The War for Our Time: Video VS Print

knight-joust-smaller

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.

* * *

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

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.

~ ~ ~

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.

~ ~ ~

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

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

It Pays To Be Swayed

An indie writer is a strange creature, even by the standards of today’s market with the ingrained expectation of ‘multitasking’ members.

Ten years ago, when my husband and I began to devote the majority of our free time to writing novels I did not think I would need to learn marketing, social media, make connections, maintain an online presence or delve into writing genres that I otherwise would have even looked at in a bookstore. But, I have been swayed to think otherwise and–more importantly–to do all of the above.

Marketing on the cheap is a hard sell, but to the average indie writer/publisher it is often the only option until they get more sales with which to pay for better services. It is a huge amount of work, and getting data with which to formulate your marketing strategies takes up even more time and effort. Books sales statistics are hideously expensive but a here and there kind organizations reveal little hints of said information to sort through and glean from. These gems among the rough swayed us to keep looking, gathering and polishing until the beauty of applicable data revealed itself.

To traditional business folk, this sounds all backwards.”They told me to get a business loan”might be found written on the tombstone of many a failed entrepreneur. Perhaps that worked for some businesses, maybe most, but not everyone is in a position–nor harbors the inclination–to shoulder a large amount of debt before their product has been proven profitable.We were swayed to launch our books ourselves, without a loan and without expensive PR services, paying for prepossession editing out of the profits.

A flooded eBook market has its benefits, such as a glut of data. To us, the trends are little more defined as more indie writers enter the market, showing up as trampled digital pathways pointing to what consumers really want. Studying our slowly-garnered free stats, we noticed the alarming dive of literary fiction, the pop-trends of supernatural-type fiction and the rather stagnant line historical fiction wound itself into over the recent years. Epic Fantasy showed promise however, so we were swayed to drop our other novel projects and dust off my husband’s EF series. We sank our time and effort into making those books as good as we were able.

The results surprised us… greatly. After launching in the last week of this February, we’ve made more in royalties int he months since than we thought possible–a little over $14K–utilizing free self-marketing, social media, blog posts and non-obtrusive (no spam) ads.

We’ve been swayed to branch out into other genres as well, to help our brand gain more recognition. Romance Fiction has captured our attention as the rising genre; we’ve released just such a novel for that vast audience in the same month as our 18th wedding anniversary. This winter we’re planning to release the third book in our Epic Fantasy series and have a sci-fi time-travel novel ‘in the works’ for release next year.

In this crowded market, struggling indie writers need to sway themselves to become super business folks: capable of altering their business model in a single season, able to recognize and adapt to the ever-shifting book market, write both relevant and opinion-laden blogs on the industry, search out more free corners of the Web to post unobtrusive ads and, finally, entice (not drive) new customers towards their desired platform profile.

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L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

A Writer’s View: Driving

LRStyles2004Driving—to me—is a novelty, bordering on an altered state of being. One is in a metal and plastic ‘bubble’ of sorts, traveling along a road at a high rate of speed, always at either the verge of immanent death or arrival at one’s destination. Looking at all the people within the other cars as they pass—or are passed—makes for an interesting ride, every time. At least, for a writer it does.

The many diverse faces and colors never fail to amaze me, not to mention the expressions, hairstyles, actions and correlations between these things and the type of car or its present state at the time of passing.

I sit—with my notebook balanced on my knee—my latest chapter sprawled on the lined page in my own messy handwriting. As a car passes I glance at it through my window. The driver is singing to a song, nodding her head as her hair bobs up and down; beside her a pre-teen obliviously plays a game on their phone with ears budded. They drive on to wherever it is they are going. In the pages of my new chapter a preoccupied woman suddenly appears—along with her sullen child—busily walking past the main characters.

Next up in my view is a shiny SUV, harboring just one person—though it is capable of hauling five or six, complete with a polished wax job. My mouth falls open upon beholding the driver, for the young woman therein is putting on her makeup… while driving on the freeway. Cue one oblivious female character entering my pages, narrowly escaping the consequences of her own foolishness. Happily—and fortunately—no one, fictional or otherwise, is maimed this time.

