Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Series and stuff

It was almost a year ago that I wondered about the status of series as single entities or as comprised of linked, individual novels. Since then, I haven't given the matter much thought, possibly because going one way or the other doesn't actually influence my reading habits. But over at The Book Stop, the question of whether or not to even read books in series in the first place arose and I find myself with a lot to say on the subject.

Distinctions need to be made. After all, there are many different types of series*:
  1. The stand-alones: These are series that center around a shared world that have no established, continuous plot from book to book. Terry Pratchett's Discworld series is a great example - a reader can start with just about any book in the series and not feel like they're missing much. It's a series, yes, but each book is a stand-alone. The same for Émile Zola's Rougon-Macquart books - some characters may appear here and there, some locales are familiar, but there is no need to read L'Assommoir in order to enjoy Germinal**.
  2. The character stand-alone: I find this for the most part with mystery books - a series will follow the happenings of a specific detective. Each book can stand on its own, but it helps to have read previous books, if only for the character development.
  3. The continuous epic: This would be something like A Song of Ice and Fire, which can often feel like one supremely long book cut up into little (or, uh, huge) pieces. It's hard to distinguish one book from the next, and absolutely impossible to miss a book in the series. There is no single, contained plot within each volume - at times it seems like there's absolutely no justification for it to be a separate book other than length (A Feast for Crows/A Dance with Dragons, anyone?).
  4. The planned series: A planned series is exactly what it sounds like - the writer goes into the story knowing exactly when and how the story will end. It's defined ahead of time as a trilogy (or a quartet, etc.) and sticks to it. Each book may blend into the next with cliffhangers, but there are still clear-cut boundaries between each volume. This is something like His Dark Materials - the books are individual and contained but are part of an undeniable whole. You can't read the second book without having read the first.
  5. The contained epic: A contained epic would be something along the lines of Harry Potter. There's an overarching story and you can't read one book without having read the previous, but each book still contains its own, individual story that doesn't really drag onto the next book (though the lines blur a bit with Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows). This is the the planned series taken to the extreme - a long, sometimes meandering and less defined series but contained nonetheless.
  6. The popularity mess: Books that should be stand-alones or part of planned series and eventually degenerate into a continuous series because of poor planning. These go on until they fizzle and are an embarrassment to themselves. Please let's not raise examples. It's too depressing.
But beyond the simple breakdown of series type, you have to look at intent. Is this a series simply because of length (a story on such an epic scale that it demands multiple volumes)? Or is it something inherently episodic? If you're the type of reader who decides whether or not to get involved in a series, it's important to pay attention to these qualities.

Personally, I don't really care if a book is part of a series or not. It's never been a factor for me. While I don't like ditching series halfway through, I'm not entirely averse to it. There are a few series I've given up on after realizing that the books I'd already read within them stood alone fairly well and didn't entice me enough to keep reading. If the first book was bad and I don't have to read the sequels, I'm not going to go on. As I learn to abandon books, it becomes easier to stop midway through a series. And really, it doesn't matter if it's part of a whole or not... it just matters if it's good enough to make me want to finish the series.

* And yes, I did notice that almost all of my examples are from fantasy series. What can I say, that's what came to mind...
** But you should. Read both books that is, because they're excellent.

Friday, December 23, 2011

On book trailers and the visual medium paradox

I just finished reading this post over at Ripple Effects from a couple weeks back about book trailers. Arti writes a few seriously thought-provoking passages:
Will you go and buy this book to read after watching the trailer, or, are you more likely to just add another view count to the video and a click on 'like'?
Book trailers are, at the end of the day, trailers. They're meant as a preview, not as a review. They might make something seem particularly impressive (or particularly unappealing), but that's because they're meant to. They don't aim to summarize the book, but rather present it in a particularly visual form to hook readers. Sometimes they work more effectively than others. For example, despite long believing that Lauren Oliver's romance-looking young adult novel Before I Fall was definitely not the book for me (not the style, genre or approach I typically enjoy), after watching the very sleek, very well-done book trailer, I want to read the book.

