An American Editor

June 6, 2011

On Books: Plot, Character, Hybrid & the Long Tail

Last week I divided books into three categories: plot-driven, character-drive, and hybrid (see On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid?). What I didn’t do is order rank them from a long-tail perspective, which can mean financial reward to authors. (For those unfamiliar with the term, long tail refers to the books sales over the long-term, after the book’s initial rush of publicity and sales push.)

For this analysis, we need to discard authorial megastars — the James Pattersons, Stephen Kings, J.K. Rowlings, the authors whose books are virtually guaranteed to sell nearly innumerable copies just by the author’s name alone — and concentrate on the other end of the scale, the authors whose books sell a few hundred to a few thousand copies over their shelf-life, the authors who are unknown to most readers, the ebook self-publishing authors who hope to someday gain status as excellent midlist sellers. The reason for dividing authors this way for the long-tail analysis is that the megastars work and play by a different rule book. They didn’t when the started, but they do now, and what they touch now is touched by Midas.

From shortest long tail to longest long tail, I think the order is this: plot, character, hybrid. The primary reason for this order is memorableness, which is my word for being worthy of remembering and is an important part of the ebook world. How does a new author sell ebooks? The author does promotion, various pricing schemes, and well-crafted descriptions, and hopes that when I read the ebook I like it enough to tell all my friends who will rush out and buy the book, love it also, and tell all their friends, and the scene keeps repeating ad infinitum.

With more than 1 million new books published last year, there has to be a way to stand above the crowd, a way to be so memorable that the author’s books are worth mentioning again to someone a year, 2 years, 5 years after you have read it. The book has to be at least a 5-star book and more like a 5+-star book, using my rating system (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I)). Consider this: What book or set of books have I repeatedly mentioned in the past year? Answer: Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep quartet, which fall into the hybrid category! (In the past year, I have mentioned these books in 15 different articles [this article is number 16] and have devoted a couple of articles to the quartet. See, for example, On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet and On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept.) These books are memorable. My wife and I are still, 1 year later, recommending the quartet to everyone with whom we talk books. Memorableness is the root reason why.

I have no idea how sales of Parkinson’s books are doing. But I do know that if others react to her books as my wife and I have and keep mentioning her books to readers, she will have a network of publicists for years to come who will keep the Promises to Keep quartet viable and selling. The long tail in action.

Contrast this with plot-driven books. Plot-driven books are really rehashes of the same basic plot that has been used for scores of years. The book is a good, satisfying read. It earns 5 stars because it is well-written. But a year from now will you remember this particular version of the plot or will it have blended in with the next 50 books you have read with the same basic plot? Where is its memorableness?

If a book lacks memorableness, then the author is plopping all of the author’s eggs in a single, very small basket — the one where the author hopes to sell a lot of copies upfront. But down the road, in the long tail, sales will be none to little without yet another major publicity push to remind readers that the book exists. The book has no staying power of its own. If the author releases a new book, the occasion can be used to sell prior published books, too, but still there is no memorableness — the books are read once, then forgotten. The author hasn’t conquered the basic business of sales: long-tail sales are more important than initial sales; the long tail is what provides a sustainable income because the book keeps selling itself. Plot-driven books are the most susceptible of the three — plot, character, hybrid — to disappearing in the long tail because most plot-driven books are rehashes of prior plot-driven books — new characters, new scenarios, new twists, but basically the same plots repeated and reworked. They can be good, exciting reads, but they lack memorableness.

Next in line are the character-driven books. These fare better than plot-driven books because a character or two may be memorable. A reader may not be able to recall plot details, but can recall a character or two. Although this works well with standalone books, it works especially well with series. A good example is David Weber’s Honor Harrington series of books. The plots are basically the same — shoot ’em up, bang, bang with military space hardware — but the characters involve you. Another good series that fits this description is Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, where the core characters remain the same from book to book, the basic plot remains the same from book to book, with the victims, the perpetrators, and the crimes changing with the tides.

But even these memorable books suffer from a lack of true memorableness. We remember the broad facets but not the particulars. Even so, these books carry a longer tail than plot-driven books, largely because we get involved with the characters. (For a discussion on the importance of characterization, see Characterization: How Important is Reader Emotional Involvement?) Yet we rarely run around telling everyone that they need to read these books. We remember them in response to a specific query: “Do you have any recommendations for science fiction reads? How about some good mystery reads?”

In contrast, the hybrids — assuming they are well done — grab us at our reading core and we voluntarily become part of the author’s publicity team. We seek out ways to promote these books on our own. We are not content to sit idly by. I have read all of David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, and all of the plot-driven mysteries by Vicki Tyley (see On Books: Murder Down Under), as well as many of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and if I am asked for a recommendation in science fiction or mystery, I’d probably think of them and mention them. But in contrast, I actively seek opportunities to tell readers about Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep quartet. Her long tail for the quartet must be growing because I do know that some people to whom my wife and I have recommended the books have themselves become active recommenders of the books to their friends.

I’m not distinguishing any of these books by their literary immortality or lack thereof; I’m undecided, for example, whether or not Parkinson’s books are literary immortals. But I am distinguishing these books based on their future long tail and whether they have one that will survive in the absence of constant author push. Self-creating volunteer cadres of boosters is an important reason for an author to consider the hybrid model. The balance doesn’t need to be 50-50 or 60-40 or any particular combination; rather, it must be found for the individual book, the individual author — but it must exist as an inspiration to readers to remember the book 1 year and 5 years after having read the books, giving memorableness the opportunity to keep the book’s long-tail life alive.

