And a Leaden Age for Others

We are living in a golden age for television. That’s the opinion in this frightening article in today’s New York Times. Frightening for book lovers and writers. The article begins by looking at how chock-full of quality content television is these days. And then the article moves to all the forms of media that are being squeezed out.

Some of us have been beating this drum for a while now. Books don’t compete with books; they compete with everything else. And while traditional publishers worry about what self-publishers are doing, or while they worry about what e-books are doing to print books, or what Amazon is doing to bookstores, they are missing the real battle.

We in the publishing business are storytellers. Others are telling stories with video games, television, comic books, and film. People are sharing stories with one another on Facebook and in online forums. When we see books as being our competition, we fight amongst ourselves, and we all lose.

DRM doesn’t save a book; it kills it and sells something else. The producers of THE GAME OF THRONES credit piracy as being one of the driving forces behind their top-rated show. If we are going to worry about piracy, let’s worry that more video games are pirated than e-books. Let’s worry about whether people continue to read once they leave school and what we can do to fix that problem. When we price an e-book at $9.99, we don’t protect a hardback, we sell a DVD that costs just as much.

Relying on the people who will always read, no matter what, is a bad plan. It is possible to lose these readers, or at least to lose a good number of the books they’ll purchase in a year. This article from the Times is but one anecdote. Start looking, and you’ll see more.

How can we make reading the best form of storytelling it can be? How do we unleash our passion on the public? How do we simplify the discovery of good books, how they are purchased, shared, sold as used, discussed, reviewed? As a reader and a writer, I’m interested in the companies who are trying new things to expand the total pool of readership, not those who see this as a fight amongst ourselves. It is a golden age for some forms of media. I argue all the time that right now we are living in a golden age for books, the best time in history to be a reader and a writer, but let’s not get complacent. Let’s not lose sight of what we’re up against. Leaden times are ahead if we don’t strive to make reading awesome.

29 responses to “And a Leaden Age for Others”

  1. Here here, and well said. Though as a reader, I feel books fill a hole nothing else can, a bad book makes me reach for the remote (figuratively speaking since I don’t currently have a TV). But if a book doesn’t hold me and I watch an episode of Breaking Bad, I’m probably going to watch the whole series, which means the author cost my concentration not just for their book, but for others.

    Though I do make an effort to listen to audio books (how I knocked out your collection while reviewing other books) when I play video games and when I do lots of other things.

  2. One small thing we writers can do is read to people, in person, aloud. I have the privilege of running a writing center at a community college and after writing my novel and while trying to get it published, I started reading to writing classes and talking to them about writing. I got more interest in writing than I’ve seen in 20 years in the field. The mostly 20-somethings I read to listened carefully. They asked questions about my characters, my plot and my writing habits. Did I suffer writer’s block? What did I do? How did I research? It’s been kind of magical. I hope I’m building writers. I know I’m building readers. I’m often approached on campus and asked if my book is out yet. Only occasionally do I recognize the person asking. In a few weeks, I’ll be able to say Isolation is published. In part, that reality is thanks to these young readers who kept asking why I wasn’t self-publishing. And one who asked why didn’t I run a Kickstarter. They led me into the paradigm shift of indie publishing. So reading to others, aloud, and in person has benefitted me as well as building readers. At least I choose to believe that.

    Besides, it’s not the golden age of TV. It’s the age of disintermediation when the mass media is breaking apart. I’ve quit my cable company as have many I know. Video games, on the other hand, tell stories better every day; that’s the competition.)

    1. Denise, this is dead on. What we are living in is the golden age of storytelling. There are more avenues than ever for storytellers to get their stories out. What publishers are missing is that through their “curation” (them’s sarcasm quotes), they have shut out many truly visionary storytellers who may have once written a book. Instead, they turn to other modes that do not have the same kind elitism built into the pie.

