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

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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 Trap of ‘Busyness’

hanging laundreyIt’s far too easy — for most indie writers these days — to rely on the general public’s apparent understanding of the phrase “I’ve been busy” in order to put off serious work on one’s manuscript.

Every writer I know is busy with days jobs, family and practical hobbies, usually in that order, and the rest of the world seems to accept and respect this state of being, one which pushes back on the established expectation that “serious” writers must produce a novel at least once a year.

Writers of old were considered to be “writers”,and often nothing more; they could hole up in a room for days on end, working feverishly or disappear on writing trips to far-flung corners of the earth. They might not produce anything for years, eschewing phrases like: “I’m in a funk”, “I’m blocked”, “I’m taking some times for me as an artist to recharge” etc. and then be properly censured for such notions by their harder-working peers. The average indie writer of today is a different animal.

It’s been two years since I finished a novel, going on three. I have three partially-finished ones, the longest of which is the third novel in my husband’s and mine Epic Fantasy series. We hashed out the plot in note form nearly a year and a half ago, and fans of the series have been clamoring for news of it’s completion for months. I type rather lame replies to the queries on our WordPress series blog, talking about how my husband and I write in-between our day jobs, our four young children and our organic vegetable garden, answers which have been — thus far — taken (as they are meant to be) at face value, and so with a surprising amount of understanding on the part of the public… and the trap of ‘busyness’ is sprung.

I am honestly a busy person. My family, household and garden take precedence over every other inkling in my life, and I am unapologetic about it. I hang my laundry outside to save both money and the planet. I grow organic veg to feed my family with and for bartering with the neighbors for lemons & honey. I scrub my house with natural ingredients for both healthy and lesser-footprint reasons. And then comes my various freelance jobs — that pay surprisingly well — from re-wording corporate brochures to writing advertisement pieces. When my children are out of school, its time for us to dive into extra-curricular learning, whether cooking, gardening, literature or just outside exercise.

Unlike many of my peers, the internet does not steal away much of my time these days. use it for the promotion of my husband’s and my books, to look up a recipe or research stock charts (a rather recent development) but little else. Anyone in my near social circle, including family members, would gladly testify to how little time I spend on social media; I only go on Facebook once a month, if that. I hardly have time to write a monthly blog or tweet. Months go by where I don’t interact at all with the smattering of indie writing communities across the Internet, and when I do I delete about 300 read requests — maybe getting to one or two of my fellow’s novels to remark on — and then try to reply to polite inquiries on the various pieces posted there. I left off doing book reviews at all two years ago, as there simply wasn’t time.

All that being said, the one and only problem with being busy — as an indie writer — is that I tend to lean on my various daily accomplishments as ample reasons why I don’t have to write as much as I could. In all honesty, I could write more often and for greater lengths of time, but that would require a little thing called discipline… a word that has already inserted itself into every other part of my life. The rigors and echoes of time-management are present in my home, my finances, my chores, my children and even my garden, which is as it should be. Tasks get accomplished that way: laundry is finished and folded, floors are cleaned in time for meals, food is prepared properly, plants are watered fully, errands are run on time and things just fall into place.

For a long time I looked at writing as the last bastion of free-spirited creativity that I possessed, at least until I began to sell books. Now, it’s a business, and a profitable business but one I rather tinker at verses working on in a dedicated fashion. One can make all the viable excuses in the world, but the truth is that I do have more spare time in which to write… I just don’t always do it. I’d much rather spend my free time writing poetry, or knitting in my backyard, enjoying the beauty of the tree and flowers verses slogging away on the less-inspiring sections of my novels, but that’s just my writing side being lazy. And the world is full of folks that can attest that the road to ruin is paved with “I’d rather do anything than work.”

Thank goodness for folks gifted with frankness for situations like these, who give advice that can be recalled, even now, with fondness. In this situation, my grandfather would have said:

“So, you’d rather starve than work?” “No.” “Then get off your ass and get workin’.”

Or, my personal favorite: “If you say you want to do it, then do it… or you’re just lyin’ to yourself.”

It boils down to me asking myself: How much do I really want to finish this book?

Answer: if I really want it done, then I will make time to do it.

Well, after stalling most of the morning, getting all my other chores out of the way, I left myself with little alternative but to do exactly that, and get several pages under the proverbial belt before vegetables must be found, picked and prepared for dinner.

