UPDATE – May 2017
I thought it was about time I added a little caveat at the top of this article, given that I wrote it WAY back in February 2015 and a lot has changed since then. The issues I address below were, I believe, very valid back in 2015…and the popularity of this article suggests that I wasn’t the only person affected by them. Fast forward to 2017 however, and the atmosphere around Games Workshop and Black Library is as positive as I’ve seen it for a long time. Many things have changed, almost all for the better. I don’t want to take this article down, as I think it’s always important to be able to see both the positives and the negatives, as well as maintain a historical perspective…but it’s also important to recognise when things have improved.
I’ll hopefully be able to put together a full article to follow up on this, but until then I’d just like to ask that – when reading this – you treat it as a snapshot of how things were at the time it was written. If you’ve got any thoughts about how you think things have changed – indeed if you think they have changed – then by all means add a comment at the bottom!
Like many long-standing fans, I’ve been reading books set in the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 universes for over twenty years, starting way back when the Black Library was only a mythical location in the webway and the Horus Heresy was just a vague paragraph in the 40k rulebook. I’ve watched as authors and series have come and go, and seen Black Library as a publisher grow from humble beginnings to the ‘genre fiction’ powerhouse that they are now. All that time I’ve remained a staunch supporter of theirs, happy to stick with them and buy into pretty much everything they have done. Print on Demand releases for old titles? Great, it’s an opportunity to pick up a few old classics that I missed first time round. Limited edition novellas? Yep, I love a limited edition. Audio dramas? Horus Heresy hardbacks? Weekender events? All good.
In recent months, however, a few things have happened which have shaken my belief in Black Library, and left me a little…unhappy. Each one relates to a book that I have bought, read and ultimately enjoyed. You can, if you like, read my review of these books; here are the links :
I’ve made reference in the reviews to what’s bothered me about each of these books, but I’ve tried to keep things in perspective and focus as much as possible on the quality of each book as opposed to anything external. Now seems as good a time as any to pull my feelings about each of these together, based on two overriding principles which I personally believe publishers ought to adhere to, and which it feels like Black Library have been neglecting of late. I’m talking about honesty, and about treating readers with respect, specifically regarding the length of books and the inclusion of short stories within anthologies.
For anyone who doesn’t want to read several pages of detail, feel free to skip forward to my conclusions by clicking here. If you’d like to hear the full story…read on.
Novels and novellas
First of all, book length. It’s a topic that’s garnered an awful lot of debate, and ultimately there are no hard and fast rules regarding how long a book has to be to qualify as a novel, as opposed to a novella, novelette, short story and so on. In terms of Black Library’s output however, there is a clear delineation between novels and novellas, both in terms of length and price. Or at least, there normally is. Generally speaking, Black Library novels tend to be somewhere in the range of 400 or so pages in hardback and quality paperback (the now-standard larger paperbacks), 450-500 pages in mass market paperback and 350-400 pages in ebook. Novellas tend to be more like 120-130 pages in hardback or 100-120 pages in ebook. Without worrying about the bizarre range of prices across different formats (which is a whole other topic), this is at least a simple, clear way of differentiating novels from novellas – there’s such a big difference in size, it’s easy to see which one you’re buying.
Two recent releases have gone against the grain however – Anthony Reynolds’ Kharn : Eater of Worlds, only available as an ebook, and John French’s Tallarn : Ironclad, released in Limited Edition hardback (at time of writing it’s actually yet to be fully released, though I got my copy as a pre-release from the Horus Heresy Weekender, via a kind friend who attended). Both of these are described by Black Library as novels, and the pricing certainly fits with that – Kharn is £9.99 (the usual price of ebooks released alongside hardbacks) and Ironclad is £40 (£10 more than the usual price for LE novellas, and the same as the first couple of First Edition novels). Do they match up in terms of word/page count as well? Not even close. Kharn is 187 pages on my iPad, while Ironclad is 235 pages in hardback – both of these books are looking remarkably expensive in comparison with other ‘novels’. Clearly neither of them quite fit in with the usual page count for either novels or novellas, so it’s understandable that Black Library have to find a way of fitting them into their pricing schemes. What’s disappointing is that they seem to have made the decision to treat their readers like idiots, charging full novel prices and assuming we won’t notice that we’re not getting the usual amount of content for our money.
