There is no sense of immediacy with books. Think about it. You can read a book tonight, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. This is the double-edged sword. The same thing that makes books so convenient for taking on holidays (or reading on a bus or in a waiting room) is what makes it easy to put them off forever. They aren’t bound by a sense of urgency.
Unless you participate in a book club, read listservs and forums that push a book to the point where you can’t stand it any more or are going to see an author on tour (or are interviewing them or reviewing their work) what is there to motivate you to read? What will make you curl up with a book tonight instead of watching TV?
The answer? ________________
This is one of the problems facing the book industry. We have a society that is geared toward instant gratification. This is why we have “must-see tv” ads that remind us the shows that are on tonight should not be missed!
And you know what feeds that? The fact that tomorrow, at work, at the watercooler people will be talking about the shows. That’s how I ended up watching the first Survivor… Everyone was talking about it at work.
The reality is, almost all of us want to feel as though we belong. Indulging my communication theory days, the medium is the message. It is radio – not the written word – that beats that tribal drum. It seemed to take me ages to wrap my head around that, but it was really brought home for me with a story someone told me from his days in radio. He wasn’t a regular, more of a fill-in, on-call, but when he was on he started to develop a routine. After doing his show he’d go to a specific coffee shop and getting donuts on the way home.
One night, at the end of the show he said he was heading off to complete their ritual. When he arrived the staff had his order ready and packaged for him.
Books don’t do that. Not even newspapers do that. And tv can’t do it either – too much down time after getting off the air. Nothing beats the tribal drum - connects us as part of a community - like radio. That's why when you do a road trip you often look for local stations. You get local information and local news.
But nothing reaches the masses like television. Radio doesn’t have a fixed time for certain content. Oh, sure, you can know a certain DJ is on, or commentator for the news networks, but it doesn’t mean you know what they’ll be talking about. (I know if I want to see one of the ER actors I need to turn on the tv when that show is on. I can narrow it to within an hour.) And again, unless the radio show syndicated nationally it’s usually localized.
Even on listservs like DorothyL, that are mystery-oriented with a focus on books, TV shows get discussed. The Wire was on so late that Kevin and I would record it and watch it the next night, but every Monday he’d come home to discover I’d watched the episode while I ate lunch. Why? he asked. Could I not wait a few hours?
Well, no, but not for the reason he thought. It was that everybody was talking about it. I’d have to avoid listservs and blogs to not see spoilers.
A few days ago I put up my Rock ‘n’ Roll Authors post in a few different spots. 98% of the people who commented thought there was potential in the idea. In part it’s that post that’s fueled this one. The real question is, what can we do to give people a sense of immediacy and passion about books?
I’ve never worked with a child that didn’t love story time. One hopes they’ll go on to explore a number of great books in their early years, because the reality is, kids sixteen years old are distracted by hormones and friends and tv and movies and all of the glitzy, fun things out there and the sense that they want everything right now, as easy as possible… Remember what it was like to be that age and want to experience life? Who wanted to be stuck at home with their nose in a book? Face it: That isn’t the most common option. And from there people move on to college, university, traveling, dating, marriage, families.
People change a lot in their late teens and early twenties. What is there to bring them back to the love of reading?
I have recounted bits and pieces of my conversion to the crime genre, but I think some things bear stating again, and in context. I was 29 or 30. There were a number of variables to consider. One was that I got married when I was 28, so life had settled, to a certain degree. In the reading I did in my 20s I found a lot of books left me unsatisfied. I used to re-read classics (Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Heart of Darkness, the works of Tolkein etc.) every few years. Kevin and I had a habit, that when we went on holidays we’d each buy 2-3 books and spend time reading.
The question really was, how did we choose those books? I don’t know. It was hit and miss. Sometimes I’d get a book that was okay. Other times I’d get a book that I couldn’t finish. I specifically remember trying some crime fiction (the kind that was on end displays and pushed hard) and not finishing the books. I read some series books, until it felt like I was reading the same book over and over again. So, I turned to reading historical stuff (history being an interest of mine) but I desperately wanted to find an author with a lot of work to their name that I could be enthusiastic about.
