Monday, June 18, 2012

The Reading Experience

I finally broke down and bought a Kindle. I have mixed feelings about e-readers. From an author’s perspective, e-readers are life savers. They provide that extra boost in book sales by catering to the busy, impatient, and conservative consumers who like to read but just can’t fit it into their lifestyles. They allow writers to write more and publish faster. We can set lower prices and reach wider audiences.

As a reader, I see some benefits as well. If I feel like reading a particular book, I can do so right now. I don’t have to gas up my car or put on socks and shoes. I don’t have to hop from store to store to find the book. I don’t have to talk to anyone. I don’t even have to stand in line or wait for shipping. Just click, and it’s mine. In my house, I have a separate room dedicated to books. It was a dining room in a former life, but now it is a library. In my library, I have hundreds of books of all sizes and all genres. I have so many books, that they no longer fit on the wall-to-wall shelves I set up. They are stacked on the floor, spilling into other rooms, and just taking over my life. I love every one of them.

Imagine if I took every one of those books and dropped them into my purse. Obviously, it’d have to be a purse the size of a U-Haul truck, but it would be cool to have them with me all the time. As it is, I already carry 135 audiobooks on my MP3 player, 135 books in the palm of my hand. I can do that with my Kindle. I can take every book in my library and carry them all around in a single electronic device. It’s like magic. How exciting for a bookaholic! Can it get any better than that?

I had my reservations about e-reading. First, I just assumed that an e-reader would display pages exactly as a computer does, in pixels and refresh rates. I already spend too much time on my computer, to the point that my eyes throb at night and I can still see blinking spots even when my lids are closed. I even readjust the resolution in my dreams so I can see them better. The Kindle surprised me, though. When I first pulled it out of the box, there was a printed message on the screen that said something like “Fully charge your Kindle before using it for the first time.” I thought that the message was a sticker and I spent hours trying to peel it off. It turns out, it was the electronic display! The Kindle displays text as if it just came off a printer. It’s the neatest thing. I can’t even describe it except to say that every digital page looks like a printed page. It does not look electronic. It doesn’t even look real. I was seriously in awe, running around showing everyone. I charged up the device and downloaded my Kindle PC library and then purchased a handful of cozy mysteries. In four days, my Kindle never left my hand. It was a very interesting way to read. I didn’t have to turn pages or hold the book open or use a bookmark. It was all very convenient. The Kindle (and probably the Nook and other readers) is well designed with the avid reader in mind.

But while the Kindle has readers in mind, it fails to appease the book lover. In that respect, there were several downfalls. The biggest for me was the absence of a cover. I know that for my own books, I submit a cover with my e-books, but I guess the big publishing companies don’t bother. Book covers are important. They make one book stand out from another and for me, they help me recognize and pick out the book I want to read. My Kindle is not in color. I chose this one on purpose because of its battery life. But even in black and white, I expect to see book covers in my library. Instead, all I see is a list of titles, sometimes not even the whole title if the title’s too long. I select a book and am taken to the title page. When I open a book, the first page I want to see is its cover, not the title page. I want the real-book experience of choosing a book by its cover. I have a very visual mind. I don’t memorize book titles, but I do remember what the books look like. With a hundred book titles in my list, how am I supposed to remember that “The Anatomy of a Chemical Component” is a fantasy novel about alchemy or that “The Mysteries of Pixels and Poison” is a true story about hackers? I need a visual reference to guide me.

Another element missing from the equation is the book summary, typically found in the back matter of a paperback or inner sleeve of a hardcover. Again, how am I supposed to keep track of all these books if I don’t remember what they are about? All those cozy mysteries that I downloaded were part of the same series. Naturally, I wanted to read them in order. But I had trouble figuring out what each book was about, let alone the order in which they were written. I had to go to Amazon (using my iPhone, not the Kindle’s lame “experimental” browser) to read each summary and jot down the order. Not very efficient and definitely not the best book lover experience.

What about having to recharge your book? Even though my Kindle advertised a two-month battery life, mine lasted a week. Imagine my horror when I was just about to read the “whodunit” and my Kindle blinks off and is replaced with a message of “Recharge your battery.” I had to wait hours for the device to recharge so I could find out who the murderer was.

It was a big eye-opener for me. I found myself pondering the potentially disastrous future of depending solely on e-readers. Yikes, can you imagine such a dystopian world?

