A Cozy Arrangement

Murder, She Read, is a research report from Nielsen Book Research (a copy will set you back $1,500), on the book-buying preferences and habits of some 6000 nationally representative U.S. mystery/crime readers. The researchers defined “mystery/crime” as

a genre of fiction typically focused on the investigation of a crime. Mystery fiction is often used as a synonym for detective fiction or crime fiction—in other words, a novel or short story in which a detective (either professional or amateur) investigates and solves a crime mystery.

This is a more restrictive definition than most, but a lot of books fit it. Highlights of the study results:

  • cat reading

    (photo: raider of gin, creative commons license)

    Most “mystery” readers (70%) are female

  • The biggest age group of mystery readers (28%) comprises people 65 and older, with almost half of mystery readers 55 and older and
  • Many mystery readers are not actually buying their books; they’re getting them free.

The gender and age concentrations revealed come as no surprise. Month after month, I see lists of the mysteries agents and publishers are signing. Their decisions are creating and reinforcing this important audience, and its dominance is an effect of the choices they make.

I certainly don’t want to suggest there shouldn’t be books geared to the older female demographic, but mysteries that involve clever kitties, cutesy shops, knitting patterns, and recipes not only succeed in appealing to one specific group but also fail to develop new communities of interest.

Authors can—and do—write novels that appeal to both men and women. And many women readers devour books by Michael Connelly, Tana French, Ian Rankin, and Laura Lippman just as much as men do. However, a focus on novels with marketing appeal to only one segment of the population (and a low- or non-paying one at that) may prove counterproductive in the long run. I hope authors and publishers read the Nielsen findings as a call to reach out to tomorrow’s audiences—readers who will be as loyal and enthusiastic as the older woman audience is today.

Just Your Type

(photo: wikimedia.org)

(photo: wikimedia.org)

Curtis Newbold, “The Visual Communication Guy,” runs a website about topics in good design. He says “it’s as important for (people) to be literate in visual communication these days as it is to know the fundamentals of grammar.”

He’s created a nifty infographic, “18 Rules for Using Text” if you’re intrigued by graphic design, web design, and just generally making the stuff you print out look better. The graphic is also available from his store in poster form, in case you have a bare patch on your office wall.

I look at a lot of websites and can attest to the fact that these rules are violated often. And, while they aren’t rules in the sense of “never do this,” they are certainly rules-of-thumb. Red or yellow type on a black background? No, please. Going crazy with fonts? Amazing how many people still do this. A list like this is a good reminder of these most common mistakes–which are “mistakes” because they discourage readership. Something none of us want to do.

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Will Men Read My Book?

reading

(photo: Nico Cavallotto, Creative Commons)

Something else to worry about on the rocky road to publication: The Goodreads analysts have crunched the site’s numbers to explore the reading habits of their male versus female members. You can see the results in this nifty Infographic. My home page includes a button indicating I’m a member of Sisters in Crime, started by women crime and suspense writers who thought 20 years ago (and still do) that women crime writers get the short end of the stick in book reviews and other ways. The text of the Goodreads post says that’s still true for book reviews generally.

Key messages from the Infographic: women are twice as likely as men to read a recent book, and men are twice as likely to write (is that a typo?) a 500+-page book. In the first year after a book is published, a male writer’s audience will split 50-50 along gender lines, whereas a woman writer’s audience will be 80 percent female.

This new finding tracks with a 2005 study that found four out of five men (academics, critics, and writers) said the last novel they’d read had a man as author, whereas women in the study were equally likely to have most recently read a novel written by a man or a woman. Whatever they read in 2014, according to Goodreads, men and women both rated the books by women a bit higher.

A 2012 Wall Street Journal article quoted a Penguin editor as saying: “For a new author, we want to avoid anything that might cause a reader to put a book down and decide, ‘not for me.’ When we think a book will appeal to male readers, we want everything about the book to say that—the cover, the copy and, yes, the author’s name.” Which is why we had J.K., not Joanne Rowling. And why women still write under men’s—or at least ambiguous—names. [For a survey of this and other types of literary masquerade, try Carmela Ciuraru’s Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.]

