Where Have all the Readers Gone?

books, glorious booksNo, it’s not a remake of Pete Seeger’s famous 1955 anti-war song. That’s the title of an article that appeared in the Globe and Mail this week, by Peter Denton, lamenting our overall slide into image-based information with the “…intellectual attention span of squirrels…” *

It grabbed my attention from the headline, but I stand at odds over his conclusions and his figures.

Denton worries that people are reading less and sliding towards “personal illiteracy”:

It’s not that e-books are taking over, either. People hardly buy books any more. Even fewer read them. My e-book sales are almost non-existent and I am told this is a common complaint. Canada’s one large book retailing chain stocks as much other stuff as it does books and displays it much more prominently.
Simply put, we are no longer a country of readers – at least not of more than 1,000 words in a row. Anything longer is skipped over like those Internet terms of service agreements, jumping to the agree button at the end.

Now I realize I am not your typical reader, and may be the exception to the rule, but I think my generation is, on average, both very well-read and continues to read a significant amount. My parents were avid readers and they shared their love of books with me. But more than that, for me a good time is an hour or two simply browsing in a bookstore or library. Hell, even wandering through my own personal library is a delight because I always find something to pull off a shelf and look through.

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Too Many Books?

Too Many Books?Tim Parks* wrote an intriguing essay in the New York Review of Books last week with that title. My first thought on seeing it was to wonder if one can ever have too many books. But of course, Parks – an author himself  – is looking at the bigger picture, not the ever-growing collection that clutters my bookshelves and litters my house. He asks:

Is there a relationship between the quantity of books available to us, the ease with which they can be written and published, and our reading experience?

I worked in book publishing as both an editor and a sales rep for many years, and before that, I worked in bookstores and even owned a bookstore. I understand reasonably well the business and the economics of publishing, and of retail. Because of that experience, I have often wondered these past few years as I wander around in bookstores, how the industry can sustain such output. How many more books on the frivolous gluten-free fad, or cookie-cutter teen-vampire tales, or vapid talk-with-angels books can we add to the shelf before the diminishing return on such investment discourages publishers?

There are more books being published than ever before, and with the internet and e-readers, more ways to access those books; but is that always a good thing? Can we be overwhelmed by the volume of material to the point where we turn away from many – if not all – books?

Can we have too many choices so that we cannot discern the wheat from the chaff?

Yes, of course: all these books cannot be great books; some have to be poorly written, researched or plotted. Chaff exists. A multitude of voices can be a cacophony as well as a choir.

Parks himself asked, in another NYRB piece:

Is there any consistent relationship between a book’s quality and its sales? Or again between the press and critics’ response to a work and its sales? Are these relationships stable over time or do they change?

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The Strange World of E-Writers

Pulp magazinesThere’s always been a place for amateur or new writers to present their efforts and hope to see print: publications where you could submit your work and hope the editors found it good enough to print in an upcoming issue. That’s how some famous writers got their start, in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s: Robert Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov and many more. But all of these depended on getting past the gatekeeper, someone like John Campbell: an editor who set standards – slim as they may sometimes be – and wrangled clumsy prose into shape for publication.

And then there have been self-publishing houses that can eschew the editor and simply print your book as you submit it – as long as you paid the bill to do so. This type of publishing house is still operating and plays an important role in getting many local and personal or family books into print. Many authors, frustrated at not being able to find a national publisher, has resorted to self-publishing. The wonderful book of local oral history, Butchers, Bakers and Building the Lakers used this method to get into print.*

Self-publishing runs the gamut from quality books like this to family genealogies, first novels and collections of atrociously sappy poems. It’s not simply self-printing: it’s self-editing, self-layout and self-design (unless you hire a professional to do it for you – there’s still a role for freelance editors and designers). Still, it has a respectable place in the history of publishing.

I remember in the 1950s and 60s there were ads in magazines for poetry books – submit your poem and an amount of money and you would get back a book of poems by aspiring writers like yourself, the printing paid for by the collective authors. No editor, just a compositor and printer. And usually awful stuff between the covers. But who cared about the rest if you saw your name in print?

Then came the internet and a new venue for self publishing: the website. And from that sprang the blog. But most of these efforts have been limited in scope and size. Almost no one reads a novel online, and would-be authors have had to either break their work into smaller parts or bundle it into a downloadable file for offline printing and reading. With the dwindling public attention span, it’s hard to get readers to stick around a website to read even something as long and rambling as these blog posts, let alone a whole book.

The Net also gave a boost to fan fiction because it allowed fans to collectivize and publish online. Like many other forms of writing, fan fiction has a long history. I remember many years ago, in the 70s, writing fantasy short stories in the world created by Fritz Leiber in his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series. Never saw print, mind you, but it’s interesting and entertaining to work within the universe created by another writer – and great practice for the wannabe novelist.

In a similar vein, the original Dungeons and Dragons gamified a fantasy universe for players to both participate in and develop their own, personal story lines – some of which led to fan books and magazine stories.

Now, with the arrival of e-readers, those authors have a new platform, a new audience, and what a world it has spawned.

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