Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Have we become uncomfortable with uncertainty in fiction?

Over at the Rumpus, Rob Roberge ponders whether we as a society are losing our taste for complexity in fiction. He riffs off of an argument author Jane Smiley made that if society is largely governed by affluent men whose reading of fiction is declining, we are on track for becoming a more selfish and less empathetic culture.

While that may be a leap, Roberge delves deeper into which segments of society may be receptive to complex literary fiction and what could be behind this decline.

Do you agree with the premise that we are becoming less complex in our literary tastes?

Personally, I'm very skeptical of golden era attitudes toward the past. While books have had to cede cultural ground to other media with the rise of movies, TV and the Internet, I also don't know that there was ever an exalted period in the past where everyone in America was reading literary fiction and arguing about Proust vs. Flaubert at the dinner table, or even that there were more people who did that in the past than do now.

At the same time, I do worry about my own attention span with so many things available for distraction, and truth be told I don't often delve into a work of experimental or super-challenging fiction, preferring to usually skate on that fine edge of quality and readability.

What's your take? Have we lost a taste for complexity? Do we lose something if that's the case?

Art: Auguste Rodin seen in a parallel pose with Le Penseur (The Thinker). Photo by Edward Steichen

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Last Few Weeks in Books 8/26/13

Dumbo in Brooklyn. I'm on Instagram here!
Thanks for all the well wishes as I start my job at Freelancers Union! The photo above is actually of the neighborhood where I'll be working. Rough life!

Also, before we get to the book links, one of my very best friends has started a new premium line of men's boxers called President for Life, which you should definitely check out. It's been awesome to see him get this off the ground and needless to say the style is impeccable. His mission statement is here.

On to the links!

E-books are still in the minority, and many people swear they'll never switch away from print. Here's a look from the opposite direction: A rare books dealer on the pleasures of reading e-books.

From io9, a really great post by Charlie Jane Anders on the 7 deadly sins of worldbuilding. Also from io9: Some very cool vintage book covers.

Has the center of gravity in the book world started tipping away from New York and London, at least in the literary imagination? A researcher mapped mentions of cities in novels by year and found their place ebbing.

No surprise, but 50 Shades of Grey author E.L. James topped the authors earning the most in the past year, with a whopping estimated $95 million. James Patterson wasn't too far behind with $91 million.

With some pushback on the idea that e-books are declining and even before a very disappointing earnings report from Barnes & Noble, there has been some talk about what the publishing landscape will look like if and when bookstores go away. Here are three different takes on why it might not be a bad thing (at least, presumably, if you're not a bookseller), including must-read by Mike Shatzkin on how losing bookstores would be a much worse thing for publishers than for readers.

Starting with the premise that only 9% of technologically disrupted organizations ever recover, an interesting article in Futurebook looks at what publishers should be doing in order to survive. (via Stephen Parrish)

Royalty statements can be completely bewildering to read, but luckily agent Joanna Volpe is here to help.

According to a study, 38% of readers will finish a book no matter what. Are you one of them?

Don't forget about the discussion forums! Want to ask me a question? Need some help with your query? Want to brainstorm or vent about the writing process? Stop on by! Admission is free.

And finally, I'm probably the last one to know this but you've probably seen this famous excited baby GIF around the Internet:

What I never realized is that the full video is even more hilarious (via Mashable)!

Have a great week!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Job change!

I am changing jobs!

Today is my last day at CNET, and on Monday I'm going to be joining Freelancers Union, an organization devoted to providing advocacy and insurance for freelancers, where I'm going to be the director of community and social media. I'm completely thrilled to join an organization I've long admired and am excited to be working with Sara Horowitz, Freelancers Union's founder and executive director, who you may have read about a few months back in the New York Times.

This puts me back in the world of advocating for writers as well as other freelancers. It's a really great fit and I can't wait to start.

It's been a truly fantastic three years at CNET, and I'm so happy to have had that time there. My pulse will still race on the morning of the next Apple or Samsung event, and I'm so grateful for the friends I've made and for how awesome a place it's been to work.

