The Future of Publishing will be on a Hybrid of Platforms

pexels-photo-289738.jpegA terrible dystopian future has begun … the people have commenced to burn their books into raging bonfires. Only this time, the acrid smell of smoldering plastic fills the air, as the angry crowd throws their Kindles and e-readers into the dancing flames, happy to erase their libraries of demonizing fiction…. Although this scenario is clearly fictional, if some censored future generation decides to destroy their literature, they’re going to have to do a lot more than burn paper pages. The future of publishing will not be limited to either paper or digital formats alone, but will rely on a hybrid of both. The debate as to which method will be victorious is tired, and believing that there will be only one approach is simplistic. We see today, in the futuristic world that we live in now, that publishing methods rely on a variety of platforms, which are both dictated and sometimes conflicted by consumers, publishers, and authors. Having all available avenues at our disposal will see publishing continue to grow on a hybrid of innovations.

When Amazon released its first e-reader on November 19, 2007, some people began forecasting the death of the print book, while others believed the Kindle would not be successful at all. The first Kindle edition sold for four hundred dollars, and almost six hours after it went up for sale, it completely sold out (Engadget). The argument that print publishing was on the verge of extinction had become compelling, yet the debate as to whether or not digital publishing would be accepted continued to be contested. But as each year has passed, we’ve seen that despite the discussions, digital imprints have earned a place in our society. In 2011, Amazon announced that for the first time ever, e-books were outselling paperbacks, at a hundred and fifteen Kindle e-books sold per one hundred paperbacks (PC World). The sales and numbers have fluctuated, lending the argument that one method might eventually prevail over the other. Authors, agents, and publishers have had differing perspectives on what would be the best method to sell their works in the future.

For many authors, having the ability to sell their compositions on a mixed medium of platforms is the best solution. They embrace the digital revolution, but also rely on the benefits of traditional publishing, and believe the two can coexist peacefully. They sell their works digitally and independently on Amazon, as well as signing a paperback deal with a publishing house. Best selling author, Hugh Howey, whose first novel, WOOL, has sold in the millions, was one of the first authors to coin the term “hybrid author.” On top of that, he was among the first authors to be allowed by a publishing house to retain his book’s e-book rights while signing on with a major trade publisher to sell the paperback edition. His thoughts in a 2013 interview with Publishing Perspectives about the future of publishing, entangles both print and digital methods. “They [e-books] should not be seen as competition to print and other formats. Giving away an e-book with every sale of a hardback would do wonders for the hardback market” (par 1). Just days after his statement, Amazon announced their Matchbook program, which offers bundling the e-book edition of a novel with the paperback at a reduced rate or for free. The prospect of being a hybrid author is alluring to even the most seasoned writer, as the royalties from Kindle e-book sales are high, and without a middleman, the author can retain all of the compensation and make their own choices about marketing (Kindle Direct Publishing). To make it even more appealing, Amazon allows for e-books to be added to their library free of charge to the author or publisher, and has integrated an easy to use platform for integrating the work onto their system.

Despite the appeal an author might have toward a hybrid contract, many publishers are not willing to sign them on, as the loss of e-book revenue is not worth their effort. As a result, a large number of independent titles are coming out as e-book only, lending a much larger library available to readers in digital format. Howey states, “Publishers seem to be circling the wagons and backing away from print-only deals. They have enough books to take all the rights. For that, I don’t think they want to set much precedent with the print-only deals” (par 17). Howey’s first book, WOOL, was already a best seller before he was able to compromise a hybrid contract, which was unheard of at the time. For a publisher, taking on an already selling e-book and marketing it as a paperback reduces their workload, but also lowers their bottom line. To that end, I concede that despite it being a profitable exchange for both the author and publisher, it is a difficult option to obtain. But with the rise of independent authors selling compelling e-books, the number of hybrid contracts will persist as the face of traditional publishing continues to shift.

One of the biggest challenges for an author who might consider adapting to a hybrid contract, is getting the information needed to make such a decision. The general public is often not presented with a comprehensive look into the sales and numbers of e-books vs. print, or how specific subgenres are fairing within the larger genre fields. What the public is given is what the trade publishers are allowing them to see. With Howey’s success in first digital publishing and then hybrid publishing, he and several other authors have developed a website to try and report the most accurate sales numbers across all avenues of the trade. Their site, Author Earnings, complies data from all retailers and avenues, to try and dispel misinformation about the paperback vs. digital argument. Data released in 2016 by traditional publishers, and offered to the public, showed a large increase of paperback book sales compared to their digital counterparts. According to the publisher’s numbers, almost eight hundred million paperbacks sold compared to just over two hundred million e-books (par 3). Yet, when individual genres are studied, the sales of adult fiction are nearly divided, with e-books taking close to forty nine percent (par 6). What Howey’s site revealed, is that the report did not include independent authors, Amazon Imprints, or print on-demand books sold on Amazon. The publisher’s numbers had been compiled from traditionally published sources only. When all sales were compiled, a dramatic rise in digital imprints was evident. In the case of adult fiction, over three hundred and twenty five million e-books were sold, compared to just over a hundred and forty million paperbacks (par 33). Despite these numbers, there are many instances where print still prevails over digital. In the cases of juvenile non-fiction, juvenile fiction, and adult non-fiction, the numbers are dominant toward paper. Although I concede that print is ahead in these avenues of sales, it is not enough to show that digital publishing is by any means struggling. And while the reasons behind the difference in sales can be debated, such as the typical lower price point of independent works, largely in the adult fiction category, the number of total sales cannot be debated. The future of book publishing will continue to see a trend of both digital and print based material.

