[Image from cover of novel by author Ben Bova, 1989 Tor Books]
We’ve seen it coming since the eighties, but now that “cyberbooks” are upon us, not only in the form of ereaders but also online content through social media, what has changed for the publishing industry? For authors?
Why are you lumping social media in with ereaders?
That’s kind of a silly question, but ok: social media has become its own channel for the consumption of, well, media, of the kind that we used to enjoy through the traditional media channels of newspaper, television, and radio broadcasted news. Even stories and entertainment that we might have thought of as being best delivered in the form of a novel now have a new alternative social media form for readers to choose. Skeptical? Just consider Twitter Stories or Google News. Why would I ever subscribe to a newspaper or magazine ever again? Maybe to make sure there’s reading material in the waiting room at the office, but… GoToMeeting… ahem, but I digress.
For the modern reader, whose attention span has been steadily eroding as the new media has increasingly led them to expect quick, up-to-the-minute content at their fingertips, these new media are stronger. Take a look around, and it’s obvious that the disruption to the printed book medium goes way beyond ereaders.
Don’t you hate having to commit to reading a whole 800-page book? Ick! Now you can enjoy your content as an 800-word “blog post” in the form of one digestible story. And if you want to react to something in the story, now you can post a “Comment” right on the author’s work*, and the whole world can see it! No more scribbling a note in the margins of your Economics textbook and hoping that the student who gets that copy of the book next semester appreciates your quip about “unit elasticity” (it was a good one!).
*Ironically, you can Comment on this very blog post! Yes, the one you are reading right now! But you probably don’t have anything interesting to say… (I don’t mean that; just trying to tease you into proving me wrong here).
And news? I don’t know about you, but if a major news headline on Google News is more than 5 hours old, I already feel like I’m missing out. “Yeah, we knew that at lunchtime! Ugh! What’s happening NOW??” And with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, we have a new way to organize conversations with friends and strangers (and with strangers about to become friends, and vice-versa…) around breaking news, reacting to it in real time, and across geographic barriers. Sorry, Boston Globe. :(
And television? Millions of Americans are “cutting the cord” and unsubscribing from cable channel services, because, “Hey, I can already see everything I want to through the internet, so why the hell should I pay triple just to watch CNN and sports?” Full disclosure: my wife and I just cut the cord this past semester, and we are NOT missing paying the extra $90/month. Totally recommend this move. And if you miss things like sports, The History Channel or what-have-you, Roku and AppleTV probably have an app you can subscribe to.
Are Physical Books Obsolete?
So, now that we have this great technology that allows us the power to access an endless library of written works digitally, without needing to cut down all those precious trees we need to keep around to help combat climate change, seems safe for us to start planning the “extinction party” to commemorate the very last printed book, right?
Not quite. Enter consumer market behavior.
To be fair, physical books have seen declining sales since the introduction of ereaders. Remember Borders book stores? Vaguely? (they were like Barnes & Noble, without their own ereader or in-store Starbucks… I know, pretty awful, right?)
It turns out that physical books still hold a kind of fascination for the reader, even for those in the on-average extremely tech-savvy younger generations. They may even be making a comeback after several years of losing ground to electronic media. Some of this might be explained by consumers just wanting that unique touch and, yes, even smell, of a traditional book. For some young folks, traditional books may feel cool because a) they’re not those new wannabe electronic books the adults are trying to push on everyone, and b) retro stuff is just fun.
So, much to Mother Nature’s chagrin, those primitive “wood leaf” books aren’t quite ready to go away just yet. We’ve decided we still have a place for them in our media ecosystem.
The Creative Process
If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, “ok, ok, but what has this got to do with me? All this new form of media is interesting and all, but I just want to write the next great American novel. Can I just write it and then send it to the publisher’s house and be a best-seller already?”
On the surface, it seems like the answer is yes. ‘Cause… The Girl on the Train… and, and… The Martian! I mean, no one had heard of Andy Weir or Paula Hawkins before, and now they’re all over the airport book store’s shelves, and being adapted into major Hollywood movies. So, I could still get published, too, right?
Making a Name for Yourself
I was serious when I mentioned that I want to be a published author. I still remember that day in 4th grade when my short illustrated children’s story, “The Writer and the Porcupine,” won 1st place in our elementary school’s short story writing contest.
In my adult life, I actually have gotten around to attempting a couple of real manuscripts: the first is called Seeing in Color: Perception, Nature, and Culture (that’s right… if you’re reading my ‘ish, you know I’m into color; there’s your best proof). And although it is technically self-published and available to purchase for your iPhone or ereader through Blurb.com, no one has bought a copy. But why not? It’s obviously an enjoyable read that everyone should pick up.
Since we’re already way past the word count assignment on this post, you’ll just need to wait to hear about my second book, a great American novel that’s part Kafka, part Burroughs, part Breaking Bad and all grit. (or you could just post a Comment asking about it here, but no pressure… but seriously, though, there’s a little pressure.)
For the book I did mention, I actually happen to be blessed with having a second cousin whose sister works for a textbook publisher in London. When I showed the preview of my manuscript and asked her for advice (this was in 2010), she mentioned that since the book was essentially trying to fall into the textbook category, it would be a tough sell because, “No one knows your name, poppet.” (she didn’t actually call me “poppet,” but thought you might enjoy the caricature.)
What she recommended was to start blogging on the topic, and to use regular posts online as a vehicle not only to put my work out there, but also to connect with known names in the field and have them comment and react to my work. This process would validate my work through peer review, showing the world that the known names in color vision science deem it worth spending time on, and also strengthen the work through feedback from the experts.
And so it would seem that networking has become extremely important to market one’s writing. How exactly should one go about this process with any hope of spreading the work to a wider and wider audience that will actually pay to consume it? Unfortunately, your author doesn’t quite know just yet. And he’s been waiting years without jumping into the proverbial pool to test the proverbial waters. But, before you ask for a refund of what you paid to read this post, stay tuned for the next one and let’s see if we don’t start figuring it out together a little bit. ;)