Why Isn’t Print Dead?

According to Yoda, the future is always in motion. That may be why it’s so hard for forecasters to read the tea leaves. For years they foretold the demise of print publishing as digital readers took the world by storm. But over the past couple of years, the digital growth curve has flattened and even turned downward. By 2013, eBook sales had grown to 21% of all book sales. But in 2014 that figure dropped to 19%, and in 2015 it further slid to 17%.

What’s going on here? Has the digital dream faltered? Everyone seems to have a theory. Wade through the mass of commentary published over the past year and you’ll find conflicting guesswork. On June 17 of this year, Publisher’s Weekly reported on a Codex Group study that suggests people are succumbing to “digital fatigue,” that many are growing tired of spending so much time plugged into their electronics. This exhaustion appears to be particularly acute among the very group you’d think would have most tightly embraced the gizmos–young adults. According to the study, the decline in e-reading is linked to a decline in e-reader sales and use.

But is the reading public really driving the decline? A Fortune article suggests something different: the ongoing war between Amazon and traditional publishers. On July 11, a mere month after the PW article, they reported that e-book best sellers now cost 50% more than during the Kindle’s early days. It’s not digital fatigue; according to this article, young adults are reading more and are very much in love with the electronic format. Additionally, the rise of self-publishing might be offsetting the decline in e-sales reported by major publishers.

Behind the apparent drop in eBook popularity is a big-picture issue: trade book sales slid 13.7% from January 2015 to January 2016, with the only growth seen in religious publishing. Against this backdrop, is it possible the digital decline is merely an artifact of publishing’s overall woes? Nobody seems to be suggesting that, but it’s hard to avoid wondering whether eBooks sales really are falling off a cliff after all.

In fact, the issue is probably more complex than any of these rather simplistic guesses. What people buy and use and like involves a wide variety of factors from life experiences to the state of the economy. If you’re struggling to keep the roof over your head, you’re not going to blow much on either print books or e-readers. Our experience of reading must play into it, too. My wife is fond of saying that it took humans thousands of years to replace the scroll with something easier to use–the printed book–and now we’ve reinvented the scroll. Her observation is partially borne out by a 2013 Scientific American report on research that compares reading using physical books and eBooks. The results suggest that each technology has merits, but that there can be potential drawbacks to e-reading.

Regardless of the reasons, clearly print books aren’t going away tomorrow, but neither are eBooks. Seventeen percent of sales is nothing to sneeze at. We publishers would be well-advised to make our products available in both formats, reasonably priced. I don’t mean that all eBooks should be as cheap as Amazon wants to make them. Writing, editing, layout, artwork, and file conversion costs money. Nevertheless, $15.00 is probably too much for most eBooks. People may indeed be less interested in buying them for that reason alone. Does that mean they’re running out to buy the print edition instead? Not necessarily. Remember that 13.7% decline in trade sales?

Earlier in 2016, we settled on three price points for our One Voice Press and Serpent Cliff eBooks: $3.99 for children’s titles and shorter works, $4.99 for most adult fiction and nonfiction, and $5.99 for longer works. This represented a decline in price for most of our titles, but so far I can’t say we’ve noticed any significant change in sales. Then again, we didn’t sell many eBooks to start with. The vast majority of our readers still buy print books. And that, too, may say something.

It’s the End

In my last two posts I explored two parts of a story’s structure:

  • The beginning, where we encounter main characters, the setting, and the challenges the characters face.
  • The middle, where things become complicated for the characters and tension mounts.

Now we’ve reached the end.

Like the beginning, the end is a relatively short, but for a different reason. Whereas the beginning hooks readers and draws them in, the end resolves the conflicts that carried the reader along. Actually, let’s qualify that. Some conflicts may be resolved in the middle. But the primary conflict can only be resolved at the end. Often a few lesser conflicts stick around until then, too, particularly in a novel. Short stories may only present a single conflict, but longer works will have more.

By definition, the resolution of the primary conflict is a story’s climax, it’s most important and exciting moment. All the tension built up through the middle is released in the climax. In action/adventure stories, this moment is the point when the threat posed by the primary antagonist becomes overwhelming. If the protagonist doesn’t succeed right here and right now, an irreversible catastrophe will result. The terrorists will blow up the building or the aliens will take over the world or the meteorite will crash into the Earth, triggering a mass extinction. In a mystery, the climax often pairs the resolution of the principal crime with mortal danger for the detective or for someone close to them. In a drama, the climax could even be triggered by the protagonist’s own flaws; if they fall victim to their failings, they will loose something important or others will be hurt. In all cases, the climax is the biggest, baddest, most danger-fraught moment in the whole story.

The story’s lesser conflicts can trigger moments like this, too, but generally they are less critical, less intense, and therefore not climactic. They can therefore be resolved in the middle of the story, but if so are usually replaced by larger conflicts or an intensification of the main conflict. The author can give the reader a moment to breath, but only a moment. Tension can’t decline for long, or the reader will wander off in search of a sandwich. But what happens when a lesser conflict persists right up to the climactic moment? Must it be resolved before the main conflict, or can it wait?

