Are Writers More Prone to Depression?

Are Writers More Prone to Depression?

A common, if somewhat poetic worldview, would have us believe that writers are depressed, alcoholic, drug abusing people slowly dying as they chase their muse. The image of suffering writer is everywhere.

ErnestHemingway

Writers like Ernest Hemingway, pictured above, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson epitomize how many people view writers in general, men with periods of brilliance and periods of depression and alcoholism. But how true is that?

Stereotypes aside I’ve heard many writers talking about depression in blogs and on panels at conventions. Is depression more common among writers and other artists? Or is that a myth?

For the record, yes, I have been through the ringer with depression on more than one occasion. But this post isn’t about my personal struggle or story. I might share some of that at some future time.

I think there are a couple of legitimate reasons why writers might be more prone to depression than non-creative types. But overall I think it’s a myth, and I think there is one really important reason that myth persists.

First let’s start with why writers might suffer depression.

The open eye gathers more dust

I read this in the book, The Heart of Yogi. It was meant to be about yoga practitioners and other spiritual types. But it applies equally to writers regardless of their spiritual bent.

Writers have open eyes. We see this world in ways that others don’t. For some writers this is really obvious. We read their works and we know they are spending a lot of time delving into the dark corners of the human mind. The horror writer that brings nightmares to life. The psychological thrillers that puts inside the mind of a serial killer.

Those writers have seen some shit, even if it was imaginary shit in their head.

But what about those escapist writers that claim their works hold nothing of reality? Science fiction and fantasy authors who build new worlds to escape this one. Romance writers who are committed to the happy ever after no matter what.

I would argue they see some shit too. It’s inescapable to the process.

How do you learn to describe people? By watching them. And sometimes you see some great things people watching, sometimes you see some less great things.

The other day at the grocery store I watched an middle aged woman and an elderly woman shopping together. They argued over vegetables and a whole story revealed itself, the middle aged woman put into the mother role with a mother she obviously adored, but was frustrated with. She never thought she’d be on this side of table, telling her mother that the doctor wanted her to eat her veggies. It was cute, endearing.

But an aisle over was a very different story. A man and a woman. A sharp glance, a barked word. And I couldn’t help but feel like I was seeing a battered woman. Did her makeup cover bruises? If this is was how he acted in public, what was he like at home?

Observing people is great practice for writers, but a wearying exercise in humanity. There are people just like your worse villain, walking the same streets that you do. Following the news gives us so many new story ideas, but man it can be depressing some days.

Can that lead to major depression? There is a huge gap between feeling stressed and being depressed. Everyone’s threshold for depression is a little different. For some people, maybe this could trigger a deep depression. For most writers I suspect this is a factor, but not the sole cause of any struggles they have.

Our Society Does Not Like Those Who Don’t Conform

Writers are, almost by definition, non-conformers. Creativity in any form is seen as a sign of non-conformity.

Again you can look over the history of writers and find many stellar examples of non-conformity. Many of the literary greats lived unconventional lives. They spoke out against repressive societies and told stories that at the time were unheard of.

But that, too, contains a lot of stereotypes. For every Anas Nin and Virginia Woolf there were dozen of more conventional women writing in every genre. For every adventurer of Hemingway’s fame there were dozen of writers that lived mundane, pedestrian lives.

Even so, writing is an act of rebellion. As Robert Heinlein said, “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”

I doubt there is a writer alive who hasn’t had someone wonder, in a disparaging voice, when they will do something more practical with their time. And woe to those who aspire to make a living from writing.

So many people in our society have a love/hate relationship with writing and writers. Surveys show that upwards of ninety percent of the US population say they want to write a book someday. But they constantly disparage those who actually do so.

Some of it is just sour grapes, of course. Maintaining that it’s an impossible dream removes any responsibility to actually sit down and write their book.

The fact remains that our society puts pressure on anyone who is seen as breaking from cultural norms. The further you stray, the more pressure there is. Transgender and gender nonconforming individuals are murdered at a strikingly high rate in this country, and around the world. Some are shot on the street by people who don’t know them, have no reason to hate them except for their non-conformity.

The good news is that no one, to my knowledge, is killing writers. But that doesn’t mean the pressure isn’t there. It can come in the form of family members that don’t respect your writing time as important. Backhanded compliments from strangers when they discover you’ve written books.

Like the first point, I doubt the pressure on writers is severe enough to lead to depression by itself, but then again I don’t know your situation so I can’t say. Certainly many people have been forced into careers they hate because everyone told them their dream was impractical. But I am sure it’s a factor for many writers with depression.

So maybe there is something to the idea that writers are more likely to be depressed. But I think there is a much bigger factor that we haven’t talked about yet.

Writers talk about depression

Writers are storytellers first and foremost. And we dig in our own lives for stories worth telling. One of the most beloved writing quotes is “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”*

350 million people worldwide suffer from depression. In one year alone, 6.7% of the US population had a depressive episode. And it’s probably only the tip of the iceberg. There is a huge stigma against mental health throughout many of the world’s culture.

Depression is often disparaged as a sign of weakness or something that isn’t serious enough to warrant treatment. Numerous myths abound about mental health treatment and depression treatment specifically, further discouraging people from seeking treatment.

Which makes depression an enormously important and untold story. Depression is a complicated thing. There isn’t one clear cut “cause” of depression and people get depressed for a lot of reasons. Some people are born with genes that make them prone to depression. Some develop depression for physical reasons, others due to traumas or stresses they’ve face.

The symptoms are individual. Some people sink into a numb, low energy state. Some are sad, many, surprisingly, are not. Instead they experience other negative emotions like anxiety, anger, irritability or heightened stress. Some feel chronically tired while others are filled with a restless energy that doesn’t seem to accomplish much.

Another often misquoted piece of writing advice is “write what you know.” The origins of this advice was never meant to limit the writer, but to help them process their own experience. It was Thoreau in Walden who laid it out, stating he “required of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life.”

We might write about alien worlds, fantasy realms or other people’s lives, but we are all really processing our own stuff with everything we write. The only way to escape this, to separate our writing from our experience, is to first come to terms with our own issues.

For a fair percentage of writers, that experience includes depression. So we do what writers do, write it out. We talk about our struggles in our blogs and in our stories.

And that, I think, is a great thing. It’s great for the individual that you can work out so much of your depression through writing about it. But it’s great for the reader, too. People who suffer depression feel alone, unsupported.

You are not alone. In fact you are in great company. A wiki page of famous people who have suffered depression is long and contains former presidents, film makers, writers and celebrities.

If you are currently struggling with depression, the way ahead may be dark. But it’s not without hope. There are many effective treatments, many others who have battled these demons and won. Take hope.

*This quote has been attributed to multiple writers. See here for a full discussion.

Resources:

Do you have depression?

