The Business Rusch: Generational Divide

Business Rusch free nonfiction Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing

Business Rusch logo webWhen I was taking classes in the craft of fiction, everyone—from established professional writers to English professors—recommended that a writer never ever say that a character looked like a famous actor. No “he resembled a young Orson Welles” or “she dressed like Claudette Colbert.”

Not only was it lazy writing—the Gurus said—but, more importantly, there was no way for your reader to know exactly what you meant.

You see, kids, back in the days when you walked uphill both ways in the snow to get to your typewriter, when manuscripts were laced with white-out, and copies were made with carbon paper, old movies were hard to find.

I was lucky: I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research has a complete collection of Warner Brothers films from 1931 to 1949, not to mention an archive of theater, film, and television that went through the 1970s.

The university’s film society would schedule old movie nights and charge a reasonable amount for students. So I saw a lot of old films that most people never saw. (There’s a reason that Madison produced some of the best movie writers and critics of my generation; they had access to old films when most students outside of New York and Los Angeles did not.)

But the teachers all had a point. Not only did referencing old movies make it difficult for modern readers to “see” your characters, it also dated the work. Because so much of popular culture back then was available for such a short period of time, and then it was impossible to find without an archive nearby, a good old movie house (with a lot of money), or a lot of late-night television viewing. I often memorized TV Guide, and stayed up until the wee hours to see a censored version of a movie I’d only heard about.

Cabaret made no sense when I saw the movie version on network television, with all references to homosexuality and sex removed. But I struggled through, since that was the only way I thought I might ever see the film.

I did that with a lot of films. A college friend spent his first year in the TV room of our dorm, watching classic Star Trek every afternoon. He’d only heard about the show; he hadn’t been allowed to watch it at home, so he caught the reruns. I first saw Doctor Who on various PBS stations, out of order and often at very strange times of the day, because I couldn’t see them any other way.

The shift began in the 1980s, with video cassettes. But even then, only people with money (and the correct kind of video player) could watch films. The true change really hit as Blockbuster and other video rentals made watching affordable.

Even so, it wasn’t always easy. Some films never made it to video. Most films got made into DVDs, but even now, some aren’t available. (Unless you guys can locate a DVD or streaming version of my favorite Bill Forsyth film, Comfort and Joy. I haven’t been able to.)

By the early 1990s, I realized I could compare my characters to movie stars, if I wanted to, and people would understand. It’s still lazy if that’s all I say—but if I’m in the point of view of say a major movie buff, it might be a great way to characterize my narrator. The option is open to me.

That change is simple to understand. Those of us raised in a world where everything was fleeting truly appreciate the fact that we can now share the things we love with someone else whenever we want to. We’re aware of the difference.

But we haven’t given much thought to the world we’re moving into. The world that so many people who were born from about 1995 to now will inhabit.

Let me give you two different examples of the attitude shift.

The first example comes from a story I read this week, from The Best American Mysteries 2011. The story, “Diamond Alley” by Dennis McFadden, captures the world that I and so many people who were born between 1945 and 1985 grew up in.

The [Pittsburgh] Pirates were with us everywhere that autumn. They filled the air. Every evening when we went out, we didn’t need our transistors—we could hear Bob Prince calling the game all over town, his friendly baritone drifting from radios on porches, in kitchens and living rooms, as pervasive as the scent of burning leaves.

If you walked down the street on any given night in America, looking at the reflection of the televisions in your neighbors’ windows, you had a one in three chance of knowing what they were watching, even if they had the curtains closed. If they had the curtains open, then you could see an actor or two, and realize exactly what they were watching—and what time it was at that moment.

Things were that static. You also knew if you were walking, and, say, Bonanza was on, you would have to hurry home to catch the rest of it. You might not get to see the beginning ever (or so you thought then).

The second example comes from a New Yorker article on Netflix, published in the February 3, 2014 issue. Brian Robbins, who runs Awesomeness TV, a provider of YouTube channels (and programming) and which attract (as far as I can tell) at least thirty-one million teens and tweens. About their attitude toward programming, he says,

The next generation, our audience and even younger, they don’t even know what live TV is. They live in an on-demand world.

An on-demand world.

Think about that for a moment. Those of us raised in that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it world had a sense of urgency about everything we loved. If we didn’t schedule ourselves around a TV show, we’d miss it. If we missed the opening weekend to a film, we might not see it. If we weren’t listening to the radio during a baseball game, we might never understand the nuances—we’d have to stick with the reported coverage the next day.

That’s changed. I don’t feel any urgency at all about finding what I love. I just deleted a show to make room on my DVR, secure in the knowledge that I can pick up that series on demand when I’m ready to.

On demand.

On demand requires quite a mental shift for those of us raised in the old Get-It-Now world. And most of us have made some of that shift. We’re aware that we can buy something when we want it or watch a show whenever we feel like it, but we’re not aware of the other habits and things that are changing.

The biggest generational shift is an unconscious sense of entitlement that people who grew up in an on-demand world have. They want a show or a book or a song when they want it, and they want it to be easily accessible, in a format they can use.