In some cases it can and indeed should wait, but order is important. Bear in mind that once the tension is gone, the reader has no reason to keep reading. Conflicts that persist beyond the climax have an inglorious name: “loose ends.” They must be tied up, but because the principal source of tension is gone, they must be tied up quickly. When the business of tying up loose ends drags on, readers rightly get bored and feel that the book should have ended sooner. In the worst case, they may suspect the book was “padded” to make them pay more for it–a feeling that also arises from middles where too little happens for too many pages. Conversely, a book that suddenly ends after a strong climax may leave readers feeling like they were dropped off of an emotional cliff. The less intense resolution to a loose end or two affords  us time to “come down” gracefully rather than plummet. On the other hand, the author of a series might leave something unresolved as a “cliffhanger,” a way of inviting you to the next book in the series where, one hopes, the remaining conflict will eventually be resolved.

You may sense a theme here: writers play on your emotions through story structure. The good ones do it so well that you’re left clamoring for their next book!

By way of illustrating these concepts, I’ll invoke my novel The Fibonacci Murders. Therein, a series of murders takes place, with tension ratched up through an increasing body count, the cryptic nature of the killer’s notes to the police, a mathematical switch he pulls mid-stream, and the discovery that his final crime must be one of horrific proportions. Along the way, a second series of crimes occurs. Less severe than the murders, it nevertheless causes a PR nightmare for the police and is resolved only when the murderer kills its perpetrator. That’s one conflict removed, but it hardly decreases the tension–just the opposite. And then a new wrinkle develops: Tom Kaneko, the mathematician who has been assisting the police, privately devises a plan to find the killer and strikes out on his own, unwittingly placing himself in mortal danger. The killer captures him but must execute his final crime, so he trusses Kaneko up and dumps him in the woods, planning on dealing with him later. Now the climax arrives: the killer is stopped mere seconds before committing a mass murder.

End of story? Not quite. Kaneko is still out there in the woods, injured, bound, and gagged. That’s a loose end: I couldn’t leave him there. Moreover, the detectives had a couple of loose ends of their own to tie up. Keeping Kaneko in hot water until after the killer is foiled allows the tension to drop somewhat less than precipitously and transitions towards resolution of the other, lesser, loose ends. The result, I hope, is that when you’ve read the final sentence, you feel that order has been restored and all is right with the world.

The end.

Up the Middle

In last week’s post, I talked about story structure–beginning, middle, end–and specifically about beginnings. A beginnings is a short thing. Once the main characters arrive on the scene, the setting is established, and people run into problems, it’s over. Then the characters plunge into the story’s middle, where they spend the bulk of their time.

In the middle, the characters seek to resolve whatever their problems are, but it’s never smooth sailing. Things have to get worse before they can get better, because if they didn’t there wouldn’t be much of a story. Tension equals interest. To avoid loosing the reader, tension has to be not only maintained but increased until the point when matters are resolved and the story ends.

Tension is generally increased through complications, unforeseen occurrences that make life harder for the characters. By way of illustration, let’s jump from literature to film. In the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is faced with a formidable challenge: find and recover the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. An oversimplified review of the plot shows several key complications:

  • As soon as Indie finds and recovers the Ark, the Nazis take it from him and seal him underground with his old flame, Marion.
  • As soon as Indie escapes, he learns the Ark is about to be flown to Germany.
  • As soon as he demolishes the airplane, he learns the Ark is about to be taken away by truck convoy.
  • As soon as he recaptures the Ark and gets it onto a ship, the Nazis intercept in a submarine and recapture it, taking Marion with them.
  • As soon as he ambushes the Nazi procession on their way to open the Ark and demands Marion’s release in exchange for not blowing up the Ark, his nemesis Belloq hits him in his weakest spot: he refuses to release Marion and dares Indie to destroy the artifact.

Tension escalates through this sequence of events. Although not easy, neither is it excessively difficult for Indie to recover the Ark in the first place. But once it’s been taken from him, he only recovers it through a major fight. And when it’s taken from him the third time, it’s hopeless. He ultimately succeeds through divine intervention.

Moreover the stakes are upped each time it’s taken from him. With each reversal of his fortunes, the Nazis move closer to their goal. The first time he loses the Ark, Indie and Marion are left to die. The second time, Marion is captured as part of the prize. The third and final time, Indie and Marion are both captured.

Along the way, a series of other events play out. New characters are introduced, both helping and opposing Indie. Smaller conflicts play out, including the conflict between himself and Marion. Crises arise and are resolved, but each time relief is short lived; another, larger crisis looms to take the place of the previous one.

These subplots play several roles. They help define the characters in ways that the main conflict does not. Without Marion and Marcus and Sallah and Belloq, Indie would be very two-dimensional as he battled the Nazis for possession of the treasure. Moreover, smaller conflicts and complications help sustain interest while the main conflict builds and when it falls into its inevitable lulls. The humorous interaction between Marion and Indie on the ship sustains interest between their escape with the Ark and the appearance of the Nazi submarine.

We’ve been examining a film, not a written story, but the principles are the same. The differences are largely of complexity: a film offers much less space than a novel, so novels are almost always more complex. That’s why a film based on a novel inevitably leaves out a lot of material, even when faithful to the book. The same can be said in comparing novels to short stories, which often don’t offer room for subplots or much character development. In all cases, however, the middle of the story maintains and increases the tension, which builds through a series of events until it reaches its climax.

And then it’s time for the end.

The offiical website of author Dale E. Lehman

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