Everyone is different but people with depression experience many of following symptoms:

  • Anhedonia: Literally lack of joy, things that used to make you happy don’t any more.
  • Persistent negative moods including; sadness, anxiety, worry, irritability, anger and/or numbness or an “empty” mood.
  • Decreased energy and fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping/trouble waking up, feeling tired all the time
  • Difficulty concentrating and remembering things.
  • Appetite or weight change, up or down
  • Aches and pains without physical explanation.
  • Thoughts of death and suicide.

For a more complete list, see here.

What to do?

The most important thing to do about depression is to talk about it, admit that you are struggling. That can be hard, especially in our society, but know that there are supportive people. And depression can be treated.

If you are feeling suicidal, please talk to a professional right away. The suicide lifeline prevention website can be found here. They have a 1-800 number and a lot of resources. Please go check it out before attempting to harm yourself.

The National Institute of Mental Health has many online resources for depression. However, I suggest you talk to someone in person. Many employers have employee assistance programs that offer a few free counseling sessions, enough to find out if you have depression and to learn what resources are available locally or through your health plan. Your personal physician is another resource, if you have one. Young people should check with their school and/or college. Their is almost always some sort of student counseling services. If you don’t have benefits through a job, there are community mental health centers in many communities.

The reason I suggest talking to a professional in-person is that the internet is filled with “helpful” advice on how to deal with depression. I use suspicious quotes here because while many of suggestions are great self-care tips they are not comprehensive treatment and they shame people who need a different kind of treatment.

Depression is an individual disease and it needs individualizes treatment. The fact that one friend got out of their depression on their own by doing yoga doesn’t mean its wrong for you to take medicine. Just because you take medicine doesn’t mean that counseling isn’t a better option for someone else. Do what is best for you and don’t shame others for doing the same.

depression-meme

Revisiting Bad Authors: H. P. Lovecraft

I’ve blogged about good writers who were bad people before. What do we do when we discover that one of our favorite author isn’t a stellar example of a human being, or perhaps holds beliefs that we personally find abhorrent.

To recap, I had three basic criteria I keep in mind when I am trying to judge an author’s personal shortcomings.

1) Are they still alive? Will the money I spend to support this author end up going to causes I hate?

2) Are they a product of their time? Certain language, concepts and practices might be abhorrent now, but writers in other times and cultures might simply be describing the world they saw around them, rather than expressing a viewpoint. Many older works contain flagrant sexism, racism or homophobia because that was part of those societies.

3) To what extent does the author’s personal flaws affect their work?

 

I’m going to break down number three because there are two sides of that issues, and because it’s gotten a lot more complicated for me personally since that first post.

The first side of the third issue is whether the flaw is an active one or a passive one. What I mean is this; let’s say a romance writer you respect reveals that she’s never written an interracial love story because she’s uncomfortable with idea of interracial love?

Personally I’d be disappointed with that author. The attitude, I think reflects at least some level of bigotry. However does that ruin my enjoyment of her other works? Probably not.

Now let’s say it came out that the same author was giving donations to a racist group. How would you feel about that? I would be offended.

That, too me, is the difference between an active and a passive flaw. One represents an unchallenged bias, the other active racism.

The second half of the the issues is the extent to which the flaw directly involves the work in question. A writer who drinks, cheats on his/her spouse, is a bad parent, etc, these flaws may have little to do with their writing. A racist, sexist or homophobic writer might, either consciously or subconsciously include these same messages in their works.

There is a goodreads discussion about sexism in Heinlein’s classic Stranger in a Strange Land. It’s one of the longest, most involved discussions I’ve seen on that website. My last comment on thread was simple; whether you agree or disagree, the main premise of the thread has answered itself. “Were you bothered by the sexism?” Yes. Clearly a lot of people were bothered.

But Heinlein isn’t the reason we are revisiting this blog.

H. P. Lovecraft is.

H._P._Lovecraft,_June_1934

Virtually unknown in his day, H. P. Lovecraft is now considered one of the greatest early gothic horror writers. His best known character, the dark god Cthulhu, has grown to practically be a household name. One character, Herbert West, Re-Animator, got a cheesy movie in the eighties. An evil tome, the Necronomicon, another of his creations, has become a popular part of our cultural legends.

The problem with H. P. Lovecraft? He was a racist.

We could take the easy way out. He’s dead. His works are all in the public domain, which means no one benefits from his writing. (In fact, if you paid for his writing, you got duped. Several fans have released complete collections online for free.) A quick look at his biography shows that he wrote many racist diatribes to friends, but did little to publically support his racism, mostly due to his poverty rather than a lack of desire to act on his racism.

But we aren’t taking the easy way out on this one, so let’s press on. Was he merely a productive of his time? Apologist would like us to think so. But it’s a real stretch. Mark Twain used the N word, because that was the common word in his days. Despite this, he portrays Nigger Jim is a relatively positive light. Over a generation later, H. P. Lovecraft’s racism is far more apparent, more so than almost any contemporary writer. Reading his works today, it regularly smacks you in the face. In the Re-animator he describes Herbert West’s second experiment on a black boxer in the most offensive terms of being “gorilla-like” after his re-animation. Xenophobia permeates one of his most famous works, the Shadow over Innsmouth. What makes the inhabitants of Innsmouth so scary is their foreignness.

It would be easy to try to divorce Lovecraft the man from Lovecraft the writer, or to minimize the racism of his work by arguing it was the times, or a small part of the work, but none of these answers satisfies. Or we could simply reject Lovecraft altogether, let his works fade into obscurity.

But Lovecraft’s flaws and his contributions are intertwined. Lovecraft’s xenophobia informs his works in much the same way that Edgar Allen Poe’s depression and drug abuse permeate his works.

Horror works because it touches on primal fears. Drug abuse, depression, madness, fear and anger, a good horror writer explores them all, in ways that makes us uncomfortable but ultimately enlightens us. Racism is cultural, something that must be learned. But Xenophobia is not, it’s inherent in all of us, like it or not. We fear the unknown, fear people who are too different from us.

Lovecraft shines a light on the xenophobia of the mind, he plays on it. The Shoggothi’s architecture itself inspires terror simply because it doesn’t follow the rules of Euclidean geometry. It feels alien. The people of Innsmouth don’t look right, and it triggers subconscious alarms for casual observer.

This where I start to get conflicted. He himself seems to have been unmoved by his own works. As much as I would love to see his works as some attempt to force us to confront our own bias, it’s not. He really thought that way.

It would be akin to discovering that Ken Kesey supported lobotomies and meant One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to be read in that light. Or that Nabokov was pedophile. Or that Orson Scott Card is actually the warmongering colonel of Ender’s game, not the hero. (Wait, that last one might be true.)

In the end, I think of Lovecraft as a cautionary tale, like an addict that never recovers. We can see his descent into xenophobia, be moved by it, but hopefully be moved to avoid our own. Or maybe I am just fooling myself. Since his works are in the public domain, you can read them yourself and come to your own conclusions.

