Time, not money, the obstacle to book sales

Skater-in-a-Strange-Land-800 Cover reveal and PromotionalI used to marvel at a certain fact about the book publishing business: people are more willing to risk three dollars on a cup of coffee than they are on a full-length novel.

Why would someone be willing to pay money for a drink that takes fifteen minutes to consume, for a temporary effect, but not for a piece of art that gives hours of entertainment and has the potential to change one’s life?

Image: Skater in a Strange Land has a new e-edition!

Then I realized something. Something extremely obvious to lots of people, probably, but not to me.

I realized that the temporary effect and disposability of coffee was the whole point.

Coffee gives the drinker a guaranteed result AND doesn’t take a long time to consume.

You don’t have to think about it, either.

And a book?

A book takes a lot longer to deal with than a cup of coffee and there is no guaranteed payoff.

With a book you’re not just spending money, you’re spending time as well.

And time is in notoriously short supply nowadays.

Not only that, time to read a book—that is, unbroken time when you can concentrate on something other than work or family—is even rarer.

So an author does something potentially very demanding of readers when a book is published. “Read this book” does not just mean spend a certain amount of money. It also means invest a certain number of hours, a certain amount of energy, and depending on the book, a potentially large amount of emotion and brainpower.

Back in the day when paper books were the only option and a traditionally published hardcover book cost $19.95, there was a strong sense of the import of the buying decision. The book was substantial and so was the price. You knew what you were getting into. You had better read that book to justify the investment.

Nowadays, an e-book that costs $2.99 is like a roll of the dice. Why isn’t it more expensive? Is it just a bad book that the author is trying to palm off on unsuspecting consumers, like old fish that’s been painted with bleach?

But $2.99 is the same price as a cup of coffee, the reader says to herself. If the book’s bad, I haven’t lost anything.

Yes, she has. She's lost time.

“There’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back” goes the old saying.

How many Amazon reviews basically just say “Waste of time” or “Don’t waste your time”?

Which is why, as authors, it behooves us to write books that are as “worthwhile” ( = worth the time) as possible.

But how does a reader know a book is going to be worthwhile?

  • It has a good blurb. Writers I know hate to write blurbs, but a good one can encourage the sale of a book like nothing else. Good blurbs say, “You will be using your time wisely if you buy this book.”

  • It is written to a specific genre and audience. A cup of coffee is what it is. It delivers a guaranteed effect. So, theoretically, do romance novels, cozy mystery novels, spy thrillers, and all those other familiar categories that comfort readers. If you want a cup of coffee and you get a cup of chai, you’re never going back to that same café again. Same deal with authors. Deliver in your genre and people will return.

  • The audience knows the author. The author has built up a trust and rapport with readers on social media. They like her personally, so they will be more likely to like her book. (This can go the other way for personal friends. They don’t want to have to tell you they didn’t like your book, so they might be reluctant to read it.)

  • The book is at the proper price point--not too inexpensive. This is a tricky one, because a lot of authors have offered their books for free in order to get an audience acquainted with their writing, and it’s been an effective strategy. But in general, a book that’s $2.99 or less as a regular price automatically triggers in the consumer a question: why is it so cheap? The suspicion that a low price point is an indicator of low quality is real. That's when things like a good blurb, active social media, and genre familiarity come into play.

  • The book is at the proper price point--not too expensive. This one is tough too, but for me personally once an e-book is priced at over $4.99, I want to hold it in my hands. I will pay $16.99 for a paperback that I know is going to entertain me, and up to $30 for a hardcover. E-books? There's an obstacle there. My two cents.

Add in your own criteria to supplement these. When you know it’s time that’s the big investment for readers, not just money, it doesn’t change that you’re trying to write a good book.

But it might change your perspective on the whole thing—and give our readers a bit more benefit of the doubt if they choose to buy a cup of coffee rather than our $2.99 novels.

Throughtalking books

Bookbeer7Have you ever heard the term “throughtalking”?

I hadn’t, till the other day.

In fact, Google doesn’t seem to know the term.

But I do:

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This insight, which I love, is spliced out of a post by a Facebook friend. I tend not to have to deal with this phenomenon socially, because I don’t go to high-gloss parties where the movers and shakers move and shake, but I recognize it from my days at professional conferences.

There’s nothing more disheartening than watching the eyes of the person you’re talking to scanning the crowd for someone other than you. 

