The War for Our Time: Video VS Print

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We’ve all done it… clicked on a YouTube video to watch some news clip or interesting how-to and looked up to find 2 hours have vanished. It seems more American consumers than ever are spending their free time browsing the Internet and watching online videos. Many an hour of missing writing can be laid squarely on my own fingers clicking on the well-worn buttons of my marble mouse.

I find it interesting that some publishing research firms continue to put out statistical reports that display rather rosy forecasts for the book industry, indicating anything from ‘the majority of Americans are reading more print books’ to the idea that ‘more young people are reading books–in any form—than did so in recent years’.

The wording of such reports seems simultaneously uplifting, hopeful and insistent… indeed, to the point where it awoke a frank feeling of suspicion in me last week. There was no comparison in the statistics of the time spent reading verses the time spent online watching videos, online shopping, news watching, movies, internet browsing… a.k.a. not reading books.

As an eBook author, I am very interested in whether online consumers are doing less reading and more YouTubing/Facebooking/Amazoning/Googling (not discounting other sites) whether for entertainment or educational reasons. I set upon a week-long quest to find as much data–on that subject–as I could.

Unfortunately for the book industry–and entertainment authors in general–I found several sets of rather alarming statistics about video consumption, for free.

According to a 2015 article from Psychology Today, the average consumer with an Internet connection watches roughly 206 videos per month (a number which might be arguably higher for 2016) while a Pew Research report states that 73% of Americans read “a book per year”… as in one (1) book, per year.

The science behind these kind of numbers largely boils down to efficiency: the brain processes video 60,000 times faster than it processes text. Video has another seemingly unfair advantage over text, being it is far more adept at connecting with human emotions than the ‘work’ or reading.

“When we read something,” Liraz Margalit, Ph.D. wrote in this article “we are actively involved in processing the information in front us. Our cognitive processors are working hard. But while reading is all about thinking, video is better at getting us to feel.”

This emotional connection—per some studies–is proven to lead to higher awareness and conversion.

According to their website, YouTube reaches more 18-34 and 18-49 year-olds than any cable network in the U.S.

  • In 2015 two-thirds of Americans owned & used a smartphone
  • According to their site, more than half of YouTube views come from mobile devices

·      In Jan. 2016, Facebook announced users watch 00 million hours of video a day

·      In Feb. 2016, Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, reminded investors that YouTube’s audience watches hundreds of millions of hours of video daily

Since 2012, YouTube has measured its performance in terms of “hours watched,” not video views. As of 2016, Facebook now also refers to the “hours watched” metric, which is good considering Facebook counts a video “view” as a minimum of 3 seconds, verse YouTube’s minimum of 30.

Consumers seem to prefer video, too. According to Cisco Forecast, video will represent 69% of all consumer-based Internet traffic by 2017; this is expected to rise to 80% by 2019. Another study from Business Insider estimates that video advertising will account for 41% of total desktop display-related spending in 2020 in the US.

Digital marking firm Invodo says this on its website: “Marketers who use video grow revenue 49% faster than non-video users.” (Aberdeen via Vidyard, 2015)

My own consumer-driven experiences online seem to back up the video data: as an Amazon customer, I’ve noted a marked increase in videos being added to various consumer products–like women’s fashion–showing a model genteelly sashaying around in front of a white backdrop; that particular kind of video, however, gums up my processor speed, forcing me to click on a static image. Processor speeds aside, the idea itself has merit; it is kind of nice to see how a dress looks on a real person, verses a mannequin (if one can get past the ideal proportions of either display method) and I have purchased camera equipment based on the promotional video showing its capabilities.

Tying this in with internet consumerism, the entertainment aspect of writing these days seems more tied to video representation, with growing numbers of authors using sleek, movie-like ‘book trailers’ to hock their printed wares.

Even though it seems odd to reply on video to sell books, digital or print, it’s easy to see why authors have leaped into the video fray with statistics like these:

·      Readers are 64% more likely to purchase your book if they see a book trailer that effectively promotes your book. (Source: ComScore)

·      Authors who use book trailer video in email campaigns can experience Open Rates [increases] from 19% to 300%! (Source: Forrester Research)

·      92% of mobile video viewers share videos with others. (Source: Invodo)

·      Unbounce reports that using videos on landing pages raises conversion rates by up to 80%

But, apparently just posting a free video on YouTube or Facebook isn’t good enough to garner book sales anymore. One must seek out where their potential customers are hanging out online (data that is not free) and buy pricey ad-space for their video on said pages/sites to appeal directly to browsing consumer, competing with a glut of other writers/businesses/news outlets wanting the same space(s).

The irony of writing this piece is not lost on me. I post it knowing–full well–that it will not be read nearly as many times as a 6-second funny cat video will be seen on Vine but that merely makes the data I posted here all the more relevant.

This data has taught me one thing over the last year: all per-conceived ideas about marketing must eventually must concede to the facts. Earlier this year, our book company morphed itself from print only to including visual media, starting a photography & photojournalism business that has garnered worldwide attention.

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L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books and a photographer for Belator Media

What They Fail to Understand…

… is that–in a free market–the customer is always right.

batteringram_18054_mdIt is a concept understood by many a small and large business alike across the globe, but–for some reason–when it comes to the book industry, this ‘golden’ rule is seen as brass, to be plucked from the wall, trampled upon and sneered at with startling alacrity.

The book customer, apparently, does not know what they want and cannot be allowed to choose for themselves. They must be told what to read, where and how they can purchase and how much they must pay, otherwise humanity is doomed.

In his rather well-researched blog post–consisting of many a prediction about the 2016 eBook market–Smashwords’ Mark Coker inadvertently joins forces with elitist relics of the traditional publishing world in decrying Amazon–and KDP Select indie writers–as the bane of the book industry:

“Yet despite the harm KDP-S and KU are causing fellow authors and the rest of the industry, indies continue to enroll in KDP-S to receive these privileged benefits,”

The above sentence surprised me, greatly. Smashwords was apparently founded on the premise of giving indies a place to publish and sell their work. Why not simply state the obvious: “Amazon’s KDP Select Program cuts out Smashwords completely, therefore I don’t like it.”