Finally, Goodreads looked at the 50 books published in 2014 that men most often read, and found that only five were by women. Three of these fall into the fantasy-science-fiction-dystopia world of teen lit, one is young adult, and the last—The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a feel-good tale about a bookstore owner for whom everything looks grim, but then “magically” becomes more than OK (judging by the blurb). Go ahead, call me a snob, but I laughed out loud when I read the tagline for one of the fantasy books: Erchomai, Sebastian had said. I am coming.”

Similarly, of the 50 books published in 2014 most often read by women, only five were by men (that is, if you count J.K. Rowling’s Robert Galbraith persona). The books by men that women mostly read were young adult fantasy, adventure fantasy, Galbraith’s The Silkworm, Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, and a book I read and liked, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

If you’re wondering, out of the 41 books I’ve read so far this year, 29 (71 percent) are by men—partly reflecting my genre reading choices (mystery, thriller). So, what about your reading, and do you (know you) care whether the author is a man or woman?

Life Plus 70

copyright

(artwork: Christopher Dombres, Creative Commons license)

Copyright is a battlefield for creative types—authors, bloggers, musicians, and artists. As both a producer and a user of digitized content, I want the rights to my creative output (such as it is!) protected and strive to respect the rights of others. At the same time, I want to enrich my content with good graphics, audio and video content, and the resources of other works.

A recent Louis Menand article in The New Yorker crosses into this fraught territory, starting with a little history. Legal backing for copyright began with Britain’s 1710 Statute of Anne, and, in the United States with Article I of the Constitution, giving Congress power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” In 1790, the law set that time limit at 14 years, renewable for another 14. By 1998, as a result of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, the time limit was extended to the author’s life plus 70 years—which some regard as a lengthy prison sentence for creative works.

Menand points out how different our attitudes about copyright are in the print versus the online worlds. “If , a year from now, someone else, without my permission, reprints my article . . . I can complain that my right to make copies is being violated.” Most people, Menand asserts, would agree with that. But if a Web site (like this one) posts an article referencing Menand’s piece and hyperlinks to it on The New Yorker website (as this one does), that seems normal in today’s world. Even a service. Courts have questioned the propriety of this, and it remains a grey area.

Meanwhile, billions of files are being downloaded—perhaps 40 billion a year—and an estimated 94% of these downloads are illegal and unmonetized, to the tune of $552 billion so far this year, according to Stamford, Conn.-based Tru Optik (“Game of Thrones” has the dubious distinction of being the world’s most illegally downloaded TV series).

Despite the uncertainties, various bibliographic initiatives worldwide are attempting to digitize the content of written works. Most visible in this country is Google’s effort to scan all known existing 129,864,880 books by 2020, an effort that has been plagued by numerous lawsuits. Google settled with publishers in 2012, and authors plan to appeal a negative ruling a year ago that deemed Google’s efforts “fair use,” since only “snippets” of text are provided for works under copyright protection, unless the copyright owner has granted permission for a more expansive view. However, the status of copyright protection is not always clear, as many potential rights-holders are unknown. (Google Books is a boon to genealogists, I can tell you.)

These disagreements arise in part because of a fundamental conflict in people’s understanding of the purpose of copyright. On one hand are those who think that, as Menand put it, “individual rights are intended to promote public goods.” These are the people, like the framers of the U.S. Constitution, who want to see works moved into the public domain for sharing, education, and entertainment. Historian Peter Baldwin characterizes them as “Silicon Valley.” On the other hand are those who believe the right to control one’s works “is not a political right. It’s a moral right.” These are people who want to maintain absolute control—Hollywood and the music industry.

The latter view comports more closely with European than Anglo-American views on the matter. My literary hero Charles Dickens conducted several popular speaking tours in the United States, in 1842 and thereafter, in which he read from his works. They added to his fame here, but his purpose was as much to fight for U.S. copyright protection for his and other foreign works, something that didn’t happen until the early 1890s.