For many of you out there who are freelance writers (or freelancers of other stripes as well), connect with Freelancers' Union! Follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and check out the Freelancers Union blog.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The strange public intimacy of social media

Social media is a strange medium. You are staring at a computer or a mobile device when you post and tweet. By its very nature you are not engaging with another human. You are sending messages to an unknown number of recipients you can vaguely imagine but can't really identify.

The result of that communication can alternately feel like shouting into a quiet forest or a very loud, crowded room. And yet, because it's so public and so immediate, there are moments when tweets and Facebook posts can feel shockingly intimate.

The latter kind was on display when an NPR host live-tweeted his mother's death.

Some people might find his tweets unseemly and some commenters thought it trivialized the moment, but I think this kind of public experience of real life will increasingly be a part of our future. We're all living simultaneously public and private lives. And not just public and private, as in the case of writing a memoir, but instantaneously public and private. It's something entirely new.

I've remarked in a recent interview about how pleasantly moved I was by the outpouring of support after I announced my divorce. It didn't strike me as false or trivialized by the medium. It was real, even though it was coming through a computer.

Whatever it is, this is a completely new medium for experiencing life, one that is both distant and immediate, public and intimate, and mechanical and human.

What do you make of this new social world?

Art: Saint Jerome by Carvaggio

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Why newsworthy events do not lead to newsworthy novels

Whenever there's a big, surprising, newsworthy event like a strange kidnapping or someone blowing the whistle on a spy agency and going on the run to a quasi-dictatorship, I often hear from aspiring authors who happen to have a novel in the drawer that just happens to align with the news. These authors want to know if they now have a leg up in the publishing process because everyone is thinking about this newsworthy event and thus they have the perfect marketing hook.

The answer: Nope. I'm sorry, guys. This is not how things work.

Here are two major reasons:

1) It takes at least a year to be traditionally published and everyone will have moved on by then.

It doesn't work to start re-querying agents just because a particular event is in the news. By the time the novel makes it through the publishing process that newsworthy event people will be on to different topics and no one will rush to buy something based on an event that happened a year ago.


2) Even if you immediately self-publish it and start promoting it, let's be honest: When was the last time you bought a novel because of a real-life event you saw in the news?

My guess: Never? Maybe once in your entire life? Probably never?

There are absolutely some serendipitous cultural moments that can happen and propel an obscure work to bestsellerdom, such as a Kardashian being spotted reading it or it appearing on some leaked White House reading list. But this happens to books that are already out there, not ones that have not yet been published.

There are also times when the zeitgeist shifts and suddenly a particular genre or subject will become popular with editors and the reading public and a new book will rocket to success. But this isn't about specific events, they're about ephemeral cultural currents.

Sorry, folks. It's sadly not enough to have serendipitously predicted real-life events. Novels will sink and swim based on their storytelling, not their prescience.

Art: Der Hochpolitiker by Ludwig Kandler

Monday, August 12, 2013

Here comes another round of articles about e-book sales slowing down

Author Nicholas Carr helped kick off yet another round of stories about how maybe people don't like e-books that much after all and we've reached peak e-books after the AAP reported increased e-book sales of "just" 5% in the 1st quarter of 2013. Here are entries in the genre by Neil Irwin and Om Malik and here's Carr's graph, which is making the rounds:

Yes, 5% doesn't seem like much compared to the exponential growth we've seen in recent years. But let's get some context here. First, here's another way of showing the exact same data in Carr's chart:

This graph definitely captures what appears to be a plateauing effect (at least, if you look strictly at Q1 numbers). It's not exponential growth. But it's not at all a decline.

Also, here's what both graphs ignore: E-book sales were up 5% at a time when overall trade sales were down nearly 5%. In other words, e-books were still a growing format despite an overall sales decline. In the adult trade market they were up 13.6% at a time when hardcovers were down 0.6% and paperbacks up just 1.7%.

And for the first time ever in Q1 e-books are now the leading format in the adult market, even more than paperback (note: percentages don't add up to 100% because I'm just including the three largest formats):

Hardcover: $226.5 million (22% of the adult market)
Paperback: $306.6 million (30% of the adult market)
E-books: $328.2 million (33% of the adult market)

In fact, when you compare the share of market over the past few years you see a pretty consistent pattern.