Coker then referenced a famous poem–on a subject that should not be trivialized by commercial comparison–inferring that KDP Select writers are likened to German intellectuals that ignored Hitler’s hideous path to power.

“No,” Coker wrote, “Amazon are not Nazis, but…”

It’s a free country; we can write what we like. Statements like the above quote, however, are why I’ve repeatedly taught my children that “bias” is the most honest word in the English language.

(I may be an indie writer without an editor on staff, but I think it’s “Amazon is not the Nazis…” or, perhaps “Amazonians are not Nazis…”)

I honestly don’t see how offering the consumer choices–in how or when they buy, or for what price–is somehow rendered as ‘fascist’ in appearance to those the free market has left behind. Neflix users are not considered ‘nazis’ but, somehow, Kindle Unlimited users are?

What many in the trad-pub industry fail to understand is that every revolution, political or otherwise, leaves some carnage in its wake. Admittedly, carnage is a terrible word and–like “hate” or “nazi”–it should not be used lightly. I’ll also allow that the rather vague notion of ‘change’ is not always for the better–as Neimoller and millions of others would no doubt attest–but in the case of the eBook revolution, I am biased in its favor.I am biased not only as a consumer of literature but also as an author.

Independent writers are now allowed to choose where and how their work is presented, as well as for how much; these are choices never afforded us before, let alone having our titles given equal billing with trad-pub authors. It is so, very sad that Amazon alone offers indies access to such options.

Who’s fault is that? Considering their collective years of experience in the industry and the amount of money they pour into advertising, I am astounded that big publishing firms haven’t invented a better mousetrap.

Consider this: I am merely an organic gardener who writes novels part time–with little more than a decade of business experience to my name–but even I know that in any free market one must adapt or go extinct. Perhaps trad-pub companies aren’t hiring creative people, aren’t firing incompetent people, are unable to change their ways or all of the above.

If trad-pubs are–as they are very fond of reminding their dwindling customer base–the backbone of the book industry, then they need to awaken from their slumber and procure new, young professionals to give them a swift spinal adjustment. They must build a platform that offers both the indie writer and the reader what no one else has. Only a re-invention of the market will attract attention away from the savings Amazon offers. And, they must do it soon. For, if they tarry any longer maybe Amazon will clone itself to Nile (with Congo to follow) in order to show some semblance of competition in the marketplace.

If Coker’s rather scary sentence regarding KDP Select writers is even partially true, then why would any writer sign up, or stay with it for more than a month? It’s elementary, Watson. The massive amount of Amazon website traffic is an enormous draw for indie writers… and something that Smashwords has yet to imitate, a fact I happen to have direct knowledge of.

When my husband and I first began to sell our indie-published Epic Fantasy series, we utilized the Smashwords platform. We were impressed with the stringent formatting standards (something Amazon could learn from) as well as the variety of proffered platforms on which we could sell our eBooks. Despite these choices, the small number of visitors was alarming; we made $143 dollars in three months, even with a sizable budget for google adwords, facebook ads, coupled with copious social media posts. We ended up in the red that quarter.

The next month, we signed up for KDP and its Select program, which required us to take our books off Smashwords… and we subsequently made $14,980 in royalties during the rest of the year (2014) with no further spending on advertising whatsoever. To this day we still make a cool $300 a month–on average–in spite the eBook “glut” and the various squabbles over Agency pricing. Like other indies we’ve felt the drop in readership in favor of more visual stimuli.

Money not only talks, but it happens to be the loudest voice in the room at the moment. Until there is a viable option to Amazon’s KDP platform, then most Select writers will (insert shocked gasp) likely stay where the customers are.

Put the issue of indie writers aside, the customer still is always right. In fact, the customer appears to dislike–very much–being told that they must give up choices for the greater good of an industry that largely turned a deaf ear towards them for decades  while simultaneously extracting huge fees for access to literature.

Not surprisingly, a mass migration has ensued. Customers turned in droves to Amazon and many indies, giddy with their initial success, began a short-sighted spiral down to the 99-cent book. Some books might be worth only 99 cents, but the majority of hard-working indie authors consider that number as much a slap in the face as charging $23 for an eBook is to trad-pub customers.

All that posts like Coker’s tell me is that the trad-pubs of the world didn’t learn a thing from the eBook revolution, one so recent the smouldering buildings are yet visible. The bandwagon they snootily refused to board marched merrily by them. Now, like a gaggle of disinherited adult children of Old Money–flung out into the real world of the free market–the trad-pubs sit and whine about the loss of their old life. A few of them might make a valiant show for the shareholders, using outdated methods to try to break back into the market, but so far none seem interested in going out and building a rival domicile.

I would like to see trad-pubs stop complaining about Amazon and try to outfox them. Maybe they could streamline and offer readers something other than another price hike. Maybe they could offer indies a free platform to upload their work for evaluation–including throwing out their obsolete elitist system of biased, redundant scrutiny–emphasizing to potential authors quality of service over Amazonian quantity.

Customers do want good literature, but they also want the best deal (especially in an economy that is barely recovering) and in such a market as this they will invariably flock to wherever the best deal is, regardless of past loyalties, nostalgia or the misapplication of the ‘nazi’ label.

The book market landscape will likely change again when the US economy begins to show signs of full recovery. For their own sake, may the trad-pubs be ready–in that moment–to emerge from their tired cocoons to display a wonderful inclusive, innovative platform with which to dazzle indie writers and readers alike.

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L. R. Styles is a KDP Select author with Belator Books

The Power of Picture Books

children reading under a treeChildren’s reader books, or “picture books” tend to be somewhat overlooked in the busy Realm of Literature. I was guilty of such oversight myself… until I began to have children. But, even then, I simply read through “readers” like most parents would, patiently enduring the infantile prose until the children moved on to more interesting material.

