Monday, September 28, 2009

books, bookstores, reading groups, and writing ciricles: the future of the word

And at this point I do mean the "word" and not "writing." Writing is evolving, writing is more than the word and evolving past the word. Writing is the converge and divergence of text, of image, of moving image, animation, sound, and every other form of expression. Despite the evolution of writing, though, most of us are not ready or willing (will we ever be?) to give up books, books as text based objects, stories bound by the limitations of text and enhanced by those same limitations. Frankly, I don't see the reading public giving up text based books, even text based ebooks, for ebooks with a little bit of text, a lot of images and a couple movie clips. I don't see anything wrong with an ebook that is a combination of text, image, and movies and I would argue that it would be equally good art (at least in form if not in every instance of execution). But I don't see us giving up reading text any time soon. Just because the word is limiting does not mean that there is no value in it. People haven't stopped reading for the radio, television, or film projector. They won't stop now either. The written word, the work that remains primarily text based, that does not add (or enforce) a particular soundtrack, that does not include video clips will persist. More interesting is not the work that seeks to provide everything but rather the work that opens itself up to collaboration: a text that asks a reader to provide a soundtrack which then shared and commented upon by other readers, a text that asks readers to share their own short films that have been inspired by the original. The interesting book is not the book that provides everything but the book that opens the conversation, that allows every manner of interpretation, collaboration.

And then the question becomes how does the written word persist, and how we ( as readers, as writers) will interact with it. Because interaction is indeed the key.

I recently read, and then tweeted, two pieces (the first from The Institute for the Future of the Book and the second a comment from Vroman's Bookstore's blog) dealing with the future of the book in both the physical and digital and the nature of publishing as branding.

Both pieces are thought-provoking and you should read them. It would bring my rambling into focus, make sense of some of my digressions. The argument that I am borrowing from the first piece is that despite going digital, bookstores will hopefully not be replaced by online superstores like Amazon because as anyone who has ever spent hours wandering around a bookstore knows, the physical store is vastly superior for its browsing. Moreover, bookstores and attendant cafes are great places to connect over books, to extend the individual reading experience into a shared experience, to comment upon what has been read, to contribute to the greater distributed conversation that makes up the future of reading/writing. Indeed, as reading and writing become less isolated activities and more social activities the location of reading, writing, and the socialized life of reading and writing needs to evolve. I do not mean this to imply that writers will now all have to set up shop in their local bookstore and produce pages on demand for a voracious public looking on like kids at the zoo. Rather, the acceptance that a work is not finished once it is published and put out into the world but just beginning. That a work is established in its reading, its commentary, its influence, and the social interaction it inspires.

Reading and writing are interacting in different ways, those interactions are only going to grow to be a greater segment of the reading experience (some people will always read alone in the bedroom and speak of it to no one). There is not currently, however, a good space wherein these developing interactions can occur. The bookstore/cafe seems a good one to me. As long as there is internet to facilitate our increasingly hyperlinked lives where in casual conversation no definition can go undefined, no topic not subjected to a wikipedia search. Bookstores retain their capacity for browsing, their cafes keep the coffee and pastries (and would do well to add beer and wine), and they provide the space for book talks, author interactions, book group discussions, the ability for lay readers to contribute marginalia and errata to published works in a means that would get wide distribution (digitally, not a sharpie in the margins).

The point is that our reading and writing experiences are becoming more linked, more social, less bound to any specific meatspace location. But as our conversations become more distributed, asynchronous, and virtual it would be nice to have a space in the real world that could bring us together as bodies with similar interests. Because spending more time digitally linked does not mean (and should not devolve into) more time sitting alone in front of a computer.

As to the publishers becoming noted brands of their own:
The notion of book branding whether via publisher, editor, or author seems to come down to a trust issue. With only so much time/money to spend on books, readers are looking for what they like and recommendations from those they trust whether that be an author whose work they have previously read and enjoyed, imprint that is notable for publishing strong work and whose authors they consistently enjoy and would like to be introduced to more of, or book savvy friend who has great (read: similar) taste. Frankly, publisher branding is the the answer to solve the publishing crisis. But it could help for some imprints. Smaller ones, mostly, that have a cohesive thread across the brand whatever that may be (and it doesn't mean that they all look alike or need to look good on a shelf together, though it could). Author branding is clearly important, but publisher branding could help authors too. An author with an established brand can go it alone, but perhaps they are established but only within a small community. And so they look to the publishing brand that fits and they collaborate. Just because authors can brand themselves does not mean that a publisher can't do the same to everyone's mutual benefit.

Ultimately the project seems to be about connecting with readers, about reaching out to people as people and interacting with them. Saying, in a personal way (and not just something that sounds or seems personal but real person to person interaction with the customers/readers as equals) that this is what we represent, this is the product that we provide, and you can trust us to provide this product consistently. That does imply that staying small and personal is the better route. I hope it is. The faceless Culture Industry hasn't been good for anyone save the fatcats and the douchebags. But that personal interaction can come from the publisher, it can come from the author, it can come from the editor, it can come from your knowledgeable neighborhood bookseller, or it can come from your trusty friend who tells you to read all those books you've loved. Hopefully, it comes from some combination of those, or, with luck, all of them. That all publishing imprints will mean something to readers is likely a stretch. That some can come to mean a lot isn't and is something to be striven for.

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