Mrs. Future Teacher:  Where is your homework, Johnny? Did your dog eat it?
Johnny: No, of course not, Teacher. He doesn’t like plastic. If you must know, my battery died.
Mrs. Future Teacher: Gasp! Oh you poor thing. I’ll give you another week to complete it.

The idea of e-readers replacing books terrifies me, even more so because it’s a very real possibility. I don’t believe it’ll be a conscious decision of every consumer in a single day but rather a gradual transformation. We book lovers adore our books. I can sit in my library for hours just staring at my collection and maybe sifting through a book or two. I love my books. I love the cover art and the design and texture of the pages. I love the craftsmanship and even the smell of a book. But reality suggests that it is no longer practical nor logical to have a physical library like mine. An entire room that holds nothing but books? It’s crazy. Ten years ago, there was no choice. If you had a large collection, this was the way to do it. Today it is much less necessary, and as new generations are born into this increasingly digital world, physical libraries may eventually grow scarce.

To be honest, I feel like a traitor. I feel like a traitor because not only do I now read e-books but I enjoy doing so. Every time I download an e-book, a print book is left behind. Some people might say I’m helping to save trees. I’m helping to kill books is what I’m doing. I’m contributing to the death of a timeless tradition. By downloading digital versions, I am saying to the world that I can live without paperbacks. Others are doing the same. E-books are already a popular trend, but very soon trend will outweigh tradition and paperbacks will become a thing of the past. So what is to be done about it? I don’t think there’s anything that can be done. I’ll never give up my library in my lifetime and will never completely stop buying physical books. But I can’t stop evolution. I can’t stop humans from seeking easy, fast, convenient, cheap, and lazy. I do it myself. It’s only natural.

I do hope, however, that future generations never forget what it’s like to turn a page.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Judging a Book by its Author

Over the past seven years or so, I’ve attended a number of pop-culture conventions. While most of them are comic or gaming conventions, I tend to seek out the indie author tables. My intention is to buy a book from each author in support of fellow indies (even though I’m only recently published, I’ve been an aspiring potential unpublished author since birth). At these conventions, the books normally fall within one of my preferred YA/fantasy/dragon/magic/dystopian fiction genres and I’m usually excited to get home and start reading. But I don’t always leave the convention with a book, even if there are a half dozen authors spread up and down artist’s alley.

The reason has to do with the authors. I’m not one to readily embrace any form of social interaction, but when I approach an author’s booth with a keen interest in his/her book, I do expect, at the very least, a friendly hello. Unfortunately, many authors are so used to solitude, they forget that in public they are literary icons. More importantly, they are sales people. Say hello, answer questions, hand out flyers. Do something!

Five years ago, I stumbled upon a great find. A man and a woman were standing in the middle of the aisle dressed in Celtic/fantasy attire. They were greeting everyone, handing out bookmarks and magnets and, if a lurker lurked about too long, they launched into a pitch about their book. It turns out, these people were co-authors of an independently published book series called Rowan of the Wood (Christine and Ethan Rose). They were totally into it, cosplaying the characters, inviting people to join in on the fun of their world. The book itself looked great. Nothing about it was unprofessional, unattractive, or half-assed. The cover art was beautiful, the interior book design was perfect, and the story looked great. In fact, it really was great. I bought one right away and finished it before I even got home. There were wizards and magic and baddies and a past/present theme. Christine and Ethan clearly put a lot of passion and talent into it. As I read, I thought about their enthusiasm. The whole experience impressed me. This is how you sell an indie.

Four years ago, I came across another author. While this one was very personable and approachable, he was somewhat of a nutcase. I did enjoy visiting with him. He was funny. But he also had no talent, and he knew it. In fact, his lack of talent was exactly what he was pitching. He was standing there, waving people down, telling them, “I wrote a book. It totally sucks, but buy it anyway because I need the money…”  I actually did buy his book, mostly to show support and to give him the benefit of the doubt. I thought I could overlook the fact that the book was horrible, because the author was so friendly and funny. But it was truly bad. The cover was pure black with white pencil scratchings and a few stick figures. He was courteous enough to write “Not a Writer” on the front, just in case you had any delusions that you were about to read something professionally written. Inside, there was no copyright statement, no publisher information, and not even a title page. The content of the book consisted of two parts profanity and one part humor that only the author understood. He broke all the rules of writing and probably could have won an award for the anti-manual of style. I bought two of his books, but after the first one, I was laughing so hard, I couldn’t even go near the second. I wasn’t laughing with the book. I was laughing at it. I’ve got to give the guy credit for trying. But seriously, he’s the poster child for the bad rap indies get. I am not posting his name because my intention is to make a point, not to slam another author.