Several years ago, however, one of my middle children began kindergarten and my husband and I discovered–to our utter consternation–that she strongly disliked reading. Now, she loved stories and hearing them read aloud; she’d follow along with me as I read to her; she’d trace and draw letters on paper just fine and she likewise understood the correlation between the letter’s shape and the sounds each made. The action of sounding out letters out loud, however, made her balk–every time–to the point that she began to resent the action of reading altogether. Her father and I were baffled, to say the least; our two older siblings hadn’t any trouble with phonics reader books at her age.

Our daughter’s teacher was not as concerned. Test results showed that she had no ‘learning disabilities’ whatsoever.

“Every child learns differently,” the teacher told us. “Just spend extra time reading with her, until she gets comfortable with it.” And so I did. We read together in the backyard garden, away from the hearing of others. I watched as she would gulp, swallow and fight her way through the sentences, until I finally had an epiphany. My daughter had no problem understanding the words, nor recognizing them, nor seeing them. Her problem was she didn’t like reading for herself. The rather infantile phonics books that her older siblings had used held absolutely no appeal for her… not on little bit. I spent the next day trying to come up with a solution, looking for phonics games or flash cards, but my searches yielded little results for help with “normal” children who just don’t like to read out loud.

Early the next morning however, I realized that an obvious solution already lay within reach.

“I could write her a story,” I thought, as I poured out my first cup of coffee. The idea seemed almost too easy. Children’s picture books were not something I’d ever considered writing, due to their assumed simplicity. However, as I sipped my coffee that morning, a plot began to form in my mind. I squinted out the kitchen window, catching sight of far-off rolling hills, just visible over the industrial buildings on the outskirts of our city neighborhood. A story might work, I thought, if it focused on a little girl  going on a journey, using as many colorful descriptions as possible, and also if I mentioned  some the things she most liked. If I could capture my daughter’s imagination and tap into that inherent Narcissistic strain–a thing all humans possess–then she might just want to read for herself. If the story could somehow hint that avoiding one’s problems was not the solution, that would be icing on the proverbial cake. My husband liked the idea immediately.

I began crafting a story for Sara that day, using the recommended spelling lists provided by her teacher, as well as consulting numerous online articles by children’s book professionals. Late the next night, I carefully copied out my scribbled story and stapled the pages together. My oldest daughter was charmed by the story; she inked a little drawing on the front of it, one picturing her little sister in her favorite dress and backpack, walking along a road with flowers growing along it.

The next day, as my middle daughter sat down with a phonics book–with that same, pained expression–I sat down with her and held up the stapled papers.

“What’s that, Mommy?” she asked.

“It’s a new book,” I told her. “I’m going to read it to you.” My daughter gave me a wide smile. She snuggled up to me and looked at the words on the ‘cover’.

“That’s my name!” she said, sitting up again; her eyes grew wide. “And, that’s my backpack… and that’s my red dress!”

I smiled.

“I wrote this story, just for you. It’s called Sara and the Land of No Letters.

My little girl gave me the biggest smile I had ever seen, and I mentally kicked myself for not thinking of this book sooner. We settled in to read. When we were finished, I gave her the story and told her we could read it again, if she took care of it. She carried it to her room and put it on the special shelf where she kept her precious paper dolls and jewelry box. The next day we read it again, but this time, she wanted to try to read her story by herself. With some whispered hints from Mommy she managed to finish the whole thing, without a grimace, a swallow and nary a gulp. In school, she drew pictures of the scenes of her book from memory and brought them home. She read her story twice a day for a week and gave the family an unprecedented performance, with hardly a mistake in pronunciation, showing confidence in reading for the first time. Mommy hugged her and gave compliments, blinking back tears of real relief.

The teacher was highly impressed; she listened to my daughter read through her story and gave her high praise. Later, she told me that the story was engineered perfectly–as it encouraged parents to read it with a child first; she also liked that it included the right blend sounds and ‘everyday’ words children would need in order to “springboard” them on to other books.

“You should publish this.” the teacher told me. “And, you should more of them.” At the time my husband and I were in the middle of writing our Epic Fantasy fiction series, so I put that idea on the shelf and let my daughter keep her story for herself. True to prediction, she branched out to other books with ease, borrowing her older sister’s C. S. Lewis books (sometimes without permission), pouring through The Hobbit and asking for me to find her some more reading material online.

Today, my little girl’s Reading Comprehension scores on annual tests place her three grades ahead of her peers in aptitude and vocabulary. Likewise, her scores in math, science and social studies began climbing the moment she lost her ‘fear’ of letters, and her teachers couldn’t be happier. As I watch her now, sitting in the corner happily reading from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I know that my respect for the ‘simplistic’ picture book has grown exponentially.

Sara and the Land of No Letters was just published this week, and is available on Amazon. My oldest daughter did the colored illustrations for her sister’s book, a thoughtful gesture we appreciate very much. We have two more Sara books planned for publishing: Sara and the Land of No Numbers, and Sara and the Land of No Rules.

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L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

To Each {Writer} Their Own

Writers That Cook.fwThere’s a very good reason why many a writer has–at one point or another–chosen to shrug on the mantle of “recluse” and then acted accordingly. Whether it was Hemingway closeting himself in an attic with a dozen cats and a few cases of booze, or Thoreau living off the grid, sleeping in fields, wandering and mulling lines aloud to himself, or the prose-wielders that merely shielded themselves behind pen names and wrote under the seemingly innocuous employ of “housewife”… writers know that they are susceptible to distraction. And–in this–I am no exception.

Being a recluse would indeed be a relatively easy solution to today’s distractions, but it has several unromantic drawbacks. One could disappear and refuse to answer emails, phone calls, or do anything else other than write, pretending the outside world does not exist… however, one then runs the risk of isolating/ignoring family and loved ones, possibly resulting in not being present for important occasions or–Heaven forbid–a tragedy. Hemingway–to name but one example–could probably have wallpapered the walls of his attic with several sets of divorce papers.