 

Turning Cliches on their head

Cliches.

We all know they’re bad. We know we shouldn’t use them. But cliches are there for a reason. They aren’t just a part of literature, they are a part of life. They are expectations. They are things we assume will happen.
I like to challenge cliches. Not just avoid them, but completely turn them on their head and then fish in their pockets for loose change.
The first novel I wrote started out that way. It went through a half dozen attempts at writing before I became a good enough writer to write it and a dozen or more major rewrites before it eventually became Children of a New Earth.
The seed, the kernel of the novel, lay in the post-apocalyptic stories of my youth in the eighties. Mad Max and it’s many spin offs had a simple cliche notion, that once society collapsed it humanity would quickly devolve into punk rock barbarians and para military organizations.
Why? Why does every writer assume this?

Every 80’s apocalypse assumed that para-military groups would take over.

I see two underlying assumptions that drive this cliche. The first is the idea that humanity is basically evil, that we restrain these impulses because of society. Without societies control people would become vicious and cruel. The second assumption is that evil is inherently stronger than good. That good people are hampered by what they won’t do. Evil may lose in the end, but only be heroic actions of a few.
These are easy assumptions to buy into. Look at any place on the globe where law and order aren’t routinely imposed and you can find the worst in humanity, on display for all to see. It’s easy to see power when it’s being wielded in weapons and dished out in cruelty.
I wanted to explore an alternative world view in my first novel. I wanted to pose the question, what if society collapsed and people said, “hey, that was pretty stupid. Let’s not do that again.”
The novel changed many times over as it was written and rewritten. The finished novel focuses more on the survivors, especially the next generation and the survivalist enclave of Freedom Ranch. But the original kernel is still there in the stories told by other survivors, in the Quiet Earth Society, the Ten Thousand Warriors for Peace and the Cult of the Iron Mother. These groups fought back against martial law and the growing power of paramilitary groups. Even though they were low tech and peaceful (though not to the point of being pacifists), they won.
They won because there are two paths to power and their opponents only understood one of them. There is destructive power and constructive power. You can invest in weapons to destroy your enemy. You can use fear to control your followers. This is the destructive path to power. Or you can have the knowledge to make things. You can reach out and build connection with your followers. This is the constructive path to power.
In the words of a former Quiet Earth Society member and minor character, “The early military dictators were a stupid lot. They fought over politics. We went straight for the food supply. Once the countryside was on our side, it was over. They just didn’t know it until winter hit.”
Did I succeed in proving my point? I will have to leave that for the reader to decide. But it is an entertaining story and it shows how turning a cliche around can lead to a new novel idea.

Children of a New Earth can be purchased here.

Children of a New Earth can be purchased here.

 

Online Bullies, Trolls and Open Dialogue

The toxicity of online trolls is getting worse, or so says Wil Wheaton. I don’t know that I agree but he’s pretty active on sites like Tumblr and Reddit, where I am not. So maybe he’s on to something. Maybe it’s just those sites.

Most discussions of trolls, trolling behavior and the state of the internet are steeped in a sense of helplessness. The problem seems so intractable, so impossible to cure. There doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about this issue.

I disagree. I think the problem is really quite simple. But first we must recognize how we got to our current state of affairs. Three separate and distinct issues have become so intertwined in our daily experience of the web that we fail to see them as distinct. They are the right to privacy, the right to free speech and the notion of an open dialogue. If we can separate these issues out, the problem becomes clear, as does the solution.

Open Dialogue

The idea of an open dialogue is at the heart of the social web. Facebook, Twitter and Google plus have trained us to see the entire world as an auditorium with an open mic. Every post, every picture, every link has a comment box right below it, inviting us to share our opinion with the world. News sites and blogs have comments sections. Some people feel like they don’t really know the whole story unless we read each and every comment. The whole point of sites like Reddit is to create an open dialogue on a diverse range of subjects. It’s symptomatic of our times that the news has become less and less about news and more about people’s reaction to the news. No news report is complete without some reference to social media, the story going viral, or reactions from Twitter, Facebook, etc.

But do we need to have a dialogue on every aspect of our lives? Just because there is a comment box beneath a post or picture doesn’t mean you need to have an opinion about that photo.

A picture of a woman is not an invitation to comment on her body. Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out is important news, without it a lot of people would have been left wondering why the person they knew as Bruce was now a woman named Caitlyn. But why should it be an opening for the entire country to discuss their feelings about trans people? It’s Caitlyn’s life and choice, not yours. Sometimes the news is just, the news. We can accept that this or that event happened without turning it into a debate.

Slowly across the web people are starting to wake up and ask this question. Do we really need an open forum for every piece of news that comes along?

After looking at the evidence of what online trolling does, Popular Science shut down it’s comments section entirely. Plenty of other magazines have made less drastic steps to limit comments, often hiding them behind a button.

Even a year ago it was a given that bloggers must encourage reader participation in comments. Now many big name bloggers have partially done away with comments or moderate them with a heavy hand. Blogs often allow comments on some posts and not others.

Users on social media are even showing signs of becoming jaded. They are quicker to delete comments, block or unfriend users and move on.

And honestly, I think it’s a good thing. An open dialogue is a privilege, not a right. It’s time to reassert this fact. Implicit behind the whole life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, behind the first amendment’s freedom of speech and religion, is the right to have an opinion without having to constantly defend it.

Women shouldn’t have to be subjected to comments about their bodies from random men online. A woman can post pictures of themselves wearing whatever they want. They can tag it with a comment like “I look hot today.” They are not required to leave those comments open so you can chime in your opinion about how she looks.

A statement about my gender identity or sexual orientation does not require you to chime in with your opinion on LGBT acceptance. When I went through my transition, I was crystal clear about this fact. I informed people that this thing was happening in my life and I would have a new name, gender role. I was not asking for their approval or acceptance of this fact. Not everything I share is an attempt to engage you in a public debate, believe it or not.

What about freedom of speech?

One of the problems we have when we try to school online trolls is that they insist it’s their right to not only have but to publicly air their opinions. This is, at best, a half truth. I’ve blogged about that before: How to Kick an Internet Troll right in the Freedom of Speech.

The short version is this, you have the right to free speech. But I don’t have to provide you an audience. You can have an opinion about my body, but I don’t have to share that on my Facebook or Twitter page. And if you are upset because I deleted a comment or unfriended you, you are welcome to rant on your own page.

Not only am I not obligated to give you an audience, I am not obligated to be part of your audience. Maybe it’s time to stop reading comments. There are many websites, especially news sites, where I never read the comments. Part of it is the over abundance of trolls. Part of it is what do the comments really add to the news piece? Will reading John Q’s opinion on police in America or Caitlyn Jenner’s transition really tell me something? Often the answer is no.

If anything a lot of public debate is degraded by the constant stream of dialogue from people who know nothing about the situation. Climate change remains controversial despite the overwhelming number of scientists that believe it’s real. Why? In large part because of the constant stream of news commentators, politicians and online “sceptics” that have no background in science but still feel empowered to tell the scientist why they are wrong.