You may be good, but there’s always someone out there who’s better.

My Facebook friend thinks there may be a “throughtalking” trend for beer that’s manifesting itself in online reviews. No matter how high the quality of one craft brew, somehow there must be a better one out there. So proper attention is given to nothing. 

I think we can apply this same trend to books, but bear with me for a little on this. 

If “throughtalking” beer is a thing, I think it has to do with the sheer number of beers now available. Time was, there were about seventeen brands of beer, and if there was something new, you had plenty of time to taste it and figure out whether you liked it.  

I remember in the previous century sitting down in a restaurant near Cincinnati and asking the waitress whether they had any local beers on tap. She looked at me as if I were from Mars.  

I wasn’t talking about brewpub stuff. Back in the old days, there were some regional brands. if you were in New Orleans, you drank Dixie. Texas, Lone Star. Oregon, Henry Weinhard’s. Upstate New York, Genesee. Baltimore, Natty Bo. That’s what I was asking for. Even Bud is supposed to taste good if you order it in St. Louis.

But Cincinnati, apparently, had its Waterloo (or Beer-loo) during Prohibition, and never recovered.

Today things are different. I can get thirty kinds of beer brewed onsite in just one establishment. 

How am I going to keep up with that? 

Maybe, by “throughtalking” beers until I get to the “ultimate.” 

Except that there isn’t an ultimate. 

Now for the books part.

Independent (small-press and self-) publishing, like craft breweries, has exponentially increased the number of books available, especially novels. 

Now, instead of there being a thousand “literary” or “high quality” novels per year, of which ten to twenty were played up by publishing houses and the media, there are tens of thousands that may be good or not. But because there are so many, it’s impossible for anyone to curate them the way we used to when traditional publishing had a chokehold on supply. 

For me personally, I seldom buy books anymore. I “try” a lot of them. I will go to the Amazon page and dip into the book, effectively taking a sip. Some of them are just bad or don’t interest me, so I move on.

Others look like they might be good, but I’m not looking for “might be.”

I want that one that knocks my socks off.

So I end up not buying anything at all. 

I am guilty of “throughtalking” books. 

The last book I bought was The Bookminder by M.K. Wiseman. It’s a historical fantasy about a teenage would-be wizard set in what appears to be medieval Serbia. I was attracted by the setting and similarity to my own The Mirror and the Mage, and the sample shows that the author has respectable writing chops.

I hope to “drink it down” and give a review soon. 

So what’s the upshot of this? Am I advocating, like some, that we should turn off the taps on the book supply?

Should us authors all voluntarily stick to one book per year, to let breathless readers catch up?

Maybe we’d get less “throughtalking.” 

No. Not at all.

I’m still in the more-is-better camp. I think especially of those dedicated book devourers who have benefited the most from the independent revolution. True book lovers always want more.

And I say, give it to them.

Online book curation methods are still pretty crude, but I think they'll improve.

And we “throughtalkers” will always be around, and maybe we’ll leave snarky reviews about the few books we actually bought.

But that shouldn’t spoil the party.

So write on, authors. Your readers await.

Image taken from here.

The Flame Before Us: ambitious but not grand

FlamebeforeusThe Flame Before Us is Richard Abbott's third and most ambitious historical novel concerning the Bronze Age Near East.

Previously he treated Canaan (In a Milk and Honeyed Land), then Egypt (Scenes from a Life), to which culture he has a particular sensitivity. The Flame Before Us concerns a wider swath of country and peoples, including Egypt, Canaan, west Syria, and Greece.

The time is 1200 BC, and the situation is dire for the established civilizations on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. A large group of marauders invades from the west, destroying Ugarit, the west Syrian metropolis, and threatening the Nile Delta itself, as well as Egyptian vassals in Canaan, including the cities of Gedjet (Gaza) and Shalem (Jerusalem).

These invaders are dubbed the "Sea Peoples" because of their preference for using ships as a means of transportation. Scholars have been divided as to where they come from, but Abbott settles on the hypothesis that they are Greeks. He goes one step farther as well and takes them for the Greeks who attacked and destroyed the legendary city of Troy, along with wagonloads of their dependents.

So, ambitious this book is, but in characteristic fashion, Abbott focuses less on sea captains with wind whipping their hair than on what we have come to know after Iraq as "collateral damage:" the ordinary people affected by these events.

