Open Forum on Reading Habits

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The Kindle turns ten years old this year. A good time to ponder the question, What hath Bezos wrought?

The question comes on the heels of a controversial article from The Guardian UK, which posits that the downturn in e-book sales in 2016 may be related to “screen fatigue.” We simply spend too much time on our phones, computers, tablets, and TVs that the printed page is kind of a relief, says the author.

Another article in The Guardian proclaims that the Kindle is now unhip:

“[The Kindle] was new and exciting,” says Cathryn Summerhayes, a literary agent at Curtis Brown. “But now they look so clunky and unhip, don’t they? I guess everyone wants a piece of trendy tech and, unfortunately, there aren’t trendy tech reading devices and I don’t think people are reading long-form fiction on their phones. I think your average reader would say that one of the great pleasures of reading is the physical turning of the page. It slows you down and makes you think.”

There are a couple of assumptions baked into these articles which, upon closer inspection, do not hold flour. First of all, ebook sales outside of the traditional publishing system are doing just fine. According to the latest Author Earnings Report, between early 2016 and early 2017, overall Amazon US ebook sales grew 4%. “While that’s not the kind of double-digit (or triple-digit) growth we had seen in the earlier days of the ebook era, it’s still more than enough to offset the ongoing shrinkage at Barnes & Noble’s Nook. In other words, albeit slowly now, the overall US ebook market is still growing.”

Still, one might ask if reading habits are changing or morphing back into pre-Kindle practices. So I’d like to throw this open to the TKZ community and visitors.

What are your reading habits like today as opposed to ten years ago? Has anything changed more recently, say in the past five years?

Here’s my answer. When I got my Kindle as a Christmas present in 2010, I was giddy. You mean I can carry around the complete works of Dickens? For 99¢? And Jack London? All in this nifty little device? Cool! And then there is the massive Project Gutenberg library, with so many public domain works — fiction and non-fiction — available for free.

I did continue to frequent my local Barnes & Noble, however, where I would purchase the occasional new release from a favorite author.

But my nearby B&N is no more. The last time I was in a B&N was out of town, about six months ago. The last new print book I purchased, at full price, was on that day. It was a mass market paperback called Nick of Time by a guy named Gilstrap.

I’ve pretty much stopped buying physical books, in no small part because my bookshelves are stuffed. There are volumes stacked on the floor. I’m in the slow process of trying to weed these out, though I find parting to be of such sweet sorrow I often end up reading rather than weeding. My wife has to get me back on task. At least I don’t add to the glut by buying new books. I’m using the L.A. Public Library system more than at any time since I was a kid.

I’m also listening to more library-loaned audio books via OverDrive. 

As far as ebook purchases go, I find myself resistant to prices above $7.99. When I see that a publisher is pricing the ebook the same (and sometimes higher) than the hardcover, I actually snort, shake my head, and go light a candle for the poor author.

So how does all this shake out?

  1. I still love having a massive Kindle library.
  2. I also love having a dedicated Kindle. Not a tablet. I don’t want to multi-task. When I’m on a plane, or waiting somewhere, I just want to read.
  3. I like the ability to highlight books on the Kindle, especially nonfiction. That way, I can print out a 2-5 page précis of the salient points for review and study.
  4. I’ll read on my phone via the Kindle app, but only on occasion. My eyes favor the E ink of my 2nd Gen. Kindle, the one I got for Christmas. (Though I’ve heard the Kindle Oasis absolutely rocks, so that may be in my future).
  5. I have heard reports, however, that among the youngsters they do virtually everything on their phones now, including reading.
  6. I download a lot of samples. So if you want to sell me, make those first pages stunning (see why TKZ does those first page critiques?)
  7. Very rarely do I buy new printed books anymore.
  8. Though I do still like the feel of reading a physical book—laying it open across my chest if I begin to snooze, or throwing it across the room when I get disgusted. As Dorothy Parker once remarked,“This is not a novel to be lightly tossed aside. It should be thrown with great force.”

Your turn. What are your reading and buying habits now in the age of the Kindle? I’m asking that you chat this up amongst yourselves, as I am currently in an undisclosed research location and may not get to comment. So dive in!

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The First Conundrum

Nancy J. Cohen

Often people will start reading a series with book number one. “You can begin with any story,” I’ll tell folks interested in reading my Bad Hair Day series. But they insist on starting at the beginning. “That’s fine,” I’ll say, but is it really?

coverPTD

I am thinking how that first book is not the best example of my writing skills today. How long ago was it published? In 1999. And the book had probably been in production for a year before. So that means I wrote it sixteen or more years ago. Don’t you think my writing has improved since then? Yet here is this potential fan evaluating my entire series based on that one book. You’d hope she would cut me some slack.

At least I got the rights back to my early futuristics. I revised those stories before making them available in ebook formats. No problems there.