The “moral rights” view is what gives the Broadway producers of Urinetown the ability to sue Akron’s Carousel Dinner Theatre for using “significant aspects” of the original Broadway production—direction, choreography, and design—beyond the script and songs for which the Ohio theater had a license. At the other end of the control spectrum, Menand says Samuel Beckett and his estate were well known for requiring theater companies wanting the rights to produce his plays to comply literally with Beckett’s stage directions. (Perhaps this is why all productions of Waiting for Godot look so bleakly similar—in form as well as content.)

On the Web, the problems and opportunities for misuse of others’ content are multiplied. It’s temptingly easy to obtain words, pictures, film, and music files to repost. The perils of doing so are described here and here. While one might think the sea of website postings offers virtual invisibility for a tiny misuse or sloppy repost, technology works against the user, through imbedded code that might as well put a flashing red light on an unauthorized use and search engines that patrol the web looking for them.

When I started my blog two years ago, I was clumsy in attempts to find good pictures for my posts and used a couple that were found and taken down and replaced with flashing warnings. Embarrassing, to say the least. Now, I check the “labeled for reuse” status in Google Images, have a slight preference for Creative Commons licensed pictures, or use one of my own. I also like the free and low-cost options at Imgembed, and while I can use those purchased photos on my website, I haven’t yet solved the problem of using them in the related social media promotion.

Yesterday, I posted a lighthearted exchange about Eminem and M&Ms, and found a trove of photos linking the two. Most appealing—and found with a second search under “labeled for reuse”—was a graphic portrait of the star created out of the candy. Perfect! I looked at the source website, which is an aggregator of cartoons and images that has lots of rights information for submitters but no information for reusers. I posted the photo, then, working on this article, pulled it down and sent the aggregator a permission request, returned to me as undeliverable. I know somebody “created” that artwork and should have credit. Absolutely not worth it to use it.

In one of my novels, I want to refer to lines from “Burnt Norton,” the wonderful T. S. Eliot poem. I’ve heard his estate is prickly about granting usage rights, even though a “Burnt Norton” Google search generates some 2.87 million results. I’ll work around it. There’s only so much time to write, and none at all to sit in endless conferences with intellectual property lawyers.

Additional Resources:
The Copyright Wars – by Peter Baldwin, 2014.
Stanford University Libraries Copyright and Fair Use Center – helpful advice, including for Web usages

Bad Ideas Don’t Become Good Books

kindle, book, ereader

(photo: www.wired.com)

Helping writers become published seems like as big a big business as writing itself. And writing, we know, is huge. People will help writers write, help them self-publish, and help with the endless baffling tasks—finding an agent, managing a self-publishing path, and promoting their product. As a book nears completion, a writer’s anxiety grows, and the whole process of sending that precious baby out into the marketing void fills authors with not unreasonable qualms.

That some of these purveyors are unscrupulous goes with the territory. (See links below.) That some of them serve ideas that are cold potatoes, ditto. But every once in a while, amid the cacophony of advice available to writers, comes a message that may not be exactly new but really resonates.

Jane Friedman is a consistently reliable, forward-thinking writing-and-publishing commentator and pulls in mostly helpful guest posters on her blog. Recently she invited Laurie Scheer, “a seasoned development exec and writing mentor,” to talk about a topic most authors (me included!) would rather not examine: What if the fundamental idea for your book is, well, mediocre?

Scheer started off with three questions, then presented what I found the most helpful part of her post: an example.

The Three Questions

question, graffiti

(photo: farm4.static.flickr.com)

Every writer, she says, needs to have persuasive answers to these three questions on the tip of the tongue—for dealing with potential editors, agents, publishers, and the (eventual) marketing team and even the public. Why make this? Why make it now? and Who cares?