When they can’t get it, they either complain—loudly on social media—or they steal it.

Study after study has shown that piracy goes up when something is restricted or impossible to get. The BBC learned this with Doctor Who in 2012. They made the show available in the States six hours after the show aired in Britain to get rid of online piracy.  By 2013’s Christmas episode, the BBC learned that an international simulcast not only boosted ratings but also reduced piracy.

People want what they want when it’s available, but that doesn’t mean they have to watch it then.

Fans will go to great lengths to get what they want when they want it. HBO GO crashed on April 6 when Game of Thrones premiered, not because the system couldn’t handle the demand of the subscribers, but because it couldn’t handle the demand of the subscribers and the thieves.

From The Washington Post:

Password sharing is incredibly common for streaming video sites — a cordcutter will use the login information of a friend, family worker, or, in the case of New York Times reporter Jenna Wortham, a stranger from New Jersey they once met in a Mexican restaurant to access a service, such as Netflix or HBO GO without paying subscription fees.

The solutions HBO provided on April 6th to its subscribers were to watch the rebroadcast an hour or so later or to catch the show through the On Demand offering from their cable provider. Those who used borrowed passwords couldn’t do that.

HBO isn’t concerned about the thieves, by the way. After Buzzfeed asked HBO’s CEO about the piracy, they got this response:

“It’s not that we’re unmindful of it, it just has no impact on the business,” HBO CEO Richard Plepler said. It is, in many ways, a “terrific marketing vehicle for the next generation of viewers,” he said, noting that it could potentially lead to more subscribers in the future.

“We’re in the business of creating addicts,” he said at a BuzzFeed Brews event in New York.

HBO is as smart as the BBC on this one. They know if someone wants something badly enough, they’ll pay for the privilege of getting it when and where they want it.

On demand is good in that way. We writers take advantage of it when we write in series. Our readers want the next book the moment they finish the previous one. E-books allow the reader to get that book at 4 a.m. on a holiday weekend in a town where there won’t be an open bookstore for another 48 hours (and even then, it’s a crapshoot as to whether or not the bookstore has the title).

But on demand has its other side.

Personally, I love it, although it does make me pickier than I used to be. Faced with the choice of programming or reading material, I can judge what I watch by mood. I need something funny tonight, or maybe I’m in the mood for a detective show, but not urban fantasy with a detective (like Grimm). Back in the day, I had to watch whatever was available on Thursday on Thursday, mood be damned.

This generational shift is causing a lot of problems, as generational shifts do. Not because teens and tweens don’t understand what live TV truly means or because all of us are becoming a bit entitled. Nor are the problems the loss of the shared currency—that “water cooler conversation” (and the fact that the term “water cooler” is in the idiom shows how dated the idea is)—or the fact that you can’t go from house to house and hear the same broadcast airing from each porch on a hot Sunday night.

The problems come from the fact that those of us who run things—people in our forties, fifties, and sixties—use metrics that were developed by our parents for their world, that tightly controlled Mad Men world where everyone was expected to be the same, not just in what they wore or bought but in what they listened to or watched or read as well.

The bestseller list?

It measures velocity. (A good essay on this topic, “The Meaningless Metrics of Fame,”  came from Mike Briggs, husband of Patricia Briggs, earlier this week. I’ve also dealt with it.)


They only want new books, and then only at the time of release.

Brick and mortar bookstores?

They only have room for the latest releases, and then only the ones that are the most popular with their customers (whoever those folks might be).

Books have come late to this fight. Books have been available on demand for only about four years now, in the U.S. In other countries, there’s been even less time.

And we’re all still fighting over meaningless metrics, to use Mike Briggs’ term, because those metrics only measure things that were important around the water cooler, not things which are important now.

What’s important now?

I think the HBO Go and BBC examples are telling. If you want to measure fan response, you should look at the demand among true fans to be the first, the very first, to see something. Not the casual fan who can plug her ears and scream, “Shuddap! Spoilers!” to everyone around her. (All of us casual fans do that, right? Or is it just me?)

I think the first metric is how many people want a book within a week of its release. That doesn’t make a book an instant bestseller. It simply shows us—the writer—how many fans we’ve managed to capture.

The next metric is how many copies of the book sell over time. That time should probably be measured in year-long increments. How many copies sell in the first year? How many in the second? How many in the fifth?

Because if the book’s sales increase per year, then something is happening for that book. That something is word of mouth.

We never had a way to measure word of mouth before, because books became unavailable within weeks of their release, and went out of print within months. Now, we can see the growth as more and more people tell their friends about a title.

My best standalone example is The Freelancer’s Survival Guide. It’s a constant seller. Its sales have increased each year because of word of mouth. I’m not doing anything to promote it except an occasional mention here, and the image on my sidebar (which I often take down). It’s also the title I’ve had in print the longest that wasn’t published by traditional publishing.

The growth is fascinating.

The publishing industry isn’t even talking about new metrics. That idea hasn’t occurred to traditional publishing, and indie (or self) published writers are constantly seeking validation from the old system—trying to figure out ways to game the bestseller lists or to get a fantastic review from somewhere that has old-world prestige.