      The result is that readers, especially young readers, are growing up with TV and video games as their main form of story. I teach teens, and this is what I am finding over and over. So if they’re going to pick up a sci-fi book, it better measure up well next to Mass Effect. Or if someone tells them about a zombie book, it should be as good or better than Telltale’s The Walking Dead, or else it isn’t worth their time.

      There’s a great opportunity for publishers to see what kinds of stories are resonating with people through all these different media. The info is all out there. It’s too bad they’re ignoring it all in favor of a bunker mentality.

  3. How little we learn…

    You’d think that the publishing industry would learn the lessons of the music industry, which spent YEARS fighting MP3s, letting Napster, et al, completely steal their lunch while they messed around with pointless DRM schemes, customer lawsuits, horrible online stores, etc. for YEARS. Until iTunes came along, it was pretty much impossible (or, at best, very inconvenient) to purchase legitimate music files and the industry lost billions to people who almost certainly would have paid for at least some of that music.

    Just like publishing, they spent too much time thinking of the retailers as their customers instead of the end-consumers. Kow-towing to your middlemen at the expense of your “real” customers is a stupid short-term play. They need to spend more time and effort showing what value they bring to the table (for both authors and readers) that justifies all the overhead they impose.

    An excellent example would be Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance. I own, and enjoy, the first book and am eager to read the second. But am I at all eager to pay (as of today) $12.74 for it? Heck no! There’s plenty of quality literature available out there for far less money… I’ll certainly pay more than a couple of bucks for it (he’s really good!), but pricing an e-book well above what they’ll eventually charge for the paperback despite the zero cost over Amazon’s markup is just counter-productive and stupid. (At least it still saves $5 over the hardback, so I suppose the pricing could be worse.)

  4. There is more than one way to look at this. The Harry Potter movies expanded the YA genre enormously, creating a huge readership where one didn’t exist before. I think the same could be said for Game of Thrones. Piracy aside, I think these shows actually gain readers out of people who used to only watch the shows. What we really need are more shows that are based on books and the back and forth relationship that they can create.

    1. I agree, Patrick. My daughter (a high school senior) is taking an English class this last semester which is movies made from books. The students get to each pick three movies which were made from stories originally published in books and write a paper and give an oral report about the differences and similarities between the two. I think this is an excellent way to bridge the gap and create readers out of some young people who are reluctant to pick up a book.

    2. True! But then there are examples like “Jumper,” which was an excellent book and an abysmal movie. I wonder how that movie impacted books sales.

  5. The act of reading is unique because it requires more mental effort than watching TV or a movie. I think some people may be put off of reading for this reason. However, reading allows the reader to hear a character’s internal thoughts and perspective. This lets the reader get inside someone else’s head in a way that TV and movies can’t. Reading has been shown to help develop a person’s empathy for others. We need to celebrate this aspect of reading to encourage more people to read.

    1. That’s an interesting point, Sandra. Perhaps that’s the new marketing tag for books: See what your favourite characters are really thinking!

  6. I couldn’t agree with you more, Hugh! We shouldn’t be trying to keep books out of the hands of readers because they don’t generate immediate cash for corporations (and sometimes for writers), but we should instead make accessing books as simple as possible, because it makes everything better in the long run.

    On the topic of competing with other forms of media, while I agree with what you’re saying to a certain degree, I feel there’s great opportunity for books to be promoted through cross-media collaborations. When books are made into movies and television shows, it generally works out in the book’s favour.

    I feel we’re heading into a time when there will be increasingly collaboration between the creators of different forms of media, especially among independent creatives. Not being tied to a corporation and having a commitment for a certain number of books/albums/films will mean they’ll be able to experiment in different areas.

    While there may be competition between the different forms of media for the time of consumers, I think in the end quality breeds more quality, and when creatives from different fields come together it’s good for everyone.