A trucker powers by in the massive 18-wheeler. Through the high window I see him eagerly drinking from the enormous coffee mug in his hand. To me his face and posture rather resembles a medieval Viking, replete with untrimmed beard, sitting in a mead hall and ceaselessly downing golden liquid from a polished tankard.

*writing*

While the main characters—in each of our novels—are dearly conceived in my husband’s thoughts as well as mine, the lesser folk and faces that make but a brief performance on our literary stage are most often inspired by the strangers we see around us.

Said inspiration is in the quick nod of a head; the movement of the eyes; teeth flashing in conversation; long looks of boredom; the small smiles and bashful tilt of tiny chins; angry hand gestures and the sharp intake of breath… these are all important to the storyteller and can be captured in the few seconds it takes for a car to pass by my window.

L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

What is it about Books, really?

I read a particularly heartfelt essay in early 2011 that explored a writer’s personal book memories, expounding on the many reasons why paper books were important in spite of the modern-day acceptance of their digital counterparts. The essayist listed some of her fonder memories of packing books in a suitcase to read over the summer and climbing a tree with a paperback wedged in her back pocket.

After I finished reading the essay, I noted how the writer’s musings paralleled my own experiences. Nearly everyone I know–who has ever read a good book–remembers when they first read it, where they were sitting (or standing) while they read it and most remember all the characters and (most of) the minute details the good author penned.

While I enjoyed reading the essayist’s delightfully varied book memories, she came just short of really explaining why many folks cling to the paper medium in a sort of desperate nostalgia. I’ve heard the “book smell” argument, the tactile-feel-of-the-page rebuttal, the defense of the cover, the full-page illustrations argument, the ease-of-use pleas and the cases presented for paper books being one of the last “unplugged” items. I have not, however, heard or read about why a physical hold-it-in-your-hand paper book really appeals to humans.

To me, it is because the contents of a paper book defies the physics of its appearance. Without the aid of electricity (and with little to no fanfare) what seems to be a bunch of squiggly lines–on pieces of pressed wood pulp, slapped together with industrial glue—is in actuality an invisible treasure chest, just waiting to let that golden glow out onto the face of the reader upon being opened. A good book is the closest thing to real magic that a logical person can experience. Opening this unassuming recyclable shape sets the imagination loose… no film, soundtrack, digital screen, online platform, remote or batteries needed. It is a self-contained, self-perpetuating parallel universe that can contain knowledge, opinions, poetry… or an entire realm of fictional creatures entirely consumed in their own lives, waiting to begin or continue their respective journeys.

Just the act of reading provokes the most profound memories, which is something I’ve not only witnessed in others but have experienced, myself. My first memory of books was of my father reading The Hobbit out loud–to my brother and I–by the flickering light of a campfire (a thing which just made the trolls and goblins all the scarier.) The Lord of the Rings followed in the summers—and winters–to come, interspersed with the Chronicles of Narnia, The Princess & The Goblin, Robinson Crusoe and many other tales. My parents gave us paper and colored pencils to draw with while we listened at home, or laundry to fold; my mother would knit or sew as the stories filled the air, while the television–in the corner of the room–sat dark and silent.

In middle and high school–during which I discovered how heartily I disliked the company of my fellow youngsters—my parents remedied my abject loneliness with piles of books; Austen and Forester; Peters, Wodehouse and Shute; Stevenson and Defoe; Doyle, Dumas and Durrell… such minds were these! Such stories did they write on this strangely bland medium of paper and ink. I began to look upon these writers first as visionaries, and then friends, teachers and finally, muses. Like the essayist at the beginning of this piece I, too, began carefully selecting books to take with me various places and even scaled (numerous times) a nearby alder to sit among the breeze-blown branches and read.

That is the reason many are so disinclined to stop regarding paper books as “real” books despite the advances of technology, social movements toward anything labeled “green” and the very real threat of younger generations growing up with all-digital libraries. It is not a thing so singular as ‘smell’, or ‘touch’ but it is rather the entire experience of opening printed paper pages—with no flash animation–and yet one is still able to ‘see’ a full realm billow out of the object, the details of which (if the writer knows their stuff) engage all of the senses… and is powered only by the brain.

