Monday, January 24, 2011

Interactive Novels: Not So Much

I love books, but I am not a particular lover of paper. For years now, most of my "reading" (where fiction is concerned, at least) has been done via audiobooks. I am also receptive to ebooks, and feel that certain books actually offer much more functionality in electronic form than in hard copy: travel guides, tech books, pretty much anything where the ability to easily jump to a specific topic of interest is desirable. With the advent of the Vook and book apps for the iPad and iPhone, I've looked forward to seeing what an "enhanced" novel might have to offer. The answer to that question---at the present time, at least---is disappointment.

For my first foray into the world of book apps, I decided to go with an award-winning, best-of-breed title: Dracula: The Official Stoker Family Edition, produced by Padworx Digital Media, Inc. I'd read many glowing reviews of this book app online, and since I've also read the book in the old-fashioned, paper-pulp format, it was an ideal candidate for comparison and evaluation.

First off, let me say the book app is beautiful to look at and the music is both lovely and entirely suitable for the subject matter. There are interactive elements on many pages. In one instance, you must move a virtual lantern around over a darkened page to read it. In another, you can bring a background illustration into better and brighter focus by touching it. In yet another, you must move a crucifix necklace about where it hangs over the page in order to see the text beneath it. Sounds cool, right? Well, these interactive features ARE cool, but they also pulled me right out of the story.

The experience of reading the book very quickly devolved into an exercise of hunting for "easter eggs", the term used for hidden bonus features in computer programs, on DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. You can't always tell by looking at a given page of the app whether or not it contains interactive elements, so I found myself reading the text and then tapping all around on the screen to check for those elements. On the pages that don't have them, all the tapping is for naught.

The experience ends up falling somewhere between playing a video game and reading an ebook, but it's not a very good experience of either one. If the app were a full-fledged video game, I'd want interactivity on every page and I'd want it to be more extensive in terms of controlling my experience of the content. When I play a video game, I want my choices and actions to have consequences beyond causing formerly hidden images to display and being able to move objects around on a screen. Conversely, in an ebook, I want to feel immersed in the story world, to lose my awareness of the device on which the ebook is displayed; if you must tap or click all around on each screen to expose and enjoy the interactive elements, this is impossible.

I thought this might be a case of this specific book app not being my cup of tea, so I also decided to check out another much-lauded title, the War of the Worlds book app from Smashing Ideas, Inc. Again, as a literary classic I'd read previously, it seemed a terrific pick. And again, I was disappointed.

With the WotW app, the interactive illustrations are not as numerous as in the Dracula app, though they are just as beautiful. However, I still had to tap around on them to find the hidden goodies, which was kind of annoying and again, took me right out of the story.

I've pondered how this issue might be overcome, and I'm stumped. Even if some sort of indication were given as to the location of the interactive elements (as is the case for some of the Dracula app content), the moment you're tapping the screen and thinking, "Cool!" at whatever happens, you're no longer gripped in the terror of Castle Dracula or an alien invasion, you're admiring the technology.

The good news is, I think the book app is still very much in its infancy and publishers and developers just don't know quite what to do with the capabilities of the technology yet. My prediction is that where novels are concerned, the book app will find its full flower in a sort of purposeful hybrid of book and video game. And yes, the words will no longer be the stars of the show in most cases, much as it is with movies. Every year there are those few, standout examples of films that are worth seeing for the sake of the whip-smart and insightful script alone. The Social Network is an example of that type of film. But most often, moviegoers are satisfied to be thrilled by action, wowed by special effects, or cracked up by comedy.

Such entertainments are largely disposable, and while it pains me to say so, I'm afraid this may prove to be the future of literature. Every year there will be a handful of new books that are worth actually reading, simply as words on the page, and for these the experience will be one of good, old-fashioned theater of the mind. But for the rest, consumers will come to expect the play to be delivered not only pre-scripted, but with the cast, costumes, sets, stunts and special effects already in place, with the reader empowered to act as director of the entire production via its interactive elements.