I do not have the same opportunity with my mysteries. But even if I did, would it be a good use of my time to revise all of my earlier stories? Or is it best to leave them in their pristine state, an example of my earlier writing style? If so, let’s hope that the readers out there coming to my series for the first time will approve and understand.

Sometimes the opposite is true. A writer’s early works are his best efforts, before he gets rushed to meet deadlines or to quicken production. In such cases, the later writing might suffer. I’ve seen this happen with some favorite authors.

So what do you think? If you want to read a new series, do you begin with book one or with the latest title?
 
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Now for some BSP. My new book, Warrior Lord (Drift Lords Series #3) is being released on Friday, August 1.
http://www.wildrosepublishing.com/maincatalog_v151/index.php?main_page=index&manufacturers_id=831
August 1, Friday, Book Launch Party for Warrior Lord, 10 am – 4 pm EDT. Join the fun. Giveaways all day! https://www.facebook.com/NewReleaseParty
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Rereading the Same Book

Nancy J. Cohen

Recently, I’ve returned to reading The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I like his other stories as well: A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Secret Garden. These historical novels have tropes that appeal to me, and I could read them many times over. But who wants to reread something you’ve already perused when you have a wealth of new books on your shelves and on your ebook reader?

Bookshelf

I feel guilty rereading a volume when I “should” be reading a friend’s work to give a review, a book I’ve obtained at a conference, a freebie on my Kindle, or the books sitting on my shelves for years begging for attention. How about the newest books by my favorite authors? Shouldn’t they get priority? Why am I wasting time reading something I’ve already enjoyed when authors who are alive and well clamor for my reading hours?

I don’t even reread my own books, although I’d like to return to my original Light-Years trilogy and immerse myself in that world again. At least I had the chance to do so when I revised these titles for their digital editions.

How about you? Do you ever go back and pick a book off your dusty shelves or buy the digital version of a book you’ve already read? Does it make you feel guilty that you’re not sitting with a current novel whose author can use your customer review?

Bench Sml (244x241)

Do you have a system to prioritize the books you read? For newer books, I’ll read the next installment by a favorite author or a book by a friend before titles by an unknown writer. The beauty of the digital age is that when you discover a writer you like, you can order the next book in a series right away on your Kindle or Nook. So the historical novel I bought at SleuthFest and am reading now, by an author previously unknown to me, is number one in a series. I’m not even halfway through it, and I know I’ll want the next two books.

This points out two issues about our current age that are both troublesome and exciting. The next books in a series are literally at your fingertips. Push a few buttons, and they are yours. That’s the good thing.

However, I discovered this book as it lay out for display at the on-site conference bookstore. Discoverability is the hot issue today. Most of us with small press or who are indie published do not see our books in bookstores, thus browsing readers will never discover us that way. If I hadn’t spotted this intriguing cover, I’d never have known about this writer. And that’s sad. We have to turn to free books online or book group recommendations to discover new authors whose series we might decide to follow.

Is there room for the older volumes sitting on your shelves, for those books you’d love to read again if only you had the time?

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Putting A Book Down

Nancy J. Cohen

Do you ever put a book down if you’ve read a few chapters and can’t go farther? This rarely happens with me, but I can recall a couple of instances where I gave up. Normally, I’ll slog through and scan pages until the end, if the story holds any appeal at all. But sometimes it’s too tedious to continue and a waste of precious time. What are some of the reasons why we might stop reading? 
 
Too Many Characters
The book I’m reading now is one I really want to like. It’s science fiction with a strong female lead and starts off on a spaceship. I know her mission is about to go terribly wrong. The woman’s lover is an alien, and I can understand his race’s characteristics. But then we meet other crew members and a diplomatic contingent from another world. Numerous other races are introduced, and the author segues into multiple viewpoints. Now I’m getting lost. I can’t keep track of all the aliens with weird sounding names. If the story doesn’t focus on the protagonist and her human emotions, I may put this book aside.

My own first published novel employed multiple viewpoints and alien races. But since the story stayed mostly inside the heads of my hero/heroine and focused on their romance, the world building seemed to work. I won the HOLT Medallion Award with Circle of Light, so I wasn’t alone in my assessment.

Yet the current book I’m reading is just too confusing. I’m losing interest in the story because it’s too hard to keep the alien characters straight.

A mystery can have similar problems when too many suspects are introduced at the same time. I’ve been guilty of this myself, whether it is a dinner party or cocktail event or other affair which all of the suspects attend together. One chapter might contain a blast of characters, whereas the sleuth’s subsequent investigation focuses on one at a time. It’s hard to avoid this dilemma when all of the important characters appear together in a scene toward the book’s beginning.

Book Doesn’t Stand Alone
I picked up a book mid-series by a popular author whose work I wanted to read. The opening scenes left me totally lost. If you hadn’t read the previous books, you were clueless. A writer should never assume readers have followed along with her series. Each book should stand alone with enough explanations to cover previous subplots. On the other hand, this requires a delicate balance. You don’t want to bore your fans with repetitious material. Nor do you want to repeat what happened in previous installments unless it’s relevant to the current story.

