The problem with books

The problem with books is they are an extremely bad strategy.

Imagine you wanted to introduce yourself to a group of people. It could be a new social group or a new workplace. It could be a a new town. Even, if you’re a particularly ambitious and entrepreneurial sort of person, a whole new city. Whatever the scale, you face the same essential challenge. How do you go from being unknown to these people, to being well known?

Consider these two options :

1) You go out to social events and chat with people. You invite people to your events, maybe throw a few parties. You listen to what people have to say, and you share you’re own thoughts in exchange. At some point you put on a real grand shindig, with a free bar and top class entertainment. Hurrah! You’re the toast of the town. You pen a memoir and it sells like hotcakes.

2) You sit at home every evening on your own. Instead of sharing your ideas with people you write them down in a series of ever more intensely scribbly in notebooks. Eventually you take the notebooks, at this point resembling the deranged meanderings of a serial killer, have 10,000 copies printed up, and leave them in a pile in a shop somewhere. Uhm…where they are completely ignored and then pulped.

OK. So I’ve painted a less than flattering portrait of the aspiring novelist. But fundamentally the writers task is very much like that of meeting any new group of people. You write stuff, and out there in the world are people who read stuff. Unless you can somehow connect the two, you’re life as a writer is going to be deeply frustrating.

A book is a tremendous investment of time. Which in turn means tremendous resources, money, energy…or put bluntly, life. Imagine what you could do in the time you’re writing that book! In that time you could, I’m fairly certain, found a Fortune 500 company, sell it, and retire to your own island to be served by an army of slaves engineered from the genes of your defeated enemies.

Anyone who writes professionally online knows that long, ambiguously titled bits of text disappear without a trace in the viral marketing shit-storm that is the internet. Sadly, a “long, ambiguously titled bit of text” is basically the definition of most books. The book, as a marketable artefact, is about as profoundly unsuited to the internet as a tribe of hill dwelling indigenous peoples are unsuited to the radioactive vacuums of deep-space.

But whoah there Damo! Books still sell on the internet you know. To which I say yesbut. Look at the how and the why of books that sell well on the internet. Take a look, for instance, at the the Hugo best novel shortlists of recent years. How many of the shortlisted authors have a platform to reach readers *other* than their novels? The answer is almost all of them. At least 2/3 thirds are successful bloggers and that includes, notably, almost all of the writers to emerge in the last decade.

Does that mean that their books suck? No, quite the opposite. It means their books perfectly suit the established audience that enjoys their blog. Take a little time perusing the non-fiction book world and you’ll find that a strong online presence is pretty much essential for any writer in that field. A best selling non-fiction book is now, with very few exceptions, the culmination of a much longer audience building process effected through YouTube videos, blogs and social media.

IE, option 1 from the two discussed above.

Am I suggesting that you have to be a successful blogger to successfully sell books? No. But I am suggesting that books as we currently think of them are a very bad way of introducing a new writer to readers. Books are already adapting. Savvy self-publishers are using shorter forms to “pilot” work and then building on those which grab reader attention, Hugh Howey’s Dust being the most successful example of this to date.

As fiction writers we are storytellers. But stories have always adapted as the ways of telling them have changed. I don’t believe the novel has found the format that will carry it in to the 21st century yet. But I think the search is on. And the writers who crack it will be well rewarded by readers.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

6 thoughts on “The problem with books

  1. A book is a tremendous investment of time.

    And especially, today, Damien, the other half of this also applies. Reading a book is a tremendous investment of time, since there are damn few people who can effectively read a book and multitask. And multittasking is the name of the game these days.

    (Audiobooks may, may be an exception to this. But audiobooks have problems I hadn’t considered until a 4th street fantasy con panel)


  2. Quit this being so insightful, LOL. Howlingly funny while posing things writers should take into account. My Tweet tribe is gonna get tired me bombing them with you. Oh, well. Suck it up and sign up.

    I mull about blogging, but WIP says not happening.

    We CAN count on weather in MN (to be extreme,) so I run on a treadmill and do some of my best plotting/seeing while in motion. If a scene is “sticky,” I hop on the beltway and crank up the music. It solves itself.


  3. You’re right, but habit is a powerful thing. The long lingering squabble between traditional and modern approaches will doubtless go on for a long while, regardless of what works best in reality for both readers and writers.



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