The answer to “why make this,” needs to describe what about a novel (or screenplay, for that matter) makes it unique, compelling, and authentic. For people who write in genre fiction—mystery, romance, science fiction, horror, and their permutations—this can be especially hard. A police procedural with a flawed detective? Divorced and drinks too much, perhaps? In truth, most plots have been done and done again—because they work—but something about them needs to be unique, compelling, and authentic. This is a flaw with many memoirs. Nothing new or insightful. That’s a hard message for writers delving into their own personal—and very likely painful—history.

Why make this now? Recognizing trends in the marketplace and when they’ve peaked suggests something about timing. In crime novels, the trend has been for ever-more inventive and grisly threats. This has upping the violence ante to the point of unbelievability, in my opinion. In one I read last year, a victim would awake standing up, with the lower half of his body encased in a block of ice. Nowhere did the text mention the amount of time it would take to freeze that much water, the noise of the generators producing sufficient cooling, how the equipment to do it was transported from one locale to another, in other words, a big “huh?”

And, the third question, who really cares? Who will pay good money to read this book? Herein is the flaw in the new Kindle Scout program—“reader-powered publishing for new, never-before-published books.” Potential readers help decide which books the program publishes and receive the book free if it’s selected. In other words, some of the people most interested in the book don’t have to pay to get it. (Thanks to Build Book Buzz’s marketing maven Sandra Beckwith for pointing this out.)

Here’s the Pitch

biological clock

(photo: fc05.deviantart.net)

Scheer gives this example of the kind of ideas writers often pitch in answer to the above questions:

A story about a 43-year-old unmarried woman who has had a successful career in advertising or law or pharmaceuticals or whatever, and decides at the last minute that her biological clock’s ticking and she wants to have a child.

Scheer says, “I will wait for the writer to tell me the rest of the story. And there is no rest of the story, because in their mind, that is the story.” A story that has been done many, many times. Some new element needs to be interjected to create new and unique conflicts (why now?). That new element might be one that would capture attention of some larger audience (who cares?). Perhaps the baby’s father should be a divorced police detective who drinks too much. Just kidding. Half.

So I’m going back to reexamine my pitch letters and make sure I’m not cutting short my three-sentence description of what my books are about before I get to “why now” and “who cares”!

Writer Resources

  • Preditors and Editors – this widely recommended website rates agents, editors, publishers, and many other businesses for writers. Though encyclopedic, it could use a makeover. Especially helpful would be dates added to its one-line reviews.
  • Writer Beware! – highly recommend website and blog maintained by Victoria Strauss for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, but applicable to all writers. Especially helpful information on contracts, I’ve noticed. (Her take on Kindle Scout is here.)
  • Laurie Scheer’s new bookThe Writer’s Advantage: A Toolkit (Amazon says Tookit) for Mastering your Genre. I ordered this book, and will review it here.

The Economist Parses Publishing

Papyrus

(photo: wikimedia.org)

So much has been written about the various pieces of the book publishing dilemma lately it was delightful to be pointed to this article from The Economist that assembles the whole juicy pie. If this is all you read about this topic, you’ll understand more than most people.

The title of the essay—“From Papyrus to Pixels”—suggests the editors stance. The conveyance of written information has evolved from the earliest days of this form of communication and continues to do so. Still, “the digital transition may well change the way books are written, sold and read more than any (other) development in their history, and that will not be to everyone’s advantage,” the authors say.

Industry players caught in the last paradigm, notably independent booksellers, have been seen the changes reduce their financial viability, as did the papyrus manufacturers of Ancient Egypt. Meanwhile the large publishing houses still mostly see increasing profit margins, despite Amazon’s fierce competition. About this massive e-tailer, The Economist quotes English novelist, Anthony Horowitz: “They really are evil bastards. I loathe them. I fear them. And I use them all the time because they’re wonderful.”

Moreover, despite all hand-wringing to the contrary, books themselves, as a technology “developed and used for the refinement and advancement of thought,” continue to thrive.

