What, then, can we identify as a common characteristic across the different strands of fantasy today?

Perhaps a partial answer lies not in the “present day” of most fantasy settings but in their histories. Fantasy worlds may be increasingly “disenchanted”, in Bakker’s use of the term (the existence of magic notwithstanding), but nearly all of them still carry echoes of an earlier, “enchanted” time. Pope Francis may have recently affirmed the legitimacy of theories of evolution and the Big Bang, but in fantasy there’s still the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Eden was once a real place. Existential fantasy is thus not simply about the absence of enchantment, but about its loss. It’s about how to live in a world where the enchanted still echoes tantalisingly in quiet corners but can no longer be grasped. Sometimes, just for a moment, it breaks out again — but soon it passes once more, leaving those in its wake to deal with its loss anew.

Maybe part of the reason we feel drawn to these stories is because, on some deep level, they resonate with us in a way we can’t quite put into words — and we have no other way to mourn the meaningfulness that we sense our culture has lost.

An experiment and an apology

It’s now a little over six weeks since The Unbound Man was released. My original plan for distribution was to simply make the book available as widely as possible — ebook and print, Amazon and everywhere else. After all, the more channels a book is available in, the better the sales. Right?

Well, maybe. I’ve had a handful of Nook sales, and a few from iBooks. I’ve had no sales at all on Kobo. And now, with the initial excitement of the release fading, it’s time to take a step back and look at what other options there might be.

I say options, plural, but there’s really just one big one: KDP Select, which opens the opportunity for inclusion in Kindle Unlimited (among other things), but which also means making the ebook edition exclusive to Amazon.


As a consumer, I hate retailer exclusivity. The idea that I can buy something only from one particular store just because of some deal cooked up between the retailer and the supplier leaves a bad taste in my mouth. When it happens to something I especially value — like, say, a book by a favourite author — I feel like my love for something is being used against me, to compel me to shop with that retailer even if, given the choice, I’d rather go somewhere else.

Like I said: yuck.

But the hard fact is that right now I’m nobody’s favourite author. And whatever the odds of that changing might be, they’re even more remote if hardly anyone comes across my book in the first place. I want to look out for my readers — but first I need some readers to look out for.

So, in the spirit of experimentation, I’m pulling the ebook edition of The Unbound Man from non-Amazon retailers and enrolling in KDP Select. I’m approaching it as a three-month trial period, to see what difference (if any) the promotional and other benefits make to sales and to general visibility. When the three months are up, I’ll assess the results and decide whether to sign up for another three months, or whether to end the experiment and republish the book on other distributors. The print editions will remain available in all outlets while this is going on — you’ll still be able to get paperbacks and hardcovers from online retailers like the Book Depository, and order them through your local bookstore.

I fully expect that before too long, quite possibly as early as three months from now, I’ll call an end to this exclusive arrangement. I don’t see myself staying with KDP Select in the medium to long term. I want to make my books as easy to find and to buy as possible, and that means wide, non-exclusive distribution. But in these early days, I have to find a balance between distribution and discoverability — and today, that means trying out KDP Select.

To anyone who shops for ebooks somewhere other than Amazon: my apologies. I hope to make The Unbound Man available on your preferred platform again soon. Until then, please bear with me as I give this different approach a shot.

And to anyone on Kindle Unlimited: look out for The Unbound Man to become available there in the next couple of days. I’d love for you to give it a try!

UPDATE (Jan 2015): I’ve decided to extend the experiment by another three months. Here’s why.

UPDATE 2 (Apr 2015): The experiment is now over. Here’s why.

Pournelle’s Iron Law and fantasy fiction

When I was writing The Unbound Man, one of the core ideas I found myself wanting to explore was the behaviour of formalised groups — how they pursued their goals, how their goals changed over time, and how they interacted with other groups and with individuals both within and without. This, I thought, was something that frequently came up in stories of all kinds, yet it rarely seemed to be given the kind of central attention that I wanted to give it, particularly in the context of fantasy fiction.

I wasn’t quite sure how to verbalise all the things I wanted to say, and I took that to be a good sign. Clearly there was enough here to sustain me through a 150,000-word novel, and perhaps more. At any rate, if I wanted to arrange my thoughts into some vaguely coherent form, there was no other way to do it than to sit down and actually write the book.

So I did. I wrote The Unbound Man, revised it — and then, shortly before it was published, I discovered that Jerry Pournelle had thought about many of the same things already. And he’d done more than just think about it — he’d managed to distil his thoughts into Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

…in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

It’s hard to disagree with that. Go to your favourite news site, pick the most prominent story involving some sort of systemic societal problem, and there’s an excellent chance that the Iron Law has something to do with it. (If, like me, you’ve spent more time playing Civilization 4 than is strictly healthy, you can probably hear Leonard Nimoy observing right now that ‘the bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy’.)

But it seems to me that this phenomenon goes well beyond modern bureaucracy. Bureaucracy itself, of course, is far from a modern invention — no doubt the Iron Law was just as applicable at the time of the Roman Empire and to the medieval church as it is to any organization today. But doesn’t the same dynamic exist in broader geopolitical entities like nation-states, to the extent that unthinking, uncritical support for the state is frequently termed ‘patriotism’ and considered a virtue? Doesn’t the same tension exist in smaller groups — football clubs, research teams, and each little sub-department that makes up a bureaucratic whole? Even families are not immune from something akin to this — just consider the Lannisters of Westeros.

For me, Pournelle’s Iron Law is too specific. If I was to rephrase it, I’d probably put it something like this:

In any group or association there may be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the group, and those who work for the group itself. The older, larger, and more complex the group, the greater the likelihood that the second type of person will gain control and establish the rules under which the group functions.

Or, to put it another way, this is the danger of tribalism: the division of the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and the unreflective assumption that the highest good is whatever seems to benefit ‘us’.

And when I put it like that, I realise that in fact this is something that fantasy has been exploring for decades, ever since Boromir sought the Ring for the good of Minas Tirith. Far from blazing any sort of trail, I’m really just following in the footsteps of so many other writers who have gone before me.

Huh. Perhaps I should have stuck with Pournelle’s original formulation after all.

Yet merely recognising this phenomenon is just the beginning. One then has to decide — as an individual, or as a character — what one is going to do about it. And that’s something I had a lot of fun exploring in The Unbound Man, though I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. Fortunately, I’ve got two books in the Undying Legion trilogy still to go.

And in the meantime, I think I need to go and read some Jerry Pournelle.

Excerpt now available

For those wishing to check out a sample of The Unbound Man, the prologue is now available as an excerpt here on this site. Hop on over to the Excerpt page and have a read.

If the prologue catches your interest but you’re not sure whether you’re prepared to commit to the whole novel, you can of course access the first 10% of the book for free via your preferred ebook retailer.

Happy reading!

It’s a book!

The button has been pressed, and The Unbound Man is at last making its way into the world. It’ll take a few days to reach all of the many fine bookselling establishments around the place, but the ebook is already available on Amazon and Smashwords, and the paperback is also available on Amazon. Keep an eye on the Books page on this site for links to other major retailers as they become available.

Believe it or not, it’s now more than seven years since I first began work on the novel that would eventually become The Unbound Man. It’s been pointed out to me that today’s release is a bit of a milestone, one which is probably worth marking in some way. And you know, I think there’s something to be said for that. Yes, I’d say a small celebration is definitely in order.


Right, that’s that taken care of. Now, about book two…