Last weekend I gave the Keynote Speech at Bookfest Solano. Afterward, I had many requests for copies of the speech, so I decided to post the entire talk here.
You may print and use any or all of my words, but please give me credit and, where appropriate, include a link to this blog. Thank you.
Thank you all for coming. I’m honored to be part of Bookfest Solano.
When I was first asked to talk, I understood that Bookfest Solano was for both readers and writers. But after today, I realize that there are more writers here than I’d anticipated.
So before I get into my main subject, I want to say a few words about the writing side of the reading/writing equation.
WRITING IS THE BEST JOB IN THE WORLD
Many of us writers think that writing is the greatest job in the world. Why? Well, we get to stay up as late as we want, we get to sleep in as late as we want, our commute is from the coffee maker to our desk, and - here’s the main part - all we do is make up stuff. And what’s involved in that? Arranging words. On paper, on screen, that’s all we do. We move words around until they make a story. How hard is that compared to a real job where you have to be at the office or the loading dock everyday at eight in the morning?
Of course, there are other perspectives on the business of writing. Steinbeck said that, "Compared to writing, horse racing is a solid stable business." Frank Allen, a comedian back in the 1950s - not to be confused with Steve Allen - Frank had an even more basic take on this business of arranging words. He said, "Why on Earth would anyone spend an entire year writing a novel, when you can buy one for a few bucks?"
Well, tonight, the answer will be found in the future of reading and writing.
My talk is called:
The Secret Future Of Books Revealed
What Bookstores, a Disney musical, and Hip 6th Graders Tell Us About The Resurgence Of Reading In America
GREAT NEWS ABOUT READING
My talk is all good news. Actually, it’s great news. Whether you’re a reader or a writer. The news is that reading is bigger than ever. And reading among the coming generation is huge. We’ve all heard the concerns about reading fading away, bookstores closing, kids spending all their time playing video games. As of tonight, you can relax. The sky isn’t falling, and I’ll explain how I know that.
WHAT MAKES STORIES WORK?
But let’s start by talking about story. Not about a particular story. Just story. What makes stories tick. And in that ticking - for anyone who tells stories - are the keys to making your story tighter, punchier, and more capable of robbing your readers of sleep.
When Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces back in 1949, he outlined the hero’s journey and the basic components of stories. Some of the most enduring stories of all time, from those of the world’s major religions to the writings of authors from Cervantes to Shakespeare, Tolstoy to Twain, Joyce to Hemingway and beyond exhibit many of Campbell’s elements. We now know that people are hard-wired for stories that contain these characteristics.
George Lucas has explained that when he wrote Star Wars, he specifically based the story on the mythology that Campbell wrote about. That movie became the highest grossing movie of all time and held that record for six years.
True or fictional, if you tell us a story with a sympathetic, sometimes reluctant, character (the protagonist) who is in terrible trouble and who tries to solve his or her problem only to have the trouble get much, much worse, and if you include in the story an evil, all-powerful antagonist, whether Satan or Darth Vader or even a crippling emotional problem, people will respond. It’s in our neurological wiring. The audience will cheer the good guy and hiss the bad guy and stay riveted through the story’s climax and denouement.
This trouble that imbues all fiction exists across all genres. Even in a romance or a comedy, the character’s trouble seems - to the character - like the potential death of all that the character wants most in life. As readers, we see that passion and yearning that may never be fulfilled, and we care deeply about that.
MYTHIC STORY STRUCTURES
Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and others figured out that these iconic mythical story structures date from the earliest stories. Maybe it was as simple as prehistoric parents discovering that to simply issue edicts to their children about not leaving the cave except under certain special circumstances was not very effective. In spite of the rules, even the most well-behaved child would be driven by curiosity to venture forth into the forest, there to fall victim to unknown hazards. But when those same parents told their children a story about a child who sneaks away unaccompanied by protective adults and who is then pursued through the dark, scary forest, chased and tormented by wolves or tigers or - even worse - evil monsters, their listening children would be rapt, enchanted, spellbound. And when the story’s protagonist finally figured out a way to outwit the monster and survive, any child listening remembered forever the lessons learned.
