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In the Age of Screens (Part V)

Over the course of this week, we’ll be serializing an essay I wrote for the recent Non-Fiction Conference that took place in Amsterdam a couple weeks ago. If you’d rather not wait until Friday to read the whole thing, then click here and download a PDF version of the whole thing. Or you can click here to see all the posts.

So in the Age of Screens there are a few options: first off, you are your brand. All this egalitarian talk about connecting authors with readers is littered with marketing speak to a degree that’s nauseating. Content is overshadowed by your personal ability to “build an audience” as an author with a readily available e-book and a couple thousand facebook friends. As with most “revolutionary” things, this cuts both ways.

Online Reviewing Moment #6: My best-friend from high school wrote a book. It’s called Ruthless Monster, it’s available from Lulu.com as a printed and e- book. He tells me so at least twice a day. It’s a thriller about Trey Masterson, a Chicago lawyer married to “the woman of his dreams” who has his life dismantled by a “twisted and sinister soul.” I’m sure this is a book that I will never read. One that sort of represents the wariness about self-publishing . . . And the constant reminders about it have nearly caused me to disconnect from someone I was recently very excited to hear from. But he’s only doing what he absolutely has to: If you pay $2,500 to get your book published, you better be fricking persistent in getting the word out to your potential customers.

Brands built around communities are actually effective. Going back to my survey, a few of my students admitted to seeking out books by particular authors and publishers. Exact Change. New Directions. These symbolize a certain aesthetic in the same way Matador and Merge do for us indie rock lovers who went to college in the mid-90s. A book by New Directions—even by an unknown, “literary” author—_must_ be good.

Granted, a lot of love is still directed at New Directions from the days of bookstores organized by publisher. By people who first encountered them “back in the day” or by seeking out Roberto Bolano’s backlist. For a new press/author doing serious work, you face all the challenges described above: no serendipitous discovery at a bookstore, next to no print reviews (the type of reviews the masses trust in), and next to no physical distribution (where your “slick” covers can come into play).

So we’re living in an Age of Screens and we have something important to say. We have to say it online, because most of the communities we used to have in our small Midwestern towns have been shuttered in favor of Starbucks and the slowly dissolving Borders. It scares me to write this, having followed my own train of thought from bookstore love to despair at how my publishing company finds readers, to “what if I ever wrote that book I’ve been talking about since I was 21 . . .” but devices and the Internet seem to offer the best way to find a literary community.

Running counter to War and Peace and Tolstoy’s pro-it’s-all-muddled sort of standpoint, the 21st century will be ruled by individuals. If you’re looking to find the thing to “blow your mind,” you won’t be looking at the New York Times (were you ever?), but to the random blogger-personality who “gets” you. You’ll tell the world what you feel via GoodReads and Twitter and other things that flow through out screens.

We’ve lost something important in our unstoppable drive toward the abstracted computing world. In its place we have something with potential . . . Right now that space—the ethereal world of the Age of Screens—is dictated by those who are most savvy . . . but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Online Discovery Moment #7: When I first proposed this speech, I wanted to talk about reviews in the 21st century. About the way blogs and online magazines would mark a resurgence of interest in book reviews. That amid the sea of hundreds of thousands of nonfiction works out there, readers would be lost without a bookseller to guide them. I initially was thinking about how people would want to turn to an “authoritative” voice to help them find the books they actually want to read. I was also worried that we’ve put too much faith in the perceived openness of the Internet and the ebook distribution platforms—that maybe we’re not being cynical enough in predicting the ways hyper-capitalist publishers and the like would try and worm their way into those outlets and influence readers through sneaky marketing tricks learned in books like Rob Walker’s Buying In of Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. That’s all still there, but I think what’s happening now is that the resurgence isn’t in terms of codified, respected review sources but in terms of smart, respectable personalities. What seems to work is when you go from someone who straight tweets about books you like with reasonable hashtags, to someone who transforms—through their leveraging of all the different media platforms, or simply by being themselves at all moments everywhere—their written information into something three-dimensional. When the recommendations are embodied, they pull in readers. They exist, they have feedback loops, they are creating new, interesting things. And they become the “cool” that pulls others into their orbit. Not to make this too personal, but consider Richard Nash, his time at Soft Skull, the play Cursor is getting. Great ideas, sure. Good books, OK. But really? A lot of the success is because Richard is Richard. That’s a hard lesson to swallow, since from an organizational perspective it makes the future feel uncertain, and from a more culturally aware level, it feels a bit like the cliques us bookish types avoided in high school. But to differentiate, in this case, the cool comes from ideas and phrases and giving people things to enjoy and think about, not from wearing Izod shirts and driving a red convertible.

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So, seriously, what does this mean? I have no idea. I feel like we’ve entered a precarious moment, where we can reach anyone with anything, but are transitioning from one set of recommending systems to another. New literary fanatics are adrift in this moment. Will it all be awesome? Will the Open Letters of the world reach a 1000 times more readers than they do now? Will e-book sales make our business model viable? Hopefully?

Regardless, we’re at a moment where things are up in the air. A moment where we’ve lost what’s kept our society moving in thoughtful directions in favor of the slick and new and non-physical. We need to be aware of what’s gone, what’s possible, and what’s important in this age that values screens and immediate profit to thoughtful, personal interaction.

Which is why I plan on continuing down this line of thought, trying to blend together findings from neuroscience and behavioral economics to look at what goes on in the mind of an individual reader, to how that reader chooses what he/she decides to read (selecting a book is not like choosing toothpaste . . . or is it?), to why and where and how books become social, to what this means to the greater culture. Not sure where all of this will lead, but hopefully it’ll provide a better understanding of readers and of how these great cultural shifts in bookselling and publishing are playing themselves out across a number of levels.



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