Also, there is the lack of accountability; left to one’s own devices, one could conceivably fritter away the time on non-writing endeavors. Against such arguments a writer must weigh the merit of a distraction-less environment to complete a book (which is by no means a guarantee). For me, the responsibilities of Family, Home and Garden are far more weighty than gaining a small amount of notoriety for myself, or even procuring more of the slim amount of the eBook market that my husband and I already possess (approx. $250 a month in repeating royalties).

All compare and contrast of writers in isolation aside, less-extreme measures do exist; several of my fellow authors embark on writing ‘trips’ once or twice a year, during which they blog almost constantly and–more often than not–return refreshed, with a fair amount of real work accomplished, as well as an impressive slew of photographs. Not everyone can afford such inspirational trysts, however.

My husband and I frequent a nearby Panera restaurant, once a month or so when our oldest daughter  can get away to babysit for a few hours. In an empty corner, we sip hot coffee and munch pastries, sharing a set of earbuds and listening to my recording of the latest book-in-progress (we use Audacity to record). Doing so allow us to edit, prune and graft more quickly and with less distraction than simply reading a word file out loud. In lieu of taking our attention away, the people in the restaurant around us merely galvanize us to work harder; they might be fans, after all… or future types thereof. Our presence acts as a curiosity in of itself; a few discreet inquiries by members of the nearby knitting club moves the needle of hourly web stats a bit further to the right.

In my daily writing grind, however, I cannot boast of rising early in the morning in order to write. Indeed, we do often awaken in the dawn-lit hours, but at that time of day it is difficult for me to form spoken sentences, let alone written ones that would successfully pass the hawk-like gaze of our editor.

The house must be routed from bed, fed and sent on their way, whether for schooling or to work. My ample vegetable garden requires a morning watering schedule and weeding that eats a good hour up. Then comes laundry, washed carefully and hung outside to dry in keeping with our smaller-carbon-footprint goals (which saves us $50 a month in electricity)  and then comes vacuuming, dusting and mopping. I have found that I rather like having a clean home, for not only ourselves but the odd impromptu guest, which seem to appear in tandem with the tomatoes ripening.

Finally, I come to the writing hours. Each day I get 3-4 hours of uninterrupted writing moments. It is then that I delve into the carefully-woven realms, spiced with humanity and action, tears and laughter, work and play all wound about  a column of reality… but not quite touching it. It is absorbing work, and if I did not glance at the clock every so often, my family would arrive back home to find me still under the pergola typing away, with the cleaning not completed, the laundry half-done, the garden wilting and dinner not even begun.

It is with reluctance that I stop writing to work with my hands, but it is essential to the books that I do. My main characters are nearly always common, working folks that are frankly familiar with rain, dirt, sweat, discomfort and disappointment. None know what it is like to be idle, and likewise none are arrogant. If writing what you know is essential to good fiction, then I could not know, unless I worked alongside such imagined companions with my own two hands.

Call my other work distraction, call it experience… call it what you will. I remain yet unashamed of not being able to devote all my time to writing. The books my husband and I write are few and far between; indeed, it takes us a year or more to produce one, but each title is sprinkled with reality, real experiences and poignant, tangible details that most folks–regardless of age, culture or creed–can relate to.

They are written with care and envelope within their twists and turns many a weekend discussion on the merits of one plot point or another, before both writers arise from the booth to return to the role of Parents, Husband and Wife.

To each his own. What works for you, so do… and let neither the scorn nor scoffs of another deter you.

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L. R. Styles is an author and co-author of fiction with Belator Books

The “Death” of Reading?

50012_library_mdSales of many independently-published eBooks have taken a marked downturn in recent months, one that–to the average indie writer–seems almost as sharp as that of the price of crude oil during the same period.

Authorearnings.com recently posted, in its January 2015 earning report, that “U.S. ebook sales have plateaued — or are even declining, relative to print — declare some widely-cited industry statistics.”

Many an industry expert seems baffled by “the slowdown” in eBook sales and none of my writing contacts seem to really be able to explain why, exactly, nor how to remedy the problem. Format and medium diversification strategies don’t seem to be as effective, nor do social media promotions, paid advertisements, pricey PR campaigns nor the old standby of limited-time Free eBook promotions.

Despite our break-out success last year post launch, compared to last year’s eBook royalties for March, this last month was downright dismal ($250 VS $5700)… and worse, this statistic is also suffered by 90% of the indie writers I have queried on the subject.

Apparently many traditionally-published authors–backed by media departments with wide advertising budgets–are also going through a kind of sales ‘funk’ of sorts. Some of the more well-known authors have turned to desperate measures, such as awkwardly hawking their ‘new’ books on badly-scripted television spots.

Smashwords’s Mark Coker recently blogged about the slowdown of 2014 eBook sales, as well as the slower “growth projections” for 2015:

… most authors experienced a slower growth year – especially when compared against the go-go days of exponential growth from 2008 to 2012. The causes for this slow down include a new equilibrium between print and ebook formats; immortal ebooks published by publishers and indie authors alike that will never go out of print; the continued growth of self-published titles; and myriad low-cost and free non-book alternatives competing for slices of consumers’ time such as social media, Internet video and games.

In the same piece, Coker also predicted that many indie writers would drop out of the self-publishing market in 2015, after finding dwindling sales too steep a precipice to descend.

While my own experiences and observances, regarding the indie eBook glut and increased traditional-publisher price slashing, seem to corroborate Coker’s predictions, it does not allow for a rather ugly market variable: decreased interest in leisure reading.

Recently, I found myself in a library–yes, the building kind–a place I had not visited in nearly two years.

My seventeen-year-old wished to use her new library card and read through C. S. Forester’s Hornblower series, as well as get free materials to brush up for the SAT with. As my daughter bustled around the quiet, bookish smelling aisles grounded in comforting gray carpet and well-used stepping stools, I moved–as if my instinct–over to the “Classics” wall and selected one of my favorite weighty tomes The Count of Monte Cristo, unabridged.

