Can You Believe the Kindle is Ten Years Old?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The Kindle turns ten next month. My, how that little baby has grown!

When Amazon’s ereader first came out (November 19, 2007 to be exact), I sensed most people were skeptical about the future of digital reading. The Sony Reader had been around for years but failed to take hold. “Electronic books” were thought to be the coming thing around Y2K. Publishers Weekly even started a section to cover the subject, but later dropped it due to failure to launch.

Clearly, serious readers preferred paper. So the Kindle would probably sell to some early adopters, but likely would not revolutionize anything.

**clears throat**

In 2008, Oprah Winfrey gave the Kindle her endorsement. Talk about a boost! Then people began to realize they could have all the works of Dickens and Dostoevsky on a single device which they could take on a plane or a train or (in L.A. commuter traffic) an automobile. Pretty doggone cool!

And the biz mavens realized that Amazon was (as always, it seems) making a powerful and forward-thinking business move—selling the Kindle as a gateway to their massive bookstore.

Here at TKZ, we were analyzing all this from the start. On Kindle’s one-year anniversary our own Kathryn Lilley wrote:

I think it’s time for all of us to stop mourning the nongrowth of paper book sales, and celebrate the new digital age. It’s the future. Let’s embrace it. For example, last week when I posted, I was freaking out about the changes in the industry. This week, I have decided to reframe my thoughts about the book publishing crisis, and seek out the hidden opportunities in those changes.

Because ready or not, the digital era is here. Kindle products like the Oasis are still going strong. In fact, this review of Oasis is spot on.

And what did all this mean for authors? Well, beginning in 2009 or so, it became apparent that Amazon was presenting a viable new way for writers to get published—by their own selves!

And get this: by offering authors an unheard of 70% royalty split!

The lit hit the fan.

A complete unknown named Amanda Hocking made a cool couple of million dollars publishing directly on Amazon!

This got the attention of many, including TKZ emeritus Boyd Morrison, and a mainstream mystery author by the name of Joe Konrath who, via his blog, began to champion the new digital possibilities.

When I went to Bouchercon in San Francisco in October of 2010, everybody was wondering how to get in on the ebook thing without ticking off their agent or publisher. Agents (and I heard several) were warning writers not to “go there” for fear it would jeopardize their careers. Publishers were not at all sanguine about their authors moonlighting with a company they saw as their biggest threat. Some writers even got sued or terminated over this.

But the money was dropping off Kindle trees! That could not be ignored.

A funny thing happened at that Bouchercon. I was sitting with a couple of writer friends in the lobby of the SF Hyatt Regency, talking about all this, when Joe Konrath arrived and made his way to the bar area. He was flocked by fellow authors peppering him with questions.

The next day, at lunchtime, I was outside the Hyatt and spotted Mr. Konrath and one Barry Eisler walking and talking excitedly along the sidewalk. I thought, “What is that all about?”

A few months later I found out. Mr. Eisler, a New York Times bestselling thriller author, turned down half a million bucks from his publisher in order to publish with Amazon!

It was the talk of the industry. I saw it as a real tipping point. In fact, I gave it a name: “The Eisler Sanction.”

Self-publishing was getting serious.

I put my own toe in the E waters in February of 2011. Now I’m all wet.

So ten years after the birth of the Kindle, what have we seen?

1. Kindle devices and apps are awesome. I’m currently reading the two-volume memoir of Ulysses S. Grant, easily highlighting passages I want to review later. The General is bivouacked on my phone. Cost me 99¢.

2. While other ereaders have appeared—notably Nook and Kobo—the Kindle is dominant and unlikely to lose market share. The poor Nook, which is also a cool device, is hanging by a thread.

3. Kindle Direct Publishing has saved the careers of thousands of midlist writers, and created the careers of thousands more who are making good-to-massive lettuce every month. Those who are doing well have mastered some basic practices but also concentrate on the most important thing: quality and production.

4. The traditional publishing industry was hit hard by the digital disruption. There have been mergers, layoffs, shrinking profits and even a DOJ smackdown.

5. But the Forbidden City is still open for business. And while large-advance deals for debut authors are becoming as rare as the blue-footed booby, they still happen.

6. There has been chatter about the “comeback” of print books, but it appears that most of any increase in print sales can be traced to … Amazon. (And here’s a counterintuitive development: Millennials may actually prefer print books!)

7. Big bookstores took a huge hit due to e-commerce. The massive Borders chain of stores went down, followed by Family Christian. Barnes & Noble stores have been closing steadily for the last eight years, a trend that will likely continue.

8. However, local independent bookstores may be emerging through the cracks. Oh, and guess who else is opening up physical stores? Amazon.

9. On the other hand, many niche bookstores are closing. The latest is Seattle’s Mystery Bookshop.

10. We’ve reached a period of relative stasis in the “self v. trad wars.” From 2010 to 2014 or so, it seemed like we’d get blogosphere firestorms every week cheering for, or predicting the demise of, Big Pub. There was also a lot of “gold rush” talk on the indie side. Reality, as it is wont to do, has settled things down. There’s a lot of information out there now (e.g., Author Earnings reports) and the savvy players have a better handle on where they stand.