The protests in Ferguson, Missouri became a flashpoint for millions of Americans who had never heard of the town and probably couldn’t find it on a map. Yet, they were all quite sure they knew what “really” happened there and were happy to share this valuable insight with residents who lived in the city their whole life.

The bottom line is that freedom of speech does not include the right to make your opinion heard on every single forum or every single issue. It might come as a bitter pill for certain people, to realize that their opinions don’t always matter. But they are welcome to pay for web hosting, launch their own personal website and rant to their hearts content. But I do not have to publish your rant on my website, or visit yours.

The Right to Privacy

The third issue is right to privacy, and it’s gotten intertwined with the rest of this debate due to a couple of website’s heavy handed attempts to deal with online trolls. First Google tried to clean up the horrible cesspit that the Youtube comments section had become and then Facebook tried to clean up it’s online bullying problem.

Both companies took the same approach. They figured if people had to come clean about who they were, they’d be nicer. Their approach to accountability was to insist on real names on their social media.

In doing so they made the online troll problem a privacy issue. It backfired on both of them. There are too many legitimate reasons why people might not want to use their real name online, and many issues with providing real names to companies like Facebook or Google.

Facebook continues to waffle on this issue, stating they are enforcing the real name policy, ignoring it in some cases and enforcing it in others. They continue to claim that it will stop bullying, but without much proof of whether it works or not.

Google blinked and in doing so, created a half ass solution that works better than what Facebook is doing. First they tied Youtube comments to Google Plus, then they blinked on the real name policy on Google plus. So now you can no longer comment anonymously, which at least gives Google some way to block abusive accounts. (That doesn’t prevent them from opening a new email account and then a new Google plus account. But it does make trolling a lot more work.)

Conclusions

The solution to the right to privacy issue might require some compromise on both sides. Social media sites are focusing on real names in an attempt to avoid looking at their other problems, namely an inability to effectively enforce their own rules of conduct.

On Facebook the problem comes down to two issues, they automate most complaints, applying simplistic algorithms to determine what is and is not a valid complaint. Secondly, when a human decision is required, those decisions are often outsourced overseas and the people judging the complaints might have little cultural understanding of what is going on.

Websites need to focus more on policing comments in ways that don’t infringe on rights to privacy. There are numerous options, but the problem is simple. The solution to both problems is to have better oversight, an expensive proposition in terms of manpower on a site used by more than a billion people. It’s no wonder they prefer the band aid of a real name policy.

The compromise for privacy advocates might be to realize that while you should have the right to surf the internet anonymously, you may not have to right to engage in public discourse on those terms. Blog comment sections might require an email or some other account validation process.

Trolls would have us believe that these requirements are a violation of their right to privacy. I would respond by saying that engaging in a discussion on my website isn’t a right, you can do it on my terms or not at all. The choice is yours. Those wanting to protect their privacy sometimes have to make hard choices about whether to use a particular app or website. Sometimes they have to do the same about engaging in public dialogue.

Websites or social media could perhaps accommodate both sides by allowing anonymous comments but treating them differently. A button would toggle them on or off, allowing readers to decide if they want to include anonymous comments or not. I’m guessing that most readers would choose no.

Another really simple fix would be for Facebook or Google plus to provide a simple way to disable comments on certain posts/pictures and to change your account settings to allow you to moderate comments on your own posts. (You can already delete comments, but those comments have already been posted and seen by followers if you aren’t online when they come in. Websites allow you to hold comments and only post the ones you approve.)

 

The bottom line is that we can reduce, if not eliminate, a lot of the online trolling problem, but it will be work. We need to start by understanding that this behavior is not a right. As I have said before, freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. And the consequence of being an online troll is that you might be banned from making future comments.

Those who run websites, be they personal blogs, news sites or social media, will have the most work to do. They need to recognize that some news and announcements aren’t open to discussion and comments can and should be closed. In other cases, comments might have to be moderated. If a comment doesn’t add to the debate, don’t allow it. Most social media sites don’t allow personal attacks or threats. They need to work on applying those standards in a more even handed way.

There is an old saying that it’s the darkest before the dawn. Perhaps Reddits problem is a sign that the tide is turning against the trolls. More and more websites are working to stop troll  behavior and the trolls have fewer pastures left open to them. We can only hope.

 

Why the Ebook Bubble isn’t going to Burst

I hear a consistent rattle throughout the blogosphere about how we are in an ebook bubble. And of course we all know that bubbles are bad. They lead to financial collapse and ruin. And that is exactly what’s going to happen to ebooks, any day now.

I don’t personally believe we are in an ebook bubble, but even if we are, I don’t think it’s likely to collapse any time soon.

Let’s start by looking at what a bubble economy actually is, how it applies to ebooks and what an ebook bubble collapse would look like.

An Economic Bubble

First lets start with a bubble economy. An economic bubble occurs when the perceived or market value of an item or industry is too different from its real or intrinsic value. This can easily be explained with a couple of examples.

The dot com boom and bust of the nineties was a classic economic bubble at work. What happened is this: In the early nineties everyone was convinced that ecommerce was going to be the next big thing. (They were right, of course.) The stock market began investing heavily in any and all internet businesses.

The problem was the industry was still relatively small and the companies were new and untried. Internet businesses are lean by nature and in the mid-nineties there were hundreds of them. Most had a modest office space somewhere in California, a half dozen employees and a handful of web servers. That didn’t stop investors from sinking millions into them.

The result was a classic bubble. Some of these companies could measure their real assets in thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. On the stock exchange they were worth millions.

bubble economy

What happens when a company has fifty thousand in real assets and an estimated worth of fifty million? When it’s an economic boon, like the early and mid nineties were, all is good. But as soon a recession hits, look out. Many of the companies didn’t have assets on hand to weather the storm and went bankrupt, leaving investors out millions.

Another classic bubble is housing bust of 2008. For years real estate values rose consistently. Many people discovered real estate as a good investment tool.

But what about the real value of your house? Every year your market value goes up, but does your house grow bigger? Does it get better? If anything it is slowly aging, being subject to depreciation.

Again, as long as the economy is fairly stable, it works. But eventually the economy takes a downturn. Then nobody wants, or can afford, to pay the current market price. The last housing bubble left many people owing more on their current mortgage than they could get from selling the house. They were underwater, as the saying goes.

The Ebook Bubble

Are we in an ebook bubble? That’s a pretty murky question. With the dot com bust of the nineties it was pretty obvious. Companies have a tangential amount of fixed assets. The DOW lists stock prices. Just do the math and you’ll know. The housing bubble was a little tougher to see. Market value on a house is really just a guestimate of what the house would sell for. You don’t know exactly what the house’s market value is until you actually sell it. As many found out in the housing bust, sometimes houses won’t sell at their appraised value.