Other industries that have dealt with this measuring success problem longer than we have are coming up with half-assed solutions, based on the old ways as well.

The music industry has bifurcated the hits charts so much that it resembles the Amazon fiction bestseller lists. Not only that, your bestselling song might be #1 on the R&B charts, but the sales numbers don’t even put it in the top 100 overall on iTunes. And how is that R&B song doing on Billboard? Who knows?

To make matters worse, the music industry has changed the sales figures. In 1976, a platinum single had to sell one million units to get the designation. In 2003, a platinum single had to sell one million physical units. By 2004, a platinum single had to sell one million units digitally and/or physically. In 2013, the Recording Industry Association of America added streaming music to its platinum count this way: in the US with 100 streams being the equivalent of 1 unit sold.

In other words, RIAA certification for singles no longer represent true sales. At what point does the metric become meaningless?

Movies have twisted themselves into pretzels doing the same thing. At first DVD sales weren’t counted toward a movie’s success. It was only box office. Now they are. For a while, only US box office mattered. Now, worldwide box office (which is often more lucrative on action films) counts more, especially when a studio considers the viability of a remake.

And television, television has no idea how to measure anything any more. Network television needs eyeballs to sell advertising, so it started changing its measurements a few years ago. First it was live, then live plus 24 hours, then live plus 48, then live plus one week. Now, I’m hearing that live plus one month is being talked about.

Not that it matters. Advertising is following the eyeballs—and those eyeballs have moved to tablets and other gadgets. A recent report from the Interactive Advertising Bureau shows that online advertising has increased dramatically. Many news outlets mistakenly reported that online advertising has outpaced TV advertising, but that only shows that some reporters can’t read studies.

However, the report is fascinating because it shows that digital advertising, once considered “silly” or a “waste of money” has come into its own. Because people spend as much time with their devices as they do with their television sets.

The traditional publishing industry is notorious for not studying anything. What works to promote a book? Who knows. Why should they study that?

But at some point, traditional publishers are going to have to develop new ways to figure out which products sell well and which ones don’t. All of their systems—from sales figures (which measure books shipped not books sold) to bestseller lists to critical acclaim—are based on the old models.

It might take another ten years or more before traditional publishing figures out how to measure success for its various titles. What happens in ten years or more? Members of the on-demand generation will start to step into positions of power at traditional publishing companies (and everywhere else). Those future adults will want metrics that mean something to them, not things that belong to a hot autumn night accompanied by the smell of burning leaves and ancient voices on the radio.

However, those of us who are in the trenches now, those of us who publish our own stuff, whether we do so through our own small independent publishing companies or as individuals who do everything, will need to set up a modern metric system, one that reflects on the way things are done in an on-demand world.

I’d be happy to hear ideas on this one, because I’m just dipping a toe into it. I do know this is a long-tail issue. I also know that writers who produce series books have a leg-up in that instant demand thing. (HBO Go, had it existed back then, wouldn’t have crashed the night the first episode of Season One of Game of Thrones premiered. That kind of demand happens after people have fallen in love, not before.)

Writers don’t just succeed with series, though. As I write this, the #1 bestselling book in the Kindle store is the $11.99 ebook of Nora Roberts latest standalone novel, The Collector. She’s a brand, like Game of Thrones is a brand, like series can be a brand.

The key is figuring out how to make yourself one, which was, in part, why I wrote the Discoverability series. It’s a slow process. Nora Roberts started out as a category romance writer. Back when she started—in the water cooler days—her books were considered disposable. They were released every few months. Sounds like now, doesn’t it?

We need to figure out how to measure success in the digital age. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to wait twenty years until today’s teenagers come up with good system to measure this stuff.

I’d like to figure out something now that reflects the on-demand world. I’d like to step 100% into the 21st century, without using any of the metrics of the past.

The world has changed. We don’t even write the way we used to any more. Conventional writing wisdom from 1980 doesn’t apply to 2014. Why should conventional marketing wisdom from 1980 govern how the publishing world determines success?

I know that my metric for success for this blog. I like the conversations it generates. I like the e-mail contacts, the links you send me, and the comments you guys make.

The most important metric I have, I’m afraid, is financial. I need the blog to fund itself on a weekly basis. I take a lot of writing time to compose a weekly essay, so I need to earn a good writing wage to do so. I always hope that each blog post earns its own way.

So, if you liked the post, learned something, or enjoy the blog on a regular basis, please leave a tip on the way out.

Thanks so much!

Click here to go to PayPal

“The Business Rusch: Generational Divide” copyright 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

65 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Generational Divide

  1. Kris,

    Great post. I do have to argue with this bit.

    But at some point, traditional publishers are going to have to develop new ways to figure out which products sell well and which ones don’t. All of their systems—from sales figures (which measure books shipped not books sold) to bestseller lists to critical acclaim—are based on the old models.

