Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Stuff you find on the Internet that takes you back

Around 1977 or so, the fourth grade version of me was a rabid Star Wars fan.

This was before being a rabid Star Wars fan became cliched, mildly pathetic, and vaguely creepy, mind you. (And hey, I was only nine years old.)

During that period of 1977 through 1978, as America suffered through the nadir of the Jimmy Carter years, I was blissfully unaware of the wider problems of the world, thanks to my youth and my Star Wars obsession. 

My bedroom was a virtual shrine to the movie. (There were no mediocre sequels and prequels yet.) My prized possessions were these Burger King posters, which the fast food chain gave away in 1977 to anyone who purchased a sandwich and a soft drink.

I lost these more than thirty years ago. They ended up in the trash when we moved in the summer of 1978. Too bad: I understand that they are prized among collectors now. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Ebook prices falling amid market pressures

While browsing on Amazon.com this week, I noticed that a lot of Kindle fiction titles were cheaper than usual.

As it turns out, publishers have in fact been systematically lowering ebook prices since last year:

"Ebook prices have been on a steadily southward trajectory since the summer of 2012 when Digital Book World started tracking them. The average price of a top-25 best-selling ebook peaked in October of 2012 at just under $12 and has lately hovered at about half that."

As the hyperlinked article notes, the low prices are inconsistent, as publishers are employing loss leader strategies:

"The overall price decline trend is likely driven by retailers competing with each other for customers as well as trying to bring readers in the door with loss-leading deals on top books that are paid for when more profitable ebooks are purchased at higher prices."
The title of the Forbes.com article is "When You Can Buy Current,Best-Selling Books For Under $2.00"

The proposition here is hyperbolic and unrealistic, of course. Nevertheless, the price of ebooks will have to decrease over time in order to make them competitive against other forms of entertainment. 

With the exception of academic/professional/technical nonfiction, there should never really be a reason to price an ebook at more than $9.99--and most titles should be about half that.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Jason Kottke on the death of the blog

From the Nieman Journalism Lab:

"Sometime in the past few years, the blog died. In 2014, people will finally notice. Sure, blogs still exist, many of them are excellent, and they will go on existing and being excellent for many years to come. But the function of the blog, the nebulous informational task we all agreed the blog was fulfilling for the past decade, is increasingly being handled by a growing number of disparate media forms that are blog-like but also decidedly not blogs.
Instead of blogging, people are posting to Tumblr, tweeting, pinning things to their board, posting to Reddit, Snapchatting, updating Facebook statuses, Instagramming, and publishing on Medium. In 1997, wired teens created online diaries, and in 2004 the blog was king. Today, teens are about as likely to start a blog (over Instagramming or Snapchatting) as they are to buy a music CD. Blogs are for 40-somethings with kids."

I both agree and disagree with Jason Kottke's analysis.

Although the term "blog" is uniquely and exclusively associated with the Internet, the blog is actually just another mode of long-form writing. 

And writing takes work--if you're going to do it with any degree of consistency.In order to maintain a blog, you have to write essays--the very thing that so many people hated to do back in high school English class. 

Not everyone has the time, inclination, or discipline to do this. 

Nor should they, by the way. I have a friend who builds his own computers. That simply doesn't interest me--I'd rather buy a finished product from Dell or Apple. 

I don't regard myself as "lazy" or "inferior" because I want to use a computer without actually building my own. Likewise, I don't think less of people who want to maintain an online presence of some sort, but who don't necessarily want to write 300- to 1,500-word essays on a regular basis.

Prior to the appearance of Facebook, Twitter, etc. a great number of people were starting blogs, I suspect, because blogs were the only way to maintain an online presence. Now, as Kottke notes, there are many choices--most of which don't require extensive writing. 

This doesn't mean that "the blog is dead". It simply means that henceforth, blogging will tend to be the domain of people who actually want to write online, whereas all of these other services will provide more convenient ways for everyone else to simply maintain an online presence.