And I did. Call it luck, fate, whatever, I don’t care. The thing was, I’d been a fussy reader - fussy enough to abandon some books I'd bought. If I hadn’t loved what I was reading by Rankin I would have moved on. I soon caught up to the series, (and read it twice) because I’m a monogamous reader. I was also worried about not finding another author I’d be satisfied with.
This underscores the problems we’re facing. How do readers find the books they’ll be interested in? With so many bookstores today relying on part-time employees who don’t read (come on – when you find Val McDermid’s The Torment of Others in true crime, more than once, you have to wonder) how do they help people find the right thing for them?
And if store staff aren’t doing it, who is?
Never mind the fact that review space is declining.
Now, I know this might come as a surprise to all of you, but I can be a bit enthusiastic about things I love sometimes. Occasionally I give a bit of an endorsement for the things I’ve enjoyed. From time to time I might even encourage others to read a book I like. Not often thought. Usually I’m not very opinionated – I mean, look at my posts. They’re as wishy-washy as can be.*
Despite my rare bouts of enthusiasm I don’t feel blogs and online review sites are filling the void. Only a fraction of readers are online. Hate to break it to you, but blogs aren’t the real world. Not even DorothyL is.
There is this great chunk of society out there that’s being missed. What’s worse is that we also tend to promote what we like… seldom do we concern ourselves with whether or not it’s a good fit for someone else.
I’ve been picking books for a woman I’ve never met. After a handful of emails I had to make a choice, go to the store and decide what I was going to buy her. I asked her to tell me who her favourites were, what she liked reading, why she read. Then I asked a few more specific questions about authors.
And then I made a decision. I already knew I was getting her a Rankin book – that was how this started – but it was a very tough choice for me.
It doesn’t matter how I feel about his work. What matters is that one misstep with an author can mean people move on and never try them again, and there is no sense of urgency in giving them a second chance. It might well be that it was just the wrong book in the series to start with. I’ve had that happen to me. I saw someone state that on DorothyL recently – if they’d started with book X instead of book Y they doubted they would have kept reading the author.
I know that, despite the time I put into my choice, this person may still not like Ian’s books. And I know that she may not like the other book I’m sending her. But this exchange has her sounding pretty excited about my selections (as I’ve given her my reasoning for them) and that’s cool. If they aren’t for her she’s given them more than a fair shot.
But who does that for the average author, or for the average book?
You know what? I know it’s not very proper of me to say it (since I guess I’m supposed to flog my own book occasionally), but what thrills me most is when someone comes back to me after I’ve recommended something and says, “Read my first Rankin, loved it” or Bruen, McDermid, Lippman, MacBride, etc.
I’m happy if people find authors and books they’re enthusiastic about. My book isn’t going to do that for everyone, and that’s okay. This isn’t just about pushing my book.
It’s about reminding people of their love of reading. Having more passionate readers out there is great for everyone. Here's to worrying a bit more about wooing readers back to books, instead of just thinking about our own sales all the time.
The lesson is Harry Potter: Midnight openings for bookstores to sell to kids? But those kids have to have it, because everyone will be reading it. It's fueled the passion for books and made a booklaunch an event. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that - that's the success story.
I'm not saying I want us to completely mimick what we see in society. I think we need to be aware of the realities, especially when we're lamenting the lack of readers in their 20s and 30s, and be more concerned with getting the right books into their hands than just getting our books into their hands.
And for those of you who’ve scratched your head at what it is about Rebus that I connect with, maybe this little excerpt will help.
Someone on a bar – recently? years back? – had challenged him to define romance. How could he do that? He’d seen too much of love’s obverse: people killed for passion and from lack of it. So that now when he saw beauty, he could do little but respond to it with the realization that it would fade or be brutalized. He saw lovers in Princes Street Gardens and imagined them further down the road, at the crossroads where betrayal and conflict met. He saw valentines in the shops and imagined puncture wounds, real hearts bleeding.
Not that he’d voiced any of this to his public bar inquisitor.
‘Define romance,’ had been the challenge. And Rebus’s response? He’d picked up a fresh pint of beer and kissed the glass.
The Hanging Garden by Ian Rankin
And I just know I’ve never sounded that cynical… ever. Right?
* Okay, okay, so I know I’m a bit of a gushing fan…