This is the rarer outcome. In my experience with book trailers, I find them to be supplements to books about which I've already made up my mind. They don't succeed in convincing me to a read a book previously disregarded... usually, only a very good review will do that.

Then there's the question of the "visual medium paradox", as I call it.
In this eWorld of ours, we need a real hardcover book to explain to children what a book is… or used to be, if you take the apocalyptic view.  We’re told a book isn’t something you scroll, tweet, or text, and no need to charge up. But the fact is, those are the very functions you do to view and share the trailer. And it’s a book trailer, with all its visual images and special effects, uploaded and viewed online and hopefully gone viral, that helps boost book sales. Another mash? Or simply an inevitable paradox nowadays?
In modern literary culture, the use of a visual medium to present a story is considered an upgrade. A book is deemed successful if adapted into a movie, and the other way around: a popular book will inevitably make it to the big screen (or even to the small screen - look at A Song of Ice and Fire). This is nothing new, obviously (look at the sheer amount of movies based on plays and books from sixty, even seventy and eighty years ago), but it still serves as an indicator.

I digress. The point of the visual medium paradox is that, well, it doesn't really exist. It's a conceptual thing. A book trailer isn't a paradox. It's just a use of a visual medium to blurb a book. Perhaps it's one that better captures a potential reader's attention, one that can give them tools to imagine the characters and the setting, and one that can use visual effects to enhance the image of the book. It's not like a movie, it's like a movie poster - a quick visual glimpse into the story, presented in a way that attempts to catch the reader's attention. But this is all - again - as a supplement. There's no need for the trailer - a reader can pick up the book, read it, enjoy it, and set it aside all without knowing that the trailer exists. The trailers may help boost sales, yes, but they are not the single factor determining the popularity of a book. The written word is much stronger than that.

On the other end of the visual medium paradox scale, I find myself thinking again about movie adaptations. Movie adaptations are reworkings. Much in the same way an adaptation of a play isn't exactly the same as the original, a movie or TV adaptation of a book takes advantage of its medium to tell the story differently. Yes, our culture views the visual medium to be more accessible to a wider range of people, but this doesn't actually mean that the adaptation is an upgrade.

And here I admit something I'm loathe to admit under any circumstance: I was wrong.

The book is not weakened by such visual reworkings, not by movie adaptations and not by book trailers. If use of the visual medium to supplement the written word is a paradox, so is a movie review that is not done in the visual format. Modern technology allows us to explore different mediums to express ourselves. I don't think it's necessarily ironic to use different mediums as supplements. It's inevitable.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The hook - free eBooks, publishers and readers

I have a pretty simple rule regarding eBooks: I don't pay for them. This typically means I scour the internet for free downloads, worship sites like, and will actively seek out publisher eBook giveaways. Back in the early days of my eBook downloading, when I was just beginning my searches, I realized that a few publishers offered excerpts (and occasionally whole novels) online for free download. About once every six months or so, I remember to check these various sites - Scribd, the Baen Free library, and others - to see what new offers they might have.

So it came to be that the other day I went on a short downloading spree, hitting various publishers' Scribd accounts. And there, on Harper's page, I had the opportunity to read the first few pages of Greg Olear's brilliantly titled novel Father-mucker. I'd managed to hear about the book here and there through the bookish-internet grapevine, but was put off by the witty title. It seemed like the type of book that might try too hard to be witty and clever but then fall flat. Yet when offered the chance to read the first few pages for free in a convenient manner, not through any browser but on my own time, I decided to take it.

See, publishers may always worry about offering books for free online and may worry about piracy, but there's really no need. Free downloads, teasers and offers of this kind serve only as an advertising tool for publishers. I wasn't planning on reading Father-mucker last week. Now I can't wait to finish it. If I had the ability to buy it on the spot, I probably would (unfortunately for publishers and luckily for my wallet, I live abroad). Harper - by offering a teaser download for the book - convinced even a jaded reader like myself to pick the book up.