Books are literally the stuff dreams are made of, only tangible.

Can eBooks ever really capture that unique experience? As an eBook writer and proponent I can only say “I hope so.” EBooks continue to sell globally in the billions of dollars, so I assume at least a few million folks-with-money think they come “close enough.” It is true that most eBooks need assistance in order to make up for the loss of paper smell and physical page-turning, such as swiping animation, music, digital bookmarking, images, re-flowable text and other bells and whistles.

But, hope is not lost, for there be one more asset in the digitized book industry’s arsenal… a transition between the old and the new: the audio-book.

It is a category within publishing that seems to still sell extraordinarily well, and in this I am not surprised. The voice carries a weight to it, soulful inflections that digital text (nor computers) cannot plausibly imitate… yet. Handy to load on one’s music player/phone and listen to during commute/ travel/ waiting-in-line, audio books seem to be the most popular when read by someone with a voice that can spark the imagination… one that re-captures that ethereal, memory-laden notion of “real” books being read aloud.

It is that still-burning desire for paper that led several of our epic fantasy series fans to request that we offer our series in paperback. Once considered a daunting quest–for a small operation like ours–the POD system proffered by CreateSpace made this dream fulfill-able, helped along by the somewhat recent decrease in printing costs. For about $11 retail we were able to put out the first of our Kingdom Isle series in a 304 page paperback last week, doing the formatting with InDesign and Fireworks for the cover art. We are not only pleased with the result as it appears online, but once the first proofs made it to our doorsteps, we experienced that unique sensation of holding the full weight of our work in our hands.

You can see (and buy) our very own out-of-book experience Here.

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L. R. Styles is an author at Belator Books

Once more, into the Books!

50012_library_mdFreelance work acts much like a word ‘vampire’ on the mind of a fiction writer. To be fair, reviews, articles and copy-laden ‘crowd sourcing’ jobs make up the bulk of available work these days… but, just as much as these rigorously tight bits of employment put money in one’s pocket, they also strip away a few petals from one’s personal Stash of Inspiration.

After a particularly busy fortnight of submitting various pieces, entries and bids—from articles and advertisements, to logos and corporate presentations—I found that my fingers had lost their vigor, and my mind was given to wandering. The non-retina screen of my laptop reflected a rather wan expression back to me in the dim light of the living room lamp; I normally find that particular light “charming” with its near-natural glow… but now it seemed to embody a sickly sort of glimmer.

I rubbed my eyes and pondered the best course of action. The digital page I stared at fairly begged to be written on, its voice merely one among the three fledgling novels my intrepid laptop harbors within its quasi-metallic maze. One of these–at least–must be completed before the end of the year, when it will be edited, formatted and InDesign’d into a shape recognizable by global eBook consumers. These things I knew and thought of and yet, still no words would come.

Setting my laptop to ‘hibernate’ I walked around my home, absently picking up stray jackets, shoes and books, calling attention to chores left undone by young folk–who really aught to know better by now—my hands finally going through the motions of making my nighttime cup of tea. My eye fell upon a paperback–left casually on the counter–a bookmark within still valiantly holding its owner’s place. Sipping the tea I picked up the book, and smiled at the title. My teenage daughter recently discovered the Cadfael mysteries, a favorite series of mine in high school. I had not read them in ages.

As I stood there–skimming the pages with half-thoughtful fondness–I began to read. I continued reading as I walked around locking various doors and closing window blinds. I read in the laundry room, switching clothes from washer to dryer with one hand. Nestled comfortably in bed I sipped my now-tepid tea with little notice, thinking that the aging 12th century monk was transplanting wintergreen a week earlier than I thought was called for and wondering why his good friend Hugh Beringar–the sheriff– was hovering just outside the wicket gate with a foreboding look upon his dark brow.

Good books have a strange phenomena embroiled in their pages. Not magic, but a coaxing sort of promise that feels its way along one’s arm and shoulder–stealing up to the ear ever so gently–all the while making its case in clear language, laced with a dash of ‘lyrical’. Good prose does not beg to be read, nor does it demand. You simply find yourself reading it, and subsequently words become enjoyable again. I read through the novel before drifting off to sleep, my catalog of aulde English (not to mention my inspiration) more than partially restored. Next morning, the more commercial projects were hurried through in favor of once more stepping into the proverbial breach, that ominous chasm between the blank and the book.

