Monday, January 16, 2012

The Challenges of New, Digital Lit

Note: I've made my latest book, Overshare, available for free download through this Friday, 1/20/12 - it may be informative to download a copy and look at it in the (free) Kindle Reader app or on a Kindle Fire (it's presented in full color, so viewing it on a monochrome Kindle won't give you the full experience) before reading this post.

These days, authors and publishers are beset on all sides by pundits and industry watchers telling them they must innovate, they must redefine the meaning of the word "book", they must experiment with new forms, make use of multimedia and transmedia if they hope to stay relevant in the new, digital frontier of literature and publishing. All of which is well and good, until you take their advice.

The relatively minor transition from hard copy to ebooks has been difficult enough, and there are still plenty of readers who prefer the feel (and even smell!) of "real" books so much that they've sworn they will never switch to using an ereader. There goes a chunk of prospective readers, if you're intending to release something in a digital format.

Next comes the form the experimental content takes. We've all heard of Vooks, "enhanced" ebooks and ebook apps. But how many of us have actually bought, or even seen one for ourselves? Think about it: if those of us who are in the publishing and literature business aren't invested (or in many cases, even interested) in these new forms, why on Earth should we imagine casual readers would be? So now your prospective audience has been whittled down further, to include only those ebook fans who are also interested in experimental, new forms of digital lit.

Finally comes the quality of the content. Once you've brought the experimental digital lit fan to the table, it's much the same as winning over any reader. If your content appeals to the specific tastes and preferences of a given reader, he'll like it and maybe even be so kind as to leave you a nice review on Amazon or Goodreads. If not, he will deem the book a failure. And unless he leaves a negative review somewhere, detailing the reasons for his dislike of the work, you'll never know if it was a failure of form or of content.

Overshare is an exclusively digital release, and it's presented in an unusual form. When the reader "turns" to the first page, she doesn't find the typical chapter heading followed by paragraphs of text. She finds what looks like a Facebook page. After a few such pages, she finds what looks like a Twitter stream. Then a post on the protagonist's blog. And so it continues: social media pages and blog posts, lots of pictures, but nothing else. No narrative is provided, the reader must construct her own.

I've sent out MANY advance review copies of Overshare. The responses seem to fall very clearly into two camps. On the one side, there are the people who rave about it and respond with genuine excitement to its non-narrative, heavily graphic presentation. On the other, there are the people who initially say they've begun to look at it and find it "fascinating", "intriguing", etc., but then never respond in full. Obviously, these readers ultimately did not find the book to their liking, but I'll never know if it was a failure of form or content from their perspective.

This is frustrating, since it's impossible to refine or improve either the form or content of other works going forward if I don't know what needs to be improved. It's also possible that any kind of experimental thing, simply due to its experimental nature, will always create a sharp divide of opinion.

Experimental digital lit is a tough sell. The non-narrative form of Overshare makes it very difficult to promote. While regular users of social media---my target audience---know how to interpret this material right away, others don't know what to make of it. When my own father, who does not use social media, was out for a visit recently, he asked me, "How do I read this book?" One hates to discourage ANY sale, but I have to accept that people outside my target audience aren't likely to "get" Overshare to any extent, and their negative reviews can be a liability.

I thought I could build buzz initially within publishing and author circles, which are presumably more fertile ground for digital lit and experimental lit, and branch out from there to the general, reading public. Dan Holloway ran an interview with me on his eight cuts site, focusing primarily on the non-narrative aspect of the book (e.g., the book demands, or allows, depending on how you look at it, the reader construct his own narrative) and the Creative Commons licensing issues it raises. Joanna Penn ran a guest blog from me on the technical aspects of creating this heavily-formatted, graphics-intensive book. Both pieces generated a lot of reads and some comments, but scarcely bumped the sales needle for the book.

So now, I'm trying a giveaway. While it's always been possible for prospective buyers to view a free excerpt, an excerpt doesn't adequately convey what the book is all about, or how it's supposed to be "read". People viewing the excerpt are just as likely to be confused as prompted to buy the book. When what you've got to offer isn't instantly accessible and doesn't immediately touch on familiar reference points for your target audience, sometimes the only way to get people to take a risk on it is to give it away at first. Even then, some people will decide it's not worth the investment of their time to try the new thing.

But hopefully, many others will try it. And whether they like it or not, some of them will talk about it. Some will blog about it. Some will post reviews. And with any luck, after you've stopped giving it away, the book will have made enough of an impact that it can stand on its own two feet. Time will tell. If you've decided to download Overshare, and I really hope you will, I would very much appreciate your feedback: in the comments section here, in the form of a review on Amazon or Goodreads, or even sent directly to me via email (my address is readily available on my website, Facebook profile, Twitter profile and Blogger profile).

Circling back around to the whole question of whether or not dabbling in experimental digital lit is worthwhile...well, I'd say it depends. If your goal is to maximize the commercial potential of your work (e.g., to make money---and there's nothing wrong with that) as efficiently as possible, then experimentation is not for you. On the other hand, if your financial needs are pretty well covered and more or less every manuscript you write is an experiment of a sort, you may want to give it a try. Those with some tech savvy will have an easier go of the writing, formatting and publishing steps, but once the book goes on sale, we're all in the same, leaky boat.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Is Your New Year's Resolution "Inbox Zero"? Here's How To Do It.