    My comments about that are here: Publishers know profit, but haven’t tapped the best seller lists yet

    1. Thanks, John. Thoughtful post that you made on your site. I’m afraid I have to disagree with this: “Publishers are well aware of the long tail. They see it with books that have been rotated out of the brick and mortar channels but are still selling in the online ones. They report it in their annual statements. They know the online channels work differently from the brick & mortar ones.”

      No, they don’t. That’s not how accounting in traditional publishing works. They are having trouble even seeing online sales at the moment, because their systems can’t track them. And traditional publishers take profitable books out of print every single day, because the profit margin isn’t big enough. The thing is, most traditional publishers must show a profit every quarter because of their corporate structure, so they have to shoot for the larger profit margins, as measured by somewhat faulty accounting.

      Then there’s the matter of assets. The books, even though they’re OP, are still assets of the company, and show up on the books as an asset. That’s why the traditional publishers are hanging onto the backlist, not because of some kind of Ender’s Game type revival. The fact that the backlist is starting to make a profit for them is confounding the accountants. (I’ve been reading a lot about this in the traditional publishing trades; it’s really terrifying how little they know about how to measure the success of a book these days.)

      So I’m afraid I have to disagree with your analysis about the long tail. (And using Tor as an example is…well, we can talk in private. Because Tor has an interesting structure and a very different public image from what’s actually going on inside that company–and has from day one.)

  2. Ok, Kris, I’m officially blaming you.

    Does anyone know if the original “Famous Five” are epubbed legally, somewhere?

    Also, from Wiki’s article on Blyton,

    “Blyton’s daily routine varied little over the years. She would begin writing soon after breakfast, with her portable typewriter on her knee and her favourite red Moroccan shawl nearby; she believed that the colour red acted as a “mental stimulus” for her. Stopping only for a short lunch break she would continue writing until five o’clock, by which time she would usually have produced 6,000–10,000 words.

    From the mid-1950s rumours began to circulate that Blyton had not written all the books attributed to her, a charge she found very distressing. She published an appeal in her magazine asking children to let her know if they heard such stories, and after one mother informed her that she had attended a parents’ meeting at her daughter’s school during which a young librarian had repeated the allegation, Blyton decided in 1955 to begin legal proceedings. The librarian was eventually forced to make a public apology in open court early the following year, but the rumours that Blyton operated “a ‘company’ of ghost writers” persisted, as some found it difficult to believe that one woman working alone could produce such a volume of work.”

    While Kris’ mother built a radio in the 20s. Sometimes the “No, normal is _that_ way” ping hits weird.

    Take care.

      1. The wiki’s article on Blyton is interesting. It considers certain English press a valid source (regarding her divorce, for example; if true, I would consider her behaviour a bad mark, but considering the source…), but if you take certain things with a grain of salt, it’s interesting how you could change some cosmetic details and make it a XXIst century tale on writing.

        And, Kris, I read almost all “Famous Five”, about same with “Happy Hollisters” and what was available in Spanish of “Puck” (and the odd similar book, sometimes by Blyton herself); then, later, “Three Investigators”. Good thing of having several quite older siblings. Hollisters was my least favourite, Blyton’s my most. “Three investigators” came when I was “done” with the earlier series. Then, _much_ later… Rowling.

        Take care.

  3. I recently had the opportunity (I realize in retrospect) to experience on-demand culture shift back in time to blink-and-you’ll-miss-it culture. The occasion was the Seahawks playing in (and winning) the Superbowl followed by a parade in which 700,000 lined the parade route. For about 2 weeks time, it was like 1960 all over again, every TV and radio tuned in at time to the same amazing, pervasive story line which got better and better and better as it went. Part of the excitement was our team winning but the undertone and a good part of the buzz was just that feeling everyone for the first time in 2 decades, being on the same page.

  4. Kris, now you’ve made me wonder about a tangential point: does this generational divide also affect TBR piles? I’m on the old side of this divide, and I (compulsively) add stuff to my TBR pile when I find it – I probably have 50-100 books there. Do the “on demand” kids not feel the need to stockpile in a TBR? Hmmm.

    1. I’m 25, which puts me on the younger side (right?) and I don’t have a TBR pile, because it feels like too much pressure. I surround myself with books (none bought full price), but if I want to give them away without reading them I will.

  5. I was born in 1964, and I definitely remember scheduling my life around TV shows I wanted to watch. But I was born and raised in Alaska, where the shows had to be shipped up and we got everything about 2 weeks late. It was a regular geographic anomaly. It was weird going to the Lower ’48 and seeing shows that wouldn’t be available at home for another couple of weeks.

    One time, I saw on the TV Guide that The Man In The Iron Mask (with Richard Chamberlain) was going to be on that afternoon and I spent all day in excited anticipation. And then…it wasn’t. Maybe it hadn’t come in the shipment, or some other mistake had been made, but it wasn’t on. Ruined my whole day. 😉

    1. Yay, another born and raised Alaskan! Nice to meet you! 😀

      I remember going on vacations to Hawaii and seeing shows that I never saw in Alaska. It was kinda pathetic that I would schedule what I was doing, while on vacation, around a few shows I just had to see some more of! I knew after those two or three weeks, I would probably never see them again.

