Category Archives: Reading

Why Isn’t Print Dead?

According to Yoda, the future is always in motion. That may be why it’s so hard for forecasters to read the tea leaves. For years they foretold the demise of print publishing as digital readers took the world by storm. But over the past couple of years, the digital growth curve has flattened and even turned downward. By 2013, eBook sales had grown to 21% of all book sales. But in 2014 that figure dropped to 19%, and in 2015 it further slid to 17%.

What’s going on here? Has the digital dream faltered? Everyone seems to have a theory. Wade through the mass of commentary published over the past year and you’ll find conflicting guesswork. On June 17 of this year, Publisher’s Weekly reported on a Codex Group study that suggests people are succumbing to “digital fatigue,” that many are growing tired of spending so much time plugged into their electronics. This exhaustion appears to be particularly acute among the very group you’d think would have most tightly embraced the gizmos–young adults. According to the study, the decline in e-reading is linked to a decline in e-reader sales and use.

But is the reading public really driving the decline? A Fortune article suggests something different: the ongoing war between Amazon and traditional publishers. On July 11, a mere month after the PW article, they reported that e-book best sellers now cost 50% more than during the Kindle’s early days. It’s not digital fatigue; according to this article, young adults are reading more and are very much in love with the electronic format. Additionally, the rise of self-publishing might be offsetting the decline in e-sales reported by major publishers.

Behind the apparent drop in eBook popularity is a big-picture issue: trade book sales slid 13.7% from January 2015 to January 2016, with the only growth seen in religious publishing. Against this backdrop, is it possible the digital decline is merely an artifact of publishing’s overall woes? Nobody seems to be suggesting that, but it’s hard to avoid wondering whether eBooks sales really are falling off a cliff after all.

In fact, the issue is probably more complex than any of these rather simplistic guesses. What people buy and use and like involves a wide variety of factors from life experiences to the state of the economy. If you’re struggling to keep the roof over your head, you’re not going to blow much on either print books or e-readers. Our experience of reading must play into it, too. My wife is fond of saying that it took humans thousands of years to replace the scroll with something easier to use–the printed book–and now we’ve reinvented the scroll. Her observation is partially borne out by a 2013 Scientific American report on research that compares reading using physical books and eBooks. The results suggest that each technology has merits, but that there can be potential drawbacks to e-reading.

Regardless of the reasons, clearly print books aren’t going away tomorrow, but neither are eBooks. Seventeen percent of sales is nothing to sneeze at. We publishers would be well-advised to make our products available in both formats, reasonably priced. I don’t mean that all eBooks should be as cheap as Amazon wants to make them. Writing, editing, layout, artwork, and file conversion costs money. Nevertheless, $15.00 is probably too much for most eBooks. People may indeed be less interested in buying them for that reason alone. Does that mean they’re running out to buy the print edition instead? Not necessarily. Remember that 13.7% decline in trade sales?

Earlier in 2016, we settled on three price points for our One Voice Press and Serpent Cliff eBooks: $3.99 for children’s titles and shorter works, $4.99 for most adult fiction and nonfiction, and $5.99 for longer works. This represented a decline in price for most of our titles, but so far I can’t say we’ve noticed any significant change in sales. Then again, we didn’t sell many eBooks to start with. The vast majority of our readers still buy print books. And that, too, may say something.

In the Beginning…

Have you ever read a story that completely failed to engage your attention? Probably so. How long did you stick with it? Fifty pages? Ten? Five? My personal low was two pages when reading an old science fiction novel my dad owned. I think I started that book three times over the course of several years and never made it past the second page.

Why does this happen? Basically, it’s a structural failing. You see, every story needs a structure, and that structure can be stated very simply: beginning, middle, end. As straightforward as that may seem, writers don’t always figure it out. When they don’t, the result can be a story in which nothing seems to happen, and when nothing happens, readers quickly get fed up.

So what is this beginning, middle, end thing, anyway? Well . . .

The beginning is where main characters are introduced, the setting is established, and the principal conflict is set up.

The middle is where most of the events play out. Lesser characters may be introduced and additional conflicts may arise. Throughout, the tension increases, the stakes get higher, the challenges become tougher. Even if the characters meet with small successes, things generally get worse for them.

The end is where the main conflict is resolved and loose ends are tied up. Compared to the rest of the work, this part is relatively short for one very good reason: resolution of the main conflict removes the tension and, thus, most of the interest.

Reread that last bit. No tension equals no interest. Books that fail to engage your attention are likely books lacking tension, or at least books with tension well-hidden. Maybe the writer spent the first ten pages providing background before presenting the main conflict. Maybe the initial conflict wasn’t much of a conflict. Or maybe it’s just you. After all, different people have different tastes and interests. Decades back my wife recommended a novel to me that, upon reading, I found stultifying. She couldn’t believe it. One of the main characters had suffered a serious injury and spent most of the novel at death’s door! How could I not be interested? Unfortunately, I didn’t care much about that character for whatever reason, and nothing much else seemed to be happening while he was busy almost dying. Oh, well.

Personal tastes aside, a story’s beginning has an important job to do: it must draw the reader in. To that end, writers employ what is called a hook. The hook is simply something interesting or unusual or dramatic that makes readers want to find out what’s going on. It’s what carries the reader past the first paragraph of a short story or the first page of a novel. It isn’t necessarily the main conflict, although it could be. It provides the vital infusion of tension without which readers won’t become engaged.

If I may, I’ll use my own writing as an example, since I know it so well. The Fibonacci Murders opens with a statement from a key character, mathematician Tomio Kaneko, about why he was involved in a murder investigation. In the course of this short passage, he states that had he not become involved, he would have been spared injury. The main conflict (a sequence of murders that take on a serial killer aspect) doesn’t start immediately and Kaneko’s involvement comes well into the novel. But I needed to get him onto the scene early because of the key role he plays. So I decided to introduce each chapter which a personal statement by him. The opening statement injects some menace because the reader knows that he’s going to get hurt. That point only happens near the end (technically, in the late part of the story’s middle), but its foreshadowing creates an element of tension that (I hope!) draws the reader in.

In True Death, I handled it a bit differently. We first meet a guy sitting alone on the porch of a run-down cabin out in the mountains and through his musings find out that he regards himself as dead. Clearly something tragic has happened to him, but just what will only become clear late in the novel. At the outset, we don’t even know his name. Ice on the Bay opens with an actual crime being committed, a botched robbery at a veterinary clinic. You’ll read that something has gone horribly wrong, but you won’t immediately find out what.

These three examples, different as they are, share a common theme. You meet someone to whom something bad happens, but you don’t get any details about what it was. With any luck you want to know the details, and that’s what pulls you into the story. As the old writer’s addage puts it, “Shoot the sheriff on the first page.” To which I might add, “But don’t reveal who shot him. Or if you do, don’t let on why they shot him.” Give the reader something to worry about, then keep them worried. That’s tension. That’s what keeps them reading. That’s a good beginning.

But, of course, that’s only the start . . .

Fibonacci Reviewed

The Fibonacci Murders just received a great review from The Midwest Book Review:

It is always a pleasure for the mystery/suspense enthusiast to include a new author in the genre who has a total mastery of the storytelling arts including character development and superbly plotted story lines with all manner of twists, turns, and surprises. Such is the case with Dale E. Lehman and his novel “The Fibonacci Murders”. A genuine ‘page turner’ from beginning to end, “The Fibonacci Murders” is very highly recommended for personal reading lists and community library collections.

You can read it in its full context on The Midwest Book Review‘s website. You’ll have to scroll down a bit to find it. Thank you, MBR!