E-book market share in the adult market:
23% in Q1 2011
28% in Q1 2012
33% in Q1 2013

This directly contradicts Neil Irwin's assertion that "the ratio of printed books sold to electronic books is going to stabilize at a higher level than it had seemed likely a year or two ago," particularly when you factor in the fact that e-books have lower price points and yet are generating more revenue.

Everyone needs to stop fixating on YOY percentage growth. Even at a steady rate of overall growth, percentage growth inevitably goes down because it's starting from a bigger base. It's simple math. If you keep increasing your sales at the exact same rate, eventually your percentage growth will fall to zero even though your sales are steadily going up.

And, lastly, as author David Gaughran often points out, the AAP stats don't include self-published e-books, which make up a substantial portion of the market, including at least 25% of B&N's Nook sales.

Let's stop philosophizing about how people just don't like e-books very much or only like them in certain contexts or for certain genres or all the people who will convert have already done so.

E-books have never been on pace to rout the print market all at once. It's always been a steady march, and it's one that's continuing.

CORRECTION: The original version of this blog post attributed the Washington Post Wonkblog article to Ezra Klein, but it was actually written  by Neil Irwin. Klein is the editor of Wonkblog. Sorry about that!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Feedly is awesome. (At least, once I got my settings right)

There is life after Google Reader. Thank you, Feedly.

I blogged previously about Feedly and its emergence as a top alternative to Google Reader, but truth be told I was a Google Reader dead-ender. I stuck with it all the way until Google shut out the lights, a bit of stubborn denial that probably emanates from the same part of my brain that makes me root for the Sacramento Kings.

And yet, Feedly is here. And I love it. But I didn't at first.

I don't want my RSS reader to look like a magazine. I have magazines for that. I don't want them to look like Facebook. I have Facebook for that. I don't want it to look like... um you get the idea.

I want my RSS reader to be functional. I want to see every single headline (and just the headline). I don't need anything fancy, I don't want any curation at all (I have Twitter for that).

The Feedly desktop view provides roughly this experience in Title Only View, and "All," which I set as my defaults. The "j" and "k" keyboard shortcuts that navigate between articles works just fine. All fine and dandy.

It was the mobile apps that gave me some trouble. By default, some articles would show up full screen:

Sometimes you as summaries:

I didn't like this at all. Also, while I loved swiping up to move to the next articles, I would get to the end and realize I still had to mark everything as read. Confusing.

Then I discovered the Advanced Settings, where I set my Start Page to "All" (just my feeds please), switched on "Auto Mark as Read" (swipe up = read it, thank you), and the changed the Default View to "List," which gives me just my articles plus a thumbnail. You can also do "Title Only" if you want to be strictly utilitarian, but I like the thumbnail for easy scanning.

With those changes, I actually prefer the mobile apps to any desktop RSS experience I've ever had.

Voila! How have you adapted to life after Reader? 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Storytelling is getting formulaic. This is an opportunity

There were two articles in Slate last month about summer movie doldrums that hold a lesson for storytellers, including novelists.

The first is about how Steven Spielberg predicted a disastrous summer movie season because of studios' over-reliance on formulaic blockbusters at the expense of a more diverse lineup. His prediction looks prescient so far, with relatively modest Despicable Me 2, This is the End, and The Conjuring outperforming the massively budgeted RIPD, The Lone Ranger and Pacific Rim.

The gargantuan special effects uber-spectacle this year has resulted in some gargantuan uber-flops. (Though the Star TrekIron Man, Superman and Fast and Furious franchises are chugging right along).

And in the second article, Peter Suderman notes how if all Hollywood movies are starting to feel familiar and formulaic... it's because they are literally following a formula . One book, Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! has become so thoroughly influential that nearly every movie made these days follows its beat by beat model. Save the Cat! doesn't just offer suggestions on structure, it literally says what needs to happen on specific pages, from the opening image that sets up the protagonist's problems to the false victory at 90 minutes to the closing image, which mirrors the opening image.

This isn't the apocalypse for storytellers. This is an opportunity.