        1. I wasn’t born in Alaska, but I started kindergarten in Fairbanks through first grade.

          Oddly enough, my son has worked several summers as a net salmon fisherman in Larsen Bay, Kodiak Island, the last few years.

          I never vacationed in Hawaii, yet I did move to Panama a couple of years after leaving Fairbanks in 1966.

          TV was not the same in either place as with the “48ers”. I’m a tad older than Kris, as she’s the age of my next-born brother; born in South Jersey in the 4th largest TV market; raised on reruns, Late Shows, and UHF Classic movies; I never fell in love with Casablanca until I saw it in its uninterrupted glory as a member of MIT’s Lecture Series Committee which screened first-run and classic films.

          Still, in December 1984, a quick poll of undergrad and grad students in line at checkout of the UofD Morris Library — I was carrying several Rafael Sabatini’s volumes with me at the time, a few I had not read, and was burbling with excitement — revealed that a half-dozen of them could not identify Errol Flynn. One hazarded a guess that Flynn was a politician!

          [Okay — Flynn did make two flicks with Ronald Reagan, but was that any reason to besmirch the man? Flynn was a purist. He desired the scandals without adulterating them with politics.]

          I wonder with the floodgates open if a sampling of the youth today are equally ignorant.

          However, as Kris indicates, the metrics of “on-demand” and “narrowcasting” invite us into a brave new world with such wonders in it. [Yes, I meant it that way.]


  6. Glad you brought us back to the “thrilling days of yesteryear” in terms of media availability and consumer attitudes, Kris. Ah, it was grand but slow . . .

    Back in 2005 or 2006, when I was developing an urban fantasy series in a Las Vegas setting, I came up with Cinema Simulacrums . . . old black-and-white movie characters as 3-D “living” entities leased to hotel-casinos to interact with guests. Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles and Asta, characters from The Wizard of Oz, the Futura robot from Metropolis . . . if it was in B&W, it was mine! I knew using old movie references was a risk,but not so much nowadays. So I went with the idea BECAUSE I saw that nothing in media is truly “dead” now. The CinSims proved to be the most popular invention in the books. A few years ago, a new club in the real Las Vegas opened with holograms of celebrities on tap for guests to semi-interact with. 🙂

    I would upgrade the all the eBooks to link to the mentioned films and characters in the back (which was done in the print and e-Books at first), but I have no rights to them. Another new facet of media today.

  7. Kris, you do a brilliant job of explaining why the current (legacy) metrics no longer do a good job of expressing the true value of a property (a book, TV show, song, etc.) These metrics ARE obsolete in an on demand world, but they’re also obsolete for another reason. They were once used to allocate resources. So a bestselling series got more advance money for the author, more promotional budget, a book tour, maybe even a TV ad for the really big sellers. But the means of production are no longer exclusively in the hands of the big publishers. Today I don’t have to prove to THEM a project is viable. I just have to prove it to myself.

    The metric I look at today is average monthly sales per property, per book. So Series A is outselling Series B it deserves more time and promotion effort. I think it’s important to judge the series as a whole, because later books in the series–or even the occasional promo short story–effect sales across the entire series. (New release drives sales of the series up.) You have said this before, and I’ve seen the truth of it in my own data. Also, by looking at average monthly numbers, I eliminate the effect of seasonality. (Books in summer sell better than books in winter.)

    Metrics are meant to be tools. Sometimes writers use them as validation instead. (“I’m a New York Times bestselling author.”) But I’m proposing a metric to be used to make business decisions–not to stoke my ego. My metric has no currency for anyone else–but it’s a tool that helps me allocate my scarce resources.

    Finally, we are artists and sometimes we just have to write what we want to write. I myself have a hummingbird mind, so I’m not saying anything different. But when it’s finally time to get back to the project I, ahem, SHOULD be working on, it’s good to have solid indication of what that should be.

  8. It used to be that when I’d watch movie trailers, they fell into two categories: want to see or don’t want to see.

    Now they fall into four: must see in the theater, see on satellite or Netflix, give a shot to if I come across it on satellite, and forget it.

    As for television shows, there are few I need to watch while they’re on. Heck, after last week’s Agents of SHIELD I was really looking forward to this week’s episode — but it was on opposite a Giants-Dodgers game, so the episode got put off for a more convenient time.

    Heck, I love watching Game of Thrones, and the sooner I can see a new episode the better. But I doubt I’ll have time to check it out from the Anchor this coming Sunday…

  9. I’m really curious now about how my own thinking compares to that of others of my generation. I was born in 1960, but grew up without television. Didn’t miss it. Didn’t acquire a television of my own when I became an adult.

    So…I never did schedule my life around TV shows. I think I was satisfied with partaking of only some of my culture’s offerings. (I do have a TV now, but my children use it far more than I do.)

    Which might explain why I don’t persevere beyond a certain point if I can’t find a good book to read or movie to watch or swimsuit that fits right, etc. I just assume it isn’t out there and make do without.