Having procured my book, I settled in one of the many vacant reading chairs by picturesque window and began to read. A few pages along, however, I reflected on how long it had been since I spent a considerable length of time reading for leisure. I began to count the minutes–during my average day–that I really read. Between fellow writer’s blogs posts on eBook advertising strategies, articles on digital publishing industry trends, articles on the stock market and oil futures, and well as various sources for world news, I spend–on average–three to four hours a day just reading. But, hardly any of my daily reading has to do with personal enjoyment, let alone expanding my personal bank of consumed literature.

I am not alone in this modern reading ‘vacuum.’ Writing and editing expert Judy Goldman responded to my query on the slowing market of leisure reading:

I know I would be one who falls into that category. My ‘knee-jerk’ reactions to what I read these days is to respond to it somehow, not just read to absorb and enjoy.

I write about and respond to what I read, I don’t have time or desire to read for enjoyment and that is coming from someone who wouldn’t be caught dead without a book in her hands…

Adults are hardly the majority in the Reading Vacuum. Looking up from The Count of Monte Cristo, I saw (as I did upon my last library visit) quite a number of warm bodies sitting in front of the dozen-or-so library computers. Every computer was occupied. Unlike my last visit, however, the users were all young, ranging between the ages of fourteen and nineteen.

As discreetly as possible, I got up and moved around the stacks by the PC section and utilized a particular quick glance (the kind most mothers nowadays are experts at) at what each young person was so engrossed in.

SAT studying? Negative.

Applying for summer jobs? Nope.

Reading a free eBook at Project Gutenberg? Wrong again.

teens watching streaming videosEach young person was either chatting on social media, watching streaming videos or playing an online game. Each and every one. Those sitting and reading books–digital or paper–were all my age (late 30s) or older, my daughter’s presence notwithstanding.

The Reading Vacuum expanded as I walked around the library. The children’s books section in my last visit had been nearly full of moms reading to their young children. Now, it now boasted just two toddlers  playing with toys–or pulling books off of shelves–while their mothers were (I kid you not) busy swiping the screens of smartphones nearby, oblivious.

Not to sound all ‘Andy Rooney’ here, but libraries used to be the springboard for learning reading and leisure reading in off-school/work hours. Certainly there is room for technological moderation in our lives, but I don’t think pointing at gadgets/devices is helping to really identify the root of the problem.

In 2013, Robert Rosenberger posted an article in Slate magazine, pointing to the distractions present on tablets as the culprit for declining eBook sales. The theory, then, was that eBook sales matched the sale of dedicated eReaders, a device that has rather fallen from gadget grace in recent years.

While eReader stats may be a factor, the problem that I became aware of in the library points to something far more sinister: lack of interest in leisure reading at all.

Next generation of readersLong ago–in a decade far, far away (1991)–Mitchell Stephens, an NYU journalism professor, wrote an article for the LA Times titled The Death of Reading. In said piece Stephens outlined how distractions abounded in the modern home, that libraries and reading nooks were overrun with televisions and Nintendo and that architects had largely scorned bookshelves in favor of “media” centers. He blamed distraction and said the move away from reading sounded the death-knell of thinking civilizations worldwide.

Ironically, but not coincidentally, reading has begun fading from our culture at the very moment that its importance to that culture is finally being established. Its decline, many theorists believe, is as profound as, say, the fall of communism, and some have taken to prophesying that the downturn in reading could result in the modern world’s cultural and political decline.

Stephens went on to cite another work Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman:

We are losing a sort of psychic habit, a logic, a sense of complexity, an ability to spot contradictions and even falsity.

I thought on these things as I sat in the library, with Dumas’ complex and contested work sitting forgotten in my hands, gazing woefully at the young blank faces intermittently lit by the flickering media upon opposite screens.

But, all hope is not lost. A few young people–my resident teenagers have informed me–are still interested in a particularity type of leisure reading, or at least talking about it. Of the many YA book ‘fandom’ sites, chats and boards still in daily use, fully 1/3 of the people posting have actually read the title being discussed… according to my own brood of ‘experts'(whom also haunt said sites.)

“One out of three?” I thought, frowning at the nearly empty Fiction aisles across the quiet, gray room of the library. I glanced again at the PC users and shook my head, wondering if Prof. Stephens was being proven right faster than even he anticipated. Were the next generations doomed to forget how important literature and leisure reading are to civilized society?

At that moment, just such a young person flopped onto the empty chair beside me.

“I found it,” my daughter informed me, holding up a worn copy of one of Forester’s seafaring books. As she thumbed to “Chapter One,” her side pocket buzzed. Drawing out her phone, she glanced at it, shut it off and slipped it back in her pocket. She settled back in her chair and immersed herself in a world of sun-bleached, salty deck planks harboring borderline-scurvy-ridden crewmen unfurling sailcloth and scampering about under the hawk-like gaze of the captain, high up on the quarterdeck.

She was–of course–blissfully unaware that her mother was at that very moment gazing at her dewy-eyed, struggling not to weep aloud in sheer joy at what had just occurred. She was distracted, but not by digital screen nor any pixelated thing, but by a scene composed by a great writer long deceased, powered by nothing more than a fingertip and movements of the eye.

Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the foresight of people who had encouraged me to read daily to my young children, from toddler-age onward, and not leave such a weighty responsibility in the hands of under-paid, overworked teachers at school. That effort on my part, which then seemed like a chore (and intellectually stunting to repeatedly read sentences such as “the fat cat on the mat”) paid back enormous dividends in that tiny moment, there in the library. I went back to my own book, feeling a bit better about both the younger generations and the recent slowdown of eBook sales growth.

Is leisure reading truly dying? It may be in a distraction-induced coma, perhaps, but it’s not entirely dead.

Children Reading

L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books

I should be writing…

sick_man_24338_md… but I got sick last week.

“Sick” is hardly the word, really. This state of being seems to have hearkened straight from an unabridged Charles Dickens story… having a body desperately ill, wracked by ceaseless bouts of coughing and all the while drawing ragged breaths through an inflamed esophagus, that refuses to be comforted by either medicine or tea.