But the publishing field is not limited to fiction and non-fiction alone, or to an author’s preferences toward publishing contracts. The field is wide and expansive, and no avenue has felt so much of an impact as journalism. The decline of the newsroom and the printing press has been largely reported as digitalization sunk its roots into nearly every American household. In 2013, two business school professors, Robert Seamans and Feng Zhu, released a study titled, Responses to Entry in Multi-Sided Markets: The Impact of Craigslist on Local Newspapers, examining the monetary effect that Craigslist had on localized newspapers between the years 2000 to 2007. Seamans is an assistant professor of management and organizations at the NYU Stern School of Business, and was once appointed to the White House council of economic advisors. Zhu is a professor of business and digital innovations at Harvard. They have both written extensively on innovation and competitive strategy within the high-tech field. Together, they came to the conclusion that Craigslist alone took away five billion dollars in classified-ad revenue (par 1). But does that mean that the newspaper is going to die when faced with emerging technologies? Addressing that question during a TEDx Talk, Tom Rosensteil, who is the founder of the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., and co-founder and vice chair of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, stated, “I believe that what has disrupted us will now begin to save us. The audience will determine the future of news” (TEDx Talks, 0:53). During his talk, he stated similarly to Sieman’s and Zhu’s research paper, that ad revenue decreased 75% between 2000 and 2012, largely because of Craigslist, and that reporters working in physical newsrooms had decreased 30%. Despite these discouraging numbers, he believes we’re entering a new age of enlightenment in journalism, akin to the invention of the printing press, or to broadcasting.

No other avenue of publishing has seen such a varied degree of platforms, from the news on paper and digital screens, to audio, and to visual. Journalism now stretches its roots to all corners of the Internet. Rosensteil goes on to state, “Technology is bringing new audiences to news, that probably would not have consumed news in older formats” (9:35). He demonstrates this by explaining that the average age of a print newspaper reader is fifty-four, while the average age of a newspaper reader on a mobile device is thirty seven; and the average age of a reader using only a mobile device is thirty three. The majority of people reading a newspaper once a week, which he claims is half the population aged eighteen to forty, read it digitally.

With the argument that print newspapers are in decline, I asked two local reporters, John T. Ward, and John Burton, their thoughts on the future of journalistic publishing and the news at large. Ward started Red Bank Green in 2006, a hyper-local, Internet only, news source. Previously, Ward worked for The Asbury Park Press, The Star Ledger, and free-lanced for magazines. Burton is the senior reporter of the Two River Times, where he has worked for over fifteen years. Ward told me, “When it comes to delivering news, print remains only in places where [digital] hasn’t yet claimed the majority of consumers, but it will happen, as devices and bandwidth prices decline and younger consumers crowd out older ones. Print will likely never be eliminated entirely, but it will survive as a boutique offering” (November 11, 2017). Burton has similar feelings, despite that he works for a print based paper. He stated, “… the newspaper and magazine industry continues to be in a state of flux as it has been for about a decade. What’s at hand is that audiences are continuing to move toward digital, especially younger readers, who’ve come of age using maybe only the digital platform for their information and entertainment” (November 22, 2017). But on a more promising note for print publications, Burton believes that newspapers in small suburban and urban areas have not only been doing well but thriving, since they serve the needs of the immediate population. He uses the work of the Hartford Courant following the Sandy Hook shooting, five years ago, as an example of excellent journalism and photography following the wake of the tragedy, and how that specific local paper served the needs of the community by delivering information that was relevant to them. The one thing that Burton, Ward, and Rosensteil all agree on, is that journalism will not disappear altogether, despite the changes we’ve seen with the advancement of digital means. For Rosensteil, the news of the future is based solely on how and when the reader wants to read it, whenever the reader wants to read it, and on any and all platforms available.

With the advancement of the tablet and touch screens, people again began reading long formats of print journalism, whereas before, in the fifteen years of internet use prior, the population had a large decline in long format reading, which hurt the newspaper industry significantly. The average time spent on any one webpage was approximately thirty seconds. Now, with the population again interested in long formats of reading, many news sources are again beginning to thrive. To illustrate this, Rosensteil explains that at the time of his speech, which was in 2013, there were currently four hundred and fifty newspapers that charged for digital subscriptions. Three years prior, none of them did. On top of that, newspaper subscriptions rose five percent from 2012 to 2013, which was the most significant rise in over ten years. Three billion dollars of revenue in 2013 came from digital means, which were sources not available when the newspaper began its physical decline. Burton adds to the discussion, by explaining that many newspapers have adapted micro-payments, charging readers pay per article. While there is no doubting that newspaper publishing took a hard hit, and many lost their jobs because of it, the face of journalism has continued to evolve, and it stays now in a hybrid of many platforms.

Although newspapers are but one example of an educational text, it is not the only platform currently undergoing scrutiny. In recent years, classrooms have seen an influx of digital learning devices in addition to traditional print material. The BBC reported, in December of 2014, that 70% of primary and secondary schools in the UK were using tablet computers (par 1, BBC). In the US, the Energy Information Administration, an independent statistic and analytical organization comprised to gather data to be used in policy making and for public understanding, studied the growth of computers in the classroom. They found that the number of computers per square foot in educational buildings rose 71% between 1999 and 2012, and that 95% of buildings deemed for classroom instruction were using computers for learning by 2012. Publishing for educational purposes is now across both digital and print mediums, in nearly every school in the US.