Monday, December 16, 2013

182 years old, and still a good book

Get Frankenstein at Amazon.com

From The Independent: How Mary Shelley's Frankenstein continues to age well

Frankenstein, incidentally, is probably the first work of sci-fi horror to be produced in the English language. 

Unlike most horror novels of that era (as well as our own), Frankenstein doesn't contain supernatural elements like ghosts, witches and demons. The premise of the book is based on a scientific speculation--but a wholly unpleasant on

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Charles Dickens--skeptical of early social engineering?

From the BBC: Why Charles Dickens endures.

"Dickens didn't seem to share the idea, common among reformers in his day and our own, that there is a more reasonable and better-natured human species hidden away somewhere inside us, waiting to be let out…. Dickens enjoyed human beings as he found them, unregenerate, peculiar and incorrigibly themselves."

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Horror fiction and uncertainty

The Walking Dead is the top cable series of 2013, as measured by total number of viewers.

Why is horror so popular of late--especially zombie-related horror?

Certainly not because anyone really believes that a mysterious virus is going to result in a worldwide outbreak of the undead anytime soon.

Horror is most effective when it functions as a metaphor.  

The zombie apocalypse is a metaphor for the disintegration of society, the downfall of the world as we know it.

Over roughly the last ten years, the Western world has been rocked by uncertainty--starting with 9/11, and continuing with the terrorist incidents in London and Madrid. 

Then came the global financial meltdown of 2007-2009. 

In the U.S., the economy remains sluggish, and there is not much confidence in either of the country's two major political parties. Europe, likewise, is in political and fiscal disarray. 

It is worth noting that horror was much less popular in the 1990s, when the world (at least the Western, English-speaking world) was generally much more stable and prosperous. 

Horror fiction is the fiction uncertain times.

Ernest Hemingway and the art of creative pacing

Via FastCompany:

"To Ernest Hemingway, writers are like wells: "The important thing is to have good water in the well," he told the Paris Review, "and it is better to take a regular amount out than to pump the well dry and wait for it to refill."  
In this way, Hemingway coined the phrase leaving water in the well: instead of spending all your creative juices all at once, you leave a little bit of inspiration so that you can return to the same momentum that you left it with. Hemingway, whose habits of badass productivity we've talked about before, said to never stop writing without knowing how you are going to start again, to, in other words, never end a day's work without knowing how you are going to start the next day.  
But why does this help a workflow work so well? Leaving a task with an intention of how you'll resume it is the compositional equivalent to packing your gym bag the night before--you reduce the friction of getting back into writing your novel, designing your webpage, or building that game-changing presentation deck, thus making it easier to do the difficult, deep work and giving you one less reason to procrastinate."

As noted above, these are points to consider not only for writers--but for anyone whose work requires a constant reservoir of creativity.

Writers,Twitter, and book marketing

It seems that Stephen King--a prolific novelist by any assessment--is far from prolific on Twitter, even though he has an account, and there are (no surprise) plenty of people on Twitter who are more than willing to read whatever he might have to say.

"The prolific novelist, who has penned something like 29 million words in his lifetime, has managed only four little missives thus far: two on the launch of his account (“no longer a virgin. Be gentle!”) and two on things he is reading and watching (Benjamin Percy’s “Red Moon,” and the French zombie drama “The Returned”). That lack of output hasn’t stopped @StephenKing from running up nearly 190,000 followers within its first days online and earning hundreds of retweets and replies to every little dribble of thought he allows out."

It isn't particularly surprising to me that a novelist like King would be struck mum by the fragmented format of Twitter, based as it on 140-character messages. Twitter is great for celebrities, political pundits, and business gurus, who think in buzzwords and catchphrases. 

For novelists--who think in paragraphs and chapters--not so much.

If you're a novelist and reading this, I'm not trying to tell you that you shouldn't have a Twitter account. But you shouldn't view Twitter as all-important, or as a magic bullet for marketing your books.