The best salesperson of any book is the enthused reader. The key to the enthused reader is memorableness, and the key to memorableness is the hybrid. A book that has a self-sustaining long-tail life that is independent of constant author push frees the author to pursue the author’s primary craft — writing.

June 2, 2011

On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid?

Generally, novels seem to fall primarily within two types of characterizations: plot-driven and character-driven. A plot-driven novel has a recallable plot and not-so-recallable characters; a character-driven novel has recallable characters, and a not-so-recallable plot. There are defenders of both, but I find both lacking. I think the difference between literature fiction and nonliterature fiction is the hybrid novel that finds a careful balance between being character driven and plot driven.

I broached this topic in an earlier article, Characterization: How Important is Reader Emotional Involvement? Perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the topic.

I’ve said many times that I consider fiction read-once-then-throw-away books, which is my justification for buying nonfiction in pbook form, select fiction in pbook form, and the vast majority of fiction in ebook form. It is also my justification for not rereading a novel, again, with a few exceptions, such as Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry.

Yet there really is a more important difference and that is the difference between classifying something as simply fiction, or a novel, on the one hand, and on the other hand classifying it as literature, something to be read now and in years to come.

On one of the fora of which I am a member, the question arose about starting a literary book club as opposed to just a monthly book club. The idea being that the books chosen would be literary classics, not just today’s bestseller. But there was no agreement on what constitutes “literature” — How do you define it? How do you recognize it? How does a group recognize it? And so on.

I had no answer until it dawned on me that every book I would consider literature (as opposed to simply a good fiction read) is simultaneously character driven and plot driven, that is, it is a hybrid whose characters and plot are both memorable years after first reading.

A well-plotted novel keeps a reader’s attention while reading the book. But it is the rare plot that can be said to be so unique as to stand apart from all other plots. Generally, one plot is reminiscent of another plot, with the difference being in the details and how well the author crafts the storyline.

A well-characterized novel absorbs the reader in the characters. Perhaps little is remembered about the plot, but the character(s) is(are) memorable. Here there is greater uniqueness, but even so, one can recall other books with similar characters. Again, the author’s craft is in how well constructed (and deconstructed) the character(s) is(are).

Literary fiction (or literature), on the other hand, is a finely crafted balance — not necessarily an equal balance — between plot and character so that remembering one causes you to remember the other. We celebrate the authors who find that balance by buying and reading their books year after year. For these authors and books, publishing’s long tail has significance, especially as new generations of readers discover them.

I can hear folk saying but J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which is considered a literary classic, really is a terrible book. I admit, it is far from my favorite. Yet that notion of like and dislike is really not a criterion for classifying the book. Consider this: Many of us read Catcher in the Rye in the 1960s yet we still recall Holden Caulfield and his story. How many books, of all the many hundreds, if not thousands, of books you have read since, can you say that about? In my case, it is a handful, probably less than 1%, yet isn’t that “literary immortality” what many authors want?

Does this mean that the difference between a good author and a not-so-good author, between a good book and a not-so-good book is whether the author has achieved that fine balance? No, because there is nothing inherently wrong with a book that is either plot driven or character driven. Rather, what is at stake is whether a decade from now — perhaps even a year from now — the author and his or her writing are remembered by anyone, whether the books and the author are being discovered by new generations. For some authors literary immortality is not on their horizon; for others, they strive for it, sometimes making it, more often not making it.

But I think the key to that literary immortality is finding that balance for a particular book. The balance doesn’t have to be 50-50 or 60-40, but it clearly cannot be 90-10.

There is yet another reason why it is the hybrid model that leads to literary immortality but plot and character driven do not: human nature! By that I mean we humans seek to identify with others, seek to escape from daily life for a few minutes, seek something that we do not have through literary escapism. A well-written plot-driven novel about unlocking a secret has starred in hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands, of novels like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The books sell millions of copies on release, then are rarely heard from again. In a decade, the question will be Dan Brown who?

Similarly, if Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, written in 1927, had been solely character driven, it would have died on the literary vine, just as The Da Vinci Code has done. Ask yourself this: Do you know anyone who is discussing the characters or the plot of The Da Vinci Code today? Yet Elmer Gantry is still on reading lists and still banned by some evangelical churches — more than 8 decades after publication, Elmer Gantry is still causing a furor. Yet Elmer Gantry, although a hybrid, is heavier on the character-driven side of the balance.

Heavier on the plot-driven side are the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. People remember not only the plots but the characterizations. Watson draws sympathy from readers for his dealings with Holmes and movies are still being made based on the stories — because the characters give a sense of realism and the books are hybrids, just heavier on the plot than on the characterizations.

To my way of thinking, only a well-written hybrid can be a 5+-star book. Plot-driven and character-driven books can be 5-star books, but they cannot be that little bit more that is needed to put them in the literary immortality category. Something to think about, but not necessarily something that requires anything be done. Quality craftsmanship is still quality craftsmanship and is the first requirement; worrying about literary immortality is something that should occur after mastering the art of writing.

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