Naturally, this being a story about the economics of the industry, with many nifty charts (be sure to view the projected timeline of the rise of ebooks internationally), it gives only passing attention to the plight of individual authors, caught between downward pressure on ebook prices and conventional publishers’ obsession with blockbusters. The Economist quotes one industry analyst who suggests that while consumers may have more books available to them, fewer people may be able to make a living as full-time writers or publishers.

In addition to lots of juicy databites and useful, even-handed perspective, the article gives you a chance to test Spritz—a new small-screen application that smoothly displays one word at a time, at the pace you set. It’s way faster than regular reading because your eyes stay in one place, not having to wander across and down the page. And, potentially, glancing off the page entirely and out the window or over to the refrigerator. Spritz’s “most immediate application is to allow longish text to be read on smallish screens,” The Economist says, “such as those of watches.” Just as you bonded so completely with your iPad.

Writing in A Digital Age

book ereader Kindle

(photo: upload.wikimedia.org)

Last week in London, the Literary Consultancy held its third Writing in a Digital Age conference. Participants heard the usual hand-wringing over the issues of digital rights management, the decline in bookstores, especially independents, and the attention-sucks of our various digital tools and devices. Panelists discussed the irony that the gadgets developed to expand reading are the very same ones that can reduce it, if what we use them for is interrupting our reading time to play a game, send an email, scan Facebook, tweet a half-formed thought, watch a YouTube cat video, and check the current weather in Paris. One speaker called them digital Trojan horses.

And while these de rigueur arguments are familiar, echoing past concerns that television would be the end of radio, and video would be the end of movies, one statement by panelist Steve Bohme, who manages the Books and Consumers survey for Nielsen, sent a chill from my toes to the roots of my hair: “When everyone you know has a Kindle, why would you buy them a book?” No more buying (and receiving) books as presents? Oh, no!

What Ebooks Are Readers Reading?

(photo: HarperLibrary)

(photo: HarperLibrary)

According to Digital Book World, “dystopian young adult novels with a female protagonist caught in a love triangle might be wearing thin with readers.” So, does this mean the end of series like The Hunger Games and Divergent? Just remember, the industry repeatedly turned down Anne Rice’s first vampire novel, claiming “vampires are dead.”

At least the publishing pundits on a recent DBW panel acknowledged “there’s no silver bullet” guaranteed to capture readers’ attention. Thus their dog-bites-man advice to writers to produce “compelling stories.”

One trend panelists did note is increased interest in true crime (is this “non-fiction dystopia”?), mysteries, and thrillers, perhaps because of the runaway popularity of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, reviewed here in 2013. They also debunked the publishing rule of thumb that readers aren’t interested in characters that don’t resemble themselves. I guess this explains Hannibal Lecter.

In addition, panelists predicted:

  • Continued low prices of ebooks and growth of ebook subscription services, which are low-risk ways for readers to try new authors
  • More erotica, romance, and literary fantasy (e.g., Game of Thrones)
  • More writers of color among mainstream literary authors
  • Classics and back-list titles (cheap for publishers to produce)
  • In July, publication of the “next blockbuster”??—The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. Lots of hype, many disgruntled pre-pub readers on GoodReads and Amazon.
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2-9-14 Readers, Writers, Booklovers Unite!

Reading, book, Budi SukmanaHugh Howey’s Rants

Everyone who buys, sells, reads, borrows, downloads, and LOVES books has a stake in moving the publishing industry into the 21st century. It won’t happen easily. Best-selling indie novelist Hugh Howey (Wool) launched a well-aimed missile of advice at the industry in his notorious 1/8 blog post, “Don’t Anyone Put Me in Charge,” in which he explains what he would do if he ran one of the big publishing houses. He followed it up with a new barrage on 1/12, “My Second Month on the Hypothetical Job.” Even if thoughts about publication are not your daily preoccupation, his ideas are lively and thought-provoking.

