Thursday, November 02, 2017

Indie in the Time of Distraction

By Dario Ciriello 

Part of the Indie Author Series

I read a fascinating and chilling article the other day about the way the so-called “attention economy” is changing society and fracturing our attention spans—literally rewiring our brain through the phenomenon of neuroplasticity. This has become so acute that some of the very tech leaders who started this ball rolling have begun to disconnect, adopting smart phone-free periods for themselves and their families and putting up firebreaks between themselves and the net in order to reclaim their lives and their fragmented mental space.

Since writers create work that requires sustained attention from our audience, this is an issue that should concern us deeply. I’ve been watching this phenomenon for years, but in recent months it seems to me we’ve crossed a threshold, and not in a good way. Bear with me while I build some foundation.

Quite apart from the noise of social media and the distractions of technology itself, with our unquenchable needs for likes and the need to appear relevant, the news media has turned up the volume to try to keep its share of everyone’s diminishing attention quota.

This became particularly clear in late September and early October, when a string of near-biblical disasters—the Puerto Rico hurricane, the earthquake in Central Mexico, and the devastating Northern California wildfires—conspired with the ongoing drama of North Korea and the daily presidential Tweetstorms to command100% of people’s attention. As a result, I believe many became so distracted they stopped doing anything but those things essential to life, effectively going into “survival mode”.

Don’t believe me? Ask any blogger, and they’ll likely tell you how their readership and hits have dropped off or become unusually patchy over the last weeks. Some writer friends have noticed it too. In the last six weeks, I myself have had two periods of over seven days in which I didn’t sell a single book on Amazon KDP. That’s never happened to me since I first indie published in 2011: with five books of my own and three anthologies on KDP, it shouldn’t be happening today. (I’m aware that it’s possible that in both cases I could be misinterpreting a statistical blip, random clustering based on too small a data sample, but I don’t think so.)

Sadly, when it comes to device use we’re dealing with an addiction, and one that is now well-researched and documented. So even you and I, indie authors, a species very much at risk from the crazy competition for attention, are to some degree in denial over what’s happening. Because we all love our smart phones and those ‘bright dings of pseudo-pleasure’1 we feel when someone likes something we post on social media. How many people among your own friends and family who were avid readers are still that way?

On a recent trip to London, I was struck by the fact that in any tube (subway) and train carriage, at most one or two people were reading: just a decade ago, at least half would have had their noses in a book. Instead, just about all of them were all poking around on various devices. Granted, some few of those may have been reading fiction on their phones, but the probability is low.

On top of this, every indie author is competing in an arena where somewhere around four thousand books are published daily—and that’s only in the U.S. This is something else we’d very much like to pretend isn’t happening. But it is.

Still, not all the news is grim. Any study is only as good as its methodology, and not everyone agrees our attention spans are getting shorter across the board; our attention may just be getting more “task-specific”. So it's possible that if you’re a devout reader, your attention to reading is as good as it ever was.

It’s true that the trend for shorter indie fiction is growing; but as with the shorter shot lengths in movies, it could simply be that indies are just becoming better at grabbing a reader’s attention in the first place with the promise of a series with frequent, low time-investment installments. Movies haven’t become noticeably shorter, and there are still plenty of 400- to 600-page bestsellers being published.

So between a growingly distracted populace, the competition for attention, less people reading, and more books being published, what can we indies do?

Beyond spending more time on promotion and marketing and staying up-to-date with all the changes in the marketplace, I think the answer lies in quality and production. To survive, and perhaps thrive as an indie, you have to bring your very best and smartest game. Great stories, frequent publication, first-rate production values from cover design through interior layout and editing, and all of it at the right price point for your length, format, genre, etc.

True indie publishing (as opposed to vanity press) has recently turned ten years old. In that time we’ve seen a complete revolution in both the industry and the public’s reading habits. For a while, indie pub seemed a bandwagon everyone wanted to climb on. I believe that’s changing.

With the average indie published book selling less than a hundred copies today, I predict that there’s going to be some serious winnowing in the marketplace as those who can’t compete in the attention economy pack up their laptops and call it a day. Those who write well, publish often, put out attractive, well-packaged books, and pay attention to their marketing, will always find a readership.

Have you noticed a difference in your ability to stay focused? Do you feel the need to take a break from the online world?

1 The term was coined by Justin Rosenstein, the creator of Facebook’s “like” button

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing.

His fiction includes Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic; Black Easter, a supernatural suspense novel which pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island; and Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short science fiction work.

Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Sk√≥pelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. Drown the Cat: The Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, July 4 2017) is his second nonfiction work.

In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles Area, offers professional editing and copyediting services to indie authors.

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About Drown The Cat: The Rebel Author's Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules

Drown the Cat is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing. Although a few rules really are necessary, the vast majority are either dogma or passing fads. Worse, so much advice like “show don’t tell” and “open with action” is often poorly explained and entirely misunderstood, causing writers no end of problems.

Drawing on fifteen years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explodes writing myths, shreds conventional wisdom, and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers by books and blogs, agents and publishers. Drown the Cat gives authors the necessary tools and insights to retake control of their story and make it unique.

Whether your interest lies in novels or screenwriting, Drown the Cat shows you how to tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience, eschewing formulas and cookie-cutter fiction to remain true to your own, exceptional vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.

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