Let’s look at Kharn first. As far as I’m concerned, £9.99 for a novel ebook is an awful lot of money, so to charge the same price for a book that’s barely more than half the size of a normal novel…that’s just dishonest. Bear in mind that while the Black Library website lists the page count for at least some of the physical releases, it doesn’t include that information for ebooks – normally the book description specifies whether it’s a novel or a novella, but for Kharn that’s not mentioned at all, so the only information a potential customer has to work from is the price. Comparing Kharn against other ebooks, the assumption is that it’s going to be of an equivalent length to other books that cost £9.99…but that isn’t the case. To make matters worse, when it was originally released, there was a blog post on the New@BL page (here) which specifically refers to it as a novel :
Next, let’s look at Ironclad. It follows on from Tallarn : Executioner, a novella which originally went on sale as a Limited Edition for £30, and then was recently re-released as a non-limited novella for £15. Fans knew that a follow-up novella was coming, in fact we had been led to believe that there would be two more, so when Ironclad was announced there was some understandable confusion regarding whether it was another novella or in fact a full novel. As mentioned above, as I write this, Ironclad is in fact yet to be released to the general public, so with the exception of those of us who have our copies via the Weekender, as far as Black Library’s readership is concerned, it’s being sold as a novel. Ok, it’s about twice as long as Executioner, but in comparison with the rest of the Heresy series it’s nothing like the same length. Not only that, but it’s not being included as one of the full novels in the series – each of these has a numeral on the spine denoting its place in the series; Ironclad does not. So Black Library really aren’t giving a clear message with this book – they’re describing it as a novel, but not including it in the main series list, and they’re charging twice the price of the normal hardbacks, and £10 more than the Limited Edition novellas. It’s like they themselves don’t know what this book should be, so they’re trying to confuse readers into buying it anyway.
Now, let me be clear – both of these books are genuinely good books. I hope it’s evident from my reviews that I thoroughly enjoyed both of them. The problem is simply that Black Library are not being honest with how they’re selling these books, and that isn’t fair to us, the readers. Despite it being the cheaper of the two books, in my opinion Kharn is actually the worse of the two in terms of unfairness to the fans – £9.99 is an awful lot to charge for even a novel as an ebook, but to charge so much for such a short book, and to be so wilfully unclear about what people are getting…I don’t like it. It smacks of making money at the expense of the readers, and I’m just glad that I got mine as part of the Advent Calendar bundle! As far as Ironclad is concerned, I think Black Library are just being silly. The Limited Editions are contentious enough as they are, but ultimately they appeal to those readers who, like me, enjoy collecting the series; like having the special editions; and are prepared to pay more for the privilege of reading things as soon as they come out. Sure, on the face of it £40 for a 235 page book isn’t particularly good value, especially considering the stunning First Edition Talon of Horus was the same amount, but compared to the Limited Edition novellas, it’s not actually that bad. If I’m paying £30 for a 130 page novella, then £10 more for almost double the page count…that’s fine by me. I just wish Black Library could have been honest about it – just tell me straight up that it’s a ‘long novella’ or some such, make it clear that the extra £10 is getting me almost twice the book, and I would be happy. Trying to pretend that it’s a novel, which implies that it’s going to be a similar length to the rest of the series, is disrespectful.
Short stories and anthologies
I’m a sucker for a short story, whether standalone or in an anthology. I loved Inferno back in the day, and enjoyed Hammer and Bolter while it lasted; despite their dubious price to value ratio I then continued to buy the individual ebook short stories once H&B had been withdrawn. Horus Heresy short stories are particular favourites of mine, and so I tend to pick up anything Heresy-related as a matter of course, whether they be in Advent Calendar collections, full anthologies or individually released ebooks. That’s all been well and good, but then Black Library’s promised ‘all things in all formats’ approach started to have an impact on short stories as well, and things started to get a little more complicated.
