The Future of Reading: E-Books, Audiobooks, Multimedia, and Beyond

Buffalo_bill_wild_west_show_c1899by CJ Verburg

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the literary world is in flux. Book publishing is the 21st-century Wild West. It’s the Gold Rush. Meaning, fortunes are being made and lost, and since nobody’s sure where the next big thing will come from, many ambitious Argonauts are looking for their payoff in the crystal-ball market.

Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped:
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped:

The first question I would ask before making any predictions is, Why do we have books? What do we want from them? Is a story printed on paper pages more powerful in some way than one that appears and disappears on a screen between phone calls? Is a book simply a content delivery system, or is the medium part of the message?

These are bigger questions than I can analyze here and now, but some intriguing clues have emerged. Data show the classic book form is thriving. Reliable figures are sparse, but we know the self-publishing boom has exploded the number of books produced per year, adding around 400,000 to the million or so total in 2013. Traditional publishers’ output continues to rise, although the heavy competition has kept earnings flat. Print book sales remain vigorous; and while e-book sales are no longer skyrocketing, they’re strong and rising.

EGOS_wpIn June 2012, when I published my multimedia e-book Edward Gorey On Stage, it was pioneering to include hyperlinks in the text and photo captions to take readers to film clips, related websites, music, and more. So many startups were creating interactive book technology that I half expected a paradigm shift to a hybrid between an e-book and a video game. We’re seeing some of that, in children’s books and textbooks and some other niches, but on the whole it hasn’t happened. To my surprise, several reviewers of Edward Gorey On Stage wished it were available in old-fashioned print on paper. So I asked myself how I could do that, and now there is a full-color multimedia print version as well as an e-book. Still, it’s not the links people respond to as much as the content. Readers want information, and they want a story.

LBBschoonerAReSo what I think we can look forward to, for now, is most adult fiction and nonfiction published in three formats: print, e-book, and audiobook. Our multitasking zeitgeist means that a lot of people read while they’re doing something else, such as commuting, exercise, or housework. The structure of the story won’t change much, because we humans exist in time, so every experience has a de facto beginning, middle, and end. LBBaudio2And as Joseph Campbell has pointed out, the same basic story lines show up in all different cultures, because every community struggling with this vast and chaotic world wants to know what the heck is going on. Birth and death. Love and work. War and heroism.

Where do the bells and whistles come in? Peter Thiel, a techno mogul who cofounded PayPal, has a new book out called Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. In his opinion, tech and the tech industry have a better shot than money at bringing about change in the world. That impact includes books.

Right now we’re seeing a tech crossover less in book format than in book marketing. In a short piece that just came out September 24 in Digital Book World, Rich Bellis notes that media tie-ins power half of this week’s best-selling e-books. OutlanderThis isn’t a new trend, but it’s the highest proportion so far of digital best-sellers linked with movies or TV shows. With the film version of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl hitting cinemas on October 3, the e-book version is back at #1. “Eight other titles within the top-25 (The Maze Runner, three titles in the Outlander series, If I StayThe Fault in Our Stars, This Is Where I Leave You and Dark Places) have current or upcoming film or TV series tie-ins.”

What does this mean for books? If you’re in movies or TV, books have become an increasingly valuable slush pile. The Outlander series running on Starz is based on a book series by Diana Gabaldon that dates back to 1991. Most of the popular British mystery series on American public television began as books, by authors from 21st-century Ann Cleeves back to Agatha Christie almost a century ago. All this exposure boosts book sales, and we can hope demand, at least for genre books, along with the prospects for authors. On the other hand, Bellis observes, “It can sometimes feel as though the ebooks are ‘tie-ins’ to the TV shows and movies, and not the other way around.” The book may be the seed, but its cover and PR are more likely to feature the star than the writer.

Meanwhile, the consumer gets to have his or her cake and eat it, too. Because our minds process information differently in different formats, there’s a separation between words we read on a page, words we listen to, and moving images. We can enjoy all three, or even two at once; Kindle’s Whispersync touts itself as a way to read the e-book while you’re listening to the audiobook. Still, the external picture supplied by actors on a screen isn’t the same as the internal picture that erupts like a genie from a magic lamp when we read. Whether you’re hooked on the heft of a paper book in your hands, or addicted to the convenience of ebooks or audiobooks, a tale told by a storyteller remains a unique and irreplaceable pleasure.

crystal ball(Note: I’ll be presenting a shorter version of these comments at Booktoberfest 2014; see previous blog for time and place.)