    Still scratching my head and trying to understand how I approach this on-demand age! 😀

    1. I was born in 1960 too, J.M, if that helps. My mother had the TV on all afternoon and evening, the radio from the end of the morning shows until early afternoon (and all night long). She was born in 1918, and built her own radio as a kid. The constant noise was very important to her. I learned to read in all the noise and ignore it. (She read during commercials.)

      1. Cool that your mom built her own radio!

        I doubt she was alone in her liking for background noise. I know a few people who find it comforting. I’m the exact opposite! I find background noise tiring and annoying and prefer golden silence.

        Now that you control your home environment, do you keep it quiet? Or did growing up in a sound-rich environment cause you experience that as familiar and preferable?

        1. My writing office is silent. My house has the radio/music/news continually. Unless I’m doing serious reading. (Needs concentration.) Then silence again. 🙂 TV off unless I’m going to watch something with attention.

  10. “Our readers want the next book the moment they finish the previous one. E-books allow the reader to get that book at 4 a.m. on a holiday weekend in a town where there won’t be an open bookstore for another 48 hours”

    If I find an author I like I generally stop half way through the book and go buy the backlist as ebooks. I’ve spent $100 or more at a time.

  11. Another thing about television in the old days was that you couldn’t have the long story arcs prevalent today. When I was growing up (late 50’s to late 60’s), most series filmed 39 original episodes a year, repeating 13 of them during the “summer rerun” season. So each episode had to be self-contained; trying to catch up on missed episodes during the summer was a crapshoot.

    This was also a reason why character growth or change was virtually non-existent on TV. (This also applied to pulp magazine series like Doc Savage and company. Some used bookstores offered back issues of old magazines, but again it was a crapshoot which issues you could find or how long it would take.)

    Largely for financial reasons, networks began cutting back on number-of-episodes filmed per season, eventually making it possible to see an entire season of a show on its second run. (The first series I remember doing this, and using the opportunity for multi-episode story arcs, was WISEGUY.)

    1. Hm… I recall a lecture by Joe Haldeman back when he visited Barcelon for the UPC novella, WRT the fact that you had two kinds of episodic serials: those where the characters changed and those you could basically randomize. With time, I’ve realized I quite dislike those second ones. I have to acknowledge the difficulty of doing something simlar in the old system, but… I do like thigns to change, at least slightly, when characters go through certain life events.

      Something similar happens in books. Oldish books don’t have the progession that, for example, “Retrieval artist” does (at least as I recall “Ms. Marple”, “Perry Mason”, “Famous Five”…).

      Take care.

      1. Mrs Marple did actually get older and older through her series, if you read them in order. Her character didn’t change much, but she got frailer.

  12. And proof of how old I am (Kris may be the only one who gets this):

    My husband currently has classical music playing. A piece by Beethoven came on and my Pavlovian reaction was to say “Good night, Chet. Good night, David.” Wiki tells me that hasn’t actually happened since 1970 (!!!) but such is memory.

    1. The Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC. 🙂 I’m a little younger than Kris (I was born in 1962), so I don’t remember hearing that theme when it was on the air, I’ve seen/listened to archival footage on it many, many times. 🙂

      Very distinctive few notes that really sticks in your craw, doesn’t it?

      Here’s the Wikipedia on that for anyone who’s interested:

  13. Jamie Farr once said the audience for the M*A*S*H finale would never be equaled. The interviewer said, “Isn’t that kind of arrogant?” Farr answered, “No, the market has changed. The days of only three choices are gone.” Yes, there was cable then, but it still represented a fraction of all viewers. Today the idea that a show could get 125 million viewers at once is beyond belief.

    1. M*A*S*H was one of my faves as a teenager, and I remember watching that last show, thinking I’d never see again (of course I did, though it was something like 20 years later).

  14. Speaking of how different things were in the Late Cretaceous… I wrote a fan letter to my favorite writer (Barbara Mertz aka Barbara Michaels aka Elizabeth Peters) in the early 1980s–which, in those days, meant you wrote a letter by hand or typewriter, then mailed it to the author in care of her publisher, whose address you could find (though it usually took multiple tries) on the copyright page of a book.

    She wrote me back (and we subsequently became friends), and she put me in touch with a reader who was printing a newsletter for Barbara’s fans. This meant creating a layout (probably still with by hand in the early 1980s) and going to a printing service to have the newsletter printed, then collating and mailing it to all subscribers (usually by purchasing a bulk-mail permit, if there were enough subscribers).

    The value of the newsletter was that it was the first time I had access to a list of all of my favorite author’s titles, as well as info about her upcoming books.

    Otherwise, in those days, it was unbelievably hard to find out what books a favorite writer had written (never mind the years it took to find the actual -books-). It was almost equally hard to find out what her upcoming books were and when they’d be available. Having a favorite author–especially a prolific one like Barbara–was a hit-or-miss proposition of hanging out regularly at new and used bookstores, searching shelves for her name(s), asking booksellers if they had any other titles, or knew of any other titles, or could look up her in-print books (which meant looking in big annual volumes, not checking a computer) and give you a list of any titles there. But, of course, as Kris describes above, only a few of my favorite author’s books would be in-print and on those lists. In general, unless a fan consulted the author and created a list for other fans, there was NO record of an author’s complete body of work. (Not unless the author had been dead for a century and was now taught in colleges that collated bibliographies of their work, like Dickens or Twain.)