That same year, at another convention, I discovered another gem. This woman (again, I won’t mention her name) had a fantasy book that was right up my alley. Dragons and magical education and faraway lands. And while the cover art was quite bland, the story sounded intriguing. But as I stepped up to the table and read the back of the book, the author sat there like a dead fish. She didn’t smile. She didn’t look at me. She didn’t offer a synopsis of her book. She just sat there and scowled. I decided to go ahead and give the book a try. Again, the benefit of the doubt. Only when I told her that I’d like to buy a copy did she even move. She got up from her metal folding chair and slugged over to me, signed the book, took the money and dropped the book in a bag. No “thank you,” no “enjoy it.” Nothing. When I got home, I tried to read this book. I wanted to like it. But as I read, I kept recalling the dead fish lady slumped in a chair. From that memory, I developed a prejudice against the book. After a few attempts to get through the first chapter, I decided to put it away and try again later. Maybe I was just tired from the convention. Three months later, I tried again, and again six months after that. I could not get through it. I’m not entirely sure whether it was just boring or if the author herself ruined it for me. I suspect the latter.

I encountered hits and misses like these over the next few years. There was a time when I passed an author’s booth twenty times, because I liked the synopsis of his book, but it was too expensive and didn’t know if I could justify the expense. The author made no attempt to connect with me, even though I circled around his booth for hours. I didn’t buy his book.

The point I am trying to get across – for both myself and my readers – is that an author’s job is not done at the publishing of the book. Someone has to walk it and feed it, and that someone is the author. I’m not exactly Miss Marketing, but I do know that I represent my own books. If I take a stack of books to a convention or a signing or a book fair, my personality should reflect enthusiasm toward my books. I have to show professionalism so that visitors know the book was written by a professional. I have to show interest to show that the book is interesting. Christine and Ethan Rose had the right idea. They didn’t just sit there like a lump. They got involved, acted the part. They grabbed people from the aisles and convinced them that they couldn’t live without Rowan of the Wood. Kudos to them for scoring points for the indies.

Next year, if I can manage to publish my next two books by then, I may set up a booth at A-Kon in Dallas. My experiences above have taught me that I cannot simply throw some books on a table and wait for sales. I have to draw in interest. I need to be cultural and persuasive and fun. As a clinical sociaphobe, I might end up curled in the fetal position afterward, rocking back and forth and muttering to myself. But I consider it a small price to pay for doing this thing that I love. Writing.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Another Rant About Bookstores

Once upon a time, long, long, ago, someone wrote something down and someone else wanted to read it. Then lots of people wrote things down and lots of people wanted to read them. As time went by, these things that were being written got longer and longer, and soon, these writings were so long, the pages had to be bound into a durable leather binding. Hence, the birth of a book. Soon afterward, more people wanted to read these books, so more people learned to read. Great, they can read. Where can they buy a book? “Over here!” called one clever little man, who saw a market for a product and sought a way to deliver. He opened up a shop and sold only books. Hence, the birth of a bookstore.

The premise of this is quite simple. There is a need for a product that the customer cannot get at home. People are willing to travel the distance to a store and pay money for that thing which they cannot get for themselves. This was not much different from someone who travels to the store for milk. If you have a milking cow or can get milk delivered to your house for free, would you still travel to the store to buy milk? If you had chickens, would you go out and buy eggs?

I love bookstores. I really do. I love to wander around a bookstore, that smell of crisp paper and ink, the coffee shop in the corner, the stacks and stacks of books with colorful covers filled with exciting tales. My love for bookstores has not changed. My needs, however, have. The world’s needs have changed. If I need to travel to a bookstore to buy a book, then I will go there and the environment pleases me. The problem is, I don’t need to go anywhere for a book. No one does. The only time you may need to go to a bookstore is if you want your book right now. Sadly, however, you might still not get it. The last half-dozen times I went into a bookstore, they did not have the books I wanted. Why? Because while once there were hundreds of books to select from within the confines of a bookstore, there are now hundreds of thousands of books available online. Rather than finding out about books by word of mouth, we find out about books online. Bookstores can’t keep up. They have just enough room to stock the most popular books but not enough room to restock them if they sell out. On top of that, there are e-readers and Audibles and interactive books and read-to-me toys and cell phones to keep up with. Where does a brick and mortar bookstore stand among all this?