Inbox Zero is that state of digital communications nirvana in which you empty your email inbox, and keep emptying it on a daily basis. This may sound like a pipe dream to many, especially if you've had your email account for many years and your inbox message count is hovering somewhere around 1700, as mine was when I finally bit the bullet and tackled Inbox Zero. But believe me: it can be done, it's not that difficult, and you don't need to worry about the possibility of deleting messages you'll later wish you hadn't. First, let's look at why Inbox Zero is a very, very good idea.


If you're like me, you receive anywhere from 15-40 new emails on a daily basis. Some can be immediately deleted as spam, or filed in some existing folder, but many of them fall into that gray area where you know you'll need to take some action or respond in some way, but can't do so immediately for whatever reason. Maybe you need to do some research, maybe you need to invest some time in crafting a thoughtful reply...whatever. So you make a mental note to deal with those "gray area" emails at your first opportunity, and maybe you even mark them with a star or checkmark or whatever other symbol your email program allows to highlight important messages, then the next load of 15-40 new messages comes in and the "gray area" emails slowly but surely get pushed off your inbox screen and are soon forgotten.

Next thing you know, you've got 1700 emails in your inbox, you know that quite a few of them required a response or action at some point, and you also know that finding them will be a big, hairy pain. And even if you can find them, it's probably too late to take whatever action you had in mind when you first saw them. Meanwhile, the people who sent those emails are thinking you're a huge flake and entirely unreliable. These are not good traits for the reputation of an indie author, for whom building and maintaining a contact network are important.

You've thought about spending a day, or several days, or a week going through your inbox one message at a time and dealing with them once and for all, but it's a daunting task. You can't just summarily delete any messages that are older than a certain date of receipt, because many are from people you really will need to get back in touch with at some future date. You know you've got a problem, but you can't see your way clear to a workable solution.


Here's how you do it.

1) Create a folder called "Old Mail" and archive all messages that are 60 days or older into that folder. This will take a little time, since you'll have to do a search based on your date criteria, mark all the matching messages as "Old Mail" and archive them, but it's a whole lot less work than paging through the actual messages one at a time.

Yes, you will definitely be archiving many messages that really ought to have been deleted instead. But if you don't have the time or desire to look at every one of your inbox messages individually, this is the most efficient tack. Besides, most email providers allow their users gigabytes of storage, so space limitations aren't generally a concern. The important thing is, you haven't deleted anything. So if at any point in the future you desperately need to find the email address of that contact who, back in 2010, offered to interview you when your book was published, you can easily do so by searching your email.

2) Go through the remaining, relatively recent messages in your inbox one at a time, and dispose of them appropriately: reply, and/or file, delete, or report as spam. Again, this will take some time, but MUCH less time than tackling the original virtual stack. If there are any you're filing, but not opening to read because you already know what's in them, be sure to still use the "mark as read" option before filing them away. This will prevent your email system from showing you an alarming count of supposedly new, unread messages for each folder.

2a) Don't be afraid to create LOTS of folders. If you need to create a folder called "Reply After [date of your choosing]", by all means do so. Your goal is to get every single message out of your inbox, whether by replying, filing or deleting. Creating some folders with built-in action triggers in their titles, such as certain dates or events, can be very helpful, since you'll see those folders sitting right there on your email screen every day.

In December I received many emails related to cross-postings for Publetariat and already had content scheduled through the end of the year. Rather than let these emails sit in my inbox, where the old me would've reasoned, "How can I forget about these if I keep them in my inbox?", I created a folder called "Publetariat-Publish In Jan". Now I've got all the relevant emails collected in one handy spot. After everything from the folder's been published, I'll re-label the emails as "Publetariat - Contributors" and archive the messages permanently there.

Be sure to create folders for your personal emails, too. I have folders for "Family", "Shopping", each of my kids' schools, and plenty more.

3) Unsubscribe from any mailing lists that aren't really adding value to your life, or that, despite your best intentions, you know you never actually have the time to read. If there are some you just can't bear to part with, or don't want to unsubscribe from because they're from members of your network and you may need to refer to them at some point in the future, create a folder for each subscription and immediately mark each copy as "read" and file it when a new one comes in.

4) Gaze admiringly at your spiffy, EMPTY inbox and give yourself a pat on the back. And a cookie. You deserve it.

5) Going forward, every time you receive an email dispose of it on a same day basis: reply, and/or file, delete, or report as spam. Create new folders as needed, and dispose of the mail in your action-trigger folders when each trigger occurs.

You will find Inbox Zero becomes addictive. The presence of a mere 4-6 emails in your inbox will seem an unbearable clutter, and you'll long to see that inbox screen empty once again. But most importantly, you'll be back to taking care of business and done with letting important messages and opportunities fall through the cracks.