And though I don't remember where I downloaded it from originally, what about Perdido Street Station? It was offered for free for about a month back in 2009 and served as a pretty good hook - I now have a copy of Miéville's Embassytown on my shelves. I'm certain I would never have bought one Miéville's books just like that, but after reading Perdido Street Station (and later The City & The City, also not purchased), I realized I liked Miéville as an author and wanted to support him. So I bought Embassytown. Hardcover*.

It's like Neil Gaiman said back in the day: "Nobody who would have bought your book is not buying it because they can find it for free." Most people are introduced to their favorite authors through different means - a friend lends them the book, they check it out of the library, or in this day and age download it. Many readers will also feel as I do, that buy paying for a book they're supporting the author for writing something good. The amount of times I've bought a book after reading it for free via the public library is... high. Maybe it'll work better if we change our approach to supporting authors and publishing, but I think that publishers can do wonders to promote their authors and books by offering free eBook downloads for limited periods. It's the kind of hook that will work again and again, at least on readers like me.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to see how I can get a hold of Father-mucker.

* Okay, okay, it was at Border's going-out-of-business sale so it wasn't full price. But it was still pretty expensive, so I think it counts.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Fads in cyberspace

Fads swept the youth of the Sprawl at the speed of light; entire subcultures could rise overnight, thrive for a dozen weeks, and then vanish utterly. -p.58, Neuromancer
While William Gibson is best known for coining the term "cyberspace", he should (in my mind) really be remembered for predicting our modern internet culture, as is evidenced by the above quote...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Like eating a feast after a month-long fast

That is, if the month-long fast is a period of three weeks with only one book completed and little desire to read anything else.

I finally broke down yesterday and practically forced myself to start reading Child Wonder by Roy Jacobsen. It was a weird feeling at first, almost as though I'd forgotten how to read, or how to enjoy reading. I stumbled over the first few pages, unsure what I was supposed to be understanding from the story, but I then began speeding through the pages, devouring whole chapters in just a few minutes. In the space of some 45 minutes aboard my morning bus, I managed to go through almost 100 pages. And that was only the beginning. Throughout the day, I picked the book up repeatedly, constantly trying to read more and more, growing frustrated at the situations around me that demanded my full attention.

But today, finishing the book while waiting in line at the pharmacy, I was surprised at how empty the whole reading experience had really been. Obviously I'd read the book - and had even quite enjoyed it, for a time - but as I read the last, intentionally revelation-filled-yet-nonetheless-vague pages, it didn't feel as though I'd actually read the book. It was as though I'd eaten so fast I hadn't been able to taste what exactly I was putting in my mouth... a strange experience, and not one I'm particularly eager to repeat. I suppose this should be a lesson to me - never, ever, ever stop reading.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

More on Amazon's latest dirty scheme

In continuation of what I mentioned yesterday regarding Amazon's dirty trick to snatch business away from brick-and-mortar stores, this is a thorough piece from Moby Lives on the backlash. Like I already said, this ploy by Amazon sinks lower than low and further emphasizes all that I've grown to dislike from the online retailer.

It also turns out I'm not alone in my method of looking books up on Amazon and buying them later in independent bookstores. From Shelf-Awareness:
Author Garth Stein (The Art of Racing in the Rain) tweeted his own strategy: "I like to do the Reverse Amazon: hear about a book, read about it on Amazon, then go buy it at my local bookstore! It's fun! #ReadLocal."