With the number of computers in the classroom as high as they are, it can be implied that digital technology will soon surpass print learning material, and one day make it obsolete. However, there are arguments that imply paper-based learning to be superior, and there is evidence to back up this claim. An important study as to the student’s ability to retain information on both platforms was conducted by Anne Mangen, whose research delves into the impact of material and technical interfaces on reading for the advancement of education, along with two other researches at the Reading Center at the University of Stavanger, in Norway. Mangen and her researchers tested a random selection of seventy-two tenth graders, by dividing them into two groups and providing them both with identical texts that they had to read and then be tested on. Mangen states, “Main findings show that students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally. Implications of these findings for policymaking and test development are discussed” (International Journal of Education Research). Her findings have helped influence teachers and institutions to keep print-based learning alive. Although I concede that in the face of Mangen’s study it appears that print based material is the best avenue for learning text, I do not believe that digital publishing will slow or weaken. Schools that integrate all avenues of academic publishing, both through computers and text, will present their students and teachers with the widest range of educational possibilities.

It can be said that Mangen and her team used a small sample of students, from only one area of the world, and that new technology might have arisen since her study, in 2013, that would better assimilate students to learning from digital platforms. However, science might have an answer as to why students were able to comprehend information from print sources better than digital material, and the results could display why textbooks will never disappear from the classroom, and why many people prefer print material compared to its digital counterpart. In a paper written by Ferris Jabr for Scientific American, the case is made that the human mind correlates to paper material on a subconscious level. Jabr, who is a previous staff editor and now contributor for Scientific American, as well as The New Yorker, and many additional science based anthologies, states “ … the brain essentially regards letters as physical objects because it does not really have another way of understanding them” (par 8), and then he goes on to explain, “Beyond treating individual letters as physical objects, the human brain may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape” (par 10). Jabr’s article relied on scientific studies to correlate his claim. One study, titled, Incidental memory for location of information in text, was a paper written in 1971 by the award winning educational psychologist Ernst Z. Rothkopf. In this paper, fifty-three students were asked to remember a specific word or phrase from a text, and the results often showed that the students were able to recall the specific word by visualizing where in the text it appeared. Jabr’s article relates how the human mind sees books almost how it sees a trail or something navigational, and keeps track of text akin to a topographical landscape. Digital screens present a challenge, because our minds don’t make the same subconscious connections. But does this mean that schools will favor print based material if they are the superior for learning?

While print based texts have clear benefits for a student’s comprehension, digital innovations have adapted to maximize their cognitive impact. Tablets and reading devices have attempted to mimic physical material as closely as possible, to enhance the reader’s understanding of the material. Another scientific study that Jabr used in his article is titled, Construction of cognitive maps improve e-book reading and navigation, and was conducted in 2013 by three scientists for the Department of Computer Science and Information Engineering, in Taiwan. They found that when using a device with an interactive toolbar and visual pages compared to one without, the participants who used the device with the visual cue-map performed better with reading, navigating, and reviewing material. According to Jabr, as a result from studies such as these, Kindles use what is called E-ink, which closely resembles the chemical composition of ink, and iBooks have a feature that mimics the turning of a page. Tablets and computers will continue to evolve to benefit readers and students.

Despite digital readers attempting to resemble paper material, there is a belief that the human mind might adapt to digital devices just like it has to print based material, from an evolutionary standpoint. Maryanne Wolf, the director of the center for reading and language research at Tufts University, has written over a hundred and fifty scientific publications, including several novels, dealing with the cognitive effects of reading on the human brain. Unlike vision and language, which come innately to children, reading rewrites the circuitry of our minds, by connecting those various aspects that were intended for other purposes. In a video interview with tvo Parents, an online resource educating parents so that they can help teach their children, she explains, “The circuit of the brain changes, is completely malleable, because there is no genetic programing. It’s going to be influenced by what the child reads, how they read, what purpose—and the medium matters” (8:20). To that extent, future generations could have a completely different approach to reading, and be able to comprehend the material on a subconscious level, much differently that we do now. If learning from a predominantly digital medium instead of physical, the visual landscape created when reading might be completely rewritten. The parts of our comprehension relied upon now when learning to read may not be the same used by future generations, and school based learning could sway away from paperback textbooks, preferring a digital counterpart.

Outside of which method is the best for learning, a school’s decision to bring in a hybrid of paper and digital textbooks, which could help determine the future of educational publishing, is reliant on one big factor: cost. An article written by Nicole Allen for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities discusses the financial impact of textbooks for students, and the advantages of having digital textbooks available. Allen is a member of the Public Interest Research Groups, or PIRG, which is a student organization devoted to discussing and helping to solve a wide array of public interest problems. She states, “According to the College Board, the average student at a four-year public institution spends $1,200 annually on books and supplies” (par 2). Additionally, she explains that in a survey conducted by PIRG, “… seven in ten undergraduates skipped buying one or more required textbooks because the cost is too high, and three-quarters of those students believe that doing so hurt their grades” (par 3). Digital textbooks offer a more economical solution, with the average price forty to fifty percent cheaper than their print counterpart. In a 2012 report published by the Digital Textbook Playbook, which was a collaborative between the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Education, they found that going digital could save an average of six hundred dollars per student, per year (par 25). They take many variables into account, such as print costs, and go so far as to attribute the rise of digitalization to increased teacher attendance and a lower dropout rate.

The debate for which publishing method might prevail will still go on, with some people preferring one platform over the other. The advancement of digitalization has sunk its roots into every avenue of publishing, and will continue to grow deeper as long as technology is still around. Some avenues have transformed, such as journalism, while others remain unhindered, like juvenile non-fiction. But on thing is for certain; we have seen and will continue to see a wide range of platforms across the publishing landscape, leading toward a hybrid of methods, all for the advancement of society at large. We can rest assured, even as the debate goes on, the human race is not yet ready to burn their robotic books in some terrible apocalyptic revolt.