THE GREAT MYSTERIUM AND HOW IT WORKS IN STORY
Nearly all stories have some variation of that dark, scary forest outside the cave. It’s called the Mysterium Tremendum, which from the Latin, refers to the Great Mystery, and it is usually where the story’s antagonist lives and plots his evil deeds. In the climactic battle of many of the most compelling stories, the protagonist decides to take on the bad guy on the bad guy’s turf. Our hero often changes his uniform or clothing to be better prepared, double checks his best weapons be they swords or words, and then steps over the threshold and into the territory of the powerful villain. There, the hero enters a new world where all rules are different. Although this mysterium is strange and unknown to the protagonist, it’s the familiar backyard of the villain, giving the bad guy a huge advantage of knowledge to go along with his already-demonstrated greater firepower.
In nearly every gripping story, the hero, through nothing more than sheer determination and grit and innovative thinking, manages to overcome his or her opponent, an opponent that, by every measure, is superior. David strikes down Goliath.
How can a child not be transfixed when told a story with these elements?
In fact, all of us, children and adults, are struck with wonder by stories. Stories make even the most jaded and cynical among us laugh and cry, hope and worry, yearn and despise and cheer. A good story gets into our psyche like nothing else. A good story creates a world more exciting than the real world, scarier than the real world, sadder or funnier than the real world.
So as writers, if we take a hint from George Lucas and put these mythic story elements into our novel, we are moving toward creating a story that will deprive readers of sleep. Your story can still be unique and surprising and steer far from those stories that get accused of being formulaic. But if your story has those mythic bones giving structure to the characters and plot, the world you create will fire the brain circuits in readers that draw them in and rivet their attention.
COMPUTERS STILL CAN’T WRITE BOOKS
A month ago, I was listening to NPR’s Science Friday program. The subject was whether or not computers could ever replace us as storytellers.
The guests on the program were two professors, artificial intelligence experts. They belong to that group of people with the amazing ability to create worlds just using binary code, ones and zeros, certainly a Mysterium Tremendum of its own.
One of the Science Friday guests had written a program that creates metaphors. You plug in a couple of subjects as varied and unusual as you can think up and the program will produce an intriguing metaphor that gives you a new way to think about your subjects. The examples given were at once fascinating and humbling. If a computer can think of that, then what good is my poor, limited brain?
The second guest had written a program that was sort of a second cousin to the first. In his program, you come up with some characters and a few other parameters, and the program will write a story. It isn’t a crude, simplistic story. It’s a full-fledged story with realistic scenes, a beginning, a middle, and an end. And if that isn’t enough, both the metaphor program and the story program can do this at high speed, producing thousands of metaphors and stories in seconds.
The Science Friday host was a little troubled. Did this mean the end of human storytelling? Would novels and plays and movie scripts be written by machines in the near future?
As a novelist, I too was concerned.
But the computer experts said not to worry. They didn’t see that world coming in the foreseeable future.
The man who’d written the story program explained that something was missing in the computer-generated stories. He said that they lacked excitement. Whatever it is that takes Campbell’s iconography of stories and stirs it up into a level of trouble so bad that readers start biting their fingernails is itself some kind of mysterium, a world that computers don’t fully understand.
I’m relieved to know that my job won’t be rendered obsolete in the near future. And it’s exciting to consider that this mysterious business of storytelling is so, well, mysterious. A computer can use the most complex math and make thousands of computations a second to plot a trajectory that will send a spacecraft to land on an asteroid moving 50,000 miles an hour, an asteroid that can’t even be seen with most telescopes, but that computer can’t tell a story that will get a reader’s heart pumping?
That is both amazing and fantastic.
KIDS ARE WIRED FOR STORIES
I remember reading stories to my nieces back when they were very young. They were just learning to speak in complete sentences. But it was obvious that they understood stories. Their brows wrinkled with worry when the hero was in deep trouble, and they grinned with excitement when the hero vanquished the villain. We can see that the youngest of children are wired for stories. And now we know that the stories that really engage children and adults alike can only be written by real people.
There’s obviously something very special about stories.
Yet over the last decade or two, it seemed that some kids lost the fire for reading. Many times, when I exhibited my books or gave talks at libraries or at schools, parents told me that their kids inhabited the world of video screens and that it was hard to get them to read. Occasionally, people would say that their daughters were voracious readers, but that their sons lived for computer games and didn’t read books. I’m as suggestible as anyone else, and I bought into the idea.