Genre Lacks Appeal
I’ve judged contests where I have to read entries in a genre other than ones I prefer. I do my best to be fair, but if the story is peppered every paragraph with naughty words, for example, that’s going to turn me off. At that point, I’ll skim through the book. That’s why in my leisure reading choices, I stick to genres I know and love.

Story Meanders
Too many boring scenes where conversation acts as filler or the plot fails to advance will make me lose interest. Here I might skip ahead to get to the scenes where something happens.

Incomprehensible Language
If I am reading science fiction or fantasy and the world building includes too many made up words, I might get lost and lose interest. Every other noun doesn’t have to sound futuristic. Ditto for historical novels where the dialects are so strong as to be annoying.

Unlikeable Characters
I’ll rarely give up on a book because I don’t like the characters. These stories I might skim through to see if there’s a redeeming factor. But if I really don’t like the people, that might be cause to put the book down.

As a writer, keep these points in mind so you don’t make the same mistakes in your work. No doubt we’re all guilty to some extent, but try to avoid these pitfalls whenever possible.

So what are some reasons why you might not continue reading a story?

 

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The Future of Reading…and Everything Else

James Scott Bell

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t. – Mark Twain

Twain’s words remind me of one of the formative movies of my youth, The Time Machine. In this version of the H. G. Wells story, the narrator (Wells himself, played by Rod Taylor) goes far into the future where he discovers the Eloi. They are placid people, living without passion or curiosity–and therefore powerless victims of the Morlocks, who reside underground.

What disgusts Wells is the discovery that the Eloi have given up reading. Their books have crumbled into dust. They have no repository of collective knowledge, except in a museum they don’t frequent.

Thousands of years of building up civilization, gone! So that they can become what they are, virtually mindless beings who spend their days seeking pleasure (only to be enslaved, and eventually eaten, by the Morlocks)

In an essay in the L.A. Times entitled “The Lost Art of Reading,” Times book editor David L. Ulin reflects on the increasing difficulty people are having focusing on, and “inhabiting,” the world of a book:

Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.”

We know this to be true. With a smartphone and/or an iPad or iTouch, or any other similar item to come down the pike, one never has to face a moment of silence or contemplation again.

So what does this portend for the future of reading? And writing long form narrative fiction? What, in fact, does it portend for the future, period?

I’m asking you. What do you think?

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Real Men Read Fiction

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

As I rushed to finish my current book club book over the weekend (which is, by the way, the terrific Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See) I could sense my husband getting antsy – he kept asking me what I had to ‘do’ each day and, when I remained vague, he catalogued all the errands and chores that he would be doing. I felt I could hardly confess that apart from playing with the boys, cooking and the like my only plan was to read…because let’s face it in my husband’s world that was tantamount to doing pretty much ‘bugger all’.

So what is it with men and reading?! I did a quick google search before writing this blog and the statistics were depressing – basically the death knell for the male fiction reader has well and truly been rung. I only have to look at most of the men I know to be convinced of this- sure they read (well sometimes) but when they do it’s usually non-fiction, and the mere suggestion of forming or joining a book club is met with stony-eyed suspicion. As all the surveys indicate, women are the major purchasers of fiction, they consistently read more books and participate in book groups to the almost complete exclusion of men. So what does this mean for the publishing industry and, is it in part the fault of the industry that men don’t want to read much fiction anymore?

The exception to the fiction-free zone for men is (apparently) what some of the articles termed ‘manfiction‘ – you know, the full blooded male adventure thrillers by the likes of James Patterson, Clive Cussler or John Grisham – the kind of stuff that some of my fellow bloggers might write (though I have to confess I doubt any of my stuff would ever be called ‘manfiction‘ by any stretch of the imagination…) When it came to most other forms of fiction, however, (particularly that written by women) the gap soon widens up and this started me wondering: who failed whom? Was it the industry? Writers? Or was it just all the men’s fault :)?

I certainly know that when it comes to historical fiction everyone in the industry always says that a strong female protagonist is essential unless you are writing military historicals…Romance, which commands a whopping percentage of the market is pretty much solely for women and when it comes to that dreaded term ‘literary fiction’ , I think women are also the primary target – for they rule when it comes to book groups (and book groups are probably the only way literary fiction can become commerically successful). So what are you blokes out there going to do about this situation? Do you even care?

If you are a writer, does the fact that so few men read fiction affect your writing? For me I confess I have always assumed that women will be my main readership base (I’m always amazed when I get an email from a male reader who loves my books!) and I probably (though not deliberately) write accordingly. But it depresses me nevertheless – so will one of you endangered male fiction readers out there try and explain to me why you think this is the situation and tell me (reassure me perhaps?) – do you think it’s ever going to change?
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