Sick, indeed.

I came by this virulent guest honestly enough; my husband and children were struck with it first, after an innocent visit to a park on President’s Day. The fever made itself present within 48 hours and my workload effectively doubled. Our  book was paced on hold as I made restorative soups, disinfected surfaces and doorknobs like a mad woman, soothed feverish heads and doled out an herbal tisane during the day and medicine at night.I fantsied myself quite the nurse and bustled about to make certain the laundry didn’t pile up, but the novel was not far from my mind.

A scene in our latest book became all the more real to me during this process for the hero of our epic fantasy series was–at the time we all fell ill–enveloped in the grips of a virus, while imprisoned in an enemy island fortress.I made copious mental notes as my husband ran the course of his illness and eventually grew well enough to return  to work. The virus made its way through our four children, and then paused. I dared to hope that I had downed enough Vitamin C and Echinacea to have withstood its invisible power.

But, it was not to be. With a feverish  brain I lay abed, inwardly forming arguments to rain down on the heads of the parents–if I ever found out which they were–whose naivete had allowed sick children go to a public park and infect their neighborhood. Ours was merely one house among many along our street to feel the viruses feverish brush.

As I tried to sleep in such circumstances, I keenly wanted to write… to pay attention to the character I had left in such limbo. What woe he must feel, to be ill, hundred of miles from home and at the mercy of uncaring captors. I felt grateful for the warm confines of my bed and relative quiet of my home and tried to imagine the scene where Lord Asher recovered.

But, there the concentration ended, as well as what energy I possessed. For over 2 weeks I have not written a word on the story. Other things have been lost, the children piano lessons have been delayed, my garden ignored and my supply shelves ravaged, but thankfully, we’ve emerged from the fog of influenza unscathed and with added immunity.

Though my cough yet remains, I am back, once more filling the breech of words between “unfinished novel” and “completed manuscript.”


L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

The Waltz

dancing_20052_mdA few, simple notes dance

Atop a bed of chords

How well each layer pairs

How moved am I to hear

Though my energy be gone

Though my tired limbs be stayed

I wish nothing more than

To rise and join the dance

The music–in me–stirs

Its notes pour in like balm

Oh, it fills the cracks in me

Oh, my soul sings harmony

Once more I play the song

Once more I sway and sing

Happiness within me grows

Loneliness never stirs


L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

You Might Be a Good Writer If…

… someoBook Piratene pirates your books.

I’ve spent much of the morning sending out DMCA Take-Down Notices to not one, or two, but three torrent sites this morning. So far, two have responded with partially-heartfelt apologies and expressed an intention of removing the offending links ASAP.

This is not the first time such a thing has occurred to us. Since my husband and I launched our novels on Amazon in late February of 2014, our books have popped up on torrents and sharing sites loquaciously dubbed “The Kingdom Saga;” the latter word rather amused me as we are neither Icelandic–or spoken word artists–but, I digress.

As much as I actively work to remove these illegally-posted copies of our work, a small part of me is slightly flattered by distinction. It took some effort on the part of the pirate to copy the work, format it, post it, type out our names and copy the book’s description from its legitimate Amazon page. As an added bonus, on such sites our novels sit next to the pirated works of wildly-successful authors like Stephen King and John Grisham, imparting to me a sort of surreal sense of accomplishment, however temporary.

Such flattery quickly fades, replaced by the full force of the initial insult. Each time I see a torrent, I see the number of downloads and shake my head at the lost revenue. Rather than inspiring anger, however, such feelings merely fuel my understanding of the DMCA language, and how to apply which sentences to whom.

L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

The Death of a Cup

1 fZOmYVoxSftlIbFQscFhKQA few minutes ago, I dropped my favorite cup on the driveway.

I could easily blame it on the particularly strong gust of wind that bandied my front yard at that moment (indeed, is still doing so outside) or, that my grip was weakened because my knuckles really wanted to be cracked and weren’t. I’d resisted the urge to do so, in order to prove I could. For this I silently congratulated myself as I stood in the wind outside, seeing my husband off to work.

It must have happened quickly—Sir Isaac Newton (I am certain) would assure it me that it did— but the event, itself, seemed inexplicably slow. As a gust of wind ratcheted up—sounding like a small jet engine chewing a million dry leaves—the cup simply leaped from my fingers. I felt its loss instantly, for the cup took the warmth of my hand with it. My fingers tingled with a puzzled sort of alarm. I watched my cup fall down in an elegant spiral motion, the last bits of its coffee splayed outward with the centrifugal force. And then it stopped. The cup was whole and then it exploded, sending shards of itself about and coming to rest in the most tragic kind of heap possible for ceramic to attain.

I have connected with few objects in my life. Influenced as a youngster, by a practical Scottish grandmother, I regard most material things as resources to be either used or passed on to those who can. But, no ordinary cup was this. It found me… rather than I finding it.

In browsing the aisles of a local thrift store—a half decade ago—I brushed up against a slightly rickety display rack of ceramics. The cup in question fell from a higher shelf and—in a highly unusual display of dexterity on my part—I reached out and caught it.

It was a pale blue latte coffee cup that some hobbyist potter had crafted to mimic a fashionable ceramic plate design popular in the 90’s. One of the cup’s sides featured a delicate stem of cherry blossoms; its handle seemed to fit my slender fingers perfectly. I liked the weight in my hand at once; the matte, powder-like glaze appealed to me, seemingly unassuming compared to its glossier peers. Turning it over I saw no date nor maker’s mark. I looked for more such cups and found the unknown potter had made twins, along with two bowls and two small plates. Purchasing the lot for less than $20, I helped the check-stand girl wrap them in newspaper and took them home to use. That night I made my own version of Tom Ka Gai—a delicate and delicious Thai soup—not in homage to the maker’s continent, but because I felt like the new dining items deserved to serve it.