To be sure, Abbott can't resist a scholar's interest in the Sea Peoples' ability to defeat conventional chariot-centered warfare. But there are actually zero eye-witness descriptions of large battles. Instead, the on-stage violence, so to speak, is always personal and jarring.

Several threads of characters, two from the sacked city of Ugarit, two from Egypt, two from Canaan, one from Greece, and one of the Ibryhim (Hebrews) form the material for Abbott's tapestry; there are so many characters, in fact, and the historical situation is so complex, that Abbott helpfully includes extensive explanatory notes at the end of the book.

But despite their number and diversity, each set of personages is distinct and vivid in its own way, and helps to create a full picture of what life must have been like in the uncertain times at the end of the Bronze Age. A surprising tenderness in the face of grief, loss, and displacement is the emotion that underpins the action.

I found myself most drawn to Hekanefer, an Egyptian scribe who is attached to a brigade of the Pharoah's provincial peacekeepers. Through vivid, often humorous letters home to his family, he confesses his thoughts about his less-than-desirable fiancée, his deployment to Canaan, and the ability of the army to deal with the invaders. Later, we see him in person, acting as a diplomat to the king of Shalem. He comes off much less the conquering colonial than a rank-and-file (if proud) Egyptian who is trying to make his way in difficult circumstances. Egypt, in Abbott's view, was never the hard-hearted place that the Israelites fled with God's help, but a civilized, tolerant country trying to head off others' political immaturity. 

Abbott's treatment of the Greek side of things is less convincing for me. His explanation that a single, charismatic war leader (named Akamunas, Agamemnon for the Iliad fans out there) was able to unite Greece and not only go after Troy, but continue on east along with large wagon trains of women and children seems unlikely to me. Even less plausible is the idea that certain of these wagon trains would "go rogue," so to speak, and take up with the conquered of Ugarit, as one of these does in this book.

Abbott anticipates this objection and gives his rationale in the notes, including ingenious interpretation of archeological finds. My own study of local peoples suggests to me that local peoples stay where they are unless some catastrophic event forces them to do so. Abbott is content to let Akamunas be the motivation.

But regardless of the true situation, history tells us that the strange and unpredictable routinely happens, and the interplay between the clan of "Sherden" Sea People wagon drivers and a brother and sister fleeing Ugarit makes for an absorbing read. Fiction explores where history might dare not to venture. 

One last thing about this excellent effort (pristinely published as an e-book, by the way), which Abbott may take as a suggestion for the future: spend more time on material culture. 

It is always a historical novelist's dilemma to figure out the level of detail at which food, clothing, tools, and the rest is described. Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, the movie version of which I reviewed here, is a Civil War novel that goes whole hog: every little tiny piece of anything is named and (sometimes) described. This practice creates a genuine feeling of alienation in the reader-- a distance that says, "You are seeing this story through a telescope."

Abbott's practice is to go light on technical vocabulary, not to examine too closely the kind of chair someone sits in, or the cold meat he or she consumes. This might be because Abbott is interested in keeping the narrative moving. But in a novel like this one, where the scope is necessarily large, the reader will tolerate, and I think, welcome more detail where possible. Abbott's next is rumored to be a sea-faring story-- a perfect opportunity to describe ancient gunwales and forestays, if there were such things back then.

In other words, Richard Abbott, more, more! Your public clamors for it.

A few words about Bearland

AndmomNote: this post is in a series of occasional reprints of articles from Rejsgaang Oot, the magazine of the Borschland National Tourist Board.

The adventurer tourist who has decided on a stay in Borschland may find himself with time on his hands if there is a phase shift that outlasts the traveler's visa. 

No problem. The Borschland Foreign Ministry is happy to extend visas in case of unexpected phase shifts.

But what to do until the Continent shifts back to our earth?

If you have had your fill of Borschland, you may wish to visit Bearland.

Image: Else Holmelund Minarik's "Little Bear" strongly approximates the joyful character of the bears of Bearland.

Bearland is one of the most unusual nations on earth. It is the only democratic nation administered by sentient creatures other than humans. Some three million bears of all species make up this truly beautiful and scenic land, and it is well worth the shock to see them and it.

Borschland is home for some bears, especially those who work for Bearland's embassy in Staff Borsch. Having a bear address one with a Gut Emorgenweck ("Good morning!") in one of the city's many open squares and markets is practically an everyday occurrence.