You must pursue it,” said Cadfael with sympathy. “You have no choice.”*

slender floral dividerL. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books

*Dead Man’s Ransom, by Ellis Peters.

A Bridge Across the Yawing Chasm

Many indie writers that have been self-publishing since the early 2000s harbor semi-angry feelings toward most, if not all, aspects of the traditional publishing industry. I am one of them, and the formerly-mentioned feelings are–for the most part–nowhere near unjustified.

The disregard that most titans of book publishing displayed towards the eBook industry–when it was in its infancy–erased much of respect and regard that many writers had for the entire process. Many of our own fellow writers leaped towards Amazon’s Kindle platform when it came online just because of the perceived arrogance on the part of the book publishing conglomerates. The vitriol and blame said companies leveled at eBooks, and the indie writer alike, in the years after merely solidified those injured feelings into a heart-felt grudge.

When we first began our writing journey, more than ten years ago, we pursued all the normal, traditional avenues. We sent out query letters and manuscripts to the acceptable addresses. We had a literary agent for two years. The best royalty rate we were ever offered was just under 10%. We were told to change our content to suit more “progressive” audiences. When our agent’s contracts ran out, we did not renew them and work on our novels ground to a proverbial halt.

Then, when all seemed blackest, the self-publishing and eBook industries took off… and the tide was turned irrevocably in the favor of The Writer and The Reader. Folks trolled writer’s sites–looking for new fiction to try–using PayPal to buy and downloading humble PDF novels by the megabyte from authors they’d never even heard of.

Eager to jump aboard the eBook bandwagon, my husband and I learned all we could about the industry, about cover design trends and how to make our books more sell-able. At first we tried to enlist help from the cast-offs of the flailing traditional publishing industry by contracting professional editors among our online business contacts. We offered an affordable rate as well as free advertising on our website in exchange for proofreading services. Such a thing was almost insulting a few years ago; we were accused of “feeding off the carcass of the industry we’d slain” and quoted ridiculously high prices for freelance editing services.

So, whether by our own rebellious nature or by the scarcity of funds–or, a combination of the two–we skipped that part in the process. Instead, we enlisted beta-reading help from friends and family and kept writing, knowing that the yawing chasm between the self-publisher and traditionalists would not be easily bridged.

In February of this year we launched our novels on Amazon and were subsequently amazed at the popularity of our Epic Fantasy series. Despite a few remarks about the lack of professional editing, the books continued to sell beyond our expectations until the summer doldrums slowed the sales a little. Taking some of the eBook revenue, we once again looked around for freelance editing services. Expecting more elitist snark and jibes we were pleasantly surprised to find that the editing climate at least has evolved to match changing consumer demands and fill in the gaps of quality among indie writers.

Throwing off the perceived mantle of snobbery many professional editors have raised their own flag upon the self-publishing hill, offering reasonable rates in lieu of curt quips and polite attitudes instead of ridicule. After garnering several quotes we selected a highly-recommend freelance editor from among our LinkedIn Contacts and were charmed by amount of attention and scrutiny our manuscript received. Looking more polished and honed than we’d imagined possible, our new eBook was uploaded to KDP on August 1st. We utilized the rather mysterious service Amazon provides to select writers to alert one’s former customers by email if “significant changes” have been made to a book. We sent them a lengthy list of said changes, which were enough to convince the good folks of the Kindle Store to send forth the desired emails.

Not all aspects of traditional publishing are spurned by today’s self-publishing indie writer. Industry standards and quality are important to any serious wielder of the pen and–as we’ve proven–good money is still spent on services designed to preserve said standards. Formatting challenges were met and overcome by utilizing Adobe’s Creative Cloud and copious training videos… and a great deal of late night trial and error.

That being said, it is not likely we’d even consider any other option but self-publishing, now. Not only are we in control of the process, but I highly doubt we’d get a offer better than our current royalty of 70%… let alone a consumer platform to rival the one we currently sell from.

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L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books