For Publishing: A Radical Makeover

They would radically change the culture and the economics of the book business, making it better for readers and writers in the process. Among his memorable suggestions: get out of New York to cut overhead and get some work done. From home, mostly. (He suggests Houston. Not in August.)  He wants them to invest in Print on Demand, which would keep authors’ backlists alive. And he’d devote greater attention to the midlist bulge of authors. As publishers whittle down their emphasis to manuscripts that are “sure-fire” best-sellers, reader choice withers. And these are not people you’d want standing at the rail next to you at Santa Anita or Churchill Downs.

These next three were picked up by Business Insider writer Dylan Love:

  • “Every format, as soon as the book is available.” The day a book is released, you could buy it in hardback or paper, or Kindle, Nook, or other e-reader formats. No more stringing people along with a hardcover release, and letting them lose interest while they wait for the Kindle edition.
  • “Hardbacks come with free ebooks.” This “would change my perception of e-books overnight,” Love says. At present, e-book Digital Rights Management systems restrict readers’ flexibility. Bundling a hardback with a digital file would increase it.
  • “No more advertising.” In Howey’s publishing house, the firm’s money wouldgo into editors [remember when books weren’t full of mistakes?] and into acquiring new authors,” not into bookstore promotions and pricy advertisements that he says “don’t sell books.”

How Publishers Shouldn’t React

Howey admirer Baldur Bjarnason has drafted a list of tips for publishing insiders to use in their inevitable responses to Howey’s assault. The last of these is to make the argument that traditional publishers are “somehow responsible for keeping the general quality of books high.” I’ll let you explore for yourself Bjarnason’s links that stick the needle in that bit of puffery. LOL.

(Thanks to Beth Wasson at Sisters in Crime’s SinC Links for pointing out Howey’s and Bjarnason’s great posts!)

Working Both Sides of the Brain

 Saturday’s “business side of writing” workshop reiterated the familiar disheartening theme that today’s authors (especially new authors) cannot focus solely on their writing. They need to think like entrepreneurs. Extroverts make great entrepreneurs. Alas, most writers are introverts, people who love to sit alone at their computers and create worlds.

“I don’t want to do all that promotion stuff, and I don’t know how!” is the common reaction. It’s like telling a boy who loves baseball that to succeed he also needs to take up needlepoint.

One of the presenters, Bob Mayer, pointed out today’s writers must compete fiercely for discoverability. In recent years, the estimated number of books published (mostly self-published) in the United States is between 600,000 and 1,000,000 a year. It takes a lot of effort to have any book noticed. It’s one frozen drop in a Niagara of ice.

Only two hardcover fiction books have been on the current New York Times list of best-sellers for more than 16 weeks (alas, and my snobbery is showing, one is by Dan Brown, but the other is Gone Girl, a super read).  Eleven of the 15 have been on the list less than three months. Remember when books were on the best-seller list for a year or more? Those were the horse-and-buggy days of book marketing, as gone as the girl is.

Our second coach, the estimable Jen Talty, pointed out the flaw in writers’ tendency to hang out with other writers—people who don’t ask, “So when is your book coming out?” when they learn the first draft (of probably 15) is done. What she advised writers to do is to connect with readers. That takes work and as much creativity as goes into the novel itself. “My book is for everyone” isn’t a marketing strategy.

Talty and Mayer have their own publishing partners enterprise, Cool Gus Publishing, capitalizing on opportunities in both traditional and electronic publishing. A key difference between the two is that traditional publishers are most interested in initial sales. If a book doesn’t do well out of the gate, traditional publishers’ efforts to promote it go from minimal to nonexistent, and the book vanishes. By contrast, Amazon (Kindle) and other e-publishers are in it for the long haul. Maintaining the e-file is all but free, and if an author has a book success next year or the year after or the year after that, sales of the earlier book will likely head up, too. Writers sitting on a backlist of books that never sold well are finding new revenues.

The publishing mountain gets steeper, but writers persist. It’s in our bones. Perhaps that’s because, as Mayer said, and contrary to the common expression, “Storytelling is the oldest profession.”