September Book Events in the San Francisco Bay Area

2013: Adele Fasick, Carol Costello, Mary O’Toole, Jon Foyt, Jackie Davis-Martin

by CJ Verburg

September is the busiest month! Coming up next Friday is the fourth annual Booktoberfest at San Franciso’s legendary Mechanics Institute Library. If you’re a Bay Area publisher, author, editor, literary agent, book designer, or reader, September 26 is your night! Stop by 57 Post St. from 5 to 7:30 PM to quaff a locally brewed beer, taste a locally created snack, read a locally written book, hear about new developments in your field, and compare notes with others who share your interests.

The Espresso prints books on the spot @ McNally Jackson, New York

Booktoberfest was first conceived as a grand finale for the Self-Publishers’ (now Indie Publishers’) Working Group, launched in January 2011 to help MIL members explore the 21st-century Gold Rush of print-on-demand and e-books. O brave new world! Kindles were new; the Espresso Book Machine was a sci-fi-class rumor; iPads didn’t exist yet. Booktoberfest began with two working mottos: Buy Local and Put the Pub Back into Publishing. From that sprout, librarian Taryn Edwards has grown Book’toberfest 2014. And as we near the end of our fourth year, members of the Indie Publishers’ Working Group have published enough books to fill a library shelf.

This year, in addition to display tables for Bay Area publishers, a side room will house 5-minute presentations by two dozen Mechanics Institute authors and other book artisans.

SinC-9-14This past Saturday in Berkeley, the September meeting of Sisters In Crime celebrated three particularly illustrious members: Rhys Bowen, Priscilla Royal, and Camille Minichino, gracefully interviewed by chapter president Susan Shea (backed up here by Diana Chambers) and hosted by Terry Shames. Rhys’s latest mystery is Queen of Hearts Priscilla’s is Covenant with Hell; Camille’s (as Margaret Grace) is Madness in Miniature. Although the day’s honorees were induced to sign books afterwards, the focus was on sisterhood, in the metaphorical sense (men too are welcome as Sisters In Crime): mutual support, inspiration, and celebration.

Lurking around the corner in October: Litquake!


DANGER! Behind Romance & Mystery – Book Stealing

image from (uncredited)

by Charisse Howard

Cybercrime. That’s a problem for high-profile corporations, right? Not for an author of historical romantic suspense novels.

So I thought until this morning, when I Googled to check if the audio version of Lady Barbara & the Buccaneer is out yet, and discovered someone’s stealing my books.

It appears my second Regency Rakes & Rebels romance is quite the hot ticket. Currently exclusive to KindleUnlimited, Lady Barbara & the Buccaneer‘s sales for September on Amazon (list price $2.99) are zero. That’s surprised me, since the comments I’ve heard from friends, as well as the online ratings at Goodreads and elsewhere, have been very positive. Could the reason I’m not earning any royalties be those illegal pdf copies? which were downloaded for free by 106 readers today, and 776 readers so far this week?

Here’s a peek at the pirates’ website, which I hope will have taken offline by the time you read this:PrintScreen from cybertheft site
For me, the most galling datum on this page is that 214 readers rate the book 9.1 out of 10; yet Lady Barbara & the Buccaneer hasn’t got a single review out of all that enthusiasm.

image from (uncredited)

One can argue that freebies are a popular, even essential, part of book promotion. To that I’d counter: How likely are thieves to turn into buyers? Aren’t the people who deliberately stole a book they could have bought for le$$ than a slice of pizza liable to be the same freeloaders who e-mail me to say they loved my last book, and will I please tell them when I do a giveaway of my next one?

What I’d like to tell them is this. Writing a book, especially a good book, takes time–a lot more time than reading one. Your favorite author has bills to pay, same as you do. If you want her/him to keep entertaining you, then shell out a few bucks to help keep him/her at the keyboard. If you can’t afford to buy the print book, buy the e-book. If you can’t afford the e-book, check out a copy from your local library, or pick it up for free with an Amazon Prime, KindleUnlimited, Scribd, or Oyster subscription.

And what I’d like to tell my fellow writers is: Keep an eye on your books. We can’t track them everywhere; that way lies madness. But with Amazon encouraging readers (and authors) to believe Free Is Cool, who but us cares if we get paid for our work?

StealThisBookWe have other (and better) choices besides KDP Select giveaways. One is the contests and lotteries on Goodreads and other sites where you can donate a limited number of free copies to be won by people who truly want to read your book, and are likely to review it. Another is Kindle Countdown. Another is Smashwords’s “choose your price” setting, where the author can recommend a price but allow readers to pay whatever they can afford. This tactic recently shot to the top of my faves list when it brought Lady Caroline, the Corsair’s Captive a glowing 5-star review.

If I ever figure out how to earn a living from writing books that nobody pays for, I’ll happily join up with the 21st century’s Abbie Hoffmans. Until then, literature has enough problems without being plundered by latter-day Jean Laffites.