To figure out if we are in an ebook bubble or not we have to answer two questions. What is the real, intrinsic value of an ebook? What is the market value of an ebook? Neither of these questions have a good objective answer.

Market value of books

Those sounding the alarm about the ebook bubble are often the same people concerned about the huge rise in cheap or free ebooks flooding the market. These books are rapidly driving out better written but more expensive books, or so they claim.

This whole notion is based on a couple of simplistic half truths. The first is that books are an interchangeable commodity, that consumers simply looking for a book (any book will do) to read will naturally buy the cheapest they can find and be done with it. The second is that book sales are a zero sum game, that more sales of book A invariably means less sales of book B.

It is sometimes true that a book consumer is simply looking for a book to read to pass the time. It’s also true that people can only read so many books in any given period and eventually their book buying becomes saturated.

But neither of these paint the true story of a book’s market value. Books are not interchangeable commodities. Readers might be price sensitive on some titles but willing to pay more for other titles. A few books might compete for the same readership, but most do not. Some of the best marketers out there simply shrug their shoulders and say, “you just can’t predict the market.”

Here is the secret: each book is unique. You are trying to define a market value for “books” but each book has it’s own market value. Some books will sell well even at a premium price. Some books won’t sell, even at ninety nine cents. Some are free and still don’t get many downloads.

You can make some guesses how much the market will pay for a given book by looking at the track record of the authors. Best selling authors bring in more sales than unknown authors, generally speaking. You can make an even broader guess based on the genre the book is in. But putting an exact market value on a book is almost impossible, because each book will have it’s own unique value.

Industry analyst have looked at sales for a huge number of titles and identified “sweet spots.” (Currently Mark Coker says 3.99 is the sweet spot.) Books often sell fewer copies if priced too high or too low. Some indies have identified their own personal sweet spot by bumping their price around until they find it.

The ebook bubble concept is based on the idea that since so many indie authors are willing to sell books for 99 cents, that’s the market value for books. But many titles sell well for higher prices, and many 99 cent books don’t sell despite the price. But for the sake of argument lets take the basement discount price as market value and go on.

The intrinsic value of an ebook

If you think measuring the market value of a book is hard, measuring its intrinsic value is even harder, in part because there are a number of different perspectives.

The consumer perspective: It’s often hard to get the average consumer to see any intrinsic value in an ebook. It’s a digital rather than real product. To them it’s a few bytes of information on their kindle, computer or device. It costs nothing to store there. It can be copied at the click of a mouse. This explains, no doubt, why so many people are so cavalier about epiracy.

The indie perspective: the ebook itself might not be more than a few bytes on a computer, but there were real tangible costs to creating it. There was editing that had to paid for, cover design, formatting, etc. These fixed costs are a easily tabulated and often seen as the real cost of a digital book. Because these are one time costs, they diminish with sales. Let’s say for example that it costs you a thousand dollars to produce an ebook. If you sell two copies, it cost you five hundred dollars per copy. But if sell a thousand copies, it’s only a dollar per copy. This is the mentality that makes it logical to sell books at 99 cents or 1.99, hoping to sell thousands of copies and recoup the cost of production and then some.

The publisher’s perspective has to add in further costs, the cost of doing business. They not only have to pay back the one time costs of producing a book, they have ongoing overhead they have to cover as well.

Indie writers have accused publishers of conspiring to keep ebook prices high to protect print sales. Indies often shake their head at the seemingly boneheaded things that publishers do, at least when seen from an indie perspective. In my opinion it’s about more than protecting print sales, it’s about paying overhead.

In almost every industry the single biggest overhead expense is payroll. And suddenly keeping profit margins high makes perfect sense. If you assume that the majority of people working in the publishing industry would like to keep their jobs, and their jobs are dependent on the company making enough profit to pay its overhead, the whole issue takes on a different tone. A lot of choices that seem dumb to indies makes a certain sense.

(I hate to be a doomsayer, but this is one of the main reasons I’ve stayed indie so far. I am not sure the big publishers will ever be able to compete effectively against an indie writer who has little or no overhead.)

But what about the writer’s time?

The ebook-bubble-is-about-to-burst crowd seems to overlap extensively with the what-about- the-writer’s-time crowd and the two are integral to each other. None of these costs have taken into account the enormous amount of time an author puts into writing a book.

This criticism is often laid at the consumer’s feet. Consumers who are supposedly willing to read any old crap they can get for 99 cents while bypassing on real literature.

Criticizing readers for reading what they like, be it for 99 cents or 9.99 is never a good way to sell them on your books. And since every author would like more sales than they get, it’s easy to read sour grapes into this.

The second place this criticism often gets laid is at the feet of Indies. If there weren’t so many hobby writers willing to sell their poorly edited manuscripts for a song, serious writers would have an easier time making a living.

This crowd rarely seems to lay this same criticism at publisher’s feet, though they used to. This was a common complaint heard in writers groups before the ebook revolution came along. If you figured out what the average advance meant in hourly wages, it was a pittance at best.

The truth is nobody has ever paid writers for their time. Most indies today look at this from an entrepreneur’s perspective. You can’t expect the consumer to pay you for bringing a product to the market. You simply have to sell that product at a profit so you can eventually recoup those costs. Others argue they enjoy writing and don’t need compensation for that time.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s factor in the time spent writing the book. If we allot even minimum wage to the writer during these long hours, the real cost of a book becomes tremendous. Suddenly we have a huge ebook bubble.

The ebook bubble

If we assume that the lowest price point is the “market value” of an ebook and we assume that writers must be paid at least minimum wage for every hour they spent laboring, the cost of an ebook and the market value are far apart. But do you notice something strange about this bubble?

bubble economy 2

The ebook bubble is inverted. The market value is lower than the real value. What happens when it costs more to bring a product to the market then a company can sell that product for? They stop making the product. Then one of two things happen, the market price rises until it again becomes profitable to produce the product. Or the product itself disappears from the marketplace.

Since the primary cost that makes this a bubble is the writers’ wanting compensated for his/her time, the only way for this bubble to burst is for writers, en masse, to stop writing. If that happens (and assuming that all the already in print books get read, out of print, or something…) there will become a shortage of books, the market value will rise and it again be profitable for some writers to write books.

There are so many problems with this that I am almost don’t know where to begin. But let’s begin with what I call the stand off. Every time I read something about the ebook bubble, the deluge of ebooks on the market or the race to the bottom, it’s from a writer. They are engaged in a disingenuous stand off with their fellow writers. If only all those other writers stopped writing and publishing books, my book would stand a better chance.

  1. A) I don’t believe that’s how it works. If prolific romance writers like Barbara Freethy or H. M. Ward were to retire their keyboards today, those readers wouldn’t flock to your literary novel instead. B) I’ll stop writing when you do. The hypocrisy of writers telling other writers to stop writing is too much for me to bear.

