Readability: So Very Important

Imagine that a t.v. series of 24 one-hour episodes has your interest. It’s a big commitment. Once you try it out, whether or not you continue watching the series depends very much on its ‘watch-ability.’

If you watch a lousy movie, you might just sit through it since it’s just a couple of hours long. But you probably wouldn’t persevere through a 24-hour t.v. series if it wasn’t highly watch-able.

What makes a movie watch-able?

  • Acting that isn’t lifeless, but also isn’t overdramatic for the style of show. You might not even notice good acting, but you definitely notice when it doesn’t suit you. You like to feel that the actor or actress is a perfect fit for the part. The characterization must be good, too.
  • The right pace for the genre. Action should keep a fast pace; suspense may have slow points. If the audience expects the movie to be action-packed, for example, the moviegoers will become restless if it isn’t.
  • Good storyline to engage the audience. It shouldn’t be too predictable, yet shouldn’t upset the moviegoers either. The plot should be easy to follow and should make sense to the audience.
  • Entertainment. The movie must suit the audience who shows up, which means packaging and marketing to attract the right audience. The audience must enjoy the movie.
  • Looks realistic. I was watching a horror movie once, where about halfway through almost everyone in the theatre burst out laughing at the special effects. The girl was supposed to look possessed, but it just wasn’t pulled off right; it produced laughter instead of dread. Very often, the special effects are amazing, but when they aren’t, it makes a huge difference.
  • Excellent cinematography and sound effects. Try to make your own movie and you may discover some of the possible problems. It’s amazing how incredible the audio and visual tends to turn out. Normally it’s so good that we just take it for granted. It is very important, however, because if this turned out lousy, it would kill the viewership. Imagine if a movie cut into scenes at the wrong moment, filmed scenes from a poor angle, or didn’t have the lighting right, for example. There are many ways to mess up a great movie through amateur filming mistakes.

If any of these points doesn’t suit you, would you commit to watching a t.v. series of 24 one-hour episodes? That would be silly, wouldn’t it?

Reading a book requires the same level of commitment. A book must be highly readable to make that commitment worthwhile.

If a movie lacks any of the points above, would you recommend that others watch it? Similarly, a book needs a high level of readability to generate valuable word-of-mouth recommendations.

Here are some factors which make books readable:

  • The words flow smoothly, except perhaps in rare situations where a little stumbling may be relevant to the story. Like. This. You have to know your target audience. Use suitable language for your audience. Most people want an easy read, where the words flow nicely for them and they understand quickly. There are people who do want a more challenging read, but they may not comprise a large part of your target audience. If you just write the book any way you please, you might discover that the audience it suits turns out to be really tiny. Writing and focus groups can help you gauge such things in advance.
  • The length of the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are important, too. Some readers get overwhelmed if many paragraphs exceed the viewable region of the device (which may be a cell phone) or if the chapters are too long. Again, this depends very much on your target audience. The sentences should vary in length and structure, but in a way that the words flow smoothly when they are read.
  • Every spelling and grammatical mistake that a reader notices is like a little hiccup. Such hiccups must be rare or they quickly make the book difficult to read. Another kind of hiccup is repetition of words; variety is the spice of writing. (There may be a few exceptions. For example, some authors prefer “says” for just about all dialog, but not all agree on this point.)
  • Good writing tends to show rather than tell where it makes sense to do this, and tell rather than show otherwise. You don’t want to interrupt the action to show some minor point that could be simply told, but you do want to show many main points rather than tell them.
  • The storyline must engage the audience, not be too predictable, not upset the target audience, be easy to follow, and make sense to the audience.
  • The audience needs to love the characterization.
  • Just like movies, the pace needs to be just right for the genre, the story must feel plausible, the audience needs to enjoy the storyline, and the audience needs to be engaged throughout. The packaging and marketing must attract the right audience for the book.

People do read Thomas Pynchon and Franz Kafka, whose books are not too readable for many people. I do, and I love their writing. People do read classics, both the readable ones and the challenging ones. However, it’s really difficult to write a modern classic and find a significant audience for it. If you want to write with Pulitzer Prize style, the wiser route may be to first develop an audience and reputation writing at this level as a journalist.

Writing mistakes are like cinematography mistakes – they can kill sales. Both books and movies must flow smoothly.

It’s hard to walk out of a theatre when the movie watch-ability is fantastic, and it’s hard to put down a book when the readability is fantastic. When it’s lousy, many people may walk out of the theatre or stop reading the book.

