3 things books must do to survive in an attention economy

Much of my first decade as a writer was spent helping people read and write. I ran workshops and development projects for libraries, a part of my professional life I wrote about not so long ago. A big part of my work then was caught up with the question, asked in various different ways, “why don’t more people read?” Reading is both fun and remarkably good for people. So why isn’t everyone an avid reader?

The common assumption, one I came to believe was profoundly incorrect (and got in to remarkable amounts of shit for vocally challenging), was that “non-readers” were a) poor and  b) uneducated. In other words, lack of participation in reading was laid at the feet of class and social politics. My own experience first made me suspect this was untrue. I grew up in a single parent family, in a council flat, on state benefits, in the “underclass” that were defined as “non-readers”, but I grew up surrounded by books, instilled with a love of books, and I knew that I wasn’t alone in that. When I began to look at the paltry research on the subject of reading I saw it presented no real evidence to back up the assumptions on poverty, and as I got deeper in to my work I saw the truth with my own eyes. In tiny homes on grim housing estates I would find hordes of books, defeating the poverty of ignorance stereotype again and again.

In fact the people who read the least were usually rather affluent. At least financially. Rich in money, but poor in time. Middle class parents struggling to maintain a high standard of material living. Young professionals carving out a career. Teenagers balancing  minimum wage jobs with their studies. The big gap in the reading demographic isn’t poor people, it’s busy people.

And we’re becoming a world of very, very busy people. To be clear, I’m not criticising people for being too busy read. I think many of us might benefit from making more time to read (I literally have to schedule reading time or, even as a writer and reviewer, I won’t do it) But if the reason we’re not reading is that we’re too busy living I can’t in truth see that as a terrible problem. And the combined wonders of digital technology and late stage capitalism keep us very busy living indeed. Laptops and smart phones mean we can carry on our work at any time or place, and the high competition of today’s economy means that we likely have to whether we like it or not. In short, our attention is occupied.

The recent discussion of the Amazon / Hachette negotiations turn, more than we may think, on this contest for attention. The core message of Amazon’s open letter is that books need to adapt to the new demands on our time that the digital, attention deficit economy imposes. The core belief of the writers howling back at Amazon is that books can, and in fact must, resist the pressures of limited time and attention. At heart this is not a business issue, at least not in its wider appeal to public opinion. Amazon / Hachette is a culture clash, and a serious culture clash at that.

I find my heart and soul divided in this conflict. Amazon are right, books will have to change. And writers are correct, books will have to change the world. They’ve done it before, they can do it again. Here are my thoughts on how :

1. An effective digital strategy

I write this in a 24 hour study cafe filled with *counts fingers* 160+ teenagers, students and young professionals. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM IS LOOKING AT A COMPUTER. Laptops, smartphones, tablets. Books have to exist on these devices, they have to be visible, and they have to capture attention not simply passively demand it. Amazon is absolutely right to point again and again at the need for books to compete with films, tv, music, apps, social networks and everything else that happens on these screens. And to be very frank, the reason Amazon are beating publishers up so badly at the moment is that they demonstrably understand the digital paradigm far better. In this area, Amazon and the technology companies win.

2. Innovate both form and content

Where technologists really don’t win is in writing books. You do not improve a book by sticking video clips in it, giving it a branching multiple-choice narrative structure or, and I will bold this for emphasis, make it a fucking video game. Books are already built on the most sophisticated technological communication platform ever evolved – language. That’s where they need to innovate. The novel as commonly encountered today is the outcome of a long series of technological innovations in the use of language to tell stories. Innovations made incrementally by writers and publishers. Publishers can reassert their importance in the digital era by innovating the book successfully for digital readers. To date, major publishers have done almost nothing in this space. That has to change. In this area, writers and publishers have the skills and experience needed.

3. Redefine Value

There’s very little likelihood of new release ebooks selling well for £17.99 (the standard hardback price) when other digital goods are much, much less. But a ten-part serial fiction at £1.99 an episode might make the same ball park revenue as a hardback. But to do so it would need both an effective digital strategy, and an innovative form that made to episodic structure work effectively in prose fiction. I’m not suggesting serial fiction as the answer, merely as an example of one answer that might redefine the value of books for digital readers, and maintain that value at levels needed to keep books an industry not a paying hobby.

For this culture clash between technology geeks and book geeks to resolve, both need to play to their strengths and stop denigrating the strengths of the other. Technology companies like Amazon know digital. Writers and publishers know books. When they work well together then the book industry booms, as we’ve seen at times on the Kindle platform. If they continue to clash however, the future for books may be far less bright.

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7 thoughts on “3 things books must do to survive in an attention economy”

  1. My mom grew up in a single parent household and claimed she had “middle class” values. She meant, of course, that she was surrounded by books and culture. My grandmother was a potter, a painter, a poet and musician. RE book culture and IT industry, you bring up a very good point: how can those who are steeped in book culture help the medium transition to the new economy without literature losing everything that is unique about it.

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    1. It’s technically more challenging to write than in the days of Dickens. Readers are used to being “shown” all the action, which requires these bloated books we have now. Hard to write compelling episodes at a reasonable rate.

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      1. Agreed – although I hadn’t thought about that. Could always write the whole thing before releasing any, although that might not work with the economics. I hate bloated books.

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  2. I recently happened to re-read some favorite sci-fi and fantasy novels from late 1940s-early 1960s, and noted that the volume of action seemed to be about the same as in a modern “epic”, but the actual word count was down at what would be called a long novella now. I had a fine old time reading them, but that may have been nostalgia for the teenager who read them sort-of-new as “classics in the field” around 1970. It’s a great length — not much if any more time than seeing a longish movie, so you really can read at a sitting without needing an iron butt. But is the excitement still there when a battle only takes 250 words, a duel is over in two paperback pages (even of small print?), and people fall in love on 6 paragraphs of acquaintance?

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