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L. R. Styles is a writer 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 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

A Surreal Evening at the ‘Swedish’ Big Box Store…

A few nights ago, upon embarking on our quarterly trip to the local Swedish-themed big-box store–to purchase cheap napkins and European-designed coffee mugs (made in China)–we stopped at the cafeteria as we normally do to purchase some inexpensive-yet-mildly-tasty meatballs, unaware that that night the store was playing host to a “Swedish Crayfish Party”… featuring aOur Surreal Dinnern all-you-can-eat crayfish buffet bonanza.


We made our way to the line between tables full of crayfish munched, crunched and slurped upon by a throng of folks. Tweets must have abounded ’round the Asian community as they made up 95% of the diners present. Having never even seen crayfish before, our kids stared wide-eyed at the ruby-red creatures; their limp claws hung over the sides of galvanized serving buckets in the center of each table. We watched, fascinated, as kids the same age as ours happily twisted and tore at the creatures, expertly drawing out the tender tail meat. Piles of broken red shells sat on each table looking like so many spent cartridges littering the ground–around a machine gun nest–after a 3-day battle.

We meandered our way through the line out of sheer morbid curiosity. The frenzied employees behind the counter shoveled cooked crayfish onto paper plates (they’d run out of the ceramic kind) doling them out to waiting hands as fast as humanly possible, arguing over who’s turn it was to go out and refresh the buffet troughs. We picked up a plate of crayfish to let the kids try and managed to wrangle some real plates for the other food items present. Just getting to the buffet tables took some creative jostling, for competition among the serving plates proved fierce.

Apart from the ubiquitous “Swedish” meatballs, mashed potatoes and gravy, odd, new items met our gaze, ones not normally present in the Swedish-themed cafe: a yellow soup with baby octopus floating in it, whole slightly-gray shrimp in the fetal position, still steadfastly in their peels, cooked fish-heads, whole red potatoes coated in bits of greenery, a sort of salmon seviche (that gave off a powerful odor), plates of cold ham, plates of crackers–of all make and grain–and above all, a giant bowl of cheese cubes. The moment food was replaced in the serving dishes, a feeding frenzy of sorts occurred whereupon tables emptied and folks came running back for more. The shrimp and octopus soup appeared the most popular items–apart from the crayfish–but  most left the cracker and cheese plates untouched. Finding the cheese cubes muenster of good quality, we gladly partook.

After finding an empty table we sat amid a cacophony of slurps, cracking, gurgles, crunches and smacks. The image of one entire table of people with red legs protruding from their mouths, sucking in unison will forever be burned into my memory. The crayfish intrigued us, and taking a cue from our enthusiastic fellow diners, we attempted to twist one open. It exploded, sending mustard-yellow matter of unknown origin over the table. As we ate I noted the large canvas pictures on the adjacent cafeteria wall; the images depicted a peaceful Swedish village populated by accordion-playing folks in lederhosen, standing in fine contrast to the strangeness present in the dining room.

We did not find the cold crayfish pleasing to eat, but slathered in lingonberry sauce (or as Daddy calls it ‘dingleberry’ sauce) they weren’t so bad. After our rather surreal dinner we strolled the marked aisles of the warehouse-like store, trying to work off the ribald mixture of food in our stomachs. We grinned widely while encouraging each other not to vomit, yet eyeballing which vase might accommodate such an action, if necessary. We found ample distraction in listening to Daddy’s critique of the drinking vessel handle designs, debating whether or not one could indeed lift a full cup of coffee with one finger as well as listening to his remarks on the fluff-challenged pillows proffered by the bedroom section.

Finally free of the maze, we left the store and headed home–still reeking of crayfish–wondering when that little voice in the very back would say: “Mommy… I don’t feel good…”

 
slender floral divider
L. R. Styles is an author of Belator Books

Indie Writer & The App

Way back in March of 2012, Forbes columnist Alex Knapp wrote an article called “Are Apps the Future of Book Publishing?” in which he voiced marked enthusiasm for ground-breaking eBook apps. 80,000+ hits on said article notwithstanding, there isn’t much being penned these days about throngs of authors diving into the app fray.

One may very well still ask: “will apps indeed take over the ePub/Mobi mainstays of individual eBook titles?” Many an author on my considerable list of contacts wonders if the effort/expense of making their titles into apps is even worth it.