The first raised eyebrow came with the announcement of Book 31 in the Heresy series, Legacies of Betrayal. For anyone who isn’t familiar, this was the sixth novel-length anthology in the series, after Tales of Heresy, Age of Darkness, The Primarchs, Shadows of Treachery and Mark of Calth, and it contains one novella and eighteen short stories. What’s different about this compared to previous anthologies is that, unlike the first five, all of the stories contained within had already been published. Where previous anthologies were opportunities to get a range of brand new stories, be they novellas or shorts, here there was not a single story which hadn’t already been published in one format or another. The novella had been available in Limited Edition and then standard format, and the short stories varied between straight reprints from ebooks and prose versions of audio dramas. Clearly not everyone who reads the Heresy series will be a fan of ebooks or audio dramas, so anyone who hasn’t purchased stories in those formats will find plenty of new material in Legacies, however I’m the kind of person who enjoys stories in all formats…so I paid £20 for a hardback book which contained precisely zero new content.
Once again, if you’ve read my review of Legacies you’ll know that I enjoyed the book, largely because I found it really interesting to read the audio dramas in prose, and see them in a slightly different light. I’m also a positive soul, so as usual I wrote the review with the aim of finding good things to say about the book, and tried to put myself in the shoes of someone who might not have read everything already. Still…it did annoy me a little bit, and I can’t help thinking that it would have been nice if Black Library had catered for everyone by including at least one new story in amongst all of the rest. Never mind though, it’s only one book…
Then came a lull in the Heresy series, the only new releases being a handful of ebook short stories – various stories in the Advent Calendar, ebook versions of the stories from Death and Defiance, as well as the individual stories Child of Night, Daemonology, and Black Oculus. Nothing wrong with all of those; I had already bought the hardback of Death and Defiance so didn’t need the ebooks, but I bought all of the Advent Calendar short stories as well as the other standalone stories. They were all good, and they’re all reviewed here on the blog. Black Library then announced the next anthology, a non-limited edition novella-length collection called Blades of the Traitor, which would be available in physical format at the Horus Heresy Weekender, followed by the individual stories as ebooks the next week. Once again, that’s all good – it’s nice to see customers being given the choice straight up to buy individual stories, get them all in an ebook collection, or go for the hardback edition. I decided to ask my friend to pick me up a copy from the Weekender. Then I found out the names of the five stories included in Blades.
Have a look at the banner above, which is still visible on the Black Library website. It’s accompanied by a description which says it contains ‘five epic short stories by John French, Guy Haley, Nick Kyme, Graham McNeill and Chris Wraight.’ No mention of what those stories are called, but that’s only to be expected. No mention either of the fact that two of the five stories have already been released as apparently standalone ebooks – Daemonology and Black Oculus. Yep, those two stories, which were released in November 2014 and January 2015 respectively, are both included in this ‘new’ Horus Heresy anthology. Was any mention made about Blades when they were released? Nope. So what this means is that for anyone who, like me, bought one or both of these stories as soon as they were released on the assumption that they were standalone stories, we have already read 40% of Blades. Ok, well that’s annoying for those of us who would normally buy the physical book, but at least we can get the other three stories as ebooks and then we’ve paid no more than we ought to have done. Right?