But I kept noticing that very young kids - even boys! - would look at my books all lined up on my exhibit table. They’d stare at the covers, and sometimes they’d pick them up, look at the back copy, maybe even flip through the pages.
I began to wonder if maybe all of us, parents and teachers and authors alike, were missing a trend.
WHAT ABOUT BOYS AND MEN READING?
I also wondered if we were selling boys and men short when it came to reading. After all, I’ve communicated with many men who keep their novel reading at a very low profile. Some write me revealing emails that intimate that their love for novels is not something they share with the guys at Monday Night Football. I’ve been to nearly a hundred book clubs, about 98 of which were comprised exclusively of women. But at a surprising number of them, the husband of the host was not out in the yard or off at Home Depot, but in the kitchen or study, within hearing distance of the club and our discussions about characters and plots.
I’ve also met men who say that their Kindle or Nook allows them to read in situations where they’d be uncomfortable pulling out a book, the cover visible, there to be judged by others in the airplane or the doctor’s waiting room. These readers realize that some men take a pejorative attitude toward a guy who reads.
The most callous of men are of course fine with reading as long as it’s the sports pages. But for some, to read a novel is like going to the ballet or listening to opera, an emasculating activity in the kick-butt American psyche that is only a few decades removed from cowboys and their six-shooter world, a world that America sometimes seems to be going back to. Obviously, there are still some philistines in my half of the species.
So e-readers have been a liberator for many men who read. And any guy holding one could, in fact, have Sports Illustrated on the screen.
I have a reader from back east who writes to me each year when my new book comes out. Because he’s spent so much time with my characters, he correctly feels that he knows me well. He sees me as a friend.
This man has told me that he doesn’t tell his friends that he reads novels. He’s told me that my books sometimes make him cry, but that he had never admitted that to anyone besides me. This man told me that when he writes a review of my book and posts it on Amazon, he won’t include his real name. This man has obviously thought a great deal about how his reading would be judged in the town where he lives and works.
Never having met each other, the anonymity of our relationship allows him to tell me the truth of his isolation as a male reader. He’s eager to escape into the world of novels but unwilling to let his judgmental friends know about it.
I imagine that many boys are the same, boys who read but who don’t advertise it. As a result, we may have underestimated the size of the reading population.
WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM KIDS
Three weeks ago, I spoke at the Lenz Elementary School in Reno as part of their reading week. My audience was about 130 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. I brought my books to display, wore my Sherlock Holmes cap, and told them about the writing life.
Remembering my youth, a time when I read but never considered the people who wrote the books with which I spent so much time, I wanted these kids to think about writing and even possibly consider pursuing what I and other authors believe is the greatest job in the world. So I told them all about the process of writing books and how much fun it is.
Those grade school kids were inspiring with their intelligent questions, their intense focus, their eager enthusiasm. They wanted to know everything about writing from how long it takes to write a book, to how one dreams up characters, to what’s the best thing about writing stories.
While they peppered me with questions, I also asked them questions. When I asked what books they read, they shouted out J..K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, and Jeff Kinney. And then the kids asked me if I’d met any of their favorite authors. When I said that I’d just had dinner with Daniel Handler, AKA Lemony Snicket, at the Sacramento Library Authors on the Move fundraiser, the kids swooned as if I’d met a writing god. Perhaps I had.
When I walked out of that school, I had the very strong impression that those kids really loved to read. Sure, they love movies and video games, too. That’s assumed. It’s even assumed that a kid in a room with a book and a loud TV is probably going to focus on the TV. But it seemed that these kids find places and times conducive to reading.
I wondered if these kids gave me a skewed view of how much boys and girls read. Did my experience at an upper middle class elementary school provide a false picture? Are other kids growing up without the joy of books and the pleasures of stories so intricate that computers still can’t produce them?
So I did some research.
JUST WHAT ARE THE BESTSELLING BOOKS EACH YEAR?
My first stop was Amazon. As everyone knows, they have the largest database of books, much larger than Books-in-Print, and their search engine is comprehensive. It includes the ability to search the best-selling books of any year.
My question was this: Of the twenty best-selling books each year, how many are novels aimed at kids and how many are novels aimed at adults? And once I knew that information, I wanted to see if things were trending one way or another.
I started with 1997 for the simple reason that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published that year. Rowling is often credited with creating a generation of readers, readers who are now mostly grown up.
It turns out that Harry didn’t take hold right away. There were no novels aimed at kids in the top 20 books from 1997, although there were 5 adult novels on the list. That left 15 non-fiction books to make up the bulk of the best selling titles. In 1997, fiction in general just wasn’t that popular. In 1998, there were 8 adult novels among the top 20 books. But again, not a single novel for kids or young adults made the list. It wasn’t looking good for young readers.
Things changed dramatically in 1999, the year that Harry took over. In 1999, the top three bestselling books of the year were three installments of Harry. But despite Rowling’s voracious young readers, from 1997 to 2007, there were only 17 kids titles in the top 20, and most were Harry. This compares to 47 adult titles. Outside of Harry’s fans, it looked like we were losing many of the new generation of readers.
What was happening? Did kids only read Harry Potter?
THE YEAR KIDS TOOK OVER THE READING UNIVERSE
But beginning in 2008, the reading world shifted. Between 2008 and 2014, there were over twice as many kids titles as adult titles in the Top 20. 45 to 21. Over the last seven years, kids books have kicked butt on adult books.
I don’t know, but I suspect it is a combination of parents and teachers putting more focus on reading. I suspect it’s also the appearance of many more authors who began writing compelling books aimed at kids. In addition to the authors I already mentioned, we also saw the emergence of Stephenie Meyer, Christopher Paolini, Suzanne Collins, John Green, Veronica Roth, and others.
Is this a case of Build it And They Will Come?
Maybe. And it’s worth noting that many of these authors construct stories as if they’d had a Joseph Campbell How-To book on their desk.
Let’s look at an unusual example that I think epitomizes how much kids, even very young kids, read today.
THE AMAZING STORY OF A MOVIE NOVELIZATION
The biggest movie worldwide in 2013 was the Disney musical Frozen. In fact, it’s the 5th biggest movie in history. Note that it is aimed at kids. And perhaps a worthy footnote is that the 4th biggest movie worldwide, ever, is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Which certainly points out that kids are ravenous consumers of stories.
We already know that today’s kids devour books by the new crop of famous authors. But do kids read other books? Do they read novelizations of movies they already know by heart? So I wondered about the movie Frozen. A long animated feature about a princess with several catchy songs doesn’t seem, at first glance, to be something with novel-type components sufficient to compete with all the other books out there.
Yet Disney allowed many story versions to be released, different versions for kids of different ages.
I typed Frozen into Amazon’s search box and started counting. I gave up when I got to 80. I didn’t count sticker books or songbooks, coloring books or puzzle books. I only counted novels and novellas, and for younger kids, short story versions of Frozen. In other words, I only counted books one reads.
I assumed that spreading an audience out over 80-plus Frozen titles would make it so that no single title sold very well.
Was I ever wrong. It turns out that according to Amazon, the number one fiction title in the country in 2014 was a version of Frozen.
Yes, kids love the movie. Yes, they probably saw it lots of times. But what may have been the most significant response to the hit movie was that kids read one of the books. Kids love to read. Over and over. Story after story.
I know that some of you are wondering about the dichotomy between ebooks and print books. Are these statistics based on the growing sales of ebooks? Even though Amazon is the biggest seller of books in the country, do their numbers really reflect what is happening in the rest of the market?
KIDS BOOKS RULE
Publishers Weekly breaks out print sales from ebook sales.
On January 2nd, 2015, the Publishers Weekly website reported the results of the 1209 publishers that belong to the Association of American Publishers. Of the Top 10 print books of 2014, nine were novels. (Only one non-fiction book made the list!) And of those nine novels, eight were kids or young adult! (Only one adult novel made the list!)
Message? Today, kids books rule! In every category, and by every measure, we are in a gold rush of reading for kids. It is amazing. It’s wonderful.
WHAT’S HAPPENING TO BOOKSTORES?
So what about bookstores?
