Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Give The People What They Want

Ahh, The Kinks must have had a “Low Budget” for videos when they filmed that one….

Several weeks ago, a bit of a hubbub broke out on Absolute Write concerning author Elle Lothlorien, who brazenly flouts the ‘never respond to a bad review’ convention by, well, responding to bad reviews. She takes a ‘customer service’ approach to bad reviews by responding, apologizing, sometimes explaining, and telling people how to get their money back if they’re not satisfied.

Ms. Lothlorien also flouts another standard of writing, which is, once released, a book is carved in stone. After learning that readers of her book, Sleeping Beauty, were divided into two camps, a la Twilights Team Edward and Team Jacob, she produced an alternative version of her book in which the heroine chose the other guy. The details are explained in a lengthy post here. This, I guess, is the beauty of e-books: they’re a hell of a lot easier to revise than the printed version.

Maybe you think Ms. Lothlorien is a pioneer eager to embrace the new technology and all the possibilities it offers. Maybe you think she’s a cynic, out to wring as much money out of her books as possible by offering alternatives. Maybe you don’t think anything. Personally, this bothers me a bit. The way I see it, if I’m satisfied with my book when it goes to publication (and I damn well better be, or why am I publishing it at all?), then that’s the way it is. I subscribe to ‘carved in stone’ notion. You want to provide new content for loyal readers as some promotion? Fine, write a short story using your characters, or polish up an excised chapter and release it just for them. I’d do that. Change the end? No, thanks. But that’s me, and that’s her, and if she wants to mess around with the ending because a bunch of readers like one love interest better than another, I suppose that’s up to her.

I’m reminded of this by an article, Your E-book Is Reading You that was linked on AW earlier this week. The summary of it is that the makers of e-readers are using all kinds of data-capture techniques to learn about readers. Now, this is a good thing, in general, but I can’t help but feel like we’re opening a big ass can of worms, and some of it, quite frankly, makes me uncomfortable. If you’ve been paying attention to me, you’re not surprised at this fact. I’m not anti-technology, exactly, but I am very cautious about it.

Data doesn’t just include basic demographic information about who is buying what. To quote the article:

The major new players in e-book publishing—Amazon, Apple and Google—can easily track how far readers are getting in books, how long they spend reading them and which search terms they use to find books.Book apps for tablets like the iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook record how many times readers open the app and how much time they spend reading. Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books.

Okaaaay, this bugs me out on a privacy level. I’m not a tinfoil hat wearing, anti-government nut job, but I get uncomfortable with some of this stuff. It’s a bit of an invasion of privacy, but then again, I’m sure my cable company knows what channels I prefer, and my ISP knows where my favorite websites are and who I’m in most frequent contact with via e-mail. For now, we have assurances that e-reader data is being pooled, that they’re not looking at individuals. But how are they using this information?

Pinpointing the moment when readers get bored could also help publishers create splashier digital editions by adding a video, a Web link or other multimedia features, Mr. Hilt (NOTE: Hilt is Barnes & Noble’s VP of e-books) says. Publishers might be able to determine when interest in a fiction series is flagging if readers who bought and finished the first two books quickly suddenly slow down or quit reading later books in the series.

“The bigger trend we’re trying to unearth is where are those drop-offs in certain kinds of books, and what can we do with publishers to prevent that?” Mr. Hilt says. “If we can help authors create even better books than they create today, it’s a win for everybody.”

Further along in the article we get this:

Some publishers are already beginning to market test books digitally, before releasing a print edition. Earlier this year, Sourcebooks, which publishes 250 titles a year, began experimenting with a new model of serial, online publishing. Sourcebooks has released early online editions for half a dozen titles, ranging from romance to young adult to nonfiction books, and has solicited questions and suggestions from readers. Eventually, readers’ feedback will be incorporated into the print version.

Now, this is how publishing currently works. I write a book. Along the way, I have crit partners and beta readers, who provide me invaluable feedback and help me shape my book. Then there’s an agent, and, finally, the editorial team. By the time the book is ready for publishing, a lot of people have weighed in and had a hand in shaping the final product. I’m cool with that. What Sourcebooks is doing, really, is extending the beta reading a little further. Is there any harm in this? Again, maybe not. I don’t know how they get back to that author–probably someone collates the data and gives it to the editor, who in turn communicates this to the author. It’s no different, I guess, than test screening movies or TV programs. Still, as this sort of thing gets bigger, it starts to make me more uncomfortable. I can argue with an editor. My impression is that most editors, if you can justify why you don’t want to make a change they suggest, will say, “Okay, fine” and let it go. But how can you argue against 250, 300 people? Finally, though, we get to this point:

Few publishers have taken the experiment as far as Coliloquy, a digital publishing company that was created earlier this year ….Coliloquy’s digital books, which are available on Kindle, Nook and Android e-readers, have a “choose-your-own-adventure”-style format, allowing readers to customize characters and plot lines. The company’s engineers aggregate and pool the data gleaned from readers’ selections and send it to the authors, who can adjust story lines in their next books to reflect popular choices.