 

***

 

Works Cited

 

“Researcher Maryanne Wolf: Reading is Not Natural.” Tvo Parents, YouTube, January 19, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-HYayerEeI

“The Future of Journalism: Tom Rosenstiel at TEDxAtlanta.” TEDx Talks, YouTube, May 28, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RuBE_dP900Y

Allen, Nicole. “The Future of Digital Textbooks.” American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Winter 2013, http://www.aascu.org/workarea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=6308

Amazon. “Kindle Direct Publishing.” Pricing Page, January 1, 2015, https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/help/topic/G200634500

Anderson, Porter. “Hybrid Author Hugh Howey on Self vs. Traditional Publishing.” Publishing Perspectives, September 9, 2013, https://publishingperspectives.com/2013/09/hybrid-author-hugh-howey-on-self-vs-traditional-publishing/

Burton, John. Personal Interview. November 22, 2017.

Coughlan, Sean. “Tablet Computers in ‘70% of Schools.’” BBC News, December 3, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/education-30216408

Federal Communications Commission. “Digital Textbook Playbook.” The Digital Textbook Collaborative, February 1, 2012, https://tablets-textbooks.procon.org/sourcefiles/digital-textbook-playbook.pdf

Howey, Hugh. “Print vs Digital, Traditional vs Non-Traditional, Bookstore vs Online: 2016 Trade Publishing by the numbers.” Author Earnings, 2017, http://authorearnings.com/report/dbw2017/

Jabr, Ferris. “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens.” Scientific American, April 11, 2013, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/

Li, Laing-Yi, Chen, Gwo-Dong, Yang, Sheng-Jie. “Construction of cognitive maps to improve e-book reading and navigation.” Science Direct, Vol 60, January 1, 2013, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360131512001704

Mangen, Anne, Walgermo, Benton R., Bronnick, Kolbjorn. “Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension.” International Journal of Educational Research, Vol 58, January 1, 2013, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0883035512001127.

Mayclin, Danni. “Computers and Technology use in Educational Buildings Continues to Increase.” U.S. Energy Information Administration, February 3, 2016, https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=24812

Patel, Niley. “Kindle sells out in 5.5 hours.” Engadget, November 21, 2007, https://www.engadget.com/2007/11/21/kindle-sells-out-in-two-days/

Perenson, Melissa. “Amazon Kindle Book Sales Soar.” PC World, January 27, 2011, https://www.pcworld.com/article/218039/amazon_kindle.html

Rothkopf, Ernst Z.. “Incidental memory for location of information in text.” Science Direct, Vol 10, December 6, 1971. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S002253717180066X#!

Seamans, Robert, Zhu, Feng. “Responses to Entry in Multi-Sided Markets: The Impact of Craigslist on Local Newspapers.” NET Institute Working Paper, No 10-11, May 28, 2013, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1694622.

Ward, John T. Personal Interview. November 11, 2017.

Advertisements

Enter to win a Signed First Edition Paperback.

PaperbacksTo celebrate the launch of my new novel, The After War, I’m conducting a giveaway sponsored by Rafflecopter. Enter at any time between now and October 21st, for a chance too win one of five signed paperback copies of The Experiment of Dreams. If you want to better your odds, click on the option titled, ‘Check out my new novel, The After War,’ and you will be entered twice. Below, I’ve included the whole first chapter of my new dystopian thriller, The After War—check it out!

Click on the picture below to check out the novel on Amazon, and read the editorial reviews.

Afterwar - Facebook Banner

Enter to win by using the Rafflecopter sign up form here: a Rafflecopter giveaway

 

***

The After War

Chapter 1

Brian and Steve

 

 

Brian Rhodes cracked open the solid steel trapdoor of the bunker, using his shoulder to carry its weight as he stepped up to the next rung of the ladder. A rush of warm, dusty air sucked down the entry chute, pulled in like a vacuum from the plank-board shed built to conceal the shelter door and the two men who had been hiding below ground. Brian kept his pistol at eye level as the metal door creaked, and a horizontal slit of light—real sunlight—hit his eyes for the first time in over two years.

Adrenaline and fear pumped in his chest, distracting him from that first breath of fresh air. The loose wooden floor of the shed lifted as the trapdoor opened and fell off to the side, disturbing the settled dust that covered everything in that tiny room. Particle clouds rose, the motes illuminated in the strips of sunlight shining through the slats of the wooden walls. Brian stifled back a sneeze.

At the bottom of the landing, Brian’s cousin Steven Driscoll stared upward, gripping the sides of the ladder.

“What’s up there, Bri—”

Brian hushed him with a shake of his open palm and continued up the ladder until he was standing outside. Carefully, he rested the heavy trapdoor against the far wall of the shed.

Brian looked down the entry chute to Steven at the bottom. He knew that five minutes ago, the only thought going through Steven’s mind had been the complete and utter fear of facing whatever unknown nature of humanity might remain outside that bunker door. Now his cousin looked panicked as the filtered light reflected the sheen of sweat on his forehead, his body tensed, as if the all-encompassing blackness in that room was squeezing him toward the exit. Steven’s eyes darted over his shoulder in the direction of the one piece of equipment they had not shut down entirely—the walk-in freezer. The red, glowing light from the switch illuminated the far wall. Steven seemed frozen, transfixed.

Not the time to be thinking about what’s in there, Brian thought.

Steven shuddered and turned to the ladder. He was halfway up when Brian hissed down to him.

“The gear, Steve. Pass the gear.”

