This is just a quick between-episodes post because I couldn’t resist sharing a book-related tidbit with you.
It’s a library. In a grocery store.
Wait, no, that’s not quite right. It’s a grocery store that is now a library.
I haven’t succumbed to any panic buying during the pandemic, but I could see myself raiding the shelves at this grocery store!
So this particular library is the Carmel Clay Public Library in Carmel, Indiana, and they’ve turned a former grocery store into a library. Instead of canned food, they have Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, instead of dried beans they have Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Tree. Looking for the candy aisle, you’ll find Laura Esquival’s Like Water for Chocolate.
And while I think stocking the shelves of a store with books instead of junk food, is a brilliant idea, unfortunately, this is only temporary while the Carmel Clay Library waits for a the construction of brand new building.
Seriously, though, you can’t beat finding books like Winter’s Bone, The Winter’s Tale, The Snowman, and The Ice House in the freezer department.
But before you go…I also want to share a couple new book promotions you might be interested in. The first features books with a historical setting where the ladies take the lead. And the other is full of free tomes ranging from horror to sci-fi to fantasy. Just scroll down tad bit to see the deals.
Have fun browsing, and as a bit of fun, let me know a title of a book and where you’d shelve it in your grocery library!
The Latest Book Deals – Historical Ladies & Free Fantasy
(Be sure to also check out more November book bargains and freebies in the sidebar of this blog)
The Book Owl is still in the Halloween spirit, and that means from the huge number of authors who are having a birthday this month (or would have been if they were still alive), I’ve chosen Bram Stoker as the Book Owl birthday boy. In this episode we dive into his troubled personal life and the reality behind his most famous tale.
*Note: I mention Dublin’s St. Michan’s Church in this episode. If you’d like to read about my own odd visit to their creepy crypts, please visit my blog post Finn McSpool Cries Out for His Mummy.
Biting Into Bram Stoker (Rough Transcript)
Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore. Where I am just trying to get through this day after election day. And I am recording this on 4 November, making kind of a struggle to sound chipper but I’ll do my best.
Behind the Scenes (aka “Intro Part 2”):
A few episodes ago we celebrated Agatha Christie’s birthday, and I think it was episode 12 if you want to go back and give it a listen, and I figured it was time for another birthday party on the podcast. The problem is that November is apparently a good time for birthing an author because there are a huge number of writers that were born this month.
So, the trouble wasn’t finding a topic, it was deciding which author is getting a birthday bash on the show. And, because I’m recording this not long after Halloween, and maybe I’m still a little bit in the Halloween spirit, I’ve chosen Bram Stoker as the Book Owl birthday boy.
Big Thank You to a Loyal Listener:
But before we jump into the show, and while I give you time to scramble to come up with a present for Bram, I just want to give a huge thanks to Tierney for not only leaving some lovely comments on the Book Owl Podcast blog, but also for leaving some kind words along with a five-star review on Apple Podcasts. Hoorah!! And just so you know, leaving reviews, or even simply a five-star rating, does give the algorithms a little tickle, so if you have a few seconds and have been enjoying the show, please pop into whatever podcast app you’re listening in right now and rate or review the show.
Setting the Mood:
Okay, so put on your cloaks and hop into your horse-drawn coach because we’re going to Whitby, England. It’s the 1890s and the ship Dmitri which has sailed from Varna on the Black Sea is trying to pull into Whitby’s harbor. There’s a storm kicking up, and more than one vessel has already been lost to sea, but it seems the Dmitri is going to make it into port. Before nightfall, a great cheer goes up at her sliding into the safety of the harbor.
But during the night a gale picks up, the seas rise and the ship runs aground. The force is so strong, the masts collapse, crashing onto the deck. Observers report seeing a black dog fleeing from the ship and charging up the slope to a nearby abbey. When the ruined ship can finally be inspected it’s discovered of the already small crew only a handful have survived. And when questions are raised about the cargo of the ship, they find only a strange sandy dirt in the hold.
Alright, if that sounds at all familiar, it’s because it is one of the true stories that inspired Bram Stoker’s most famous of his fifteen novels, Dracula. Which it turns out has more than one rather strange and mysterious event surrounding it.
Bram’s Early Days:
But let’s start with Bram, or rather Abraham Stoker. He was born on the 8th of November, 1847, in Dublin, Ireland. His dad, Abraham, was also from Dublin where he worked as a civil servant. His mom, Charlotte, was from County Sligo on the western side of the island.
Bram wasn’t the healthiest of kids at the start and was actually bed ridden pretty much until the age of seven. And I don’t know why, but no one is really sure what was wrong with him, which seems a little strange given it wasn’t all that long ago. But as he lay in bed, his mom would tell him stories that might not have been completely age appropriate for their scare levels.
But somehow, Bram makes a full recovery and even ends up being quite the athlete when, from 1864 to 1870, he attends Trinity College, which reminds me that I need to cover that library on the podcast very soon. He graduated, then went on to earn a Masters degree in 1875.
Bram Stoker, Theater Critic?:
Bram, while it’s not clear exactly what he studied, loved the theater, but he also knew he needed to earn a living, so ike dear old dad, he got a job in the civil service and worked in Dublin Castle. But while he was there, he also worked for free as a theater critic and wrote pieces for the Dublin Evening Mail.
And now, these days, theater critics are kind of respected and maybe even treated a bit loftily. That was not the case back then when theater critics were thought of as the lowest form of journalists. But Bram showed the snobby people a thing or two, because he wrote such eloquent and well thought out pieces that readers ended up really admiring his work and even improved the notion of what a theater critic could be.
As if holding down two jobs wasn’t enough, Bram was also writing short stories that got published and he also published the god awfully boring sounding non-fiction tome The Duties of Clerks in Petty Sessions in Ireland. Despite the dull name, the book was lauded by, well, by the type of people who would bother to read something like that.
Florence vs. Henry:
Now due to his work at the theater, Bram was meeting all kinds of characters including Henry Irving, who comes to play a larger role in a bit, and Oscar Wilde. At the time, I guess Oscar was trying to keep things under wraps because he, Oscar, was wooing a young woman by the name of Florence Balcomb. Well, Bram came along, and stole her right from under Oscar’s nose and the two — that would be Bram and Florence, not Bram and Oscar — got married in 1878. But because I’m guessing that Oscar wasn’t terribly upset by losing Florence, the three maintained their friendship.
Unfortunately, although Bram did seem gaga for Florence at first, within a year of their being married, he ditched her for Henry Irving who wanted Bram to come to London to manage his theater, the Lyceum. And let’s just say that Bram idolized Henry and the two became so close that almost anywhere Henry went in the world, so did Bram.
Building the Bones of Dracula:
During this time, Bram is also continuing to write, and by this mid-1890s he’s already published four novels. It’s also in this time and during his travels with Henry that he meets a Hungarian traveler and writer who tells Bram tales of the Carpathian Mountains, and told Bram, who showed a huge interest in the topic, that he should go to Whitby, England to continue looking into the Carpathian’s strange history and legends.
Bram gets to Whitby, heads to the library, and asks to see a book called The Accounts of Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. This was rare book, so rare that the library didn’t even let people know they had it, but Bram’s Hungarian friend had told him about it and exactly what pages to look at. The librarian hands over the book, and as the librarian maintains a close watch over Bram, he doesn’t idly thumb through the book. Instead he goes immediately to a specific section and begins making notes about the name Dracula, which in Moldavian means devil and was given as a surname to anyone known for exceptional cruelty. And I like how they specify exceptional cruelty, Like your everyday run of the mill cruelty was okay.
Anyway, Bram finishes his notes and heads over to the Whitby Museum to look at their collection of maps. It’s here he gets the exact longitude and latitude for the village that will house Dracula’s Castle. From the museum, Bram makes his way to the harbor, where he hears first hand accounts of the demise of the ship Dmitri.
As Bram is on his research trip to Whitby, Oscar Wilde is being tried for and convicted of lewd acts…which is a euphemism for being homosexual. The courts portrayed Oscar as a monster, as the most vile and draining pestilence on society. It’s this vile portrayal of his close friend that inspires Bram’s most famous character. He begins writing Dracula only months after Oscar’s conviction.
Part of Bram’s writing of Dracula took place in Scotland’s Cruden Bay where he was a regular when he wanted to get away from it all. Nearby the town, stood Slains Castle, which provided a visual cue for Dracula’s Castle and many features of the real castle can be seen in the novel such as an octagonal room.
Another thing that inspired Bram’s tale was a visit to St. Michan’s Church in Dublin Ireland, where they have in the crypt some very lifelike corpses that would have been there for about a couple hundred years when Bram would have visited, And I have seen those bodies and been in those crypts and I will tell you they are a bit unsettling…then again, so is the tour guide who takes you down there but that’s another tale altogether.
So if you’ve ever read Dracula, which is a pretty dense book, but also really good, you’ll know it’s written in the form of letters. And it’s here you can really see Bram’s previous work in journalism because he’s spot on with noting realistic details, ships’ logs, and the diary entries are just like people reporting on their daily — albeit very strange — lives.
So Bram writes his book and sends it to his editor for publication. In the original version, Bram claims that all the events are real, that Jonathon and Mina Harker are his close friends who brought him their diaries and newspaper clippings from the time period around the events.
The editor did not like the idea of presenting the book as fact and rejected it, telling Bran to change it so it’s more fictional. And to be fair, this was the late 1890s and London had just endured the Jack the Ripper mayhem, and the killer was still running loose. People might have been up for a scary story, but they didn’t want that story to be anything but fiction and the editor worried the book might cause a panic.
The editor also decided the book was way too long, so in addition to changing many aspects of the text, Bram had to remove the first 101 pages of his book. And let me tell you, Dracula is already a long book, so the idea of getting through another 100 pages? Not sure if I could manage.
Dracula Sees the Light of Day:
Anyway, finally the book was released in May of 1897 and ended up being very well received. And although somewhat popular, the book wouldn’t gain a rabid readership until 1922 when the film Nosferatu came out. The film took the story line from Dracula without permission and the legal fight that ensued ended up gaining the book so much notice, it started selling like mad. And in the bonus feature in this episode’s newsletter, I’ll cover that fight a little bit more.
Troubled Times and a Troubled End:
Bram, in addition to managing Henry Irving’s theater and writing for newspapers, would go on to write another 8 novels, loads of short stories, and four more non-fiction books. As some of the homo-erotic scenes in Dracula and his other books, and his own devotion to Henry Irving show, Bram did have a strong adoration of other men, but he repressed it heavily and even went so far in 1912 to demand all gay authors in Britain be put in prison.
His overworking, the stress of his repression, and possibly a form of syphllis, led to aseries of strokes in that same year. Bram died in London on the 20th of April, 1912.
Dracula Lives On:
As for Dracula, the most famous of the undead and dozens of characters inspired by him continues to live on. But the actual manuscript of Dracula also can’t be kept down. In the 1980s, the original manuscript was discovered in Pennsylvania. Why there? I could not find out, but it does begin on page 102 with Jonathan Harker heading off on his ill-fated train journey. Which does make it strange to think Bram, with four novels already under his belt and plenty of writing experience didn’t actually start the true action of his story until 100 pages into his book. But what was in those first pages? Supposedly you can garner clues from his notes and journals, but you’ll have to get to the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia to see for yourself.
So that’s it for Bram. He seems to have had a successful life, but also a troubled one, and I do wonder what he would make of sparkly vampires.
As for updates, regarding the podcast, I’m not entirely sure if I’ll do a second episode this month. The week I would be researching, writing, and recording I’ve got a lot of “life” stuff going on, so I’m not sure if I’ll have time to get an episode together, but we’ll see.
As for writing, I do have my own little vampire story called the Drive Thru Window. It’s not gory, and it’s got a fair bit of dark humor, so if you want to check it out on my Payhip Store, it’s only 99c. And other than that, I finished the first draft of book three of my Cassie Black trilogy. I’m reading over all three books this week to see how they flow together and to make sure I don’t have any major inconsistencies. Which is a lot of reading in only a few days, but it’s a bit icky out this week, so it’s good rainy day chore.
Alright my friends, that’s it for this week. If you’d like to help keep the show running, please visit the book owl podcast dot com slash support to see the very inexpensive options for keeping the microphone charged, and I will hoot at you next time.
The Book Owl Podcast is a production of Daisy Dog Media, Copyright 2020, All rights reserved.Theme Music “Monkeys Spinning Monkeys” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 LicenseAudio processing by Auphonic.com
What a week, right? I know it’s tempting to keep checking the news, keep checking in on those painfully close numbers, keep checking in on whether it’s time again to panic buy toilet paper, but for the sake of your mental health, Dr. Book Owl is here to prescribe that you escape for a while into the pages of a good book with November’s Book Bundles.
And don’t worry, unlike most health care in the U.S., this proven therapy won’t cost you more than $1 and in most cases it’s completely free.
As usual, I have a few books and short stories in each promo below.
Note: These promos are a great way for me to get the word out about my books in an affordable manner, but I can only participate in them if people (that’s YOU) browse the bundles. It costs you nothing to scroll through what’s on offer, and would be a BIG help in keeping my book marketing costs down. THANKS!!!
Happy browsing and be sure to let me know what goodies you end up finding.
Promo #1….This promo features a wide range of genres, including mystery, romance, fantasy, thrillers, and more. And yes, all the books should be completely free.
Promo # 2…As you can guess, this one has fantasy and sci-fi tomes for free or for a mere 99 pennies.
Promo #3….All fantasy. All free. What more is there to say? Oh, except that for some reason, this one loads slooooowly, so, as with the election results, please be patient:))
It’s a listener-inspired episode in which, just like in the movie Ghostbusters, the Book Owl discovers ghosts love spending their time browsing, and sometimes wreaking havoc, in the stacks of their local libraries.
Note: I’ve made the transcript a little easier to read by providing section breaks with headers. Let me know if this works better for you who’d rather read than listen.
Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.
Well my little ghosts and goblins, this episode is coming out only a couple days before the haunting holiday of Halloween, which means I’m required by podcast law to feature something spooky. As if we Americans aren’t already fearful enough over the upcoming election, right?
Behind the Scenes:
Anyway….I already had an idea for this episode floating around in my brain, but then Helen Crawford listener and lead monster maker over at Crawcrafts Beasties stepped in and said, “What about an episode on haunted bookstores?”
I thought it was brilliant. Unfortunately, it turned out that there really aren’t many interesting tales of haunted bookshops. I mean, there were a few haunted bookstores, but it was more just quips about cold spots in the building or the occasional book falling off a shelf. There were no real stories behind the stories.
But the lack of bookstore ghosts didn’t stop my search. Because it turns out that just like in the movie Ghostbusters, ghosts would rather spend their time browsing, and sometimes wreaking havoc, in the stacks of their local libraries. And let me tell you there turned out to be an overwhelming number of library hauntings, but I’ve picked a few of my favorite, funniest, and creepiest ones to share with you.
Cheap Ploy to Get You to Join My Newsletter:
And if you’re on The Book Owl Podcast newsletter, as your bonus trick or treat this time around, you’ll get links to all the ones I had to skip over. And that also means this is the perfect time to mention that if you aren’t already signed up to the newsletter, there’s a link in the show notes. You’ll not only get bonus content with each episode, but you’ll also get a little owl-themed gift for joining the flock.
Alright, onto the episode and ten spooky libraries!
So since Helen is from Ireland, I thought it would only be appropriate if we start with a haunted library from the Emerald Isle.
Ghost in the Library #1
And that would be Marsh’s Library which the more I read about it, might just deserve its own full episode. This gorgeous book palace was founded in 1701 by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh – which makes him sound like a Harry potter character — and this was the first public library in Ireland.
Well, Marsh had a niece who he had raised and adored and whose relationship with a salty sea captain he vehemently opposed. The niece couldn’t help it, she was in love and eloped with her captain, leaving behind a note for her uncle telling him what she’d done.
Of course, she didn’t want to be stopped before the two got properly hitched so she hid the note in a book. In a library. Marsh never did find the note. I’m not quite sure how he was seen supposed to know it existed, but after his death in 1713, something was seen wandering through the gallery, rummaging through book after book in search of the letter. And supposedly if you move between one gallery of the library to another, you can feel a spectral chill….
Ghost in the Library #2
Hopping over to Norfolk, England, well this ghost story really drives home the stereotype of the British stiff upper lip, Keep Calm Carry on mentality.
So we’re heading to the library of Felbrigg Hall. In the 1970s, the estate was acquired by the National Trust and it was up to David Muffon to put the place in order. So one evening (okay it could have been daytime, but evening makes it spookier), David’s at a desk in the library and happens to notice someone in a chair by the fireplace reading some books….then the someone finished his reading and faded away.
Okay, at this point, even as a skeptic, I’d be letting out a horror movie scream and dashing the hell out of there. But not David. He just shrugs his shoulders and continues about his work, then later asks the butler if the house has any ghosts.
To which the butler says, “Oh sure, we’ve got William Windham III who likes to raed by the fireplace.” The butler found this so normal he even set out books for the ghost to read…turns out Ghost William favored works by his old friend Samuel Johnson. Talk about a life long fan. Or is that an afterlife long fan?
Okay so let’s jump the pond because it turns out, American ghosts really love their libraries.
Now as some you know, Mr. Husband works at a library and there’s an ongoing joke that once you get a job at the library, you don’t leave. Turns out, that might be very true because I think at least a third of the stories I read were about the ghosts of former library workers. Most of whom liked to push books to the floor…which I’m sure after a lifetime of having to keep the shelves tidy means they are having a very satisfying afterlife.
Ghost in the Library #3
Mr. Husband also tells stories of a few, rare troublesome patrons, but in most cases, these folks leave the library premises when asked. Not so much in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at Lehigh University’s Linderman Library. See they used to have an old man who came to the library and was a real nuisance. Not one to let a little death stop his crabby ways, he is now haunting the library and continues to pester students and staff.
Ghost in the Library #4
Speaking of naughty ghosts, over in Tarrytown, New York, not long after his death, Washington Irving — who wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow — began haunting the library of his home. Trouble is, unlike William Windham, Irving isn’t there for the books…he’s there because it’s a tourist attraction and he likes to pinch the bottoms of female visitors.
Ghost in the Library #5
So let’s get into the creepy side of the stacks…over at the Sweetwater County Library in Wyoming, ever since the library opened in 1980, lights have been seen flipping on and off, and strange sounds reverberate through the building at night. In rooms with no windows, glowing dots are seen to flicker across the walls.
See, it turns out the city planners didn’t pay attention to their horror film tropes and built the library over a freakin’ graveyard that had been the burial place mainly for Asian railroad workers. The graves had supposedly all been moved in the 1920s. Supposedly.
Because in 1985, they found one remaining coffin. Yeah, I’m out of there already, but for those of you sticking around…it gets even more eerie. See, kids, there used to be these things call typewriters and the library had them for typing up forms and documents. But on occasion, the typewriters would type on their own.
The library staff tried inserting paper to see if the ghosts had a message to convey, but the specters refused to commit anything to paper. Pretty smart that. But wait, there’s more because the creepy crawlies aren’t done yet!
So once the library got computers, there was one that was a closed system, meaning it had no external inputs, and because of what it was used for it had no wordprocessor on it either. The librarian using it one day turned her back and when she turned back around her name was typed in large letters across the screen. Again, no external input. No word processing program. I’m scaring myself here.
Ghost in the Library #6
Speaking of typewriters over at the Old Palace Theater branch of Arkansas’s Saline County Library, employees have heard phantom footsteps, slamming doors, books falling from shelves, and paperback carousels rotating on their own. And, working late one night, Director Julie Hart heard the distinctive sound of a manual typewriter. Trouble is… the library had gotten rid of all their typewriters years ago. Damn typewriters are scary!
Ghost in the Library #7
This one isn’t super creepy, but it does prove that if you name your kid Millicent, you’re just asking her to eventually become a ghost. So the founder of Fairhaven’s Millicent Library was Standard Oil magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers. His daughter Millicent died of heart failure in 1890 when she was only 17, and he named the library after her.
And of course she began haunting it. Patrons have seen her glowing blue form walking the halls. And at night, after the library’s closed, people have reported seeing a girl standing in the window of the turret that makes up part of the front of the building.
But Millicent isn’t lonely in her afterlife. She’s also hanging out with a woman in black who runs her fingers along the shelved books, and a man dressed in a tweed jacket, purple bow tie, and small circular glasses who mops the basement floor.
Ghost in the Library #8
Okay, want another creepy one? How about another horror movie classic: the evil curse! And you’ll find that over at the Peoria Public Library.
See, the land the library was built on was once owned by Mary Stevenson Grey. And I don’t know if she hated libraries or just had a bad experience with a librarian, but in 1847 she pronounced a curse on anyone who occupied her land after she died.
And if you don’t believe curses are real, well, three library directors have already met untimely ends. There’s E. S. Willcox, who in 1915 was run over by a streetcar; there’s Samuel Patterson Prowse, who was doing nothing more exciting than attending a library board meeting in 1921 when he suffered a fatal heart attack. And in 1924, Director Dr. Edwin Wiley committed suicide by taking arsenic.
Now, I don’t know if the Peoria Library is covering something up, but since those deaths, supposedly no other library directors have died under mysterious circumstances. Still, employees do report seeing the ghost of Prowse hanging around the basement.
Ghost in the Library #9
Enough with creepy, let’s get to my second favorite, which is funny and kind of sad too. So the front portion of the Old Bernardsville Public Library in New Jersey was once the Vealtown Tavern during the Revolutionary War.
The innkeeper’s daughter was Phyllis Parker who was in love with a British spy. The spy was hanged in 1777, and to make sure Phyllis didn’t forget her transgression, the body was delivered in a coffin to the tavern.
Phyllis suffered a nervous breakdown and was never the same again. Then, starting in 1974, Ghost Phyllis began showing up in the rooms of the library where the tavern once was. But she was a good ghost who never caused any trouble and seemed to be a welcome addition. So much so that they issued her her own library card.
Despite this, Phyllis slowly stopped making appearances and one of the last times she was seen was in November 1989, when a 3-year-old boy saw a lady in a long, white dress in the reading room. Not put off one bit, he stopped and said hello to her. Maybe Phyllis knew her time was up because only a couple years after this final appearance, the library moved to a new location.
Ghost in the Library #10
And I’ve saved my favorite ghostly tale for last. And this tale really does have a tail because its about a ghost cat. Unless he’s Manx.
Anyway, this is at the Doris and Harry Vise Library at Tennesee’s Cumberland University. So in March 2001, the director of the library, John Boniol, said a cat came floating across his office floor. He said it wasn’t walking, it was gliding and none of the feet touched the ground. It then vanished into the boxes that were under his desk. Which sounds like your typical cat.
But that’s not the only ghosts in the Vise Library. John reported eerie sensations in certain rooms and a former librarian used to play peek-a-boo with the ghost of a little girl. I’m not sure if that’s creepy, or just says a lot about what it takes to get through a slow day in library land.
So, what about your area, any haunted libraries you know of? Have you felt any icy fingers tickling your spine while you roamed the stacks? Let me know!
So, now it’s update time – As for writing, as I record this I’m about halfway through the first draft of the third book of my Cassie Black trilogy, and by the time this comes to, I am hoping I’ll be almost done with that draft. I’m pushing to get the book, and the trilogy completely revised and edited by the end of the year, and I think I’m going to be cutting it pretty close, but it will be nice to have them all put together and ready to publish in the first part of 2021.
And as for the podcast, well, not much to report here. Thanks to everyone who’s been commenting on the episodes and as ever, if there’s a strange bookstore, quirky author, or other book related topic you want covered, don’t be shy about letting me know!
Okay everyone, that is it for this episode. If no ghosts and goblins snatch you up at your local library, I will hoot at you next time.
The Book Owl Podcast is a production of Daisy Dog Media, Copyright 2020, All rights reserved.
Theme Music “Monkeys Spinning Monkeys” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License
It’s October and that means all things spooky…and I can’t think of anything scarier than AI pushing authors to extinction. Find out how real the risks are, and what you as a writer or a reader can do to save the species Homo authoris.
Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.
So it’s episode 14 and, because this is normally around the time of year Mr. Husband and I are off traveling, I had planned on doing something related to travel books (which I still plan to do), but I recently posted an article on my writing blog that got a lot of attention and since it is book related, I thought it would make a great topic for the podcast.
So, if you have read that post, this will be a bit of a rerun (I’ll be adding my own snarky comments in, though so it will be a tad different), but for those of you who haven’t read it, I hope this gets your brain cells thinking about books, about authors, and about the future of writing.
So, jumping right into it today, the question is: will authors go extinct?
And this was on my mind for a while because while working in the garden a couple weeks ago, I was listening to an episode of The Career Author Podcast.
In this episode the guys, who are J. Thorn and Zach Bohannan, were chatting about technology and publishing. I kind of expected it to be about software like Scrivener which is a writing program that helps you keep things super organized and makes shifting scenes and chapters very convenient, and Vellum which is a book formatting program, but it turned out to be WAY more…and WAY scarier.
The technology they ended up focusing on was AI (artificial intelligence, in case you didn’t already know). And specifically AI that learns from books being fed into it, then can spit out an entire novel…a novel it has written itself based on the tropes and writing style used in the books it gobbled up into its creepy little AI brain.
Now, the book lovers out there are probably thinking, “What? AI can’t do that.”
Well, it kind of can. It’s already being used to write various types of articles that end up getting published by big news agencies such as Associated Press, Forbes, and the LA Times, as well as smaller agencies looking for cheap content for their websites.
It’s known as Automated Journalism and the main reason it exists is because why would you want to pay a bunch of pesky reporters who demand weird things like salaries and benefits, when you can simply grab an AI-generated article?
And to give you an example of how rapidly-generated content can drive down salaries for writer, some of the magazines I’ve written for have paid up to $500, $700 for an article. But I’ve also written web content where the articles were just as long as those magazine articles, and they paid me around $15…and that’s considered high. Many of these web content factories will pay under $10 for an article, but AI could drive down even that small amount. And I’ll get into this concept a little more in a bit.
But back to books. Right now, (I think) there’s only been one serious attempt for AI to write a novel and it didn’t go well. But this is AI we’re talking about, people. It’s job is to learn and it learns QUICKLY. It won’t be long before it cranks out a readable novel you won’t be able to distinguish from a human-written novel.
Which, as an author, is scary. And it was to J. and Zach who predicted that the job of “author” as we know it might go extinct.
And before you shout, “But that’s impossible. Writers will always write. Readers will always read.” Well, taking an example from the guys, that’s probably what book binders once thought. Now, the only book binders are artisans on Etsy. And really, looking across the board, plenty of other jobs have been made extinct (or mostly so) by advances in technology.
Now, I’m not a Luddite. I love my Mac, I love playing with programs to make book covers and format my books, I love being able to download audiobooks within minutes from the library and to stream yoga videos to work out the kinks at the end of the day. But I still have enough wariness over AI to think this extinction could become a reality.
Think about it. What does generating products by machine do? Just think in general about something like shirts, or furniture, or anything else that used to be handcrafted. And I’m going to go a bit into the world of economics here, but don’t be scared, we’ll come back to books as quick as we can.
So first, machines speeds up the process of manufacturing and that adds more product to the market. Second, it drives down prices because there’s an easy abundance of cheaply made product (cheap mainly because you get to get rid of most of those expensive humans). Third, it creates a uniform (dare I say, cookie cutter) product.
All three of these combined are the perfect ingredients to kill off the species Homo authoris.
So let’s look at each of those three things a little more closely and see how it relates to writing and books and extinction.
First we have speeding up the process. There’s already human authors blowing me out of the water by being able to whip up books in only a few weeks, but even that pace is going to seem slow when a trained AI can churn out a book in only a few minutes.
Now, I’m not one to complain about more books. I love books! But it’s already a crowded market out there for authors. There’s something like nearly a million books self published in the US every single year.
But AI’s productivity could flood that market with books, making it even harder for human authors to get discovered. And with retailers often favoring new releases, well, AI will easily win that game and push even the fastest author to the bottom of the heap.
Next we’ve got driving down AI prices. A certain store named for a certain river has already encouraged a race to the bottom of ebook pricing, and some customers will scoff if a book is more than 99c, although many indie authors have been able to resist this by successfully pricing books at $4.99 or more.
But if AI can crank out book after book, it’s going to have plenty of product, and with volume comes low prices. Sure, the first AI books will seem like novelties and people might pay higher prices for them, but before long, I can see AI books rarely being placed above that 99c price point.
And once again, human writers who have bills to pay and buy wine risk losing this low-price competition. Remember, a 99c book on that retailer, nets the author a mere 34c…on which we have to pay taxes, dropping the actual take-home royalty to around 15 to 20c.
If we’re priced out or have to price so low we can’t keep up our wine habit)as well as squeezed off the virtual shelves, well, let’s just say resource and habitat loss is a key factor in any extinction.
Next, we’ve got to look at that cookie cutter product. If AI learns to write from books it’s fed, it’s going to create books similar to those books. Which is fine. We all take inspiration from books we read.
But here’s where I stop blaming AI for writers’ future extinction because this third point got me thinking about how some writers are already “training” readers.
I listen to a lot of writing podcasts and read plenty of books on the writing craft, and I am constantly hearing/reading about the expected “tropes” in certain genres. If you write genre X, you must have A, B, and C to satisfy readers because readers expect to see A, B, and C, and they’ll give you crappy reviews if you don’t have those exact things.
And yes, I understand certain tropes make a story work. You’re not going to have a romance novel without two people working their way around a relationship. You’re not going to have a thriller or horror novel without some sort of really bad guy.
But what drives me bonkers is when authors are advised to include very specific scenes, very specific actions, very specific character types and character motivations to satisfy their genre’s tropes.
In other words, writers are advised to make cookie cutter books.
I’m Not Saying I Don’t Like Cookies, But… I can’t tell you how many indie-written books I’ve picked up that are cookie cutter versions of each other or of other more popular books.
But does the fault go to the writer or to the reader?
Because maybe that’s what readers have been lulled into expecting…Don’t think too hard, just grab that book that looks like the past three books you’ve read. Don’t expect the unique. Don’t expect the unexpected. Expect the same story you’re familiar with because why risk discovering something new? Why take the chance you might not like it? Stick with what you know. Keep eating those same cookies.
And the same goes for book covers. I participate in a few author-sponsored promos every month and in those promos are on average, let’s say, 50 books. And well over half the urban fantasy books will have the exact same cover… an attitude-filled, twenty-something-year-old on a bright blue, green, or purple background with black around the edges and shiny text for the title (most of which are almost the exact same font).
And we as indie authors are told this is exactly what we’re supposed to do. Make a cover that matches genre expectations. Make the cookie cutter version even if your book looks the exact same as everyone else’s because otherwise readers won’t know that’s the story they want to read.
You know what happens to my eyes when I see those covers? I pass right over them. They all look the same to me. Call me the odd man odd, but I’m more drawn to the well-done, unique cover that makes me curious about what’s inside. I appreciate the author who’s trying to stand out, trying to be different, trying to catch my eye.
And it’s that desire for the unique, for the something special, for the original thought (even if inspired by another author) that human writers should be training readers to seek out.
Because if we keep training readers to only want the same old story in the same old package, Ai can do that in the blink of an eye and authors really will go extinct.
After all, AI can crank out those page puppies far faster than any human and they’re bound to do it cheaply sooner or later. There’ll be no point to us human writers if readers remain satisfied with the same cover, the same characters, the same story, the same cheap price point over and over. And over and over.
Sure, a familiar story is fine now and then, but shouldn’t we be seeking new twists, shouldn’t we be encouraging new ideas, and new glimpses into the world? We should crave what does make us human, which is our crazy amount of innate creativity and curiosity. (Okay, I know other creatures are creative and curious, but shut up, I’m on a roll here.)
So What Can We Do?
We can’t stop the progression of AI technology (unless we can hire some Luddites to break the machines like they did the weaving looms back in the day). To be honest, most of us have absolutely no say in the rapid advance of something we find more than little creepy.
But what we writers can do is stay unique. We can write something without the crutch of strict tropes. Build a new world. Tell a tale that is completely new, not one that follows the same outline everyone else is following. Create a cover that stands out, not one that blends in. Be brave enough to make the regular price of your hard work to more than 99c.
And readers, you have a job to do too. Like I said. Seek out the unique. Step out of your book comfort zone. Don’t grab that 99c book with the same old cover, opt instead for perhaps a $3.99 one that looks a little different (if you can afford it, of course. If you can’t, ask your library to carry that book.).
And get to know the human behind the book. Sign up for an author’s newsletter if they have one, follow and interact with them on social media, get to know them (without being a stalker, of course). If they sell books directly to readers, purchase from them.
Because the more you get to know just how much work goes into those non-cookie cutter stories, you will appreciate a human-made book more than ever.
And that understanding, that appreciation, might just keep us writers from going extinct…or at least delay that extinction until I make my first million. HA! That’ll be the day!!
Okay my little humans, go forth and read and write, be different, expect unique, and use your minds!!!
Alright, time to get off my soapbox and share some updates.
As for writing, speaking of covers, I’ve finally honed in on the style of cover I want for my Cassie Black trilogy, I’ve also figured to titles for the three books, and I am pretty darn close to nailing the descriptions. Oh, and my first draft of book three is progressing quite nicely.
And as for the podcast all I have is a reminder that this show is supported by you. I specifically chose not to go with a free podcast service because they insert ads willy nilly. But this show does eat up a fair amount of time and I can’t justify keeping the show going if it doesn’t get a tiny amount of support from my listeners. So, if you’re able, please consider buying one of my books, treating the Book Owl to a cuppa, or simply using my Amazon Affiliate link the next time you’re doing a little shopping. And you’ll find all those ways to support on the book owl podcast dot come slash support.
Alright everyone, that is it for The Book Owl Podcast! Thanks so much for listening, if you enjoyed this, tell a friend or leave a review, and I will hoot at you next time!
The Book Owl Podcast is a production of Daisy Dog Media, Copyright 2020, All rights reserved.
Theme Music “Monkeys Spinning Monkeys” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License