But being in a place where most of the inhabitants are large, furry, and equipped with big teeth can be unsettling for some.

Don't be shy. Bears are among the most civilized creatures on the continent. They have benefited from the influence of English suzerainty (1888-1914) and are still an associate member of the UK Commonwealth of Nations. Though the official language of Bearland is Bnoa, a hybrid of several native bear dialects, English is taught and spoken universally, with only the most rustic of bears having no knowledge of the language. A Royal Air Force base is still maintained by the UK in proximity to Bearland's largest city, Waterbrownbear, with a community of some 750 RAF officers, airmen, dependents, and contract personnel.

The bears of Bearland are proud of their advanced civilization. Most bears wear clothing by choice, although naturism is not outlawed. They maintain a modern network of railroads and highways, and are the only nation on the Continent that uses motorcars as a private means of transportation. Bear Air is the official airline for tourists traveling to and from the Continent.

The climate of Bearland is various. It is the northernmost nation on the continent, which is to say, the closest to the equator, and the weather in Waterbrownbear is similar to that of Auckland, New Zealand. The beaches of Bearland are justly celebrated and visited by hundreds of thousands of bears and humans every year.

Farther to the south, the capitol of Brownbakikio is more continental, and the southernmost city, in the mountains near the Fox Territories, Brownbearking, is surrounded by tall mountains and host to fabulous winter sports. 

The "people" of Bearland are among the most hospitable you will see anywhere. They call themselves the "Upright Bears" both because they have evolved as majority bipedal creatures, and because their Bearish Christian Anglican religion calls upon them always to do the right thing in the right situation. The traditional Cathedral of All Souls in Brownbakikio is an awe-inspiring sight with twin Bnoogothic towers reaching to 375 feet and adorned with the unique and glowering bear gargoyles. 02794_0010027659

For guests, the Bearish motto translates to loading them down with the national delicacy, honey.

Honey is an ingredient in almost everything eaten and drunk in Bearland, and it is not uncommon to see honeybees flying about in even the most urban of areas. Bears are avid beekeepers and are proud to show visitors their prized hives. Be sure to ask if proper protective gear is available. Most bears do not mind a sting or two, but human hides are more tender.

Bearland is a sport fisherman's paradise. Bears lovingly maintain wild salmon fisheries, and each year the spawning of salmon is host to many salmon swiping festivals. In smaller streams, bears don the traditional waders and fly fish to their heart's content.

Hibernation is a custom now considered archaic among bears, and tourists will find year-round fun and attractions in Bearland, though the winter months tend to be a quieter time of reflection and relaxation for all but the most ambitious of bears.

Sports in Bearland are a great passion. The national game is Sockey, a combination of field hockey and soccer where players score goals both by hitting the small leather ball with a stick-- or by kicking it. Red Dot is Bearland's answer to Australian Rules Football, and is the most rough-and-ready of the native games. Bears also play soccer, rugby, ice hockey, and other more traditional sports. 

All in all, there is much more than one phase shift's worth of things to do and see in Bearland. As the bears say, "Bearland: a honey of a place where you'll want to 'stick' around."

I read Skater, Lyn reads Wendy

Truenorth.smallTrue North Writers & Publishers Co-operative, of which I am a co-founder, is having reader events! My colleague Lyn Fairchild Hawks will also be reading from her novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought.

Please come if you are local. It will be great fun.

Friday, September 13, 6 PM, Purple Crow Books, Hillsborough, NC. Friday evenings in Hillsborough are hopping. Come by to hear us read, soak in the literary atmosphere of the town, then get out into the town, walk the beautiful fall evening, and find a great restaurant to Tweet, Yelp, or Facebook about later.

Saturday, September 14, 2 PM, McIntyre's Books, Fearrington Village, Pittsboro, NC. We're doing a tribute to our mentor, brilliant, literary-medalled, late author and creative writing professor Doris Betts. McIntyre's is a great independent bookshop. We will have a couple of surprises for this one.

Sunday, September 15, 2 PM, Fullsteam Brewery, Durham, NC. A laid-back party with games, trivia, munchies, and beer. Come by to say hi and have a pretzel, a craft brew, a signed book. Perfect for your Hallowe'en (?) gift plans.