Answer: They don’t stand a chance.

The reason brick and mortar bookstores are dying (and yes, they are dying; don’t try to kid yourself) is because they are selling a dead product, that people don’t need, through a vehicle that is inconvenient. Granted, some bookstores have tried to keep up with the trends. I wholly give credit to Barnes and Noble for integrating the Nook into their sales model. Kudos to you, B&N; you understand that there is a change in the world.

Too bad you missed the point. The point that Barnes and Noble missed is that current consumer needs no longer warrant a trip to the store. If their wants say “I want this book, by this author, in a hardback cover,” their needs are saying, “How can I get this book exactly as I want with the least cost and inconvenience?” The answer will almost always be to shop online. The cost of gas is outrageous. Traffic is frustrating. We’re busy people trying to fit too many tasks into too little time. The resolution for all these problems is to “order in” when you can, especially when you are offered free shipping and lower costs. Do you see where Barnes and Noble failed? B&N mistakenly thought that the consumer “needed” e-readers. They saw the e-reader trend and that’s great. They offered an e-reader of their own. Also great. But selling the trend does not solve the vehicle problem. I can buy a Nook online. I can buy a Kindle or an Apple or a Sony online. So, Barnes and Noble, what else have you got?

A more innovative solution would be to stop catering to the “need,” which a brick and mortar will never fulfill, and start catering to the “want.” People want to go out. They want an escape, an environment, some excitement. They want something different. A long time ago, a trip to the bookstore could scratch that itch. There wasn’t much else that could compete with a good book and you couldn’t get it anywhere else. You could sit there all day and read, sip coffee, and then walk out with an armful of books. Now, there’s no reason to get in your car, drive through traffic and sit in a bookstore. I can sit at home and read. I can download my books in an instant. My coffee doesn’t cost $8 a cup and I don’t have to pay for gas.

If brick and mortars are going to stay alive, they need to reinvent themselves, not copy online stores. The reason was so successful was because they invented a need that consumers didn’t know they had. It wasn’t much different from the mall era. Malls created the opportunity to shop for everything in one place. Amazon went one step further. Shop for everything in one place and never leave your house. So now, if you want me to leave my house, you better give me a darn good reason. Be unique. Here are some examples:
  • Hold a Nook Book signing – No, I’m serious. Start making Nooks with an autograph app and sell each one with a stylus. You can draw or sign just as you would when you sign for a UPS package. Then have a Nook signing. Authors come in and sign people’s Nooks and those signatures are saved digitally. Great way to collect autographs and not waste paper. 
  • Have book scene re-enactments – Have the bookstore staff perform scenes from popular books, or invite acting students from local colleges to do it. Not only would it be fun, but it is great promotion for books. Hold these reenactments once a week or have it constantly going on so customers can always expect to see it. 
  • Book readings – Why spend money on an Audible when you can go to the bookstore and have someone read to you? 
  • Hate-the-Book Reviews – Book clubs can be dull. Everyone sits around conjuring up the symbolism of a book they may or may not have actually liked. It’s much more fun to pick on a book, even if you loved the book. Have you ever read a book and thought to yourself, “Why does she keep saying ‘gosh’? No one says gosh anymore. I hate that.” With a Hate-the-Book review, everyone notes what they hated about the book. The comments will likely be passionate and funny and may even sell more books. This would especially be awesome for kids.
  • Scavenger Hunt -- Hold scavenger hunts in the store. Write a list of passages or quotes. Participants have to search through all the books in the store looking for those passages. When they find the passage, they write the title, author, edition, and page on which the passage or quote appears.

I’m not a bookstore owner, but I am a bookstore customer. I don’t want bookstores to die. I want them to care about me, the customer, enough to draw me back in. Right now, they are failing. I don’t want to drive to the store for an e-reader. DTP (defeats the point). 

I want something I can’t get at home.