Those with children know how much they assist one in getting over attachments to material objects. In less than two years all the cherry blossom pottery was broken beyond repair… except for the cup that had leaped from its shelf to join my hand. It sported a small chip on one side by the handle—a parting gift from a near brush with a garden trowel—which, in my mind, merely added to the cup’s character. When full of steaming coffee or tea, my cup held just the right amount of stimulating liquid to get through an op-ed article, or four pages of fiction, or a poem, or a phone call to a relative.

As I stood over the cup’s remains this morning, staring down at the pieces on my driveway, I felt dazed both by my own clumsiness and the surreal nature of its fall.

“Aw… that was your favorite cup, wasn’t it?” my husband called, from the driver side window of our car. I nodded and looked over, giving him a quick ‘don’t worry, I’ll clean it up smile,’ one he’s seen many times since children were introduced into our household. Knowing instinctively that words in such a case are useless, my husband gave me a sympathetic half-smile before backing down the driveway.

Kneeling down on the wet surface of the porous cement, I picked up the tiny shards with care, feeling a ridiculous wave of sadness wash over me. I silently mocked myself for feeling bad about it, knowing full well how much real cause for grief is present in our world. Carrying the cup’s remains to the trash bin, I dropped them in without ceremony, letting go of yet one more thing.

Inside the house, a row of other such vessels met my eye in the cupboard. Briefly, I searched for a particular shape before I caught myself. The last of the coffee was poured in another object; it felt different in my hand but adequately conveyed the warm liquid to my mouth as it was designed to do.

The death of a cup, however endearing, did not dampen the sounds of wind outside, nor cause the steady sounds of typing to halt. Yet, it did inspire me to write—one last time—with prose leaping to mind as readily as the cup fell into and out of my hand.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

L. R. Styles is an author for Belator Books

O’ Bending Light

{A short inspirational story}

“The sun is leaving now, painting in its wake a fleeting promise to return, as it sinks below the weathered wooden teeth of our fence.”

Muriel glanced up from her laptop and over, at the backyard fence. The aging planks indeed seemed to bite at the late afternoon sky. Warped with time, the fence was hideously in need of sanding and paint… or a sledge hammer. At the moment, however, Muriel didn’t see just the fence, for over its top the setting sun freely cast red and orange hues across the firmament. The fading rays tinted the fleecy rounded edges of the high gray clouds with their rosy breath.

Smiling at the scene overhead, Muriel closed her eyes, accepting a final warm kiss before the back fence swallowed the sun whole. A cool breeze stirred itself from slumber, fanning Muriel’s face the moment the last golden ray stopped lingering.

Opening her eyes once more, the woman was confronted by her decaying fence. Muriel regarded it with an impassive expression, deciding whether or not to let the warped details and gray hues sink into her notice.

A patch of dying Bermuda grass at its base arrested her gaze, however. Mercilessly shorn and stiff, the weeds resembled a wire sculpture, ragged and unyielding, clawing at the air in a last show of defiance. Muriel caught whiffs of the chemical bath she’d poured over the patch days earlier. She’d long given up pulling it out every month. With a snort she returned her gaze to the entire scene, eclipsing the one problem with many.

The weathered wood, the bleached, cut weeds, the bold snails coming out of hiding… these caught her eye and held it, her hackles building up behind each observance. As she glared, Muriel’s poetic eye felt blinded. She did not see the yellow roses blooming in one partially-shaded corner, or that the rose petals appeared to recline under the long, splayed boughs of the adjacent cedar. Her red and pink geraniums also went unnoticed, as did the sword ferns and hydrangea bushes that almost hid her aging fence.

Muriel saw beyond the beauty to the hidden, creeping things that sought to destroy the work of her hands… the imperfect, the uninvited, the broken and the out-of-place. The garden—sans sunshine—seemed grayer and only full of things yet to be done. Opening her laptop, Muriel wrote one last line in her tiny, Twitter field.

“O’ bending light, how well you hide life’s blemishes… or at least better their appearance.”

The breeze grew cooler as she typed. Shivering a little, Muriel hesitated in getting up from the still-present warmth of the chair. Her nightly routine was waiting within doors she knew. The vegetable garden needed watering as well; it waited patiently in its corner of the backyard, the plant fronds, buds and stems trailing expectantly over the raised edges of their beds.

“The sun has left me with my work,” Muriel wrote. “Tomorrow may it return to see a bit more of it completed.”

Posting her last tweet for the evening Muriel shut down the laptop and closed its lid with care. As she moved from the chair, her eyes were drawn once again, to the fence. Out of habit, she ruminated upon the cost of replacing the entire back fence, even with the cheapest-possible cedar slats one could purchase from the grandiose home improvement store, just a few miles away.

Muriel shrugged. A new fence… or a specialist root canal? Both cost about the same, even with their dental plan. The offending molar send down a twinge of pain as the twilight breeze drew more coolness into the air. Gingerly feeling the top of the tooth with her tongue, Muriel winced a little. She made a mental note to regale her children with yet another ‘brush-your-teeth’ admonition, perhaps with a few horrific pictures of massive tooth decay downloaded from the internet.

Smiling at the thought, Muriel stepped carefully through the main lawn on emerging, favored type of grass–Fescue but sowed a few weeks before–moving almost reluctantly towards the back fence. Chores and tasks silently called out again from inside the house, but something in the way the old slats leaned against one another made Muriel step closer, past the pruned shrubs to stand on what remained of the beleaguered Bermuda grass.

Muriel did not dare look to her left. Full well she knew what her eyes would see bordering the neighbor’s yard: a new, redwood fence in back, topped with finely beveled lattice, perfectly stained and treated against the weather, rimed by the most glorious, weed-free flowers one could ever wish to see. Looking at her own fence, Muriel wondered if her neighbors had paid for their fence project outright, or merely put it on a credit card.

“Card,” Muriel thought, scrutinizing her fence closely, “Unless Mindy’s husband has taken on a second job.”