Steven jumped to the landing and hefted the first, and then the second military-issue backpack up the passageway to Brian’s waiting hands. The large backpacks barely fit through the narrow opening with all the detachable pouches filled to the brim and the secondary detachable scout backpacks stuffed with the essentials.

The blackness of the bunker crept over Steven’s hands as he shoved the packs through the circular opening, briefly cutting off the sunlight from the outside. Brian saw that look in his cousin’s shadowy eyes, as if the darkness was seeping into his body and being filtered into his lungs from the air he breathed.

Brian was still heaving the second dark green backpack from the opening as Steven hurried to the mouth of the ladder, his broad shoulders and chest pinched momentarily at the narrow, circular entrance before pulling himself free.

Steven’s eyes were darting about the walls of the shed like those of a caged animal. For a moment, they were both silent, listening to the wind outside and the occasional chatter of birds far overhead. They pressed their faces to the cracks between the plank walls, blinking their eyes at the outside world, but all they could see were slivers of the vast fields beyond.

“All right then,” Brian whispered. “You keep lookout. I’ll cover the hatch.”

Steven swallowed and nodded.

Brian closed the metal door and turned the circular locking handle on the top. He grabbed a rusted length of chain hanging on the far wall among other rusted tools, wrapped it through the handle and an eye-loop bolt, and padlocked it shut. He placed the floorboards back in position, covering the stenciled diagram of an octopus that was etched into the top of the hatch door. A hammer and box of nails sat on the workbench where he had left them all that time ago.

A silky sheen of dust had settled over the handle, and when Brian brought the hammer down, the noise made Steven jolt. He turned to Brian. “Can’t you do that any quieter?”

Brian didn’t look up. His cousin was dumber than the box of nails rattling beside him as he hammered away. “What you seeing out there?”

“Ain’t nothing to see.” Steven turned back to the slat in the wall, and Brian continued hammering until the floorboards were secure.

When he’d hammered the last nail, Brian stood and dusted off his knees. “Give me a hand here.” He walked to the end of the workbench and took hold of the far corner. Steven grabbed the other end, and they carried the cumbersome piece of furniture over the hollow floorboards. Not that they had any desire to ever go back down into that underground room, but the sanctity of that place had to remain a secret … just in case. Plenty of food and water still remained in the storage room, and for all they knew, the outside world was nothing more than a burnt-out shell—the rivers dry, the soil infertile, and humanity wiped from the pages of existence like wet ink smeared over by a thumb.

They hoped and prayed that that was not the case. Not entirely, at least.

“You ready?” Brian asked.

“Hell, no.”

They grabbed their packs and hefted them over their shoulders, feeling the weight pull at them. Steven had his Winchester shotgun—passed down from his father—attached to the webbing of his pack, and Brian had his scoped hunting rifle attached to the webbing on his own pack. Both of these weapons had wooden stocks and were the only weapons in their inventory that were not jet-black and designed for warfare. They each carried identical assault rifles on tactical shoulder slings, and each also holstered a pistol. Spare magazines and ammunition for these weapons were stuffed in pouches and attached to their belts and gear. Most of their equipment was military issue and had never been fired.

Only moments ago, as they readied themselves to depart the bunker, they had traded in their well-worn jeans and flannel shirts for olive-drab jumpsuits, shin-high black boots, elbow and kneepads, and tactical vests. Brian thought the seams on Steven’s jumpsuit were going to bust as he watched his cousin wrest it over his burly chest, his bear-paw hands fumbling with the zipper. Brian’s own jumpsuit felt snug, but he was nowhere near his cousin in stature.

They were late leaving the bunker. The date on the calendar came and went. Brian had crossed it off with the big black marker and then both men just stood and stared at it.

“We gotta get moving,” Brian had said.

Steven nodded, and then added, “We ain’t ready.”

As time passed, it had become obvious they would never be truly ready to leave their lavish bunker. Despite spending two years underground and feeling on the verge of insanity, their bunker had carpeting and fluorescent lighting, separate bedrooms with real beds, and a TV with a video game system. The kitchen and living room were at the very center of the bunker in a domed room with cylindrical arms reaching out in separate directions—like the octopus logo on the trapdoor—to the various bedrooms, generator area, and storage.

As far as underground shelters went, theirs was indeed luxurious. All the same, Brian and Steven had not seen the light of day for more than a fraction of a second—that one time they had to open the hatch door. It was time to come out of hibernation to face the road ahead, and complete the task they had promised their Uncle Al they would take care of.

They crouched by the shed door, assault rifles armed and ready. They were clean in their new army jumpsuits, freshly shaven with rough-looking red faces, their hair trimmed short. Steven’s dark-blond hair was already plastered to his forehead with sweat.

Brian turned the handle of the door and pushed. The flimsy plywood bent in the middle, stuck at the bottom.

“It’s the vines there,” Steven said, pointing to the weeds protruding through the wooden slats. It took several shoves, along with a few hacks with Brian’s combat knife, until the door swung open.

The rush of air that hit their faces was laden with a southern dampness, smelling of wildflowers and the live oak trees covered in dangling moss that grew all over the property. Brian looked to the sky for the sun he so longed to see and feel, but the expansive heavens were overcast with rolling gray clouds.

They stood in the middle of a vast plain. In the distance was Steven’s house, where Brian had lived with his cousin for many years. An old plantation home, it had been passed down from generation to generation, until it was handed over to Steven. The luster and charm it once radiated was lost after the death of Steven’s parents, when he took up residence and failed to maintain the responsibilities of homeownership.

The house looked dark and cold on the horizon, a whispery building lost among the weeds and gray sky.

Brian turned to see the longing in Steven’s eyes. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “We ain’t going.”

Steven stared at the house—his house. The large picture window facing the valley was gone. Even from his distance, Brian could see the gentle inward and outward flutter of a large black tarp, perhaps a garbage bag, constructed to cover the window opening. There was a mound of something on the back porch that looked charred. This was not how they had left it.

Steven had that look that Brian knew so well. He was seeing red, but fear and uncertainty kept his anger from boiling over. Maybe all that time spent in solitude had given Steven the ability to control his anger, quell the tide of rage that so easily overtook him. Brian wasn’t so sure. How many fights had Brian pulled Steven away from throughout their lives, only moments before his cousin killed the other person? Brian couldn’t even guess. Once Steven would calm down, he’d go on to explain, “I just see red. All I see is red, and I can’t—I don’t think.”

If he makes a charge for the house, Brian thought, I can’t stop him.

Steven spat in the windswept grass. “I know we ain’t going. I don’t wanna go.”

“Let’s get on then.”

Brian patted his breast pocket, a final check for the folded weatherproof map. The route east was marked with a permanent felt-tipped marker. It was the route Uncle Al had traced for them over two years ago. Steven had a similar map folded in the breast pocket of his tactical vest, and he took it out and looked it over. Brian doubted his cousin could discern much from the lines and colors—he had once got lost walking to a bar one town over.

The two men stood up from their crouching position in the tall grass, turned from their old house, and began their trek into the unknown.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

Simon Kalispell

 

 

Simon’s qi was all out of whack.

It was time to go. It was time to leave the cabin.

But the fear of leaving the safety and security of the wilderness was a difficult obstacle to overcome. Although, due to recent events, the safety and security of the cabin was not as assuring as it once had been. The perimeter had been breached, and Simon was now sure that he was not the last person left alive in the world. Two years of absolute seclusion, deep in the woods of British Columbia, had made young Simon Kalispell believe all sorts of things.

He paced back and forth between the cabin and the van, his eyes darting this way and that, looking for things he might have forgotten to pack. He had been doing this, pacing back and forth, for over an hour, and the van was as packed as it was going to get.

“Winston! Winston, where the hell are you?” He clapped his hands and whistled. “Winston, you idiot. Come on, boy!” Then he remembered he’d put his dog in the passenger seat of the van ten minutes ago. He turned to see the half-Shepherd mix peeking his head through the window at hearing his name.

“Oh, right,” Simon said.

They stared at each other for a minute. Winston was panting against the window, his brown eyes wide and his tongue drooping over the side of his mouth. When Winston realized Simon didn’t actually need anything, he went back to lying down on the passenger seat, leaving the window foggy and smeared.

“Okay, okay … what else do I need?” Simon began pacing again, pawing at his scraggly beard with jittering fingers, and then stopped mid-step. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

Christ, I’m all out of whack.

He took another deep breath and began repeating his mantra:

I am the wind. I am the rock. I am the tree, and my roots grow deep …

He repeated this to himself over and over, feeling the grass under his feet, the brisk breeze through his beard and long hair. He wanted desperately to go down to the stream, take his clothing off, sit under the moss-covered pine tree—the one with the depression at the base that fit his body so well—and breathe and focus. It had been ages since he’d felt this sort of anxiety, this fear and panic, and it felt awful. He did not want to get into that van and turn the key. He did not want to leave the glory of nature behind and face the certain horrible realities of the world.

But he had to leave. Especially after last night.

The woods had told him it was time to go.

He had to listen.

Simon took two long and slow breaths, feeling the cool air touch his nostrils as he inhaled. His lungs expanded down to the pit of his stomach, and he held his breath to absorb every molecule of fresh oxygen. Then he exhaled in a whisper, feeling the warm air pass over his lips to be released back into the endless supply of flowing air all around.

He opened his eyes, walked toward the van, and opened the door for Winston. “Come on, stupid. Out. Let’s go.”

Winston, with his right ear raised and the left one floppy, looked at Simon with a cocked and furrowed expression that seemed to say, “What? I was sleeping.” But the old dog lumbered out of the car as instructed, and stretched his back while yawning. Simon scratched the patch of dark fur next to his ear, and then Winston lumbered off to his usual sunny spot on the grass.

Simon watched him sniff the ground and walk in circles until he settled and twisted into a ball. His big brown eyes closed, and Simon noticed that Winston’s fur had lightened over the past few months. His coat was mostly brown, with a lighter patch on his belly, and a few patches of black fur in random spots. Lately, the fur around his mouth and face had become riddled with white and gray.

“We’ll leave in an hour. I promise,” he called to Winston, who didn’t stir.

Simon walked into the woods. He followed the stream until he arrived at his spot—his pine tree—and extended his hand to touch the rough bark, feeling the patches of soft fleshy moss against his palm. He swung his M1A scoped rifle from his shoulder, rested it against the tree, and then unbuckled his belt and coiled his holstered pistol on the ground. Then he removed his flannel jacket and T-shirt, and stood as steady as the trees all around, his body as skinny and hard as a thin birch. Plummets of steam escaped with his breath as he watched the water flow down the narrow stream. He stood tall, hands by his side, palms out, letting the wind from above the water cleanse every inch of his body, rejuvenate his skin, and renew his resolve.

Breathing in, I see the wave come in. Breathing out, I see the wave go out. Breathing in, I see the never-coming-in and the never-going-out of the water as a whole.

A moment passed as he contemplated this mantra, which he’d spent countless hours pondering, and then he bent to the stream. He dipped his hands into the frigid water and splashed handfuls of it over his face and beard. Despite the cold, Simon could feel the coming of spring in the air and water, and that made him all the more reluctant to leave.