Over the last twenty years or so, it’s been reported that bookstores have been closing in large numbers. First, the independents began closing because the chains took more and more of their business. Then the second biggest chain, Borders, closed, possibly because of Amazon, possibly because they made bad business decisions. Then the single remaining national chain, Barnes & Noble, began closing stores. Again, the reason was probably partly traceable to Amazon, and partly to the shift to ebooks. Their Nook reader came out of the gate fast, but it’s been struggling.
Unfortunately, independent bookstores were hit hardest. Whether because of chain stores or Amazon or other changes in the marketplace, over half of all independent bookstores closed between the mid-1990s and 2009, the bottom of the market.
But then, something wonderful happened. Independents began coming back. According to the American Booksellers Association, the U.S. has gained over 300 independent bookstores since 2009. Sixty every year. More than one new bookstore every week! That’s a big increase for a business that was given Last Rites by many pundits. Not only are there more bookstores, but most already-existing independents reported rising sales last year.
Of course, the biggest bookseller is Amazon. Love it or hate it, everyone who studies it agrees that more people are now reading than ever before and a good part of that is connected to the way Amazon has made it easy to find any book in the world and get it downloaded or sent out fast and at a good price. Even independent bookstores, in which it is forbidden to speak the name of Amazon’s ebook reader, sometimes benefit.
I know an independent bookstore that gets all their special orders from Amazon, which provides easier ordering and a more efficient website than the distributor from which they order their main inventory. And unlike the distributor’s limited selection, Amazon generally has every title, no small thing when the number of books out there has rocketed up to over 11 million. When a customer comes into this independent and orders a book, no matter how obscure, the store gets it in two days. The price is discounted, so the independent can resell at a small profit, and the shipping, after the store pays for the annual Prime membership, is free.
Everybody wins. The customer, who doesn’t know that Amazon is even in the equation, thinks this particular independent is awesome because, unlike most other bookstores large or small, they can get pretty much any title and get it fast. The independent benefits because they keep the customer happy. And of course, once the customer is in the store to pick up the book, they often find other books that they want.
THE EXPLOSION OF BOOK TITLES
Speaking of the explosion of book titles, let’s look again at the people who write them.
What I said to the kids at the elementary school was true. Writing is the best job in the world. As the song says, ‘Nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try.’
Of course, a lot of writers believe that getting into the business is extremely difficult no matter how hard they try. But a quick study of successful authors shows that the most significant thing they have in common - perhaps the only thing they have in common - is that most of them have written a lot of books.
A quick survey of authors who haven’t found much success will show that very few of them have written a lot of books. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book The Outliers, if you have the basic physical or mental capacity required to succeed at something and then put in ten thousand hours of serious practice - the equivalent of five years of full time focused work - you will likely reach a professional level of skill whether it be in figure skating, chess, accounting, or novel writing.
Five years of full time novel writing will get you at least five books. Maybe lots more. Now you are ready to begin writing as a pro. You wouldn’t expect people to have high regard for your surgical skills if you hadn’t spent five or ten years practicing how to cut into and fix peoples’ insides. Why should you expect people to have high regard for your first or second novel, something so complicated that not even a supercomputer can do it well?
There are a few so-called one book wonders out there, authors who found a large audience on their first book. They get a disproportionate amount of press, but they are very rare in the big picture. And if you look closer, you will often discover that many of those authors wrote many previous books under a different name.
HOW TO MAKE IT AS A WRITER
If I were to give a single bit of advice about how to increase your chances of making it as a writer, I’d say practice. Writers write. There are two kinds of people who are enamored of the writing world, those who are in love with the idea of being a writer, and those who are in love with writing. It is the second group that succeeds. Write a book. Then write another. Then another. Emulate successful authors. They have lots of books. It would be nearly impossible to have a successful restaurant with only one item on the menu.
Take yourself as seriously as does a doctor or lawyer or architect. Put in 10,000 hours. Your successful fellow authors did. Many authors agree that you can’t judge a writing career until you have ten books out. Certainly, my 10th book was a turning point for me, and my sales growth ratcheted up several notches. This is partly because readers take you more seriously the more books you have. It’s also partly because the more books you have, the better a writer you become.
A GOLDEN ERA FOR WRITING
This is the best time in history to be an author. A writer no longer needs to heed any of the traditional gatekeepers. If you want to try for a big New York deal, they’re still out there. Polish up your query letter and your elevator pitch and get in line.