    So discovering that there was a newsletter for Barbara’s work–a discovery I made ONLY by contacting the author personally via snailmail c/o her publisher -and- receiving personal reply–was the first time I ever even had access to a complete book list of her work to that date–never mind the years-long task, back then, of then getting my hands on those books!

    We’ve come a long way, baby! 🙂

    1. Oh, and in those days, some houses (Harlequin/Silhouette, for example) had a policy of opening and reading mail addressed to their authors in care of the publisher. I found this out when one day an EDITOR replied to my letter to an author, also in the 1980s (which was awkward, since I told the author she wrote the only books I liked from that publisher). And the EDITOR proceeded to address/answer various comments/questions in my (I had mistakenly assumed) private letter to the author–to whom they never FWD’d my letter.

    2. And you recommended one to me that I had never heard of–her travel guide to Italy from the 1960s, which is still valuable, because she dealt with all the historical sites. So the word of mouth continued. 🙂

  15. And before there were radio broadcasts of baseball games, they would *telegraph* the play-by-play. My great-uncle was one of those telegraphers, sitting in the press box at the stadium. The telegraph offices all over the country would then transcribe the messages as they came in and tape them to the glass windows fronting the street. Crowds of people would gather to read the telegrams to follow the game 😉

    1. Oh, I forgot about that. How very cool. Btw, after writing this post, I watched/listened to a basketball game while exercising. And unlike the old days, I couldn’t follow the action on the screen without looking. The art of describing sports is a dying one. Instead, you hear, “Hey, look at that shot!” No wonder so many people turn off the sound while watching sports these days. 🙂

      1. Whenever possible, I like to have the TV picture of sports and the sound from the radio. Obviously, this only works for your local teams (live streaming still breaks up even on fast connections and is harder to synch), but there are still a few good radio announcers for football and baseball.

        Now, you might have only had a one in four chance of knowing what was on your neighbor’s TVs at some point — there were always the weird families who sometimes watched Educational TV, as we used to call PBS.* And during the day, people might be watching soaps on networks or an old movie (with Orson Welles or Claudette Colbert) on Dialing For Dollars or Creature Features on that weird cheap independent station.

        *Downton Abbey really is NOTHING compared to Upstairs, Downstairs.

          1. Where I grew up we had only two television stations, and all the main programming was physically shipped–as tapes–down to them by the network. So we saw everything one week late. The rest of the time was filled with old movies and some very…lacking…local programming. Certain movies were shown every year on the same day: “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on the 4th of July (naturally).

            We didn’t have a TV in our house until I was 11–many other people had them, by then. My mother wouldn’t have had one then, but we were given it by friends for whom she’d designed a house. All the TV viewing was B&W where we were. We had two movie theaters, one showing color releases and the other showing only B&W. No–three. There was a drive-in north of town. Color and B&W movies both.

            Books, however, were more available, and not just in libraries. The town had a good bookstore, part of a small department store, and a very enthusiastic buyer. So books were not taken off the shelves after 2, 4, 6 weeks. There was an entire wall of American Library classics, for instance.

      2. I’m a lifelong SF Giants fan, and one reason I love watching their broadcast is the broadcasting team of Kruk and Kuip (ex-Giants Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper): they don’t describe the play-by-play they way they do on the radio side, but they actually talk about what’s happening and illuminate the game in ways most broadcasters, especially national broadcasters, simply cannot.

        The Giants broadcast team still does a good job on the radio side, though. Much better than most of the ESPN announcers.

      3. There’s a soccer journalist here. The local (“state”) TV uses his radio broadcast as a 2nd audio channel, selectable. Before they managed that (same corporation umbrella, so not much trouble in that), there was a surge of gadgets that, basically, buffered the radio signal until the TV catched up, so you could put your TV on mute and use the audio from the FM broadcast.

        Also, I’ve been trying to get photos of those telegraph messages. Can’t find any. Pity.

        Take care.

    2. That takes me back. My grandfather loved baseball, and I can remember the radio playing live baseball games, with detailed descriptions of the action, while he worked in the backyard and I “helped.” If I think of that radio voice, it conjures the whole image of my grandparents’ backyard, my grandpa gardening or watering, and my grandpa standing at the backdoor and calling to us. 🙂

  16. Comfort and Joy is available on DVD on both and – at a price(!)

    Back record conversion does seem to be proceeding; I can certainly get odd recordings today that I couldn’t a year ago, so it’s always worth taking another look.

  17. Great post! I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that forging a lasting brand takes more than just focusing on the short term. Years of quality work, careful marketing, and a broad body of work is really the only way to go if you want to last more than five minutes in this business.

