In the Age of Screens (Part I)

So, following up the last post about the Non-fiction Conference . . .

When I was invited to talk at this, I decided that I really wanted to write something new, something that I haven’t exactly written about, or talked about before. (It’s way easier just going back to the tried-and-true, but that does start to feel a bit stale.)

This conference is fairly unique in terms of publishing conferences, in that you’re asked to send a short description of what you’re going to talk about, or a list of provocative statements that should help foster discussion. I went back and forth with Maarten Valken about this, until we hit upon the idea of talking about the role of reviews in the digital age.

In thinking about this, I ended up spending a lot of time reading books on behavioral economics and neuroscience (in particular Jonah Lehrer’s fantastic How We Decide), as entry points to thinking about the reader as individual reader.

For years, a lot of more progressive publishing people and social thinkers (not sure how exactly to categorize a Richard Nash) have talked about the need to connect and focus on our readers. But we tend to think of them in the aggregate, as a group that reacts to certain things. And although we talk a lot about being reader-centric, we rarely actually talk to actual individual readers.

Which seemed to bring up a lot of questions for me: like how does an individual hear about books nowadays? Why do they want to read certain things? And although answers like “word-of-mouth” feel very obvious, I got curious about how this actually functions. If a Facebook friend posts a recommendation, are you likely to buy it? How many people actually influence your reading decisions? What happens when you’re faced with too many choices?

All of which led to a much-too-long speech/essay that I kind of cribbed from at the conference. (It’s physically impossible for me to read speeches . . . I must improvise.) Since this piece was long and very time-consuming, I decided to run it all on here and on Publishing Perspectives.

So, if you follow that link, you’ll get the first chunk of the essay. And if you come back next week, I’ll be serializing the whole messy long-winded thing.

One other note: This essay felt very exploratory as I was writing it . . . And after working on it for a while, I think the best way to really improve this is to transform it into a 2.0 version that more clearly delineates all the various concerns. My dream (which hopefully won’t go completely unfulfilled) is to make this a much longer and more encompassing project that blends together some findings on the brain and reading, behavioral economics stuff, and ideas about what’s happening in terms of publishing and bookselling and all that. Something that would start from the individual reader and the process of reading, out through how we discover books, the social aspects of reading, and the impact all these developments are having on culture.

Anyway, that’s really neither here nor there, except that I’m half-hoping some of you will have suggestions of other books/articles/studies that might be interesting to look at, and/or people worth talking to . . .

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