    To give a quick example, if we look at The Walking Dead, it was initially a comic. The popularity of the comic led to a television show, which sent more people back to the comics. Since then there has also been a video game, among other forms of media, and they’ve all grown together, instead of one stealing the others’ success. And while I have no facts supporting this, I’d also argue it helped lift the sales of other zombie-related media, though it may have pulled consumers from other genres.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is I don’t see the competition between different forms of media as a zero-sum game, but instead I think good media feeds off other good media, which in the end is good for both creator and consumer. If we all make our best work and collaborate across professions, we’ll all see a good deal of success instead of losing it to another media form.

  7. I think you should write a few works under a pseudonym, and hold a contest to see who can correctly guess your identity. That should prompt some extra reading of indie authors!

    As far as TV goes, no matter how much people binge watch and time shift, there are still long stretches of dead time throughout the year when there is not one blooming thing to watch on TV. It is absurd that nobody in the book business ever thinks of marketing TV’s off-season as reading season.

  8. Traditional publishing reminds me of an old woman clutching her pearls in disbelief while the mansion rots out from under her.

    It is time for all publishers to stand up for books and the written experience. Technology like Spritz may bring a number of readers back into the fold because it makes reading faster to fit the claim that we just don’t have the time for books any more (start here by attacking perceptions). But the real truth is that people make time for good storytelling regardless of the medium and while the infighting continues books will lose a little more ground each day. We have to keep books relevant, not publishers. Crayons are still relevant aren’t they!

  9. I guess for me, I see nothing but the benefit of this. I’ve enjoyed all three mediums my entire life. Netflix and DVR have made it easier and easier for me to watch the shows I really want, saving me from the hassle of planning around those schedules. Digital books have made it easier and easier to buy the books I want and read them anywhere I can. Honestly, the only thing for me that’s gotten pushed back is gaming. And I mean real, storytelling gaming, not puzzle games on my phone.

    I’d like to hope that good stories will drive people to find more good stories, no matter what form they come in. I think we’re seeing that desire for good stories drive better TV and games (though somehow this is having the inverse effect on movies) and that will spill over into books.

  10. I wish I knew the secret to getting people who are reluctant to read, to read for fun. The few times I’ve succeeded, it’s been almost by accident. One was a coworker who used downtime to watch TV. I would be reading books. One weekend, the TV was broken and she couldn’t watch anything, so out of boredom, she picked up one of my time travel romance paperbacks I’d left in the conference room. She was hooked! At 38 years old, she finally became a reader!

    At least my daughter is an avid reader. She just started the first Game of Thrones book last week, and read Les Miserables last summer.

    You know, for as bad a rap as the Twilight books and 50 Shades books get, I bet they at least converted some people into readers. They had to have since often it only takes one book to convert someone. It’s just that not every child finds that one book, then they decide that reading isn’t fun, it’s work, and they never try again–until something big comes along like Fifty Shades of Grey.

  11. As a true blue reader all of my life I hate this sentence…

    “Relying on the people who will always read, no matter what, is a bad plan.”

    But I get it. I get that we are losing people. How to gain back imagination over technology? How to compromise or find a happy medium? I think it all comes down to education. Readers and writers speak of your passions; spread the word and show people what you are fighting for. I know I will always listen.

  12. Brilliant as always Hugh. It seems like the usual response in industries struggling to compete with the ever-changing media landscape is to shape their content to make it more digestible – i.e. newspapers redesigning their content to be shorter, look prettier, and more like reading a website.

    Whether or not this works is an open question, but you see similar attempts In the case of books. I think stories released as episodes in “seasons” or just the increased popular emphasis on short stories are examples of authors directly competing with other forms of media.

    But perhaps the key to preserving reading is to emphasize what only literature can do: provide a unique kind of depth. if the continued success of George R.R. Martin is indicative of one thing, it’s that people still crave dense, sprawling mythos, even when they’re challenging. Perhaps the future for successfully promoting books is in embracing both the narrative succinctness in other arts that makes for compulsive enjoyment as well as the depth you just can’t get from other media.

    I think sometimes that your work is so successful because it masterfully hits that middle ground: the world has a sense of expansiveness and deeper, more profound meaning beneath the surface, but it’s also just thoroughly satisfying and fun to read. Is there a perfect spot somewhere in between these two qualities? How do we as authors attain the best of both worlds?

  13. It’s near impossible to make somebody read, or read more. We are burdened by loving the slowest form of media. Even though there is evidence that the written word is the best form of entertainment as evidenced by the oft lamented phrase, “The book is so much better than the movie,” when it comes right down to it, we live in a culture driven by convenience. A song, TV show, and/or movie is just so much easier to digest than a book.

    I honestly believe that libraries are the key. As a child, whenever I had a project for school, especially one that required actual research, it was off to the library. Our family would often be there multiple times a week and while our intended target was the reference book section, while we were there, we would also check out a stack of fiction titles as well. Now that the internet has effectively killed the need for reference books and children can just do their research projects at the computer, they are not being exposed to the world of books the library offers the way we all were. The digital book revolution is helping this a bit. Making books accessible online is a win, but we need to find a way to make the library experience available online. Sure some libraries are trying their best to go digital, but they are still so reliant on their physical location, it prohibits them from making the full leap.

    So why can’t their be an online library system where readers can “check out” ebook copies of books for either free or very cheap. If people are going to pirate anyway and take our books for free, why not try to regain control of where and when they can do this? At least the author would be in control of what titles could be borrowed, how long they could be borrowed, and how many “copies” of each title at any given time. Maybe instead of focusing on converting movie watchers into book readers, we should go after an audience we already know likes to read; book pirates. How many book pirates could we convert to paying customers if there was a online library where for a small monthly subscription or minimal per book checkout fee, could read as many books as they want? At least then the author would get some money and regain a little of their control over their own intellectual property. Just a thought.

  14. I can’t disagree with the NYT. As, generally speaking, a non-TV watcher, I am thrilled with the quality of the writing, the new and improved storytelling. I have never, in all my born days (sorry, had to say that) had so many programs to watch– even if I’m not the most loyal viewer on the planet. The first season of TWD was brilliant. Haven’t watched since the less than stellar second season. Game of Thrones– and I did read the books years ago, still waiting for the next installment, is about as dramatic and entertaining as television gets. Vikings is off the charts cool. Orphan Black? Does anything even need to be said about Orphan Black? Maybe the best show in the history of television. House of Cards – Niccolo Machiavelli would be so thrilled to see The Prince come to life. And then there’s Modern Family. It is so rare that a television show, aside from Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, makes me laugh out loud.
    Oh, and we have Outlander coming this summer. Not to mention Longmire, Downton Abbey, Person of Interest…
    The way I see it, the renaissance began with Firefly and the new BSG– Nothing can compare to Adama and Cylon Sharon having tea in her jail cell.
    Alls I’m saying is this- I’m happy there is quality television. And I believe there is increasing quality in television because the writers are readers.
    I’ve never been a fan of the typical sit-com or cop drama or lawyer or doctor blah blah blah.
    This is a brave new world. These television writers are taking their cues from books and that makes for great viewing. Well, except for Modern Family which is more in the tradition of the Marx Brothers and that’s okay too because that’s entertainment.
    So hooray for storytelling in all its myriad forms.

  15. James McCormick Avatar

    Sorta. HBO’s Game of Thrones drive sales of the book through the roof. Likewise, The Walking Dead.

    Hollywood likes owning IP it can develop. Right now, a lot of indie comic book IP is being bought. Why? With Disney owning Marvel and WB owning DC, if the other studios want to compete, they need to find something…

    My point is — when Tv and movies do well, they tend to spend more money on underlying rights for potential projects. It’s not a zerosum gain. In fact, it’s generally a straight gain.