Two winters alone, stuck in the cabin—once for almost two weeks straight, trapped inside by the snow—was maddening. He had faith in his ability to hunt and gather edible plants, but it was foolish to believe he could master nature. Controlling the environment was out of his hands.

This last winter was long and harsh, with the snow coming down in an endless supply. When the snow finally broke, and Simon tunneled his way out the bedroom window to the top of the snowdrift that almost entombed the entire cabin, his stockpile of food had been largely diminished. The fresh meat and jerky were down to the last few meals, and there were only a few bags of grain left, along with several boxes of emergency rations.

He caught and killed a small marmot with a snare trap the second day out, skinned and cleaned it, and roasted it whole. He fed Winston the scraps, and the dog devoured the flesh and bones entirely. Winston had been living off a scoop a day of fire-dried vegetable kibble left over from the previous year’s harvest, before the winter overtook the garden. The dog’s desire for meat had been ravenous.

The cold water on Simon’s face reminded him that he was in the present moment, and that it was not wise to stress over what may come in the future, or what might have already passed, no matter how painful or uncertain those thoughts may be. Future events will happen as they unfold, and the past cannot be accounted for.

His reflection in the water stared back at him, distorted with the light rippling. Simon unsheathed his Buck knife and tested the blade against his thumb. It was sharp enough to shave. He grabbed the tuft of his beard in his fist, and gently, without yanking, cut a handful away, dropping the scraggly hair in the water where it drifted out of sight.

When he had gotten his beard as short as possible with the knife, he used a pair of nail scissors to cut the hair down to his skin. He repeated the process with the hair on his head, methodically, until it was as neat as he could make it. When he finished, he washed his face, and the coldness of the water on his vulnerable skin was shocking. Even the air from the slight breeze made the skin on his cheeks and neck tingle and sting. His reflection over the moving water looked different. Younger, maybe, although he still looked much older than his mid-twenties. His reflection reminded him of his youth, and that living in the wilderness had a way of making his years on the earth irrelevant.

The face looking back at him was a face he barely recognized.

It was hard to remember what he had been like before fleeing to the woods. He was soft back then, well fed. Living in the wild had reshaped him, made him lean and strong with a sinewy strength.

He leaned his back against the tree and sat with folded legs. He focused on his breathing, but the sensation of the breeze hitting his newly shaven face felt funny, and it was hard to stop touching his tender cheeks. Laughter was hard to suppress, his mind and body fighting the meditation.

This went on for some time until Simon realized that the laughter itself was the meditation he needed. A weight had been lifted off his chest without him even realizing it, and his mind had shed some of the clutter that fear and uncertainty had poisoned it with. He put on his shirt, jacket, and holster, shouldered his rifle, and started toward the van.

“Winston! Come here, dummy. Come on, boy.”

Winston poked his head up from his coiled position, stood and stretched his back, and then lumbered toward the van. Simon opened the door, and Winston jumped in the passenger seat. Simon cracked the window and decided to take one last tour of the cabin just to be sure nothing was left behind. Again, just to be sure—although he was positive nothing was.

The axe was no longer stuck in the large chopping log, which meant it was packed. Check. He opened the door to the cabin and looked at the barren living room and kitchen. He already missed the magnificent cast-iron stove in the living room, which kept the cabin warm during the most frigid of nights. As he walked past, he let his fingers glide over the cold metal. How many nights had he warmed his hands before the radiant heat of the thick metal sides?

The first thing Simon had done when he arrived at the cabin over two seasons ago was drag the mattress out of the bedroom and into the living room, across from the cast-iron stove. There was no sense wasting wood to heat both rooms, especially in the dead of winter when trekking outside was dangerous and difficult. Before the winters hit, Simon filled the majority of the bedroom with chopped wood, from floor to ceiling. The remainder of the bedroom he used for food storage, since the room remained significantly colder than the rest of the cabin.

He had pried up several floorboards and dug out the earth below until the hole was large enough to fit the small refrigerator on its back with the doors swinging upward. The cold emanating from the ground did a good job keeping the interior chilled, and animals and insects could not get inside.

During the winter months, he gathered snow from outside the window and packed it around the edges of the refrigerator. The meat inside would freeze and remain fresh for as long as he replenished the snow.

Simon checked the spare room, opened the refrigerator door, checked the pantries in the kitchen, slid open the drawers, but found nothing that he needed.

He removed the stack of photographs he had tucked in the breast pocket of his shirt, and flipped from one to the other. His free hand slowly contracted into a fist, and his heartbeat quickened. He tucked the pictures back in his pocket, buttoned the flap, and walked out of the cabin.

This is it. It’s time to go.

The small moving van was the kind used by contractors and construction workers. Words on the side said, Kalispell Sports, but the letters were painted over and could only be seen up close.

Simon slid the side door open and took quick inventory. All the food and perishables, including the few boxes of canned goods and meal replacement bars—mostly expired—were all raised several inches off the floor of the van by improvised risers that Simon had made out of logs, sticks, and some bricks he found in a pile behind the cabin. He touched the carpeted floor. It felt dry.

Two fifty-five-gallon steel-drum barrels were tied against the sidewall. The bottom of one barrel was corroded and rusted to the point of near bursting with a fragile bump the size of a golf ball sticking out from the side.

Simon had removed the tarp covering the van several weeks ago when the snow had finally melted, and when he slid the side door open, the pungent vapors of gasoline flooded his nostrils. The smell was so appalling that he gagged and covered his nose with his shirt. Three of the four barrels had corroded, and two of them had cracked at the base, causing gasoline to dribble out during the winter months. Nearly a hundred gallons of fuel had soaked through the carpet and trickled out to the ground.