    On your search for Bill Forsyth, we have some copies of “Comfort and Joy” on the UK Amazon and Ebay sites. Here’s a link:

    Thanks for the great article, I look forward to reading these each week 🙂


    1. Oh! It exists!!!! Oh! Yay! Not sure if I can watch the British DVD here in the States, but now you’ve enabled all the people who’ve never heard of the movie to pick one up. (See it folks. It’s so fun. If you liked Local Hero… [and that’s word of mouth in action]). Thanks!

      1. If you have a Mac, you can buy an external DVD drive for it and bind it to the UK region! (I don’t know if this works for PCs or not.) At least, I think so. I bound my Mac to UK DVDs because my friend from England comes and visits, and we got a spare external drive so I don’t have to unbind it (I only get 3 binds) for US DVDs.

        Maybe you have to bind the computer to UK, and get the external for US…

        Anyway, it can be made to work! Good luck!

          1. There are a variety of second tier DVD players that can be tweaked into region-free behavior.
            Check on ebay.
            $30 will open the world to you.

            Alternately, a similar expense will get you PC software that will let you play ANYDVD from any region or make a region-free copy. I used that approach to get the Japanese DEATH NOTE live action movies playing on my BD player.

            There is an entire industry feeding the on-demand global culture.
            I love the 21st century.

            Now if only I could find the second half of ITC’s THE CHAMPIONS. 🙂
            (DISCOVERY only had the first half.)

          2. Another stellar column, and it relates to a question I’ve had for a while:

            Given your view of outdated metrics and the need for new ones, what’s your take on book launches? It seems like much of the thinking around them is still rooted in a now-or-never view of success.

            1. I think if you’re trying to go into the old system–brick & mortar stores, etc–then a launch might make sense. (I dealt with this in the Discoverability series.) But the book is no longer something that “spoils” so you can launch and relaunch whenever you want. In other words, it just might be a waste of time and money to launch.

          3. Haven’t had an issue with region code, ever. Although I haven’t had a PC with windows since W’95, and even then it dual booted.

            Get someone with a tech background to work around that and buy the DVD without trouble. I’m not offereing specific advice because the issue is legally murky since the DMCA. Or, at least, murky enough 9 time zones away.

            Take care.

      2. Unless something has changed in the last couple of years (I know, I know), you should be able to get a multi region DVD player on Amazon no problem (and not too expensive either). We got a Samsung a few years ago to play our Irish and US collection. No need for a special TV or any need to switch anything to accommodate the region. Just put the disc in and you’re away. My husband is Irish so we have a mixed bag collection. Thanks to our DVD player I rarely even remember where we got the DVDs anymore. 🙂

        Talk about a changing world 🙂

        Great post! It’s really fascinating to see the changes. Thinking about the fact that my boys will never know a world that isn’t wireless sometimes blows my mind. I’m really keen on seeing suggestions for new metrics to measure a successful book. Wish I had a better idea beyond physical sales over time.

        1. I wish we had a better metric too, sometimes, Kat. But think about it. Sales mean readers. So that’s a good thing. 🙂

          On the other hand, I hadn’t realized there was a multi regional DVD player. Cool. I’ll look into it. I sure wish that Comfort & Joy was in all formats, though, because the reason I want it is to give to friends. Now I can give to my British friends (most of whom have seen it), but not most of my American friends. 🙁 I’m still waiting, I guess. Thanks for the suggestion, though! I’ll end up with a viewing party, maybe…. People shouldn’t have to live without seeing Mr. Bunny.

          1. Sales and readers are always a good thing, absolutely!

            And yeah buying DVD players with the DVD for all your US friends isn’t really practical. But a viewing party would be great fun!

          2. There are potentially 2 problems, Region 1 and 2 (which can be dealt with via multi regional players) and the problem of formats, PAL for England and most of Europe and NTSC for the United States. Most TV’s and DVD players in Europe can deal with NTSC. I’m not sure how many devices in the U.S. can deal with PAL.

  18. To see examples of “true fans” take a look at the Toni’s table forum on Baen’s bar (Toni runs that Publisher), as soon as word leaks out that a manuscript has been turned in, readers start begging for the privilege of paying $15 for the eARC of the book (before they pay $9.99 for the final release version)

    some of the begging is repetitive, but sometimes it gets extremely creative

    Then there are us casual fans who don’t buy the eARC, but refresh our browsers a several hundred times on April 15 to be able to download the May releases as soon as they are posted 🙂

  19. Damn! Used to be I could read this before I went to bed if I stayed a bit. These days the kid is awake before it goes up… (_he_ is awake; I’m just walking). My fix… my poor fix…


    “We never had a way to measure word of mouth before, because books became unavailable within weeks of their release, and went out of print within months.”

    Also, metrics were much slower, then. Communication for these things was slower. Since the late 90s, I can get word of mouth from someone in, say, Seavy village [yes, I know], _seconds_ after she reads a book. The seller can get the stats for my sale in, at worst, hours. And the publisher, at worst, mid next month.

    Fine grained, compared to “first quarter results”, which wasn’t, was it, the worst.

    Take care.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *