24 October 2016
The New York Times bestseller The Martian began as a 99 US cent self-published sci-fi novel on Amazon Kindle. Photo: foxmovies
The New York Times bestseller The Martian began as a 99 US cent self-published sci-fi novel on Amazon Kindle. Photo: foxmovies

Amazon’s US$0.99 blockbusters

The Washington Post ran an article in May last year on how a 99 US cent Amazon Kindle ebook may have saved NASA and the Mars space program.

Incidentally, it became a New York Times bestseller and, as you probably know, a hit film starring Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain and directed by Ridley Scott.

You probably know this already, unless you have been hiding somewhere, like on Mars.

There are several interesting things to point out here.

One is that The Martian began as a self-published sci-fi novel.

But Andrew Weir, the author, was already working for the US Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories at the tender age of 15, so he wasn’t exactly a stranger to science.

In fact, he is a self-confessed geek who has written space guidance software in his spare time and was a programmer on the popular game Warcraft II.

Despite being self-published, Weir was able to crowdsource reviews of his novel during its early days – chemists and astrophysicists would write to Weir to point out improvements.

Second, the 99 US cent price is almost free.

Psychologically, the buyer may say, “Oh, it’s only 99 cents, so I can live with a few bugs”, and be less demanding than with, say, a US$9.99 book from Random House or Simon & Schuster Inc.

This doesn’t excuse major errors of course (like saying Mars is the planet closest to the Sun or something like that), but admittedly, when the price hurts your wallet, you tend to be more discriminating.

Large publishers, of course, with their corporate staff numbering in the hundreds, can’t afford to go down to this price point, except for occasional promotions.

But even that has been a slow sell to the 15th century industry of publishing, which started with Gutenberg in 1439.

The third point is that major publishers and film studios now look to Amazon 99 US cent blockbusters to prospect for gems in the rough.

The Martian was eventually picked up by the Crown Publishing Group and became an NYT bestselling sci-fi book.

Another example is author Hugh Howey, who has signed print distribution rights with Random House and Simon & Schuster for his Kindle sci-fi novel Wool, the film rights for which have also been optioned by Scott, The Martian’s director.

The fourth point is that Amazon is a master of the “long tail”.

The long tail is where the typical bell curve statistical distribution tapers off.

Most people are concerned about what occurs most frequently, which is where the peak of the bell curve occurs.

For example, New York publishers want only the bestseller that can sell to millions of people, in much the same way that most National Basketball Association teams want only the first few draft pick choices from college hoops.

But we forget that there are bestsellers in small niches, or talented players in small community colleges who may dominate their small pool. Here is one of Amazon’s strengths.

Because ebooks are digital, Amazon can afford to give each subniche (where there might only be 20-30 books) a bestseller count.

After all, shelf space in the digital domain is almost infinite, and so even if you are a bestseller or star player only in your small neighborhood (or niche), you’re still a bestseller or star player.

Don’t fault me for trying to get my feet wet, at least, by digitally self-publishing some of my lighter work, like short stories (not quite book length), for free on occasion or at a cheap price point such as 99 US cents.

When you want it, it’s there.

When someone buys it, the royalty rate is well, royal.

And I may be a bestseller, even if there’s only one other book I’m competing with in my niche.

Literally, they allow me to become a legend (or a bestseller) in my own mind.

Personally, for my serious work, I’d still like the cachet of traditional publishing, even if they make me wait a gazillion months for their decision, with an extremely high sales price that only a billionaire would love, even if their royalty rates are, let’s just say, lousy, and even if the print inventory system says the book is there but it isn’t on the shelf.

Yes, I’d still live with those faults, even if they can actually fix it, but don’t.

Has anybody written a sci-fi thriller about Venus yet?

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Consultant on low-carbon technology and publisher of Asian Spectator technology blog

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