First, it just goes to show that while you might follow the market and cash in on the short term, following your own vision will win out in the long run. This is the End is a seriously weird movie. I saw it. It was pretty enjoyable. At no point while watching the movie did I have the sense that it was focused grouped or was concerned with franchising or that anyone involved in the movie was concerned with anything other than cracking themselves up and maybe the viewers too.

The sense of "This movie may completely suck and be a flop but who cares, we had a blast making it and I can't believe people pay us money to do this" is pervasive while watching the movie. And what do you know, it didn't suck and it was a success.

Formulas also present an opportunity. Just ask George R.R. Martin.

He knew fantasy conventions, which were dominated by hero arcs and redemptive plotlines for years and years. He took those conventions, upended them, shocked his readers, and then he did it again. And again. And again.

Know those formulas and conventions. Anticipate what your reader will expect will happen. And then pull the rug out.

Just when things start feeling static and generic is when someone will come along and reinvent the paradigm. If you're following your own vision, it may well be you.

Art: Design for a Flying Machine by Leonardo da Vinci

Friday, August 2, 2013

This Week in Books 8/2/13

The Grand Tetons. Photo by me. I'm on Instagram here!
I'm back! After a whirlwind trip to San Francisco then to San Diego for Comic-Con then back to San Francisco then to Wyoming for a family vacation, I have returned to New York, where I am very glad to be sleeping in my own bed and where it has very politely cooled to a reasonable temperature. Aw, New York, I missed you too!

I also brainstormed up a, um, storm of blog topics while I was away, so expect some more regular posting and a more lively blog.

So many links! Let's get to them, shall we?

A few weeks back we had a pretty interesting discussion about race in children's books, and someone pointed me to this thought-provoking post by Ellen Oh, which has a depressing chart about the tiny percentage of authors reviewed in the NY Times who are not white, along with some of the things she experienced personally. Definitely check it out.

Another slightly cheeky take on race in books comes from The Atlantic, who notes that the purveyors of the apocalyptic "literature is dead" mantra tend to be straight white guys.

Remember when we all saw astronaut Chris Hadfield's awesome rendition of 'Space Oddity?' Well, now he has a book deal.

This week's fake bestselling memoir is brought to you by Tony Anthony.

This post really surprised me. Conventional wisdom is that authors need to get into Apple's iBookstores to sell their books. Publisher Open Air says that they sell more books through the App Store even as they compete against games and other apps.

Going to a writer's conference? Make sure you've bookmarked agent Sarah LaPolla's cheat sheet.

10 writing tips from Joss Whedon. (via Slice)

Why do readers abandon books? Which authors and books get abandoned the most? Goodreads has the stats.

Speaking of Goodreads, they now have 20 million members. But their parent company, Amazon, just suffered an unexpected loss in their last quarter.

What about the ladies? Agent Stacey Glick riffed off of an Atlantic article that wondered why so many YA novels feature girls who are yearning for love rather than thinking about careers or themselves. Glick, for one, would like to see more of just that.

Mashable published a list of 15 YA novels every adult should read. Do you agree with the choices?

Facebook advice for authors! I was interviewed by Allison Tait for some social media tips.

Writers often wonder why agents say "no" to their manuscript. Agent Rachelle Gardner tries to explain the thought process.

Many authors move mountains and sometimes fire their agents in an attempt to get a bigger advance. Legendary Martin Amis was very candid in a recent interview about regretting his actions when he fired his agent in pursuit of a £500,000 book deal.

Rory Gilmore was recorded reading 340 books over the course of the Gilmore Girls. This man plans to read them all.

Ohhhhhhhh Author Solutions. (via Ted Weinstein)

A book made out of a dress? Indeed.

Bright new shiny ideas can be very persistent, but must be made to wait their turn, as Jennifer Hubbard blogs.

The Guardian has a pretty amusing article on writers and drinking, including this priceless quote from Kingsley Amis: "The writer who writes his books on, rather than between, whisky is a lousy writer. He is probably American anyway."

J.K. Rowling discussed creating gritty, realistic characters. If you've read The Casual Vacancy, it's an interesting read.

And I haven't read it yet, but multiple people tell me Putlitzer winner Adam Johnson has apparently written quite the short story, recently published in Esquire.

And finally, just because... Best GIF ever?

Have a great weekend!

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