Wrong. As well as the individual ebooks, there’s an ebook collection featuring all five of the stories, saving 20% on the total for all five. So what this means is…because I’ve been loyal to Black Library and bought stories as and when they’ve been released, I’m going to be penalised if I want to read Blades. Right. Whether I get the physical book, the ebook collection or even just the remaining three stories as ebooks, I’ve paid more than I would have if I had not bothered getting Daemonology or Black Oculus. How is that a good way to treat customers? ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘let’s drop Black Library an email to explain my situation and see what they say. Maybe they will take pity on me and offer at least an apology, and maybe a discount or some such nicety.’ Here’s my original email, followed by what they had to say in response to my email :
Dear Black Library,
A friend of mine attended the Horus Heresy Weekender recently, and brought me back a copy of Blades of the Traitor. I was surprised to see that two of the stories in the anthology had already been published; when I bought the ebooks of Daemonology and Black Oculus there was no mention of either story being part of Blades of the Traitor, nor was there any reference to those stories being included when Blades was announced. It’s a bit disappointing to only find out when opening a book that not only are two of the stories already published, but that I’ve already purchased them.
I was wondering if you had any comments about this, and whether there’s anything you could do for those of us who have unintentionally paid twice for the same stories?
Thank you for your email. I am sorry to hear of your disappointment.
With all of our products we try to give our customers as much information as possible to allow them to make an informed decision, and it is never our intention to mislead our customers in any way. With regards to Blades of the Traitor the physical book is is currently on remind me and we will be updating the page nearer the release date. As for the eBook collection we announce its content on the product page.
As always, we are grateful for your feedback.
If you do have any more questions or enquires about any of our products please do not hesitate to contact me, as I am always happy to help.
So…that means it’s tough luck. One assumes Black Library knew that those two stories were going to be included in Blades, so the only conclusion to draw from this is that it was a deliberate decision made with full knowledge of the impact it would have upon anyone who bought either or both of those stories straight away – in other words the dedicated fans who buy everything as soon as it’s released. Wow. That’s a great way of saying thanks and rewarding loyalty!
It doesn’t take a business genius to understand that every business is founded upon repeat customers. In Black Library’s case, while I’m sure there are an awful lot of readers who cherry pick the products that they want based on their specific interests, there are undoubtedly an equally large number of people within their customer base who are what I would call ‘dedicated fans’, in other words those who buy the expensive books, and all of the short stories, and the audio dramas, and the art books, graphic novels, art prints and so on. These are the customers who Black Library rely on to form the basis of their long term business. The obvious thing to do then, is to reward these customers, to treat them well and make sure they’re kept happy so that they continue with their purchasing trends.
I am one of those customers, without a doubt. Until recently I’ve been a massive supporter of Black Library, and have unhesitatingly handed over my money to them, safe the in the knowledge that I’m going to be happy with what I get in return. Based on the books that I’ve mentioned here, I’m not certain that I’m prepared to continue this way. Charging customers high prices based on misleading information is not fair, and it’s not ok. Tricking customers into purchasing things twice, or paying more than they ought to, is not fair, and it is quite frankly dishonest. Treating customers in this way is not a good way to maintain satisfaction and ensure continued support, in fact it’s an excellent way to alienate people and lose business.
With the greatest respect to the staff who work at Black Library, and the authors and artists who create all of the products, for me as a reader there is a whole world of reading out there, outside the world of Black Library, just waiting for me to discover it. Not only that, but there are a number of…let’s say alternative acquisition methods available to the determined reader, that don’t rely upon purchasing direct from Black Library. For me to continue pumping money into Black Library, I need to feel confident that I’m going to get a good return on my investment, otherwise I have to ask myself whether I’m not better either reading other books or getting hold of Black Library books through other sources.
I don’t want to stop reading Black Library books, or start relying on unethical sources which don’t reward authors. I want to see Black Library continue to release high quality, enjoyable products from authors whose work I enjoy reading, but (and this is crucial) I need to feel like I, as a reader, am being treated with respect. All it takes is honesty, and I would have thought that would be a simple, basic principle that Black Library could work towards. Hopefully it is, hopefully these few books are exceptions to the rule, and are a blip in the otherwise positive relationship I have with this publisher.
If anyone has any thoughts or comments on this, I’d love to hear them. Whether you agree or disagree, I think this is a debate that we as readers need to have, and that publishers need to be aware of. Let’s make sure that happens.