  16. I have to voice my disagreement that this is the golden age of TV. Within my circles, the TV is in an unprecedented decline. It has been slowed by the advent of higher quality serials like Breaking Bad and GoT, but it continues to shrink.

    Which leads me to my next point, that not only is this the golden age of storytelling and writing, but the golden age of decentralized quality media via the internet. Not only do we use this tool to access our media, but more and more people are using it to learn and create quality material without being censored by the gatekeepers of TV and marketers.

    I dislike the idea that we’re competing with all these other media forms. That makes books a product to be consumed instead of a story to be told. Yes, we need to eat, we need to make money from the work we do. But if that’s the end goal, then machines that can analyze trends and demographics should stitch together stories for us. But it’s the ones who break trends and startle people who are the lifeblood of storytelling. So it’s not books vs. books to me, rather every writer/creator using their medium to the best of its abilities. This includes a challenge to us to learn to write the best books we can. Novels have been evolving since the 1800s, and we continue to alter and improve them with every publication. 100 years from now, “books” may look and read completely differently, but the written story will never vanish.

    I’ll end by acknowledging I have a very idealistic worldview regarding the work of storytelling and that it may well sounds very strange. Hopefully not insane though.

  17. Transmedia storytelling, my friends. Create worlds that people might want to experience in other formats. I release a song with each of my books, have some concept art, and I’m building a mock site to creatively reveal some backstory my readers keep asking about. Books can be made into movies, TV shows can be made into books, a world can inspire a video game. I love it. Same story, different format… a chance to experience the world in multiple ways.

  18. So true. I had lunch with a retired Nike exec the other day. She has 2600 titles on her kindle and proudly told me she didn’t pay for a single one of them — also prefers gambling over reading these days. UGH. On the upside, my 5 and 7 yo nieces are actively reading on their I-pads, AND I’m also seeing more and more recently retired women buying their first e-readers (always a kindle, even though I wax poetic over Kobo) and rediscovering novels. Maybe there will be some balance in the short term.

  19. The secret?

    Act like a tobacco company. Except have a soul.

    This means we promote and write awesome books for middle graders and teens.

    Then get a TV or movie deal.

    Rowling and Meyer drove millions of folks to reading. Their books were read by kids and adults. They were experiences to be shared. The movies brought folks to the books. The books brought folks to the movies. They made it cool to read.

    Many of those kids are now readers. It’s part of their identity–“I”m someone who likes to read.”

    If we keep that phenomenon going, we will continue to raise generation after generation of readers.

    To support this make school the place where you discover awesome books. Where you discover the joy of reading. Not the place where you have to labor to read some drudge of a classic that makes you hate reading. Let the kids come to those texts later on their own.

    Give them hits of joy when they’re young, and we will never have a shortage of readers.

  20. […] Howey takes on “The Golden Age of Television” in “And a Leaden Age for Others,” noting that authors aren’t in competition against each other, they’re in competition […]

  21. […] not often that I disagree with Hugh Howey, but this might just be one of those times. I think as we see better storytelling in other media (and hopefully this will rip through movies […]

  22. We as writers should be helping each other, challenging each other, to do better. We should never feel that we need to compete any more than just which position in a reader’s queue our book occupies.

    And to say that there is more quality programming on television now without also pointing out the endless dribble of reality TV, marketed paltry sitcoms and the like is doing the television programming too much justice. There’s more good stuff out there, but there’s also infinitely more crap as well.

    Like with any media, the best will always be highlighted as the sole shining example of what is great while we forget about the rest.

  23. […] Check out Howey’s full piece here: And a Leaden Age for Others […]

  24. Heya i’m for the primary time here. I came across this board and I in finding It truly useful
    & it helped me out a lot. I’m hoping to give something again and help others such as you aided me.

  25. Aw, this was a reawlly nice post. Spending some time and actual effort
    to geneate a really good article… but what can I say… I hesitate a lot and never seerm to get anything done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *