August 1, 2011

Good Old Freytag. Gus to his friends…


Image by Gabor
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Gustav Freytag.

I’ve just completed editing and posting Gustav Freytag’s Technique of the Drama to BrianTriber.com. I’ve yet to complete linking the Index to the rest of the text, but I’ll do that gradually. (It’s extremely time consuming and I have other projects that need attention — rest assured it will be done, but a lot of what an index used to do for books has been replaced by the computer’s Find function, so I feel less rushed about it.)

Of course, editing any text is like inhabiting the author’s world more intensely than simply reading it. It provides insight into not only the subject, but a taste of the way the writer thinks and structures (in this case, as was true with John Quincy Adams’ Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory, the structure of the work was based on the structure discussed in the work.) So, there are a few thoughts unique to Freytag’s Technique that I’d like to share.

First, regarding Freytag and this particular work. There were points — infrequent but noticeable — when I found the text challenging not necessarily because of its subject, but its content. To clarify, Freytag was a product of his generation. As such, there were numerous nationalistic, racist, and sexist references in the text. If taken as a snapshot of the times, one realizes how much Freytag and his colleagues looked down upon female actors, Jews, and non-Germans in the theater setting. He was, of course, unaware of what would come down the pike almost half a century after his death, but as a time capsule, the piece certainly has future echoes of what would happen in Europe under the Kaiser and again under the Nazis.

Now, having said that, the book itself is an excellent deconstruction of theatrical arts in Germany circa 1880 or so (the sixth edition was translated into English in 1900). There are a few quirks regarding Freytag’s pyramid (on the right). The illustration, from Chapter 2 of the book, shows his pyramid. The quick breakdown is that each of the lettered nodes represents one of the five acts of the drama. The number of scenes per act is left up to the playwright. What the diagram may suggest (which you must be careful not to interpret it this way) is that the diagram is not only chronological, but also to scale. In other words, that each of the acts appear to take the same amount of stage time. The truth is, as derived from the text, that each act’s performance time is dependent on the number of scenes in the act. So, for instance, The Merchant of Venice is comprised of five acts, but the climax actually occurs about two-thirds through the play, and the catastrophe (more often referred to as the denouement) is the last eighth of the performance time.


Parts of the Drama: (a)introduction, (b)rise, (c)climax, (d)return or fall, (e)catastrophe.

Shakespearean theater evolved, of course, into other forms in other regions. Eventually German theater, modern English theater, Yiddish theater, and American theater all gave way to the motion picture and its 3-act structure (or 4-act structure, depending upon who you ask). This same 5-act structure finds its way into television, with 4 commercial breaks. This means that the introduction now takes 30 seconds or up to five minutes at the start of the show, the rise around 20 minutes, starting after the first commercial break and bringing us to the middle of the segment after the second commercial break. The climax and return take around five minutes toward the end of this same segment, and the catastrophe completes the show at around 30 seconds following the last commercial break. In film, Freytag’s five acts are broken into approximately 30, 30, 30, 20, and 10 minutes respectively, although with some action films, like the Transformers franchise, the climax is exaggerated into an hour-long spectacle, the return and catastrophe given barely 5 minutes to split between them.

The point here is that the dramatic form has been evolving over time to lean more heavily on the middle of the story, and simultaneously truncating the end of the story. I’m not sure what this says about our viewing habits, wether we’re being re-trained to appreciate a new structure, or whether the marketplace is pressuring film and television to adopt to the viewing public’s changing tastes. After alL, in a world of short-attention-span, it becomes difficult to keep the viewer after the climax has been resolved — once the emotional buy-in for the main characters have been resolved at the climax, how does one keep such an audience’s attention into the denouement? The answer seems to be to truncate the ending. (Television and movie series seem to have a leg up on this since multiple story lines are interwoven and get resolved in different episodes, so the denouement only has to address the main story line of the episode. Torchwood, Season 2 is a good example of this.)

Then the question becomes: do authors adopt their story structure to match the visual media to increase their audience? This seems like a slippery slope, but at the same time, it’s worthy of an experiment. After all, if the goal is to get a message across, shouldn’t it be tailored to the audience? I realize that this can border on agitprop, but there are stories that may benefit from this. Still, there is a reason the novel form still exists as it does, but you’ll notice it is much changed from where it was 75 or 150 years ago. I suppose the real answer will come along in the future, as our media continues to change. Who knows what impact the e-book will have on structure?

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April 27, 2011

The e-reader Debacle, Revisited…

Filed under: Book Discussion — Tags: , — Brian Triber @ 6:45 pm

After living through three months of my computer limping along — its internal hard drive crashed, and its system running from an external hard drive — I finally broke down and got a new Mac laptop. The new computer works like a dream, and setting it up only took an hour after I plugged it into the old one — all of my settings were exactly the same without any tweaking!

I also took the opportunity to upgrade my major software: the new Microsoft Office works (surprisingly). My new version of FileMaker Pro is great. Adobe CS5 with Dreamweaver is amazing, and I got 90 days free training from lynda.com. And right now I’m dictating this blog entry using Dragon dictation for Mac.

So, with everything else working perfectly, you can imagine my consternation when several purchased e-books refused to open in my Sony e-reader library software. Since I purchased the e-books from Borders.com, I assumed it would be a rather easy thing to download them again. But, alas, I had to reinstall the e-library software from the Sony e-reader. After a week of going back and forth with Borders, I finally got my e-books re-downloaded. But then, I discovered I couldn’t synchronize my computer with my e-reader!

For some odd reason, connecting the E-reader to my Mac resulted in an icon appearing in the library titled “Error.” With no error code associated with the mysterious error, a visit to the Sony website did little to help. After a half-hour on the phone with Sony, manipulating the E-reader in various ways by plugging paperclips into holes, and triggering repetitive stress injuries from holding various buttons in contortive ways, I was finally told that my e-reader, which I had spent in excess of $80 on two years ago, is not compatible with my new computer’s Intel processor.

This episode brings up two separate issues: First, there is no guarantee that, when a system crashes, replacement e-books can be retrieved from the merchant websites where they were purchased originally. I lucked out this time, because my e-reader software was easily reinstalled, although I had to jump through hoops to reactivate both my Sony account, and my Borders.com account. (Heaven knows why it had to be this complicated in the first place.)

Secondly, what is the point in paying $100 or more for an E–reader which will not remain compatible with newer computer systems? It’s true that many new e-readers use Wi-Fi to download books, and if my current e-reader used Wi-Fi I wouldn’t have had the library problem I experienced.

The Wi-Fi approach, however, has two big operational holes for consumers, and my experience only serves to underline those issues. Firstly, there is no guarantee that an e-book store will remain around forever. In the case of Borders.com, even though the company is restructuring, if somewhere down the line they go out of business, my e-library on Borders.com is gone. There is no retrieving my purchases again. And for that reason, I need to have a way to back up my e-books. But, and this is the second issue, if my e-reader only had a Wi-Fi connection, then there would be no way to synchronize it to my computer for backup.

With e-book purchases, the consumer is not actually purchasing a book. We are purchasing a license to view the book on a particular device. If that device becomes defunct, there is currently no way to transfer an existing e-book library to a new device. As most computer consumers know, technology is upgraded on average every three years. What this means is that every time a new device is purchased, our entire e-book libraries will also have to be repurchased, or restored from the original e-book store where it was purchased (if it still exists.)

So where does that leave me? I’m stuck with an e-book library which I can only read on screen on my computer. Until I purchase a new e-reader — which at this point is wholly unlikely. Many e-reader manufacturers may claim that the technology is mature, but until these issues are ironed out they are still not ready for prime time.

Your thoughts?

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April 14, 2011

To e-, or not to e-… That is the Question

Filed under: Book Discussion,Publishing Industry — Tags: , , — Brian Triber @ 10:01 pm

Image by Christoph Michels
via Wikimedia Commons.
Are e-books really here to stay? Not yet…

There have been many articles coming out of the publishing industry, both for and against the inevitability of e-books replacing print books. Most have focused on the industry impact e-book sales are making to publishers’ bottom lines, which e-book formats are selling best, and what the pricing on e-books should be. What the e-book industry is neglecting, however, is the end user’s experience. They’ve forgotten that, as in the case of the Daewoo Matiz, that customer satisfaction drives sales, not the other way around (that and decent engineering).

I’ve been quietly enjoying my Sony large-format e-reader for over a year now, and the hardware itself seems to be stable. The software interface, or “library” that is maintained on my Mac, not so much. Whenever my e-reader’s memory has been zapped, It it needs to synchronize the whole library all over again, choking up every time. But this is a time inconvenience — I can leave it to synch overnight if need be. At least I haven’t lost any of my books. Or so I thought.

Enter the Borders.com e-book store. A while ago I purchased a few e-books online from Borders.com, and loaded them into my library without a problem. Then my computer crashed in January. Aside from the nightmare of rebuilding my system disk and reinstalling my software, I suddenly realized that some of my e-books were no longer available for reading. What did the missing books all have in common? They were all .pdf files purchased from Borders.com. So, I logged into my account there to download those files again. The deal was that Borders.com was supposed to remember what I had purchased and make sure that those licenses were available to my home computer. But, surprise, the files are now registered to another user — i.e., not my rebuilt system.

I’ve emailed Borders asking for a way to fix this but have received no response. This in itself should be no surprise since the IT department was gutted in the last reorg before they declared Chapter 11 (my source is Publishers Weekly’s Borders Watch column.)

Purchasing e-books from other sources can be fraught with frustration as well. Amazon requires either owning their Kindle or downloading a free kindle-reader app. Similiarly, Barnes and Noble does the same thing with their Nook.

The obvious problem that all these companies are overlooking is that no one wants to pay $100-$300 for three different devices so that they can read the books they want to read. That’s why the open-source .epub format exists — it’s a free format that allows people to read e-books on Sonys, Libres, and all the other third-party e-readers. The problem is you can’t buy an .epub book on Amazon or B&N, and if you purchase on Borders its linked to one machine and can’t be shared or loaned out.

So, ignoring the other reasons for not purchasing e-books (like the lack of tactile materials, dimensionality for pop-up books, and ability to have a favorite author autograph your copy), until a single usable universal format exists, I’m going to have to keep killing trees, or risk losing my library in an EMF event.

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December 8, 2010

The Value of Physical Books

Filed under: Publishing Industry — Tags: , , — Brian Triber @ 11:15 am

The Publishing in the 21st Century blog has recently posted an article about Oprah Winfrey’s current Oprah Book of the Month, a twin Edition of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations, available as e-books for a price on Amazon, sold at bookstores, and available for free (for the kindle only) at the publisher’s website.

There has been a lot of back and forth about why books are priced as they are. Penguin, the publisher of this edition, claims the e-book is enhanced from the free versions offered directly from them. This seems to be a reasonable assertion considering how much effort goes into designing and editing the additional contents of an e-book, and editing the source material for the new format to begin with.

For physical editions, the cover price has to pay for, in addition to the editing costs of the new supplementary materials, printing, binding, shipping, and the labor of the folks at the bookstore in displaying and handling the books. In this case, the bookseller also has to deal with getting additional signage up and promoting the new edition in newsletters and advertisements.

But why a physical edition of this book? From my own personal perspective, e-readers have now matured sufficiently to allow markups, i.e., taking notes, directly in the text and those notes are effortlessly synchronized to the computer, so papers can be researched entirely electronically without paper and pencil. The only other reason for owning a physical copy, in my mind, is to get the author’s autograph.

But with this edition of Cities/Expectations there is one other factor. Oprah will be leaving the airwaves shortly, which means that her impact on the industry by selecting a pick of the month will also disappear (although she may continue this in her magazine). For the sake of continuity, or perhaps for the sake of collecting, many readers will purchase a physical copy for the sake of completing their Oprah Book Club Library.

Assuming you owned a current e-reader model, is there a reason you would want the physical book instead of the e-book?

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December 7, 2010

Google Editions: Coming to an Author Near You

Filed under: Publishing Industry — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Brian Triber @ 6:16 pm

There’s an interesting article on the E_Reads blog about Google eBooks becoming Google Editions, and how this will impact the publishing industry. For writers specifically, it mentions that there will be an Affiliate program that allows authors to sell their own ebooks from their web sites through Google Editions.

Independent writers currently have several options to circumvent the traditional publishing industry, including POD, vanity presses, and now, for ebooks, Google Editions. Currently, the biggest advantages traditional publishing has over these others is access to brick and mortar stores, and to critics. Budgets for publicity, which used to be a big plus with traditional publishers, are drying up, leaving the author in all cases picking up the bill for much of his/her own publicity tour.

Many authors, especially those with non-fiction or self-help works, use POD publishing in tandem with other sources, such as speaking at conferences, where they sell physical editions of their work, and on-air marketing through providing content, such as late-night talk shows. A parallel to this in the traditional publishing industry would be a college professor requiring their students to purchase their own text book from a textbook publisher.

For the independent author with POD, however, Google Editions seems to offer an additional outlet for sales. POD editions are physically delivered to the reader. But with ebooks slated to be the primary source of reading in the near future (some sources estimate that 80% of book sales will be ebooks within 5 years, which sounds overly-optimistic to me in this economy) Google Editions seems to offer a way to fill the sales gap. Details about the new program are incomplete, but it appears that it should handshake cleanly with Google’s online stores and the Google Checkout program, a purchasing interface for websites that charge the seller per transaction.

I’m in no way affiliated with Google at this time, and am probably only slightly less confused than most writers about the best method for marketing and sales. The real difficulty is that with the traditional publishing industry being so difficult to break into, POD, Google Editions, and vanity presses offer a tasty bit of bait on a hook. The hook is, of course, that because anyone can publish anything they like with these sources, quality is varied, and traditional publishing is unlikely to consider even looking at a previously self-published work.

Your thoughts?

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