If you don’t want to take the time and energy to wait for responses from agents and then from editors and then wait yet longer for the publication pipeline to finally spit your book out into the world, you can do it yourself.
There are a hundred ways to self-publish, and basic research will uncover all the options as well as the huge number of scams and schemes that salespeople use to fleece new authors who are blinded by the excitement of seeing their book on a shelf.
Because of this, I’m going to digress and give would-be self-publishers some quick hints. These are, of course, just my personal opinions.
1) If you self-publish with a Print-On-Demand business model, expect to do it for free or nearly free. You don’t need to pay good money to any company for what you can do yourself for free. For ebooks, you upload to Amazon’s Kindle platform and to the Smashwords platform, which gets your ebook into every other online store. For paper books, you can upload to Amazon’s Create Space platform for free as well. Once you find your core audience, you can upgrade to offset printing in volume and make more money per book.
2) Seriously consider owning your own ISBN number. Then you are the true publisher in the eyes of reviewers. Many reviewers are loathe to review books that are put out by internet companies. Reviewers are biased against such books because many or most of these companies have little or no editing review, so many of the books they put out are filled with problems. If you are self-publishing, never choose any publishing route that doesn’t give you complete control. Despite what they say, if an internet company owns the ISBN, they are in control, they are the publisher.
3) Whatever publishing route you choose, be double sure that many authors are making a good living by publishing their books that way. After a quick Google search, I could name hundreds of businesses in the so-called self-publishing world that don’t have a single author on their list making $50,000 a year. Most don’t have a single author making $5,000 a year. These businesses are no good at publishing and selling books. What they are good at is taking your money by telling you tall tales of how to spin straw into gold. In contrast to the internet companies, there are many hundreds of self-published authors who use due diligence in choosing their publishing approach and make $100,000 a year. Many dozens make $500,000 a year. More than several self-published authors make a million dollars a year. We have one right here in the Central Valley. No wonder so many authors are jumping their New York publisher’s ships where they have no control and get only ten percent of the money, and decide instead to do it themselves so they have total control and keep nearly all of the money.
4) Get a professional cover. The vast majority of self-published authors cobble together a makeshift cover cheap. They’re proud of the money they save, and they think it looks great. The rest of the world disagrees. The vast majority of self-published books - just like the majority of New York published books - don’t sell in any numbers, and their cover is one of the main reasons. Until you find a devoted audience, your cover is your only effective sales tool. No one will buy your book because you have an MFA in creative writing. But they’ll buy it if the cover is sufficiently enticing. A great cover won’t guarantee big sales, but it will guarantee some sales. And if those readers love your book, they’ll spread the word, and your career will slowly grow.
5) After you’ve gotten multiple critiques from your writing group and you’ve re-written your book multiple times, hire a professional editor. That person will save you from getting one-star reviews complaining about misspellings and repeated words and mixed metaphors and point-of-view shifts. That editor can save your career from being destroyed by bad reviews.
6) While you don’t need to spend money on many of the aspects of publishing, expect to spend some real money on your cover and editing. Your book is one of the most important things you’ve ever done, right? So buy a used car instead of a new car, cut back on your vacation, stop going to restaurants, and launch your book properly.
7) Don’t rush into publishing. You spent a year or three writing your masterpiece. Expect to spend at least a few weeks researching the best way to bring it to market. Buy multiple books on publishing and study them. Read a hundred blogs on publishing.
Okay, end of digression.
Is there a moral to this story about the future of books and the resurgence of reading?
Yes. This is the greatest time in history to be a reader or writer.
There are more readers reading more books than ever before. Book sales are up. The number of bookstores is up. The number of book titles is up. The number of authors making a living is hugely up.
For writers, the change in the last ten years has been astonishing, like an earthquake that crumbled the entire world of book acquisition and distribution. For the first time, writers are in charge of their careers, not publishers, not agents, not distributors, not even booksellers. Never before has a writer been able to easily put his or her work before the world without first navigating a Byzantine maze set up to reward a few publishers at the expense of the very authors they depend on.
The children of today are ravenous readers. They devour good stories.
Those children are going to grow up and become ravenous adult readers.
The Secret Future Of Books reveals a reading writing universe that is exploding. And we are all extremely lucky to be along for the ride.