Then there’s the fact that writers have many complex reasons for writing. Many write because they love it. If they make money from their writing, great. If they don’t, they’ll still write. Some writers write because they have a message they want to share with the world. All reasons for writing are valid, not just the profit motive.

Besides, despite all of these things, many writers do end up making money. Many writers have supported themselves for years on novel sales. Some have even gotten rich off them. Amidst all the dire news about publishing today, there are good indications that the number of authors making a living from their books is actually at an all time high. I’ve said before that the real indie revolution isn’t the occasional break away best seller. It isn’t the meager amount the average writer makes. Its the growing number of midlist authors that are quietly making a living from their writing, and making far more than they did with a publisher.

How can authors get compensated for their time?

Are authors just supposed to slave away for years, for free, in the hopes of eventual rewards? Sort of. Here are some hints to help with time compensation issue.

  1. Approach writing as though it were research and development for your business. Companies don’t expect consumers to pay them for research. They underwrite those costs themselves and then hope to make that money back when they bring the product to market. Writers should look at their writing time the same way.
  2. You don’t have to race to the bottom. Book sales are about a lot of things, price is only one. If 99 cents or 2.99 price points offend you, price your book higher. Expect that you will have to convince people your book is worth more.
  3. Ask yourself, what else would I be doing? If there is a good answer, consider doing that and not writing. Nobody is forcing you to be a writer. If it’s that frustrating, instead of railing against other writers, just stop. Start a youtube channel. Paint a picture. There are hundreds of ways to be creative.

Most writers will realize, if they stop to think about it, that they want to write. That they would keep right on writing, even if they never got paid. So keep writing. Be glad you get paid what you do.

Are Toilets Making Us Taller?

What is like to be a creative person? I get asked that a lot. Here is a small glimpse into what my mind does pretty much 24/7.

This crossed my social media stream:

I am sure a lot of people would see this and be like, Eww, TMI. Click on and forget it.

Others are a little more health conscious or open minded and might at least think it over. Maybe try squatting.

Here is where my mind goes:

So I am tall. At six foot, I already semi-squat on most western toilets. But I guess that’s healthy, so win for me.

But what if western toilets are making people taller? Bear with me here, sitting on a western toilet leads to a variety of health problems, from constipation to colon cancer. The shorter you are, presumably, the more at risk you are. Tall people who semi-squat have less trouble. The result in evolutionary pressure, short people dying off from constipation while taller people live longer.

So perhaps western people are growing taller, not because of nutrition or genetics, but because of the way we poop. It’s something to think about.

Every commercial, every news piece is subjected to this kind of thought process. 24/7. And that my friend is what it’s like to be a writer.

Smoking Man Syndrome: A Rant about Tropes

So, I was reading this action novel about zombies. I’m not going to say the name, even though over all I enjoyed it. There was one trope that really bugged me. In fact, it created an entire rant to which you are about to be treated. Since the goal of the rant is to rag on this one point, not bring that author down, I’m not going to name the book.

The trope, I am going to call the Smoking Man Syndrome, after the Smoking Man from the X-files TV show. The closest the Tvtropes.org website comes in the “No Name Given” trope, the character that has no real name or identity. It’s common in shows and books alike.

The way it works, and in this book it was almost word for word, is that a character is introduced at some point. When questioned about his identity, he says, “my name is not important.” Who does he work for? “That’s not important, either.” We are led to believe he’s the spokesperson for some shadowy government organization. He comes and goes as the story demands, imparting information or gathering information for his/her organization. Maybe we learn more about the organization in the future, or maybe we don’t.

Like all tropes, it exists for a reason. It is a great non-reveal for the audience/reader. It helps keeps us in suspense. It allows us to glimpse a deeper conspiracy without completely knowing about it.

The problem is that it’s completely unrealistic. If you think for one second that it could be realistic, that explains why you don’t work for the FBI, the CIA or some shadowy government organization. Because if you did work for one of these organizations it would already be drilled into your head, never give information to anyone unless you are positive of their identification and credentials.

Sorry Mr. Smoking Man, your name and who you work for is vital. Nobody in the FBI or the military is going to share one scrap of information with you until they know for sure who you are and where you fit in their chain of command. “Sorry, I am not at liberty to discuss that.”

And then there is the information he imparts. You can tell me whatever you want, but I am not going to trust it, let alone act on it, without some confirmation. On the X-files show we suspend disbelief and go with it, but can you imagine any real FBI agent trying to tell his boss he needs to fly to the Antarctic because some guy he met in a parking ramp told him that was where the aliens were?

And yet he keeps showing up, dropping his vague hints. “My name is not important.” Two lines later they are talking about some top secret zombie lab in the Congo. Or revealing where the hidden works of Leonardo Da Vinci might be hidden. Or whatever.

Just once I’d like to see the FBI agent have the smoking man locked up for impersonating a federal official in an attempt to force him to divulge something more substantial about his real identity. Or better still have a trap foiled because the main character refuses to rush in based on a vague hint from someone he doesn’t know. That would be awesome.

End of rant

Which tropes bother you? Check out the list over at tvtropes.org for inspiration.

 

What Makes a Great Sci-fi/Fantasy Story?

I have been thinking lately about what makes a great science fiction or fantasy novel great. What elements do I look for in a book or series?

I’ve distilled it down to three main elements and I strive to include them in my own writing as well. Those elements are lush world building, mythic storytelling and the ability to challenge our assumptions.

Lush World Building

I love novels that transport you into the world the writer is creating. I don’t want to read a story, I want to become enmeshed in it. I want to escape this world and live in that one, at least for an hour or two.

I think this is something that sets science fiction and fantasy apart from other genres. A romance novel needs strong believable characters. We need a great storyline. If we have those, we can forgive a flat poorly developed setting. We can all envision real world settings well enough to give literary writers a pass if their characters meet at a generic coffee shop.

In science fiction and fantasy the world itself is as important as the characters and story. We need to create that world. That can include physical descriptions, an understanding of the physical and cultural rules and a feel for the setting. A science fiction or fantasy novel with a flat setting is like a B movie with poor special effects. We just don’t buy into it. And that makes us not buy the story either.

Mythic Storytelling

An editor once told me that the greatest stories are about those times when the character realizes something that changes them forever. If the main characters are not left forever changed by the story, your reader won’t be either.

To put it another way, stories need to be a mythic journey. Even if its only a story about a kid standing up to schoolyard bullies, he is the Hero. Even if the great revelation is simply that we don’t understand the whole world, our character is the Sage. We must see their growth, feel their revelations in our bones.

I read recently that the real power of literature is that it allows us to experience many lives in the space of one. With every story I ask myself, is this a life worth experiencing? Will I grow somehow by exploring this life? What about my readers?

Challenging Assumptions

What if has always been one of the most popular questions for science fiction or fantasy writers. The what ifs can be big or small. We can wonder what if werewolves were real, or if magic was real. What if aliens came to our planet. There are a million possible what ifs.

