Sunday, November 30, 2014

Interview with Mark Stockton, founder of

1. What inspired you to set up

First off, let me just define what actually is. In essence, we're a free mailing list for Science Fiction fans to find deals on eBooks and discover authors they might not otherwise have found. The focus is on giving Science Fiction readers the chance to pick up interesting and well-written eBooks that are going to be worth their time.

The inspiration came from looking at BookBub's numbers and thinking, 'hmmm...those look a bit low to me!' I'm only half joking. 830,000 subscribers on their Science Fiction list is a big, big number and I commend them for being able to do that. However, they are claiming 1,590 average paid downloads, which is around 0.2% conversion rate.

That's the bit which sounded low to me. I felt we could do something slightly different, slightly better and with a lot more value to the people subscribing. A dedicated service run by people who are utterly immersed in Science Fiction (that's us!) would give subscribers the feeling that the people who run are 'our people'.

2. What audience does the newsletter serve?

If your first love is Science Fiction, then you are our audience. Myself and my lovely team (I'm contractually obliged to call them 'lovely' at all times) are very aware that some people prefer Hard Science Fiction, some like Steampunk, some only want Dystopias so we try to feature a good variety of different things.

3. What sort of writers do you feature?

Well, we've promoted everything from a super cheap deal on Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury to new writers who self-published their first novel a few days before. So, as long as it's Science Fiction, then we'll consider it.

4. Who decides which books you feature?

We have a team of three people who review, read, discuss and ultimately make the decision. As I said before, we try to mix up the styles and types of books that get featured.

5. You mention "curation" - what does that mean to you?
6. Who are you, and how did you accumulate 110 years of knowledge?

I'm going to take both of these questions together as, in my mind, they are interlinked.

Firstly, we're not 'internet famous' names in Science Fiction fandom or aspiring authors or editors at Tor Books or whatever. We're making no great claims to being the arbiters of perfect taste or anything of that ilk.

The '110 years of knowledge' comes from our combined years of reading Science Fiction. We have a secret weapon - Jan - who is a) retired and b) has a eidetic memory and has been reading S.F. since the mid 1950s. He's read everything, so often when we find a book we like, he'll say 'ah yes, that reminds me of such and such from 1973.'

We use some of this knowledge in the 'Our View' editorial paragraph that we put at the end of each book listing. I think this adds credibility and let's our subscribers know that we really do know a bit about this stuff.

'Curation' is a part of that. We have to be very mindful of the fact that Science Fiction readers are a sharp lot and if we say 'read this, it's great' and it's actually a rewrite of something else, then - bang - we instantly lose our audience.

Similarly, it's not unreasonable for readers to expect proper formatting, grammatical excellence and cogent writing, so these are also requirements to be listed.

I'm well aware that 'curation' has a certain whiff of Big Publishing and Literary Elitism and other unsavoury types of snobbery. That's not what we're about at all.

7. Do you think there is a different readership for indie and trad published books?

Not really, no. Readers just want to read good books. I don't believe any reader in the history of the world has ever said 'well, I'm not reading that book because it's published by Simon & Schuster and I only read stuff published by Hachette'.

Independent authors have already solved the potential 'isn't-a-self-published-book-going-to-be-rubbish?' conundrum via creative pricing strategies. We're now at the point where independent authors are judged solely on the quality of their work in the same way that traditionally published authors have always been. All is good.

8. What made you decide not to feature free eBooks?

Ah. We definitely need to update the website! We do now feature free eBooks.

Originally, our thinking was that we didn't want to attract a freebie hunting subscriber base and the easiest way to do that was not to feature free ebooks. Job done.

You need to remember that we're still in Beta, so we're trying stuff out all the time to see how we can optimise the service for readers and, ultimately, for authors.

Not offering free eBooks was one of those things that made sense when we soft launched. However, we discovered something very interesting when we did include free eBooks.

Firstly, our open rate increased. That's not the surprising bit. What is surprising is that we actually generated a significantly higher click through to the paid book we featured in the same newsletter.

I'm not going to speculate on why this happens but it does, so we're going to stick with it.

Our current approach is to feature two books in each mailing. Either 1 paid and 1 free or 2 paid - with the paid always being listed first.

I'm certain that we're building trust and credibility all the time and that the freebie hunters don't make up a huge percentage of our audience. Our analytics supports this, but I'm not going into more detail as I don't want to give away any competitive advantage we may have.

9. What do you regard as the scope of Science Fiction?

Oh, God. You like to ask challenging questions, don't you? Personally, I like the Oxford English Dictionary definition, which is this:

"Fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets."

I think that gets as close to the scope of what is Science Fiction as you are likely to get. There's always plenty of debate on this topic and I'm certain that my definition of the scope of Science Fiction has no more validity than anyone else's.

10. How do authors contact you?

Right now, is still in Beta. Authors can contact us via the contact form here, but we're not at the point of accepting direct author submissions as yet. However, if you are an author reading this and you're feeling particularly cheeky, then get in touch. We don't bite.

The reason is that we want to grow our subscriber base and make certain, when we do start accepting direct submissions from authors that we have a very strong offering for them.

We can't, in all conscience, start charging money to be included if we aren't able to deliver a worthwhile return on that investment.

Right now, we're pretty close. We have a high conversion ratio of subscribers to purchases and our 'Book of the Week' feature on the website adds sales for that particular book during the week as well.

11. What about new readers - how do they subscribe?

Just visit and enter your email address. It's that simple and that painless. Our list is double opt-in, so you will have to confirm your email address but we've made it as easy as possible to sign up.

12. Will you be expanding in future?

Of course. The first step will be when we start accepting direct author submissions in 2015.

This, I hope, will be good news for authors, especially those with brand new books or with books that are struggling to gain traction.

We're not going to have a 'minimum number of reviews' criterion for acceptance so if you're a Science Fiction author with only one or two books out and haven't managed to gain reviews, we still want to hear from you.

I fully understand why many of our rivals do use reviews as part of their criteria for including a book, but we want to help authors find their audience, not just expand the audience for authors who have already gained some traction.

13. How do you find time to read all those books?!

Well, I've already mentioned Jan  - our secret weapon. He does the most but all three of us on the team read and we have a few other people we ask to help out as and when needed.

Plus, we don't just feature new or recent releases, so we will include discount deals on classics that we read years ago.

We've got the 'reading all the books' stuff down to an art form and I think the fact that we do read everything before we include it shines through.

14. How does the US audience/readership differ from those elsewhere?

That's a very interesting question. This is what I can say for certain: US readers are more likely to purchase military Science Fiction while the Brits are more likely to buy stuff that's slightly weird and kooky.

That may sound a little like cultural stereotyping but it's true and reflected in the sales numbers. It's  strange, because the click-through percentage from the newsletter to military Science Fiction or satire is the same for both Americans and the rest of the world. It's just that readers from certain countries are more likely to think 'yeah, I'll give that a try'.

Oh, and everyone loves Steampunk. Everyone. British, Australian, American, Canadian. If it's Steampunk and it's good, we see similar sales percentages in all the English speaking markets.

If you've never read any Steampunk, then what are you waiting for? Feel free to sign up to the newsletter and we'll point you in the right direction.

About Mark Stockton:

Mark Stockton is the owner of and an internet marketing veteran, but please don't hold that against him. He's also a real human being and not some evil automaton who is trying to take over the world. You can visit to join the mailing list. It won't hurt and it only takes a minute!

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