There’s more to a good book or movie than just having a great idea. The way the story is told is at least as important.

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

Traditional & Indie Publishing: A Symbiotic Relationship?

I’m borrowing the word ‘symbiotic’ from biology, which is used when two different types of organisms live together (rather intimately) to their mutual benefit.

For example, there is a rather brave bird (called a ‘plover’) which shares a symbiotic relationship with the crocodile. Incredibly, the crocodile opens its mouth and lets the plover pick meat out of its teeth, not harming the plover. The plover gains a meal, while the crocodile gets its teeth cleaned.

Perhaps this wasn’t the best example. I’m not implying that the traditional publisher is like a crocodile and indies are bravely picking its teeth. I am implying that the relationship may be symbiotic, but not quite that way. 🙂

In biology, the relationship may not always be mutually beneficial, but that’s what I have in mind by applying this concept to the publishing world. I believe the relationship between traditional and indie publishing to be mutually beneficial, not parasitic.

Here are some ways in which traditional and indie publishing are mutually beneficial:

  • Authors have the opportunity to avoid possible rejection letters by self-publishing. This benefits traditional publishing by reducing the number of proposals that need to be filtered.
  • Self-publishers provide ample business to print-on-demand publishers like CreateSpace and Ingram Spark. Traditional publishers benefit from this service, too, keeping titles ‘in stock’ which would otherwise be retired. The combined use of this service helps to keep the cost low for everybody.
  • Small publishers have increased their business by offering formatting, editing, and cover design services to self-publishers. This helps self-publishers improve their books.
  • The presence of indie authors significantly enhances the population of authors overall, which helps boost participation in author support groups – like writing groups, blogging communities, and social media sites. Many traditional authors in these communities have much experience to share.
  • The combined number of books – i.e. indie plus traditional – has led to an increased number of writing contests, review sites, magazines, etc. This increases the opportunities for all authors to improve their exposure and branding.
  • The combined number of e-books – i.e. indie plus traditional – impacts the price of e-readers in a positive way for consumers, and the availability of e-book publishing services for authors.
  • Both types of authors draw readers, especially when the books are very readable, enjoyable, or informative. I personally buy and read many more books now than when there only used to be traditionally published books available, and there are many others like me in this regard. Both types of books may generate sales for the other type through customers-also-bought lists.

Let me take the analogy a step farther.

The crocodiles could eat the plovers. They would gain some meals in the short run, but their teeth would be dirty in the long run. Even worse, the plovers could bite the crocodiles’ tongues.

Now imagine traditional publishers marketing negative things about indie books or vice-versa. If successful, this would be bad business for everybody. Many customers buy Kindles not just to read traditional e-books and not just to read indie e-books. If marketing efforts portray a lousy image for many e-books, it makes the e-reader itself less attractive.

If you could put a huge dent in either type of publishing, that would reduce the usage of print-on-demand services and e-readers both, which would impact pricing, competitiveness, and availability of services. It would also put a huge dent in readership.

The relationship between indie and traditional publishing may not be ‘obligate,’ meaning that survival of one entirely depends on the existence of the other. However, if either form were to vanish, it would have a major impact on the other.

From a marketing perspective, it makes sense to say good things about books, e-books, readers, authors, and publishers of all kinds. Putting time and effort into marketing your own book would be partially negated by also spreading a negative image for books at large. That negative image would decrease sales overall, which would come back to haunt you, statistically. Spreading a positive image of all kinds of books helps to reinforce your own marketing.

Similar books may also share a symbiotic relationship. Customers usually don’t buy one-or-the-other, but buy several similar books (if not all at once, spread over time – thinking, “Where can I get more like this?”).

Foolish authors who blast the competition shoot themselves in the foot. If successful at hurting the sales of similar books, they also hurt their own books.

When instead similar books are thriving, they all tend to thrive together – e.g. through customer-also-bought associations.

It’s not like there is only one book at the top and nothing else sells. There is plenty of room for readable, enjoyable, or informative books. Similar books can thrive together in symbiotic relationships.

It used to be that a paperback book selling about once a day had a sales rank around 50,000 at Amazon. Now it might sell once a day and have a sales rank well over 100,000. This shows that the total number of books selling frequently has increased. Much of this may be the result of symbiotic relationships among similar books, plus the increased number of good books to read and an increase in readership, as well as an increase in e-readers and e-books.

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)