There is more to these sorts of questions than simple curiosity. Science fiction and fantasy allows us to challenge some very basic assumptions about our world. We can do this in a way that gets past the critical mind and lets us really explore the ideas.

Is it any surprise that the television series that has had more impact on society than any other was Star Trek. From the now ubiquitous automatic door to cell phones to tablet computers, our society has outstripped so much of Star Treks technology, as an entire generation took Star Treks “what if” and turned it into “why not?”

Star Treks’ what if went beyond technical innovations. The original series featured a racially diverse crew in a time period when desegregation was still controversial. It almost doesn’t register in modern American culture, but in 1966 we were still embroiled in the cold war, but a Russian set at the controls of the Starship Enterprise. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of an egalitarian society has motivated generations.

On the surface of things, Gene Roddenberry has set the bar high. But if you scratch the surface of any great science fiction or fantasy novel you will find they too challenge your assumptions.

Underneath the swords and sorcery of Lord of the Rings it is the peace loving Hobbits that save the day and challenge our assumptions about power. Dystopian novels like The Handmaid’s Tale challenge our sense of right and wrong. Stranger in a Strange Land challenges our sense of what is possible. The Mists of Avalon challenges both the Arthurian legends and the role of women in history.

It’s gotten so that if I read a science fiction or fantasy novel and don’t come away thinking differently about our world, I feel cheated. I think about that when I write. Does this story challenge my readers assumptions? Will it broaden their world in some way? If the answer is no, I pass on those stories.

 

Those are three elements that I think set a great science fiction or fantasy read from a mediocre one. What about you? What do you value about the sci-fi/fantasy genre? Let me know in the comments.

 

Is the Kindle Good for the Environment?

I posted this on my other site a long time back, and thought it was good enough to repost here.

The Kindle and Kindle Paperwhite.

The Kindle and Kindle Paperwhite.

Having just picked up my third Kindle, I started to wonder what was the environmental impact of this device. Was I helping mother nature by saving trees, or costing her in some other way?

I decided this should an easy enough question to put to rest. What are the environmental impact of producing a paper book? What are the environmental impact of the electronics that go into a kindle?

A short internet search shows its not really that cut and dried. Luckily for me plenty of other people have wondered the same thing and done a lot of footwork on this one. There are a number of environmental costs we would have to look at for both styles of reading and they don’t always overlap in ways that make comparison easy.

When it comes to production, the cost we hear about most is carbon footprint. The carbon footprint is how much CO2, a harmful greenhouse gas, is produced in the production of the product. High tech industry is heavy on the CO2 consumption and the Kindle weighs in at approximately 370 lbs of CO2. (infographic here.)

Paperbacks produce CO2 as well, mostly because they are made of paper and paper production = loss of trees. Since trees help convert CO2 to oxygen, they are an important piece of the greenhouse effect and possibly our greatest hope of stopping it. The average print book costs about 17 pounds of CO2.

Before the old fashioned book lovers start to gloat, remember these are production costs. Once produced that’s it. One Kindle equals approximately 22 books in terms of environmental production costs.

Once the Kindle is produced, there are shipping costs.There are energy costs to run the device. Amazon’s servers suck a lot of juice and require a lot of environmental costs to operate. There is a huge infrastructure of electronics maintaining the wifi networks that the ebook zip down to your device. All of that has to be weighed against the Kindle’s environmental scorecard.

A paperbook too has it’s distribution and maintenance costs, however. They have to be shipped around the country to warehouses and then retailers. The trucks that haul them require diesel or gasoline. The warehouses have to be heated and cooled. Brick and mortar stores are not without their energy and environmental consumption.

These are the costs that are tricky to compare. After all Amazon sells paper books as well as ebooks. How much server space is taken up with tracking physical inventory and how much with ebooks? How do we divide up those costs? Storing ebooks on a server has a cost, but so does running a huge warehouse of physical books.

In the end though one thing is clear, the long game goes to the Kindle. Every paper book produced has a relatively stable environmental cost. Ebooks on the other hand, have a diminishing cost.

The cost of maintaining a server has to be divided by the number of books on it and the number of other uses that server has. Ebooks are really nothing more than text files, so many novels only take up a few kilobytes of space on a server. The more books on a server the lower the cost per book, and they can store thousands of titles in virtually no space. Increasingly, ebooks are only a fraction of what Amazon does. They have video services, they sell print books and many other items. The cost of maintaining the wifi and distribution network is similarly shared over all users and uses.

The same logic applies to the device itself. Once produced and in the consumer’s hand, the environmental cost of a Kindle is a fraction of the initial cost of the device. The cost per book depends on how many books are on the device, and even the most basic devices are capable of holding thousands of ebooks on them.

The most important factors, then, are personal. How many books do you read? How often do you upgrade your devices? The more you read, eventually the cost per book tips in favor of the Kindle. It’s really just a matter of when.

Like most electronics, the Kindle will eventually break down but there’s no real easy answer to how long one will last. There are still first generation devices that are running fine. My first generation Kindle broke. It was an accident, but accidents happen. A very rough ballpark would say the average consumer will be able to get two to three years out of a kindle easily.

My first kindle. Broken now but still loved.

My first kindle. Broken now but still loved.

Even though he is leery of anyone trying to present hard numbers or a glib one kindle = x number of books, environmental journalist Daniel Goleman did go on record with this ballpark figure, it takes over a hundred ebooks to make the kindle an environmentally friendly choice. Will you read more than a hundred books in the next two to three years? If so the Kindle is the most environmentally friendly way to do so. If not paper might be a better choice.

Goleman offers this figure critically. However, looking at my kindle I have 97 books on it currently, 70 more in my archive and a second owner in mind, so for me it’s clearly a good choice. The relatively low cost of ebooks, ease of purchasing and the relative ease and size of most ereaders mean that on average those who own ereaders will buy more books and read more often. That makes me think that for most avid readers an ereader is a good choice.

A Digital Expat — and an Answer to Hugh Howey

In Hugh Howey’s Confessions of a Digital Immigrant he asks for other people’s story about their adoption of digital reading. So Hugh, here you go.

If Hugh is a digital immigrant, I am an expatriate. I swore years ago that I would never abandon print books for ereading. And yet, I have. My reading is about ninety five percent digital.

My ereading story begins in 2010. I am transgender and I was preparing to take a trip to Thailand for my final surgery for my transition. I would be there for a month. I read at least two or three books a week normally, but I would be spending a lot of the month recovering from surgery, so I figured I would read more. How could I possibly bring enough books? Could I find English language books in Bangkok, Thailand?

The answer was to purchase my first kindle. I got it about a month before my trip and as soon as I started using it, it was magic. The device fit easily in my purse, dramatically reducing the amount of weight I carried.

My first kindle. Broken now but still loved.

My first kindle. Broken now but still loved.