Seeing the empty barrels frightened Simon to his core.

The reality that he might be stuck in the deep woods of British Columbia, almost three thousand miles from home, without any fuel, scared him more than anything he had yet witnessed. It was the deciding factor on whether or not it was time to go. Seeing the human tracks, only a few hours fresh and just a half-mile outside of camp, was frightening enough. And actually seeing people pass in the woods just a week later had been horrifying. Awful-looking people, draped in ragged cloaks, and so rancid that Simon could smell their caked-on gore from where he hid high in a tree. The thought of being truly stranded, with such loathsome wanderers coming about, gave him nightmares.

He rechecked the two remaining barrels. A blanket was folded in a square and duct-taped to the side of the corroded bottom of one of them. It was the best he could do, and he hoped to God that the barrel would hold long enough for him to use the remaining fuel, or transfer it to another barrel. But even if the barrel did hold, two drums of fuel would not be enough to get him home. He would have to do the one thing that he had planned specifically not to do—scavenge. And even if he did find fuel, there was a real chance that the gasoline would be spoiled. His own barrels were past expiration, and despite them containing large quantities of stabilizers and the barrels secured airtight—until the recent leak—the fuel could stop powering the engine at any moment.

Simon couldn’t let his mind wander to such thoughts. His fuel was still burning, and he would have to take his chances with anything he could find on the road.

The back of the van was packed and secure to the best of Simon’s ability. He slid the door closed and went to the driver’s side. Winston lifted his head as he entered, and Simon could hear his tail wagging against the seat.

“Good boy, Winston.” He scratched the dog behind the ears, and Winston panted and licked at his hand. “I hope you’re ready, because I’m not.”

Simon dug the keys from the small backpack he kept on the floor below Winston. The backpack was loaded with just enough supplies to survive if he ever had to make a run for it. He called it his “get the hell out of Dodge” bag. He put the key in the ignition. The engine rattled and revved, and after a moment, sputtered to life. Simon watched through the rearview mirror as clouds of dark blue smoke rose from the muffler. To keep the battery charged, Simon made sure to start up the van every few weeks to a month, and never did the engine disappoint. It was a good van.

He continued staring at the rearview mirror, lost in a trance. The smoke rose and dissipated in the air, flooding his memory with visions from when he had first entered that van, departing from home into the unknown: the smoke rising from the brick-lined driveway in that early morning, the frost beginning to melt as it twinkled over the windshield, his father holding his mother in her robe and slippers as she cried into his shoulder. The sun was barely up … and Simon had driven away.

Winston barked, and Simon came back to reality. Five minutes had passed. Simon took a deep breath, feeling the rattling of the motor through the steering wheel, and he shifted into drive.

“Hope you peed before, because you’re not getting another chance for a while.”

Winston wrinkled his nose and sat up in the seat to stick his panting face out the window. Soon, the van was lurching over the overgrown dirt driveway that would take them to the highway.

Simon had scouted the path earlier that day, cutting back overgrown branches and moving a few large rocks that he did not remember being there when he first arrived. But still, the road was rough, and every bounce made his heart skip a beat. He paid close attention to the damaged barrel in the back, smelling the air for the pungent odor of fresh gasoline, and listening for the sounds of trickling fluid.

The van crawled into the woods. Simon’s gaze was drawn to the reflection of the cabin in the side mirror as it became obscured from sight behind trees and brush, until the structure he had called home for the past two years disappeared. It was just as before, only this time, his mother and father were not standing behind him, watching him leave. This time they would be waiting for him to arrive—he knew it in his heart. They just had to be.

With the cabin out of sight, all that remained was the road ahead. When he came to the highway that intersected the long dirt driveway, Simon put the van in park and climbed out. He removed the branches used to cover the entrance and peered out over the sweeping interstate, listening to the wind.

The roadway stretched on for miles in either direction, up and around large and small hills, seemingly endless. Nothing stirred. No movement at all. Sticks, leaves, and branches littered the pavement, and Simon thought it was possible that the road had not been traveled upon since he’d first arrived.

Back in the van, he checked the rounds in his rifle, and then did the same for his Colt .45. He laid the rifle and pistol on the console between the two seats.

Then he put the van in drive, moved forward several feet, and stepped out of the van again to replace the branches covering the entrance to the dirt driveway. He looked back one last time before returning to the idling van.

“This is it, boy—now or never.” He looked at Winston. “How about some music before jumping in, hmm?”

On his drive there, Simon was glad to have found an old company cell phone with a collection of music on it, since he had forgotten to bring music himself. The music was classical, which Simon didn’t mind. It reminded him of his father. The blaring of horns and the sharp keys of pianos were constantly bellowing through the closed door of his dad’s office in the mansion he’d grown up in overlooking Ridgeline River.

The phone’s digital display read Beethoven: Sonatas & Concertos. Violin Sonata No. 5 came through the speakers. Simon pushed Next until he heard the shrill, telltale violin introduction to Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9. He closed his eyes and took in the music like a plant absorbing the sun.

“All right, Winston. Let’s go.”

The van inched to the edge of the highway, and Simon looked both ways once more. Still, he saw nothing. He realized he had turned on his blinker out of habit, and flicked it off.

“No need for that, Winston,” he said and turned left on the highway, traveling eastbound. His hands were trembling on the wheel.

The road before him was long and straight, and thick on either side with rolling hills covered with tall, lush, green pine trees, cedars, junipers, hemlocks, spruce, and firs.

Simon’s vision was bright with fear, and his whole body began shaking and sweating as he drove back into the world.

Check out The After War here: Amazon

Subscribe to my blog, or join my email list, to receive future updates and sample chapters.