In an episode of Downton Abbey, when it became clear that the old ways of life were on the way out, never to return, Carson the butler mused, “The nature of life is not permanence, but flux.”

Kindle brought the flux. And a decade later, we’re living it.

What do you say, TKZers? What are your reflections on the 10th birthday of the Kindle?

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Killing off good characters

WARNING: SPOILER ALERTS
Yesterday, I killed the dog.
I didn’t want to do it but it had to be done. The creature had been hanging around far too long and I had sort of grown to regret ever allowing it into my life. So I killed the dog.
I waited as long as I could — chapter twenty-two to be exact. But then I just typed the words and the mutt was gone. Now I have to endure the after-wrath. It won’t come for months because the book won’t be published until next year but I know it will come. There’s an unwritten rule in our genre that you never kill animals. Because if you do, your readers turn on you like, well, rabid dogs.
It’s not just dogs. It can be cats. I am a big fan of the British writer Minette Walters, read every book she put out. Until “The Shape of Snakes” and she had a character who tortured cats to death with duct tape. Repulsed, I threw the book across the room. I had seven cats at the time.
This rule about animals is not just limited to cats and dogs. It’s birds, hamsters, horses. I refused to see the movie “War Horse” until a friend assured me the horse didn’t die. And don’t get me started about what those damn pigs did to Boxer the Horse in “Animal Farm.” 
The killing of the good and innocent. It’s the toughest thing we writers do. I am often asked what books have influenced me most as a writer and my first answer is “Charlotte’s Web.” It taught me that yes, sometimes you just have to kill off a really good character for the sake of the story, even if it’s only a spider. 
Is it harder if it’s a human being?

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

That’s King Lear speaking. He’s grieving for the dead Cordelia. She was the good daughter, if you recall. Now Shakespeare had no qualms about killing off the good. (That’s why they called them tragedies.) We writers are still learning from him after all these years, especially those of us in the crime genre where death is the main machine in our plots. 
I’ve been thinking hard about this lately. Not just because of the dog thing but because of “Downton Abbey.” When Matthew Crawley bought the farm on that country road my mouth dropped open. Damn! They killed the good guy! He’s never coming back. Unless Mary steps into the shower and declares that his death was just a dream.
I felt the same way when Bobby Simone did his Mimi bit on “NYPD Blue.” Ditto when Col. Henry Blake’s helicopter went down in “M*A*S*H.” And I was upset that Lane Pryce hanged himself in “Mad Men” before he had a chance to make things right in his sad life.
Is it different in novels? Do readers feel less invested than viewers? Or are the attachments they form in the pure ether of their imaginations even stronger than those forged by film?
Consider Charles Dickens. He delivered his novel “The Old Curiosity Shop” chapter by chapter to his fans and when he killed off his heroine, Little Nell, all hell broke loose. One critic wrote, “Dickens killed Nell just as a butcher would slaughter a lamb.”
Author Conan Doyle always wanted to kill off Holmes. (“I must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him,” he once grumbled.) When Doyle finally did Holmes in, thousands canceled their subscription to The Strand. Doyle eventually gave in and resurrected Holmes in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
Closer to home, a few years ago crime writer Karin Slaughter killed off one of her beloved characters. Readers were furious, many accusing her of doing it for the shock value and vowing to never pick up another one of her books again. Slaughter felt compelled to post an explanation on her website. 
Readers take these things personally. At least they do if you, the writer, are doing your job. It broke my heart when Beth died in “Little Women.” I was mad at Larry McMurtry for weeks after he killed Gus in “Lonesome Dove.”  It took me decades to understand why Phineas had to die in “A Separate Peace.”
In fact, I didn’t really get what Fowles was doing with that book until fairly recently when I finally got around to reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.” Finney, I realized, had to die so Gene could find a way to live.
I wish I could say that in those decades between “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Hero’s Journey” that I have learned how to the handle death of the good. That is what the best books are supposed to do, after all, teach us about such big questions. But I think I have become a better at dealing with death as a writer. So let me offer a few suggestions for anyone who is struggling with this.
Make it worth something. You must create a bond between the doomed character and the reader so when that character dies, it has value. The death has to propel the plot forward or affect the emotional arc of another character. Check out this stellar passage from one of my favorite books “Smiley’s People” by John le Carré.

Slowly, [Smiley] returned his gaze to Leipzig’s face. Some dead faces, he reflected, have the dull, even stupid look of a patient under anaesthetic. Others preserve a single mood of the once varied nature – the dead man as lover, as father, as car driver, bridge player, tyrant. And some, like Leipzig’s, have ceased to preserve anything. But Leipzig’s face, even without the ropes across it, had a mood, and it was anger: anger intensified by pain, turned to fury by it; anger that had increased and become the whole man as the body lost its strength.

The death has to be organic. Make sure there is enough time for the reader to come to know the character. The death may be a surprise but there should be a subtle feeling of foreshadowing about it. Lennie Small in “Of Mice and Men” strikes an empathetic chord with the reader. That’s why his death at the hands of his best friend George to spare him from a lynch mob, is so powerful.
Don’t do it to fix a weak plot. We’ve all read books where another corpse is dropped and we go “meh.” Mercifully, I won’t include any examples here.
Keep true to your book’s tone. How do you want your readers to feel about this? Fearful? Deep sense of personal loss? Generalized feeling of human tragedy? Maybe you want them to laugh. Yeah, can be appropriate. I can’t think of any book examples but here’s an image I can’t forget from “L.A. Law”: Villainess Rosalind Shays accidently stepping to her doom in that open elevator shaft.
Don’t preach. Let the readers make their own conclusions about what the death means. Don’t tack on one of those awful codas where the hero stands around telling us what truths he has learned. And don’t, for corn’s sake, have someone say something like, “well, I guess we should steer clear of cannibals in the future.”
Be sure of what you are doing. Unless you’re in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s league, you can’t undo a death. At least not without some silly deus ex machina thing. I mean, I am glad that Spock didn’t really die from radiation poisoning in the warp drive tube. But I thought his rebirth was cheesy. I recently read a really good mystery by a successful author and I am pretty sure that the character he killed off isn’t really dead. (Can’t tell you the title; the author would kill me). I hope I am wrong. I hope the character is dead because it feels truer to this writer’s voice. Which leads me to my final point…
Let the end make room for beginnings. Pay attention to the survivors in your story and make sure death affects their lives. Leave room for redemption. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” what’s so disturbing about Tom Robinson’s death is its awful inevitably. After falsely being found guilty of rape, he tries to escape but is shot by prison guards. But are we left in despair? I don’t think so because through this experience, Jem and Scout are learning about the dark complexities of the adult world. And at the end, there is Jem, keeping Scout from squishing that little roly-poly bug. There is hope in his need to protect the most vulnerable. There is hope for us all.
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What Writers Can Learn From Downton Abbey


All over our fair land, fans of Downton Abbey are aflutter with anticipation as the third season of the huge hit (already seen in the U.K.) kicks off on January 6. No less a light than Shirley MacLaine joins the cast (which is ironic as she actually lived in Edwardian England).
About a year ago many of my writing friends were fervently chatting up this series. I started hearing it referenced on radio shows and in coffee shops. I finally told my wife, Hey, let’s watch the first couple of episodes of this thing and see what the big deal is.
So we started watching.
And couldn’t stop. We zipped through all the episodes, via Netflix and online, until we were caught up. It had us hooked. We are now two of the faithful.
Are you? If not, may I suggest you get on the stick? And perhaps tread carefully over this post and the comments, as some spoilers may appear. But then again, you will probably forget them when you start watching, because soon enough you’ll just be caught up in the storytelling.
Which leads me to the subject of this post. Why has Downton Abbey proved so popular? I think there are some palpable reasons, and writers can learn from them. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. The characters are complex
The good are not all good and the bad are not all bad. Julian Fellowes, the creator of the show, is a novelist (and actor . . .and director . . .) and has brought those skills to the cast. We find something to care about in each of them, even the ones who are less than admirable.
2. Strength of will
When I teach plot, I stress that readers get engaged with a story when a character shows “strength of will.” We bond with characters who are active, not passive. Each character in Downton Abbey has an agenda, and each pursues it in such a way that we want to see how it turns out for them—and how it affects the rest of the characters.
3. Nobility
There is a thread of old fashioned English nobility running through many of the characters, both upstairs and downstairs. It’s what immediately got me bonded to Bates and two of my other favorite characters, Carson and Mrs. Hughes.
Humanity is responsive to noble sentiment. If you can weave that into your fiction you are hitting a nerve that resonates deeply with readers, even if they can’t identify it.
4. The power of love
As the prophet Huey Lewis said, “It’s strong and it’s sudden and it’s cruel sometimes. But it might just save your life.”
That’s the power of love and in Downton Abbey there are loves gained, loves lost and loves hoped for. There’s a reason romance has been, and probably always will be, the most popular genre. As a culture we are in love with love, and when characters we care about are yearning for it, and suffering for it, we just can’t stop watching their hearts on display.
5. Plot disasters
And in terms of just plain plotting, the writers know how to leave us hanging. There was one particular twist in an early show (I won’t give it away) but fans know what I am referring to if I mention the word Turk. Things like this happen in big ways and little ways. It’s the old fashioned concept of the twist and the cliffhanger. If only there were a book that delved into the secrets of creating all that. Wait, there is.
6. Cross cutting
Downton keeps several plates spinning in each episode, cutting back and forth between the whirling platters like a clever novelist using several POVs. It takes tremendous skill to pull that off, because each POV has to work on its own terms. Downton gets this right.
7. Secrets
Give characters secrets, past wounds, a “ghost” that haunts the present. The key is to raise the specter of a deep secret, show its consequences in a character’s present life, but don’t reveal the source too soon. That mystery keeps us watching to find out the answers. The Downton characters have ghosts from the past that drop in for startling and sometimes devastating revisits.
Okay, I now turn over the conversation to our community here at TKZ. Are you a Downton devotee? Why? What is this series doing so right? 

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