Take, for instance the most popular apps downloaded on the iPhone, free or otherwise. According to several websites I visited (Googling “most downloaded apps 2013”) a few apps that find free eBook titles for you were among the top ten. There are apps that categorize eBooks, read eBooks and promote eBooks, but I had a hard time locating eBooks-turned-into-apps on any general popularity list. I did, however, notice a blurring of the already-thin line between “enhanced” eBook ePubs and eBook apps, a trend that seems to be gaining strength among younger consumers.

A handful of traditional publishers have branched out into creating apps from books, from re-doing classic novels–with manuscript notes and author interviews–to redefining novels entirely by including story-board like images, interactive pages and audio along with the prose. Authors with Amazon already have a kind-of, sort-of app for their titles via the Kindle-for-PC app, Kindle-for-iPad app and others.

As an indie author, I love the idea of making each book title into an app. Such individualization—to me–really helps focus on the feel and tone I envisioned for each book when writing it. Just being able to include a soundtrack, font and old-school decorative printing flourishes makes my mind whirl with ideas, and such is the case for many of my fellow authors. Feedback excitement for branching out into Novel Apps is almost palpable when I send ’round my queries on the subject, but the tangible evidence for such work being done is sadly lacking.

I’d love to get my ebooks into apps!” a fellow writer wrote back. “Tell us how that goes!”

Another wrote: “I’ve heard of companies that can do it for you—for a truckload of casheroo. Let me know if you find a good DIY app maker…”

Truckload of “casheroo” indeed…

I found several dozen companies that can take my eBooks and make them into apps for me at a hefty price. The cheapest reputable company I found was approx $350 per title (extras like interactivity aside) and only if I did ten titles. That’s approximately $4K out of pocket–which might be nothing to a publishing house–but is actually quite a bit of coin for a couple of virtually-unknown indie writers using free-yet-time-consuming services like WordPress & Twitter to market themselves.

That being said, what are some options for cash-poor, plot-rich indie writers that want to leap into app-making?

To start, you’ll need to take stock of your current sales and download data, free and paid alike. A platform I’ve found lately—that does just that—is App Annie. I was able to link my Amazon Kindle storefront and Kindle novels to this platform and get a one-glance graph by title and month to help me determine the most popular novels and the most active weeks. And…. it’s free. (Huzzah!)

Once you’ve soaked in the myriad data you can determine which titles should be apps and which you can feasibly ignore ’til later.

DIY app-making is an industry still in its infancy. Platforms without strings are limited–to say the least–and sparsely populated. It seems—to the average indie writer—that this void in self-service is some kind of publishing house-led conspiracy… but there are good reasons why app-makers charge so much. The work is time-consuming and exacting. Folks that purchase apps want a svelte, professional product thus—as in DIY eBook producing—scathing “bad” formatting reviews appear like great gobs of guano let loose by the Seasgulls of Snark wheeling overhead, cackling to themselves as writers run for cover.

But, hope is not lost. Meandering around the net–looking for an answer to my app problem–I thought I discovered a “bridge” solution, for lack of better word. ePub Bud touts to be a free DIY platform for writers to create ePubs of their work, and convert it into various forms… not unlike Calibre, but–apparently–a little less complicated. The ePubs created with this system should resemble apps and–when formatted “correctly”–behave like apps on tablets. Albeit bare-bones in appearance, and only offering a slender array of fonts, ePub Bud seems to give indie writers a DIY solution to their “do we make an app” problem . Books are compiled in chapters. Drawbacks include a loss of formatting, which must be redone once each chapter is copied and pasted. I was however, able to keep my pretty little divider image at the end of each chapter, something that touched my old-school-publishing heart. Whether due to my being a novice at app creation, or the rudimentary nature of the platform, I was not really able to make anything that was better than the ePubs I generate with Calibre.

After tinkering around with Epub Bud for two weeks—working on one title—I stumbled across a generous loophole in the Adobe InDesign system.

Like most indie writers/designers I’ve often looked wistfully at Adobe products, dreaming of the day I could afford such gorgeously professional software. Someone brilliant at Adobe figured out that–while they make a lot of coin on the few folks that can afford their software–they were missing out on a greater pool of consumers willing to pay a monthly fee for cloud access to the Creative Suite. Students, high school or college, can get fairly cheap access to a lovely modern invention called Creative Cloud, for a mere $19.99 per month. My oldest daughter is a junior in high school and interested in a career she can tele-commute to. I suggested learning InDesign, bought her a Student pass to CC and an account with Lynda.com and promptly hired her to do an eBook layout . Under the periodically curious eye of her mother, she began converting one of our ePubs into an much-better enhanced ePub within in a matter of days, with embedded fonts, anchored images and the correct formatting for a polished eBook. The main issue was the ePub format itself; the chapters flow together,thus—as in Epub Bud—one is required to make separate documents for each chapter. InDesign further requires separate documents for covers, meta data, TOC (Table of Contents), copyright info and image files. I will say that the Lynda video course on using InDesign to make an ePub (while slightly outdated) still proved detailed and extremely helpful.