Before my kindle, I carried a physical book everywhere. I used to joke, “happiness is a small book.” Small books are great for when you are waiting in line, stuck at the doctor’s office, or have a few minutes downtime at work.

There were two problems with this. Big, thick books are happiness, too, but they don’t fit so well in a purse. The second problem was that I often carried more than one book. If I was more than three quarters of a way through a book, I’d become afraid of finishing while I was out somewhere, and not having the next book to read. So I’d figure out what I was going to read next, and then carry that one as well.

With the kindle, those problems went away. It didn’t matter whether the book is long or short, the kindle still weighs the same. The next book is already there, on the same device. I downloaded what I thought would be a month’s worth of reading and headed to Thailand.

Two things occurred while I was in Thailand. I didn’t have all the books I needed. I was stuck there longer than expected and I needed more books. That was okay, I could easily shop and download more. That, too, was magic. To be sitting in a cafe in Bangkok, Thailand and buying books from the United States on Amazon, and then downloading them instantly, was magic.

The other problem was with my computer. To make a long story short, I needed a couple of reference manuals to fix what was wrong. In print they would have been big, expensive and I would have had to mail order them. On the kindle I was able to download them instantly for a fraction of the price.

In Hugh’s blog he claims that its older readers that have adopted ereading the most. That seems counter intuitive, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. When I came back from Thailand, now in love with my kindle, I started looking around the house. Could I replace some of my print books with ebooks?

Just one of the five bookshelves that used to fill my house.

Just one of the five bookshelves that used to fill my house.

I understand what he says about young people loving their print books. I was like that once upon a time. Now I watch book bloggers on youtube, flashing their copies of their five favorite novels and think, “five? That’s cute.” A life-long reader at age forty five, I could be smothered by a fraction of my favorite books.

Looking around my house at the end of 2010, I had one book shelf in the entryway to the kitchen just for cookbooks. I had another in the main room for books I kept for reference, or because I frequently picked them up and read portions of them. I had a library with three more bookshelves. That’s five full book shelves.

And then there were the flats. I had discovered years ago that paperback books fit well in those plastic underbed storage boxes. That became the most convenient way to store and move most of my books, which were trade paperback science fiction and fantasy. By 2010 I had stacks of them in my basement. Somewhere in my late twenties and early thirties a love of books had crossed the line into hoarding. I had to do something.

My love of books crossed into hoarding. I had stacks of these in my basement for years.

My love of books crossed into hoarding. I had stacks of these in my basement for years.

The kindle became the solution and the excuse to declutter my life. Many of the reference books that I had to have were classics, books of poetry, mythology, etc. I would never know when I needed one for a quote, or to settle some debate.

(What? You’ve never suddenly needed to know what it says in the Bhagavad Gita? Or needed a quote from the finnish epic Kalevala? You haven’t been to my house, then. It happens.) The kindle and the Gutenberg project cut deep into that shelf.

I have a problem letting go of novels. The reason is that I’ve bought many books two or three times. I’ll buy a book, read it and think, “that was good but I’ll probably never read it again.” I give it away or sell to a used bookstore. Five years later I want to read it again and buy another copy. Then I get paranoid about giving up that copy, because who knows? In five years I might want to read it a third time. But the book collection keeps growing and there’s only so much room.

With my kindle I don’t have that problem. If I choose to keep a book, it doesn’t add any weight or take up any space. If I let it go, it’s still in my cloud somewhere if I change my mind later.

What else?

A lot of the same things that others have said about ereaders played a role in my adoption as well. I will admit that being able resize text is a lot easier than admitting that I’m getting older. Cheaply priced ebooks are a godsend to active readers who plow through many books in a month.

The ability to shop at home was another huge factor. I love going to the bookstore, I do. Going to the library is another treat for me. But let’s face it, life gets busy and sometimes it’s a pain. Just getting there isn’t the only problem. Buying books once or twice a month at the bookstore means knowing what I am going to want to read after I finish my current book. Sometimes I finish a book and find myself in the mood for something similar, sometimes I want something different. Pulling the next book out I would discover that I got it right, some of the time, and I would get it wrong some of the time. Now I choose what I want to read next when I am ready for it.

A note on Indie authors and pricing

As an ereader I’ve become far more price sensitive. There are three reasons. The most obvious is that I read a lot. The choice between one book at 9.99 and three books at 2.99 is an easy one for me, especially if I am just looking for something to read.

The second reason I am more price sensitive now is because there is one real downside to digital reading. Its not nearly as easy to share a digital book. With print it’s easy to hand the book off to a friend and say, “here, read this. You’ll love it.” When you are trying to tell someone they should lay down money to read something because you think they’ll like it, it’s a different ball game. With a cheap book, 2-3 dollars, I have no problem expecting friends to fork over for their own copy. But when publishers price their ebooks over ten dollars it creates a lot of frustration for me. Knowing I can’t share the book and feeling like I can’t recommend it, takes a lot of pleasure out of reading for me.

The third reason I am so price sensitive has to do with being an indie author myself. I have, or feel like I have, a good notion of how much work and cost goes into an ebook. I understand how the market works.

I track my expenses on each book and I know how much I have to make for each to break even. I hire a professional editor and professional cover artist. Once those set costs are paid, the cost of keeping an ebook on the market is marginal. I sell most of my books for less than five dollars. At the 70% I make from Amazon, it will take a few hundred sales on average for a book to break even and start making money.

So when big publishers tell us that they need to price the latest Patterson book at twelve dollars to make money, I don’t believe them. He has hundreds of thousands of fans. His books will start turning a profit almost as soon as they are out.

My point is that when major publishers push higher ebook prices, I assume they are just fleecing consumers, using ebook sales to prop up less profitable portions of their corporate structure. Maybe that’s just me, but it’s an important reason why I read so few big names these days, and so many indie authors.

My writing shelf went digital as well, for many of the same reasons. Here are the hard copies from before I started relying on cloud backups.

My writing shelf went digital as well, for many of the same reasons. Here are the hard copies from before I started relying on cloud backups.

Do I buy any print books?

Yes, I do still buy print books. There are three reasons I still buy print.

When I meet a fellow author at an event or signing, I buy copies. I have a growing collection of signed copies from authors I know personally. I am very proud of that collection and I look forward to adding to it. That said I often come home, put the book on the shelf and then download the ebook to my kindle to actually read the book.

I recently decided to read a couple of books that are pretty popular. Unfortunately, the ebooks were more expensive than I usually care to pay. So I went to the local half price book store and found one of them for less than the ebook. That might be seen as a win for the “high ebook price to help conserve print sales” theory, except it was a second hand book and didn’t help the publisher.

There are a few books that aren’t available for the kindle. It’s getting rare in these days, but it happens. Current authors are almost all available in digital forms. Books old enough to be public domain have probably been uploaded by someone. In between, books old enough to have been published before the digital revolution but not so old as to be public domain, may only exist in print.

So there you have it, the confessions of digital expat.