Friday, December 9, 2011

How we buy books

I unfortunately can't remember the hat-tip, but someone linked to this article on the habit of book-browsing in corporeal bookstores and then buying the books online, which definitely qualifies as a thought-provoker.
According to the survey, conducted in October by the Codex Group, a book market research and consulting company, 24 percent of people who said they had bought books from an online retailer in the last month also said they had seen the book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore first. Thirty-nine percent of people who bought books from Amazon in the same period said they had looked at the book in a bookstore before buying it from Amazon, the survey said.
I know I shouldn't be surprised but I am. My own use of Amazon today is completely contrary to this one. As I've mentioned in the past, one of the first things I do before considering a book is check its Amazon reviews (negative first, then positive). This is not because it's Amazon, per se, but rather because Amazon has the greatest collection of user reviews (which is one of the only remaining advantages to using the site, other than the obviously lower prices but I'll discuss that at length another time). I look at a book, investigate it, learn about it, and then decide whether or not I want to buy it. From there, I have a few options. I can order the book online or I can go to a bookstore I like and buy the book. In recent years, the most likely outcome has been the latter.

But it's much easier to go about it the "normal" way. You find a book in the flesh, you want to investigate it, you go online. Once online, you make your decision. Then you're just one click away from buying the book. And it's cheaper... so why not buy it like that? Even this thing that you go into a bookstore, look up a book on your cell-phone, realize that it's cheaper elsewhere... I understand even if I don't agree with it (and certainly don't like it). Maybe if my situation was different, I too would  be tempted to approach book-buying this way. Living abroad and having a yearly buffer zone between my book-buying sprees means I can afford to do my homework ahead of time. Today, Amazon is no more convenient to me than a bricks-and-mortar bookstore.

I know one thing, though. Indies will survive because they provide what Amazon never will - personal service, author readings, a type of convenience that can only be found in corporeal form, and provide customers with the joy of spontaneous book-buying. And I hope for one more thing: that for every customer who walks in, looks at a book and ends up buying it later on for a discount, there's another like me who first looks the books up on Amazon, and then goes out to the local bookstore to buy it. Because really, the feeling is much better this way.

Update: Oh, and while this "deal" in which a customer uses their cell-phone to scan the bar-code of a product and then get a discount on Amazon (instead of buying it at the store the customer is currently standing in) doesn't include books, it's still pretty despicable (via The Book Catapult). Just saying.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Book photo of the day

Old books are just the best.

The Man in the Iron Mask - Alexandre Dumas, pere

Thursday, December 1, 2011

SAFL #7: Solaris

It's been a while since I've done a SAFL (Science and Fantasy Literature) title but I recently finished reading Solaris by Stanislaw Lem and my mind is sufficiently blown that it's quite obvious that Solaris is SAFL. And excellent SAFL at that.

I specifically chose to read Solaris in Hebrew right around the time I first heard of the book. More specifically, upon learning that this was a classic case of double-translation gone wrong. Solaris, originally written in Polish, was translated into French not long after publication. The translation into English, for some unknown, godforsaken reason, went through French and is by most accounts atrocious.

Luckily, I faced no such problem with the Hebrew translation (which is surprising, given the increasing propensity to employ double-translations into Hebrew... but that's a rant for a separate post). I bought the book back in June and it has been quietly awaiting my attention since. I don't understand what took me so long to get to it. It's the kind of book that you can't quite let go of.

Solaris can as easily be classified philosophical or psychological fiction as it can be classified sci-fi. In the finest example of sci-fi being used as a mirror - or even as a tool - for dealing with bigger, more fundamental issues than simply aliens or star-travel, Solaris digs deep regarding the definition of man and questions of identity. And communication. And even insanity. Yes, this is all within the framework of one of the most pulp sci-fi settings ever (hyper advanced black sludge alien, anyone?), but it transcends it incredibly. It's no surprise that even in Israel - where sci-fi and fantasy are genres typically marginalized and separated from the mainstream (to the extreme) - Solaris is marketed as straight-up literature and refuses to be boxed into an (unjustly) ignored definition. Hopefully this will lead to many more readers enjoying Lem's fascinating novel.

As for the English speaking world... I can only be thankful that there is, at least, the audio book. Solaris is a classic of sci-fi for a reason... I hate to think that this masterpiece is marred only by a notoriously poor translation. Here's to hoping for a quality Polish-to-English translation to be published sometime in the near future.