But this raises another, and I think thornier issue: in the case of a completely original interactive book app (as opposed to the re-imaginings of literary classics examined here), assuming a team of people were involved in creation and production of the app, who is actually the Author? I'm not sure that title will be apt for anyone involved in such a project, since the consumer's eventual experience of the content will not be limited to the written words, but driven just as substantially by the multimedia and interactivity of the app. I suspect it's more likely that the person we used to think of as the author will be given a "Written By" and/or "Story By" name check in the credits of the app.

If I'm right about that, it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there should be more and better opportunities for writers to see their works produced and brought to an audience; maybe aspiring authors should start querying book app companies like Smashing Ideas and Padworx right alongside agents and publishers. But on the other hand, those writers won't get quite the same level of recognition and prestige as in the past. Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? As of yet, I'm uncertain.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Are Indie Author Book Tours Worthwhile?

As anyone who follows this blog or reads Publetariat regularly already knows, my financial circumstances have been precarious lately. Because of this, I've concluded I simply can't afford to do the self-financed book tour I had planned to support the release of The Indie Author Guide. "But April," you may ask, "how can you afford not to be out there, promoting your new book? Isn't that what all us indie authors are supposed to do?" The answer, as per usual, is, "It depends."

First, let me break down the realities of small-time author book signings for you. By "small-time", I mean pretty much anyone who isn't such a household name that velvet ropes and barricades will be required for crowd control at the event. Having spoken to numerous local bookstore managers, I've learned they consider a small-time author event that sells 25 books to be a huge success. On average, ten copies is more typical, and isn't considered a disappointment. Given that the author is only earning about a dollar, maybe less, on each of those sales, even if the event makes it over the "huge success" bar of 25 copies sold the author's eventual profit from the event will be $25 or less. Remember, the author won't see dime one of that $25 for many, many months---and maybe not at all, if the book doesn't earn back the author's advance (on a mainstream-published book).

Let's go even further, and say every person who bought one of the 25 copies convinces two friends to buy copies, also. Net cumulative profit for the author is still just $75 or less, and this is under ideal, maximum-sales circumstances. Now subtract what you spent on gasoline traveling to and from the event, plus the cost of any snacks or drinks you purchased en route or while there. Your eventual profit probably stands somewhere around $60 for six to ten hours of your time. And again, this is a maximum-sales scenario we're talking about. It's far more likely you'll sell ten or fewer copies, in which case all your royalty proceeds will be consumed by expenses.

If that time would've been spent watching TV, napping, or otherwise devoted to leisurely pursuits, then a signing event can still be a worthwhile alternative for you. Even if it's not super-successful, it's getting you out of the house, giving you more practice in meeting with the public, and providing an opportunity to win over a few fans. It may also provide fodder for pictures and video to post to your website or blog.

But most indie authors have (and need!) day jobs, and mine is freelancing as an author services provider (e.g., editing, formatting, ebook conversions, etc.). I don't work a nine-to-five, Monday through Friday schedule. Since I still have young children at home who require my attention and supervision whenever they're not in school, I get quite a bit of my work done in the evenings and on weekends when they're on visitation with their father---in other words, during the hours when store managers like to schedule signing events. For me, the choice on a given Saturday isn't between burning through a few more titles on my Netflix queue or spending that time promoting my book instead, it's between earning hundreds of dollars or spending that time promoting my book instead.

Right now, I simply can't afford not to be working.

I'm going to honor my commitment for the first date that was set, at the
Montclair Plaza Borders from 2-6pm tomorrow, 1/8/11, but that's it as far as my book tour is concerned.

I'm also already set to speak at the Writer's Digest Conference in Manhattan the weekend of 1/21-1/23/11, where I'll be on a couple of discussion panels and will also be presenting a Kindle publishing workshop. My travel expenses are paid, but I'm on the hook for my own meals, parking at the airport, and any other incidentals. I've decided it's still worthwhile for me to do this because of the opportunity to meet up with not only my fellow indie authors, but also with the other speakers. The latter group includes several whom I've "known" through online interaction over a period of years, but have never met face-to-face. I'll be losing money on that weekend, most definitely. But it's hard to put a pricetag on the value of maintaining relationships in the business, or on the value of an opportunity to give more of my fellow indies some of the information or how-tos that can help them realize their dreams of publication. It's also a better promotion opportunity for me than a book signing because of all the national promotion Writer's Digest is doing for the event.

