Thursday, July 24, 2014

Is The Kindle Changing What We Read?

Much has been said of devices like the Kindle changing how we get our books. However, apart from the publicity given to independently published books (in which there has been much hype), little has been said about how they might change the kinds of books we read.

In my experience reading off of a Kindle is far better than reading off a computer screen - but still less comfortable than reading off of paper. The result is that I find myself prone to read on a Kindle for shorter periods than when reading printed books (anything more than half an hour and I start noticing the difference), and to avoid it entirely on a day when I used my computer heavily. Additionally, the small number of words the screen accommodates compared with the printed page means that anyone scanning a long stretch of text has to go through many more screens than they would pages if they were using a printed edition - which along with the quirkiness of electronic touch screens, makes moving about even an extensively hyperlinked Kindle file rather more awkward than leafing through a printed book. Not unrelated, but arguably more important, is the evidence that what psychologists and neuroscientists have long argued about reading done off screens as compared with paper - that one retains less and digests it less fully - seems to carry over to e-book readers like the Kindle.

All of this suggests that e-books are best suited to easy, comparatively undemanding readings, books which can be finished in small bites, which do not require close reading and the activities associated with it - backtracking, rereading and so forth. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a high level of readability as such - but many books which make greater demands on the reader do so for good reason, like the complexity of their subject matter.

It may be that for those sorts of reads, printed books will remain preferable, at least without advances in the technology that further narrow the gap between the two experiences. However, there is an alternative concern, especially given the ofttimes mindless boosterism for new technologies like e-book readers, and the admitted convenience of the devices - that to the extent that the selection and editing of books for publication becomes dependent on their suitability as e-books, denser, more complex or otherwise more demanding books will have an even harder time making it through the gauntlet that is the publishing process.

On Dubious Writerly Advice: "Watch the Market"

Anyone who's spent much time trying to get published has probably been advised at some point to study the market. However, just like so much of the other advice given authors, even when it has some merit (as a great deal of such advice does not), it's not of much practical use to aspiring, unpublished writers trying to break in.

I've already written quite a bit about the scarcity of useful information on book sales available to the general public (rather than, for instance, industry insiders). But processing even the limited data available to everyone can be tricky. The claim that one should check out what's selling should be qualified.

Consider the typical bestseller list. The authors there, by and large, are longtime Big Names who typically represent not the trends of today, but those of twenty, thirty or even forty years ago.

Take, for instance, the case of Tom Clancy, who had three of the biggest selling books of the early 2000s. One might have concluded from his sales at the time that military techno-thrillers were still kings of their domain – but this would have been wrong. Clancy's sales reflected his earlier success, and his acquisition along the way of enough loyal readers to make him comparatively immune to the ups and downs of the market which make and break smaller careers.

They would have done far better to pay more attention to relative newcomer Dan Brown, who was far more representative of what successful newcomers were doing. In these years he was shifting from high-tech, science-heavy thrillers to religious-Masonic-historical mysteries - think of Angels & Demons as a transitional work in this respect – and ended up with the biggest-selling thriller of the decade - The Da Vinci Code.

One might also do well to remember that a writer's adaptation to a trend, after they've recognized it, is no simple thing. Certainly there are writers of enormous range, like Michael Moorcock, but few of us are so versatile – or likely to ever get the chance to try and become that. (Talented as he undeniably is, he also learned his craft when the business was very different, and afforded him an early start of a kind much less plausible today.) Even hugely successful authors often display a knack for just one kind of story, or two kinds at most, and then go on to crank out variations on it forever, long after it stops being worth their while as artists and entertainers, just to keep the money coming in.

And what is a challenge for professionals is that much more difficult for aspirants. Working without professional experience (or even long writing experience of any kind in many cases), without access to professional advice (no agent, no editor, no circle of friends and colleagues who are professionals in the Business you can show pieces of your manuscript for feedback, such as we see in so many acknowledgments' pages), while holding down a day job (perhaps one throwing endless obstacles in the way of any outside efforts), or enjoying much encouragement (let's face it: non-writers, non-artists, aren't likely to be understanding of your ambitions, and anyone who's unintentionally started a collection of form rejection letters can tell you how inhibiting they can be), the road to finishing a publishable manuscript is likely to be a long one – years, perhaps. If you go the traditional publishing route, it can be years after that before you can find an agent willing to take you on, and that agent places the manuscript, and the manuscript actually hits the market.

A decade for this whole process isn't at all unusual (and I am, of course, talking about the very, very rare success stories when I write this). In the meantime, established pros able to work more quickly, and enjoying better access to people in the business who can help them in various ways (not least in getting their manuscript into the machinery which transforms it into a published book with tolerable speed), are moving on the same trend – while a good many other aspirants who heard the same piece of advice are trying to do the same thing.

In short, by the time you succeed in finishing a publishable manuscript of the desired type, even if you do succeed at this, the trend's time will likely have passed, the market changed – so that the time frame in which you are working makes the advice to "follow the trends" meaningless. Now that isn't to say that a writer shouldn't stretch themselves, of course. That's key to staying interesting – or interested – for any length of time. And it isn't to say that one should ignore opportunities.

But there are real limits to how far you should go. Certainly an author shouldn't decide to write something they have no interest or feel for; to decide, for instance, that as young adult paranormal romance seems to be doing well, that's what they should be writing (President Obama's Young Adult Novel Plan notwithstanding). The only satisfaction the vast majority of would-be writers are likely to get out of a project is the actual pleasure of the writing; and if they don't like what they're doing, there seems little chance of anyone else liking it much either, let alone liking it enough to make the chore worthwhile. The truth is that it seems much more the case that authors succeed writing things they like which happen to be marketable at a given moment, than that they succeed by forcing themselves to cater to someone else's tastes. If you're not one of the lucky few on the exact wavelength to partake in the Next Big Thing, you might try to find a way to reconcile those imperatives – but you won't get anywhere tossing your own likes and dislikes overboard in the desperate hope of Giving The People What They Want.

New and Noteworthy (Amazon Kindle, Stross on Santorum, Heat Wave)
Writers Write About Writerly Advice
On the New York Times Bestseller List . . .
Actual Data on SF and Fantasy Publishing

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