The same goes for other social media platforms. Social media is an important part of marketing almost everything nowadays, so every author should probably have some sort of a social media presence.

That having been said, not every author has to file hourly dispatches on every social media platform. Moreover, some social media platforms are intrinsically of questionable benefit to authors (especially authors of fiction).

Take YouTube: Video-holics aren't necessarily voracious readers. Moreover, around 70% of YouTube's traffic now comes from outside the U.S., and (based on my experiences on YouTube) from outside the English-speaking world. 

This isn't to say that people who reside outside the English-speaking world never read English-language novels; most certainly they do. But English-language books are significantly harder to market to readers whose first language is French, Japanese, Russian or Urdu. And as an author, devoting a lot of time and energy to courting these (potential) readers may not be the best use of your time, resources, and energy.

Which brings us back to Twitter: People who enjoy reading random 140-character fragments may or may not be interested in your 400-page novel, or your 500-page nonfiction book about the history of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. 

For attracting those readers, a more book-like format--such as a blog or even a static web page--might be be far more effective.

Friday, December 13, 2013

What I'm reading: "Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire" by Simon Baker

Several of my readers have asked me to recommend a good book that gives an overview of the history Ancient Rome.

This is somewhat of a tall order, since the history of Ancient Rome covers so much time and so much diversity. However, Simon Baker's book rises to the task. It is highly readable, and reasonably thorough, all things considered.

The book is slightly more than 400 pages long; and it covers all of the major phases of Ancient Rome--from the Roman Republic through the fall of the Christian Roman Empire. 

I emphasize that this book is an overview. The vast amount of time and events included in Baker's book means that relatively major characters--like Emperors Tiberius and Julian the Apostate--are given only a few pages or paragraphs. Readers who already know the fundamentals of Roman history will probably prefer to focus on texts that deal with specific lives and periods. 

Still, if you are brand new to Ancient Roman history (or need a good review of the basics), then Ancient Rome should serve you well.

The book is slightly more than 400 pages long; and it covers all of the major phases of Ancient Rome--from the Roman Republic through the fall of the Christian Roman Empire. 

I emphasize that this book is an overview. The vast amount of time and events included in Baker's book means that relatively major characters--like Emperors Tiberius and Julian the Apostate--are given only a few pages or paragraphs. Readers who already know the fundamentals of Roman history will probably prefer to focus on texts that deal with specific lives and periods. 

Still, if you are brand new to Ancient Roman history (or need a good review of the basics), then Ancient Rome should serve you well.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Science fiction and philosophy

An interesting essay on this topic from the Huffington Post:

"By proposing possible visions of the future, science fiction asks questions of us--of humanity, of Earth, of individuals--that we wouldn't ordinarily ask ourselves. Who are we? Where are we going? Does what we do today matter? Real science fiction is as close to an intense discussion of philosophy as you can get while still reading fast-paced, page-turning fiction. And it doesn't always give us the answers. Sometimes it leaves us to answer those questions ourselves, and that discussion is one readers of all stripes relish."

YouTube, Popular Science, and the backlash against anonymous comments

Is it time for a fundamental reevaluation of the idea that reader comments intrinsically enrich blogs, online news articles, and videos?

Popular Science recently decided to shut off all comments on its site, while YouTube is taking steps to make commenters more accountable.

The heyday of unfettered anonymous commenting might be on the wane. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Young people and reading

It isn't all bad news, as the popular notion that young people are reading less than they were a generation ago may be exaggerated:

"The clamor for young adult reading programs to “save reading” seems to indicate that kids were reading much more twenty years ago but have recently given it up. This is, of course, not true."

How paperbacks rescued publishing in the twentieth century

In the mid-1930s, book sales were in slump due to a.) competition from radio and cinema and b.) the high prices of hardcover books. 

The solution? The invention of the paperback book in 1935 .