So when deciding whether or not to do a signing or speaking event, you have to weigh not only the matter of how much you stand to earn financially and in intangibles, but how much you will be required to give up in exchange. Sometimes, it's worth it. Sometimes, it's not.

*UPDATE* I did my stint at Borders yesterday, all four hours of it. I spoke to exactly five store patrons, and sold exactly one copy of my book in the store. It's interesting to note that three of the five patrons said they planned to buy my book online, where its price would be lower. Given that I enjoy talking shop and can burn through four hours in a bookstore without even trying any day of the week (and twice on Sundays), it wasn't a bad way to spend an afternoon. Still, it was obviously not a profitable event in terms of book sales, and for me, that time would've been much better spent doing freelance work.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Shelf Life

When my first mainstream-published book, The Indie Author Guide: Self-Publishing Strategies Anyone Can Use, shipped to booksellers at the end of November, I started checking the Borders and Barnes & Noble sites almost daily to find out when the book would become "available in-store". I planned on making the pilgrimmage to all my local stores to see my book on the shelves, but with some ambivalence.

After all, why should I, an outspoken indie author who says brick-and-mortar sales aren't all they're cracked up to be, care if my book is shelved in physical stores or not? I imagined I shouldn't care at all...yet it seemed as if I did. At least, enough to visit the stores in person. I had to admit to myself that I did care, and I was kind of ashamed of that.

I imagined stepping into that first store, striding purposefully to the reference section, and being thrilled to find my book right there on the shelf next to all the others I'd so often perused in days gone by. I'd bring a camera with me, so I could enjoy that rite of passage so many authors I know have allowed themselves: having my picture taken, standing there in the bookstore with my book in hand, against a backdrop of shelves where several more copies of my book could be seen.

I further imagined coming back home to write a sheepish blog post about the whole thing, in which I'd have to come clean about still harboring some of those same mainstream publication fantasies as my peers who've remained steadfastly anti-selfpub, and who still view mainstream publication as the only publication that counts. Was it possible that in some way, however small and hidden from the world, I still believed it too? And if so, what would that mean?

I decided that having spent the majority of my years in a world where indie wasn't a viable option for the great majority of writers, and where self-pub was heavily stigmatized, it was only natural that my brain would become imprinted with such notions and as a writer, I'd internalize them without even necessarily being aware of it. But if this were the case, as Ricky Ricardo might say, I'd have some 'splainin to do.

Well, by now you've probably noticed there is no picture of me proudly brandishing my book posted here. The outcome of my little expedition to that first store surprised me.

As planned, I drove to my nearest store and walked in, camera in hand. I found five copies of my book on the shelf, and my reaction was one of, "Huh. So there it is. Yep. Right there." I felt no more excitement at seeing my book shelved in a Barnes & Noble than I might've felt eyeing my car coming out of the far end of a car wash. It wasn't a thrill for me at all; it was merely a confirmation, like double-checking to ensure a deposit I've made was properly credited to my checking account. I didn't bother having the picture taken, and as I was feeling more awkward than happy standing there, I left. And I didn't bother visiting any of the other bookstores on my list.

I felt WAY more excitement than this when I saw my first self-pubbed title listed on Amazon. THAT'S the moment when I felt like a "real" author. This was

Part of me feels sort of robbed of this nugget of joy I thought I had coming to me, but the larger part feels relieved to learn I can now say in all honesty and from personal experience, mainstream publication is not the be-all, end-all it's been built up to be for people of my generation and older. If it's been your lifelong dream to see your name on a book on a brick-and-mortar store shelf, I sincerely hope that dream comes true for you one day, and I have no intention of diminishing the importance or meaning of your dream for you. But if you've been of an indie mindset for any significant period of time you may be surprised to find---as I was---when that much-anticipated day of fulfillment finally arrives, your dream apparently changed at some point when you weren't paying attention to it.

Probably when you were busy self-publishing.