Apps however are a different animal. The Folio Producer part of Creative Cloud proved challenging, even for the combo of my savvy teen’s mind and my old-school-eBook mentality. After a week of tinkering and watching a library of you-tube how to videos, we got a workable app, with suave user-interface, a tasteful number of interactive photos and charming publishing embellishments, but the layout issues gave us pause. Before apps can be created on this system, they must be “approved” by the Adobe Folio Producer platform. Now, I agree with this , as no company would want inferior/ non-workable apps floating around with their name attached to it. The only frustrating part is the denial message does not tell which document(s) have the issues, thus requiring a hunt & peck type strategy which eats up a considerable amount of time.

But, Time—that capricious ally–is what I have to spend. When said issues are resolved, I will post the completed project links up for perusal.

~ L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books

Update: Since posting this article, a flurry of ensuing remarks have shown up in various parts of The Web, more against the idea of eBooks apps than those in the “pro” category. The quips and outright request of readers especially caught my attention, decrying the use or need for eBooks apps. An issue we’d not even considered came up as foremost in the arguments for giving up our app quest: storage space. Limited device storage space makes it a precious commodity, one that app designers would do well to consider. We have and after a series of grave discussion have put our eBook app plans into the “it was a good idea, but…” box on a dusty shelf in the closet.

The Writing Couch

Where do you write?

For me, it is an antique wooden couch that once belonged to my great-uncle. I do not know exactly when it was made but taking in all the previous owners, it must be well over ninety years ago. In spite of its age it is very comfortable for sitting and napping alike… which a couch should be, if it possibly can.

It was given to my husband and I just after we arrived back from our honeymoon. Upon walking through the door of our apartment, it was sitting there with all our wedding gifts piled on top. Having no couch of our own, we were delighted with the unexpected surprise. The cushions, being well-used and rather garish in material, were covered over with a fluffy spare feather-bed and a linen duvet. Though it is most favored by myself, my man finds himself napping on it once in awhile. If any in the family is feeling ill they snuggle into it’s fluffy depths for comfort.

Besides it’s appeal as a pleasant piece of furniture, this couch is an unusual source of creative inspiration. This is no common bit of wood and cloth in my living room but a stalwart sailor, both experienced and sage. My great uncle was a sailing enthusiast and lived in Hawaii and Australia, sometimes simultaneously. The open sea was–to him–more home than any place else, especially in his latter years. He was so partial to this particular couch that he maneuvered it into the hull of his 40-foot yacht and took it with him each time he embarked. Couch abroad, he stopped at many of the ports most folks only read about or watch on the Travel channel.

Sailing along with the sunburnt white-haired adventurer, this couch of mine has been around the globe four times in all. Often my great uncle would wrestle it up onto the deck under the shade of a looped length of sail just so he could nap in comfort. Thus the couch sat in the air of many exotic places, soaking in salt and spices, fresh breezes and humid, fragrant zephyrs.

I was understandably pleased to get this piece of furniture from my cousins (now grown with couches of their own) and have cared for it well; it has graced the living room of every apartment we’ve lived in as well as our current home. My children babbled and played on it as babies, used it for stability as they toddled around on uncertain legs and jumped off it as they grew older. Now we crowd onto it to watch a documentary or use it as a ‘parliament bench’ when having our family meetings.

During the day, once all my work is mostly done (snickering at “done”) I take up my trusty laptop and sink into the deep depths of the couch with a sigh. Just sitting on it makes one reflect upon the scenes it has witnessed; the places I hear of or read about are all the more real knowing the couch has actually been there. I do not know why or how to explain it but when I am seated upon this particular couch, reclined back and typing away, ideas flow far better and with more literary flavor than in any other place I have ever written.

A couch that inspires is rare indeed and it shall be in our family a good, long while. Whichever of our children whom marries and leaves our home first will most likely get the couch, if I can be persuaded to part with it.

Until then, back to typing…

L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books