Tag Archives: books

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.

Assaulted By Ideas

Based on anecdotal evidence, one of the most common questions asked of fiction writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve never been asked this. I may have been asked a time or two where a specific idea came from, but not ideas generally. But let me answer anyway.

Generally speaking, ideas sneak up and attack without warning. Later, I may not remember in any detail how a given idea arose. Nevertheless, they originate in three ways.

First, they fall out of the environment. A news report, an observation, or an experience might plant the seeds of a scene or story or novel. My third Howard County mystery, Ice on the Bay, arose as I drove over the Francis Scott Key Bridge one January day and discovered the Patapsco River frozen over, a first in the 20 years I’d lived in the Baltimore region. Another idea came to me just yesterday while reading about this weekend’s tragic flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland. It’s possible that incident will work its way into a future Howard County mystery.

Second, other people occasionally offer ideas. My wife suggested one to me many years ago involving the startling discovery of a murder victim in an unusual place. I haven’t used that one yet, but I expect it to appear in a future Howard County mystery. Writers also say they steal ideas from each other, although “steal” is not the proper term. It’s cross-pollination, not theft. Ideas can’t be copyrighted, only their implementation in words or images. That flooding I mentioned above? That’s only half of the idea. James Lee Burke’s novel The Tin Roof Blowdown takes place in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and Archer Mayor’s Three Can Keep a Secret is set in the midst of tropical storm Irene, which struck Vermont.  I’ve read both. That’s why the weekend news clicked as a potential story element. But I’ll be telling my story, not Burke’s or Mayor’s.

Finally, ideas just pop into my head without any clear connection to anything. Often these are story-shapers rather than story-makers. In the midst of writing a scene, I’ll throw in some spur-of-the-moment thought to add interest. Sometimes that’s all it turns out to be. Sometimes I remove it later, because it doesn’t work out. Sometimes it proves significant. In a fantasy novel I wrote in the late 1990’s, the heroine finds herself wondering about her vanished family. Until that moment, I hadn’t given any thought to her family, much less known that they had vanished! Later, they proved important to the plot.

Bottom line: when all is well, ideas tend to crawl out of the woodwork. And when they don’t? Well, then it’s time to do something else for awhile. Sometimes the best way to attract ideas is to avoid looking for them. They don’t like to be ignored, and sooner or later they’ll let some passing writer know it.

Success and the Author

Success is a vague term. If you look it up in the dictionary, you’ll find something about favorable or desired outcomes, a measure of succeeding, or attaining certain things such as wealth or favor. Basically, success is a target one aims for, and it may be a fuzzy target.

Take my book signing this past weekend, for example. I sold six books and gave away a number of bookmarks, both to people who made purchases and to those who did not. It sounds rather meager. But was it a success?

To me, it was. I’m far from well-known. At previous events, I sold between two and four books. Six is a record! Moreover, one fellow I talked to lives on the west coast, so as I quipped to the store employees, I’m now a nationally-known author. (Truth be told, I already was because of previous sales, but it’s fun to say it.) I gained some additional experience with this kind of event and in talking to people about my work, including works in progress. And finally, I have a standing invitation to come back to the store for future events. Overall, that’s not too bad.

Here’s another sense in which I consider myself successful: most people who have read my novels seem to have enjoyed them, and some, by their own account, were blown away by them. Now, I don’t think of myself as being a great writer. At my best, I think I’ve done a fair job, and at my worse I think I’ll never get it right. But I like to think I can at least tell a pretty good story, and the majority of responses to my work so far seem to support that contention. To me that’s success, even on meager sales.

Not that I would mind greater sales. That would be commercial success. Maybe someday that will happen, although it will take a lot of work. Writing is the easy part of being a writer. Selling one’s writing, that’s the hard part, especially in today’s world where anyone can publish a book and so the market is flooded with works competing for attention. You might be surprised at how few copies a first novel released by a major publishing house has to sell to be considered a success, or indeed at how complicated it is to define success in that scenario.

But really, to me success in writing is less about sales than it is about sharing something with readers that they will enjoy. Sales are a mechanism for that sharing and possibly a metric for gauging that enjoyment, but they are in a sense secondary. Another way to put it is that success in writing is more about the giving than the getting.

Which may be a good statement about success in life generally.