And now you’ve lost me. The article goes on to relate how one author planned to write a character out of her book, until data told her that almost 30% of readers preferred him to the other two romantic interests. So she changed it.

I have nothing I can say to this. It boggles my mind. It makes me angry, to be honest, and it makes me worry about the future of writing. What happened to telling YOUR story, the way YOU want to tell it? If we’re getting to this point, why have authors at all?

There’s a really good chance I’m making a huge mountain out of a very small molehill, except I don’t think that’s the case. Watch television, where we’re glutted with pseudo-reality shows that all look the same, because that’s what people want. Go to the movies, where we see the same exploding car chases, superhero tales, and teen sex flicks (all in super-glorious 3-D) because that’s what people want. Yes, publishing is a business, and businesses have to make money, so we do get a lot of trendiness in fiction (not to mention the latest celebrity tell-all, cookbook, parenting tips), but it’s also a lot easier to find things that are radically different, things that are unique, that have a fresh perspective, in a bookstore than it is in the movies or on TV.

At least, it was.

Sorry for the rant. I am very, very interested in what you all have to say on this topic. Tell me. And have a nice weekend.

9 Responses

  1. I hate the rise of this trend. I don't want books that are like video games. I want to be told a story. Period. I am not interested in "interactive" books. It's too much noise. If I wanted all that distraction while I was reading I would just spend my life surfing the net. I truly think interactive books are the worst idea ever. If it gets to that point, I will go back to reading print exclusively. I don't think we're in that much danger now though with the rise of the Indie author. There is a definite market for them and if publishers start to overdo it, we can just turn to the Indie market where authors will get to tell us THEIR stories and we will simply get to read them. And as writers, there will be a place where we can still just tell stories.

  2. You know, I don't necessarily mind the idea of 'choose your own adventure' types of books that use this. IF people want to read that (and yeah, they were kind of fun when I was 10), and there are people willing to write it, that's fine. I really, really, really object to the idea, though, that someone is going to slap a report on the table and say, "Hey, you've got to change the eye color on your hero — 45% of readers like him with blue eyes", or "Our focus group is telling us to move this scene from the boardroom to the bedroom." Yes, I'm probably over-reacting.

  3. It is a very curious place that we are headed to. Books written by the masses. I think a writer should have the right to take feedback and implement it the way they want, but I don't like the idea that they know how I read on my eReader. It is scary. Cookie cutter books. But as writers we do have to hold fast to telling our story.

    Thanks for all the interesting information. It gives you lots to think about.

  4. …That's it. I'm wrapping my e-reader in tinfoil, too!

    Thanks for sharing this information, Jeff. Sometimes it's hard to keep track of everything in the publishing world! 🙂

  5. Well, publishing is also art, so I do see your point. Sounds like, to some extent, the business could be turning into screenwriting for the small screen. They hire you to tell the choose your own adventure story based upon input from your target audience. I guess this isn't much different from them delaying the new GI Joe movie release because they found out the people hated what they did with it–like kill off one of the favorite characters in the beginning.

    I think there's room for this. But as I said, it's not art. The writer becomes a mere technician.

  6. I'm with you–I'm ok with it until the 'choose your own adventure' level of feedback, and then you lose me because it would lose all semblance of being 'my' book. I really can't imagine that taking hold, though, because once the creativity and unpredictability of stories was taken out, why would anyone bother? If people really can't stand what you've done, they write their own book, or write fan fiction.

  7. The idea of interactive books doesn't bother me. I think e-books have expanded the choose-your-own-adventure novels into what Coliloquy is doing, but I don't think they'll completely replace what novels look like now, i.e. a story under the writer's control.

  8. I appreciate all the replies. The more I think about it, the more I expect I'm overreacting. And I also realize there are fiction writers out there who make a decent living working for book packagers and the like–they are writing what other people tell them to write. That's part of how James Patterson churns out 50 books a year, or whatever he produces. It's not necessarily a bad thing, I'm just cautious about how this will play out going forward.

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