Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Reader

A few months ago I had the great pleasure of attending the one day symposium run by if:book called The Reader. For some reason this blog ate my post about it and I've only just discovered that this entry was never published. So, here it is now, a little late but no less interesting. You can check out some of the Twitter stream to get a sense of the day. Even better though, the director of if:book Australia, Simon Groth has kindly allowed me to repost his opening welcome. I thought it nicely captured the spirit of things, and the video link Simon mentions, below, offers some interesting food for thought regarding how readers search for narrative no matter what... A question I'm currently considering for my own work with Gerard Goggin on the effect of mobile media and how authors/readers/developers collaborate to create novelistic stories to be read on phones, tablets, etc.

So, read on...

Remember when electronic publishing was daggy? Stephen King tried it and had to abandon the story in progress because too many cheapskates were reading his stuff for free. Matthew Riley tried it. He sold ad space on his book. Once.

It seemed as though the whole digital publishing industry had risen and fallen. Amazon was widely ridiculed on the introduction of the first Kindle in 2007. Not only was ereading dead, so the story goes, but they were trying to capture the imagination of readers with a piece of technology that looked like a broken air conditioner vent. They were right about the latter at least.

‘No one,’ went the conventional wisdom, ‘wants to red on a twitchy little screen.’

Of course, as we now know, that statement misses the point entirely. Arguments between books and ebooks, paper and screen are the sideshow. Something bigger is going on here and it’s not about containers.

The new landscape of publishing has been described as ‘disintermediated’, in other words that authors no longer need publishers or other intermediaries to reach readers. In one sense this is true.

What we’ve seen, however, is that neither authors nor readers have not abandoned the traditional model entirely, but rather have spread out along a continuum in which author choose the level of control they wish to have in publishing their work and readers choose their level of engagement with a particular writer or work.

As digital publishing progresses, the number of strategies available to connect authors with readers has multiplied.

In the past, authors had to rely on publishers, distributors, booksellers, and so on because that was the only game in town. Readers too had to rely on this system again because it was the only game in town, at least in any significant way.

But things are changing. Web-based retailers and author services for example have opened more two-way communication with aggregated readers’ responses, which frequently find their way back to the author. And then we have blogs and social media that act as a direct unfiltered link between authors and readers.

This change has thrown a lot of traditional roles in the air.

Printers have the opportunity to work directly with authors or anybody else who wants to create printed material with a broader range of services and products in smaller print runs.

Booksellers and libraries have the opportunity to delve even deeper into community building and author events.

Publishers (and smaller publishers in particular) have the opportunity take advantage of cheaper production tools and offer a range of services to authors and readers, blurring just about every role in the old model, but in the best case maintaining the editorial input that’s critical to creating works of quality.

Authors have the opportunity for greater control over how they present their work and to engage more directly with the business and more meaningfully with readers.

And, rather than relying on critics or publicity, readers have the opportunity to form their own communities, recommending authors and titles to each other.

James Bridle said recently that books are achieving the condition of music. He was quoting, but I’m attributing it to him. Books are becoming something in the air, text and images, ideas unencumbered by the limitations of ink and paper.

This is an incredibly exciting development for readers.

This is a shift in power.

Traditional publishing relies on a small number of gatekeepers: people whose job it is to mediate what is deemed publishable and what isn’t. As Mike Shatzkin points out, today:

[Publishers are] still gatekeepers, but the gate isn’t attached to a fence or wall anymore so aspirants just walk around it.

Though I suspect the days of the corporate multinational trade publisher—at least as we know it—are numbered, I don’t think this necessarily a bad thing. Australia is lucky to have a rich diversity within its publishing industry and those who dare to reimagine their role will be in the best position to reconnect with the people who make all this possible: readers.

This is the real shift. The power wielded by the old gatekeepers is drifting further and further and towards the community.

This is everybody’s gain.

I like talking about readers, much more than talking about writers or editors or publishers or anyone else associated with books. It’s one of the reasons we have called today The Reader. All those other terms are exclusive, in part defined because of who they exclude. Reader is the one genuinely inclusive role. No matter what else you do, whether it’s in the book industry or not, whether you even read books or not, you are a reader.

In the context of authorship, we frequently refer to humans as storytelling animals. I think that’s half right. We are also story-absorbing animals. We are narrative animals. This film is pretty old, it dates from a 1944 psychological experiment by Heider and Simmel, but it illustrates the point beautifully.

In the experiment, subjects are asked simply what happened? In response, they told a story. Probably the same or similar story to the one you just concocted as you watched. Very few people see that film for what it is: shapes moving across a field.

So ingrained is our need for stories, that you might have cause to wonder about those people who don’t see a story in that film. What the hell were they watching?

We don’t just like stories, we need them. It’s a need that exists independently of any object no matter how important. It existed before the book and it may just exist after it too. Maybe. And with the need for stories comes the need for the creation of stories, the collation of stories, the preservation of stories, but above all the reading of stories.

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