Reaching out, she touched the ridged, pocked-marked surface of a loose board. Muriel felt the rough lines and wondered how tall the tree had been from whence it had come. Was it from a burned trunk, one of the many leavings of a rampant forest-fire? The scent of burning wood hung faintly in the air–Muriel noted–most likely from a fireplace down the street. The fire theory seemed plausible; the wood of the fence felt tragic to the touch, and it looked the part.

“Tragic… and yet you’ve looked out over this yard for over thirty years.”

The words left Muriel’s lips before she was even cognizant of thinking them. The idea struck her silent. She and her husband were not the original owners of this place, but they knew the man who’d built the house… and the fence. Her hand still touching the board Muriel felt a sudden sense of shame fall over her.

“I’ve let you fall apart,” said she. Though spoken quietly, the words of her admission seemed to hang in the air nonetheless.

Stepping back, Muriel’s foot brushed against a small stack of scrap lumber, leftover from making the garden boxes. Squinting down at the haphazard pile, Muriel remembered placing them there herself, thinking she’d return later that day and put them away. Scowling at her own forgetfulness, Muriel picking up the topmost piece of wood from the pile and shook it, dropping it back to Earth. A small black widow spider atop the board met a swift end under her shoe.

After inspecting the wood more thoroughly, Muriel picked it up again. Squinting at the fence she held the board up before it. She knew that she probably looked insane, standing there in the shade of the cedars, clutching her laptop to her chest with one hand and picking up wood scraps with the other. Smiling, Muriel set the piece down and continued searching. A few more spiders, a few more boards… and then, an epiphany.

One of the scraps bore a distinctly curved side, a left-over piece from a weekend project months before: an Adirondack chair, pieced together with the help of an old issue of Popular Mechanics and assembled with marginal success. Turning the piece of oddly-shaped wood over, Muriel glanced at a particularly sagged section of the fence.

“With a few more pieces,” she thought, “I can bolster up the fence… with tangible art.”

The breeze blew in the cedar branches overhead. The flat needles stirred up that strange, rushing sound only they knew how to make. It invigorated the very blood in Muriel’s veins to move, to do something other than complain and glare.

Haste was present in her movements as she put away her laptop. Muriel located gardening clothes; pulled from the baskets in the laundry room they still harbored that morning’s mud. Thusly arrayed, Muriel searched the sheds on the side of the house for more scrap lumber. She dragged out her husband’s old miter saw and two paint flecked saw-horses. A smile graced the woman’s face as she hauled over the scrounged bits of lumber and wayward bags of mismatched screws. The fence–blessed with one touch–soon felt many, along with the cool, metallic feel of a measuring tape upon its surface and the scraping of a stubby pencil. Muriel drew a rough sketch of the picture in her head on the back of an advertisement envelope, now plying an eraser, now biting her bottom lip.

The sharp buzz of the miter saw filled the backyard soon after, its noise gearing up to a tearing crescendo before tapering off to a low whine and then starting up again. Weathered bits of cut lumber stacked up next to the saw, one end as bright and new as the day it left the mill, the other graced with age and weather. Muriel paused between each to cross out yet another measurement, impatiently flicking her hair from her face.

Home from school, her children stood at the glass door to the patio, looking out into the backyard, plainly wondering where their dinner was. Muriel smiled at her offspring and waved them closer. Directing her oldest daughter to re-heat leftovers she sent her son to find his father’s hammer while the younger girls fetched the ‘outdoor’ plates.

“We’ll eat outside,” Muriel told them, turning off the saw. “Like a picnic.” Stepping over small piles of sawdust, they cleared the patio table and set up chairs.

Turning on the backyard floodlights, Muriel she marked and pre-drilled scraps of wood. Mosquitoes flocked to the electric light, all too willing to feast on the seated forms nearby. Muriel’s oldest daughter brought out a half-empty bottle of tea tree oil. Giving her neck and wrists a quick slather, her mother thanked her and resumed drilling.

With little hands to help hold the fence up, Muriel drove a strengthening stake on each end of the fence and set the first board–the curving Epiphany Board–across the fence’s drooping waistline. Making faces, Muriel drove galvanized screws deep into the wood. The fence beneath creaked and squealed at such treatment, but Muriel paid the sounds no mind. The initial glimmer of inspiration in her eyes gave way to one of determination as the next pieces were fitted, spaced and secured.

With each new addition the crude sketch —now fluttering amid the sawdust—transcended its two dimensions, ‘growing’ planes and lines with scope. An Escher-like fence began to emerge, with rotating curves and blunted points, neatly covering cracks and adding stability where none had been in over a decade. The lines of the boards seemed to mimic the shrubs in front, the flowers providing depth for the eye as well in their night-dampened colors and forms.

An hour passed, then two. Muriel stood back from the fence, looking at her handiwork as the children cleaned up dinner. It was a far cry from the neighbor’s staid and pricey border, standing so thin and erect to one side. The newly-enhanced wood-structure made up for its lack of status quo with dimension, with artistic curves and enough re-claimed items to make any green-minded relative crow with delight.

Tenderly feeling a newly-emerged blister on her hand, Muriel smiled at the fence with real joy as she stood amid scraps and sawdust. The moment swelled in her mind, putting words in her soul to utter… but she grabbed a broom before breaking out in verse.

 “O’ bending light, well you hide imperfection,

Though in your leaving you betray one’s pride;

How happy are we to live and let live,

To ignore that by which we daily guide.

O’ drenching sunshine in your wake

The idea sprung and work took hold;

Old and forgotten becomes used again,

And so with motions worth their gold.

O’ bending light, thy veil is needed no longer…”

A swift glance back, at her children, made Muriel laugh. The little faces—so like hers in feature and form–bore either uncertainty or an elevated eyebrow.

“One day you’ll like poetry,” said their mother. “Now, help me clean up before Daddy gets home from work.”

hammer_1_md

Follow author L. R. Styles on Twitter @writerlrstyles

Steven & L. R. Styles write novels for sale on Amazon, with more in the works.