Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Where's The Love?

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?

Nobody.

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.

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…

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

"There is no sense of immediacy with books...They aren’t bound by a sense of urgency."

And maybe they shouldn't be. You know, be careful what you wish for and all that. Not everything should be "urgent."

Books are anachronistic. They're out of date and out of fashion. They appeal only to a small percentage of people on the fringes. It's harder to read a book than watch a TV show or a movie. I'm amazed anyone reads at all.

But the truth is, plenty of people do. Enough people. I can't think of many things that didn't get ruined - watered-down and gutted - by over-popularizing them.

I think we have to be careful about this "manufactured crisis" mentality in the media. The publishing industry may not be growing, but it's not shrinking much either. It's not in trouble.

Every year there are fewer and fewer movies I'm interested in seeing and very few TV shows I bother with, but every day more books are published I really want to read. The 'content' of the books business is in way better shape than the movies (which is why so many movies are based on books), TV, even theatre. Books are far more diverse, take far more creative risks and cover a lot more creative ground.

Be careful what you wish for. A lot of that TV urgency is manufactured, it's a product of limited supply (that's why as there are more and more channels, there are fewer shows with that urgency). The 'relaxed' attitude towards books has a lot to do with the large supply of quality available. That sense of urgency could easily be realized by simply publishing far fewer books. I'd hate to see that.

John McF (I lost my Blogger password)

Christa M. Miller said...

To appeal to younger people, I think teachers have to be open to "new classics." I told my husband that he really should use "World War Z" to help teach current events, because Brooks nailed certain cultural characteristics so well. Crime fiction is another great example. What better way to help kids process world events than to have them read a book like "To the Power of Three"?

So my question is - how do we get teachers to assign this stuff?

Sandra Ruttan said...

I agree not everything should be urgent. I simply think that this is one of the reasons it's hard for the book industry to compete with everything else.

As to the question of if the publishing industry is in trouble or not, I'm guessing you haven't heard the latest rumours? Since they've only been reported in speculative mode I haven't linked... yet. But in the past few weeks some of the stories I've heard have been troubling. We're not about to go under, but we are navigating some choppy waves.

I am with you, in that there's less and less on tv and in the theatres I'm interested in.

I would never wish for fewer books, but by "immediacy and passion about books" I mean building the interest in reading. Reducing the number of books published wouldn't do that. In fact, it would make it worse. The bookstores would all then carry the same books, because there wouldn't be the same level of competition for shelf space, and any time you wanted it you could go to the store and get it. We do, in fact, have an 'urgency' factor built in to the present distribution methods. If you don't get your copy right away and it's out of print you might have to wait. Between hardcover and paperback versions there's often a gap of time. I griped about the fact that I was looking for a copy of Cold Granite as a Christmas gift not six months after it came out and the book was 'out of stock' - it had been pulled in that format to make way for the mmpb coming out in January, so as of November it was gone.

I think one of the main reasons people don't read more is because they don't know what's out there. And because books take effort and energy people wonder why they should make the effort if they don't know they'll be satisfied.

Even as a book lover I feel that way sometimes. I get review copies (unrequested ones) sent and think, I have no interest in that at all. And then I eye it with a certain amount of dread.

Kevin's reading two books right now he's not enjoying... but he's reviewing them. What a dilemma. You want your reading time (any entertainment time) to be enjoyable, not to suck.

As I get on to in the post, I think what we have is a lack of ambassadors for books and authors, people in positions to actually guide readers. Some bookstores have them, and some libraries, but I don't live near a mystery specialty store. And when I listen to sales staff in bookstores try to help readers the majority of the time it's obvious they know nothing about the books.

So, if we have declining review space and fewer knowledgable store staff in the chains, how will people find out about the books they're going to enjoy?

That's the question. You're an example of the point, in a way, because if you hadn't emailed me I wouldn't have gone looking for your book. And you never even mentioned being an author - I googled you. I didn't see a review, didn't see promotional material, hadn't even heard of it. And that was doubly annoying, since last year I had contacted Canadian publishers to try to find out about forthcoming books to review for the Canadian issue or names of authors to be interviewed (and absolutely none of them responded).

Were it not for a personal connect what are the chances I would have found the book? Pretty much nonexistent.

People wonder why I'm often talking about books here I like and authors I like... this is it. When I talk to the 'flesh and blood' people I know they're amazed that there's all this stuff going on they know nothing about, and my best friend (someone who frequents libraries) turns to me for suggestions. In the library for her, it's as much time as she has to pull books down and read the jackets until her kids drive her nuts and force her out... which is pretty hit and miss.

I have no desire to see us mimicking rock stars and wannabe's like Paris (gag me) but I see authors who say they don't read, who won't refer other writers and who take no vested interested in talking up books. And I've seen how excited fans get when their favourite author is touring and they get a chance to hear them live. I think it's nice to see some enthusiasm about books for a chance.

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.


Christa, I don't know. I wish To The Power of Three was on school curriculums. I used it when I did my Wordapalooza event back in January. I think we need to emphasize books that deal with issues relevant to youth.

Randy Johnson said...

I'm not sure what the answer is, either. I see commercials on TV for James Patterson's novels. That wouldn't be cost effective for most writers though. Working in a Waldenbooks years ago, my greatest joy was a customer asking for advice. I read so-and-so. Do you have anything similar? Several times I ended up selling customers a half dozen books(both new and from the remaindered tables). I like to think I introduced them to new authors and they went on to buy more.

Randy Johnson said...

Oh, by the way, I just received Blood hunt in the mail yesterday

Sandra Ruttan said...

Randy, I'm with you in the hopes that people will discover those new authors and go back for more. Since most of my shopping is limited to chains, I seem to have an abundance of painful experiences. "No, I do not have a speech impediment and Fleshmarket Close is not a book about fashion."

Seriously.

You will have to tell me what you think of Blood Hunt. It has been AGES since I've read those books - easily 4 years. I don't think they're Rankin's strongest myself, but must admit that I lost them when we moved. Well, they may yet be in some unopened box somewhere (I've had that happen before) and I haven't replaced them yet. I kept thinking they'd turn up but I guess I've given up on that. One of these days I'll buy new copies.

Kris said...

As much as I hate the Harry Potter books, with their formulaic storylines and adverb-laden sentences (he said heavily), I do wonder if they might not be a force for good in the next five years or so. Millions of kids and teenagers read those books, and I think we can all agree that once you fall in love with reading, you never really fall out of it.

Further, I can't think of any book series that has targeted this young market en masse the way Rowling's has. Only RL Stine comes to mind, and that's not the same thing at all. Do you think writers, and spec fiction writers in particular, could be riding Rowling's waves in the coming years?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Absolutely. I think that, love them or loathe them, the Harry Potter books have done something that I don't remember from my own childhood - they have fueled the love of reading and a passion and excitement about books.

In fact, my niece is a huge fan, so much so I went by JK Rowling's house for her when I was in Edinburgh last July, and she's been so captivated by the books she's started writing her own first novel. She's 12. I've seen some of the writing - it's clear she's been influenced by Tolkein as well.

While I'm more interested in substance than flash there's no denying that the collective interest in Harry Potter has been a great thing for other authors. We've seen the rise of Inkheart and a number of other books that have gained recognition as well. Not to the same extent, but what I note is that a lot of the kids don't stop with Harry Potter.

And you're right - once they have the love they don't lose it. They might need to find it again after those rocky post-teen years, but when they have fond memories of the adventures between the covers of books as kids they'll want that for their kids.

Randy Johnson said...

Whether you like the Harry Potter books or not, they can be a force for good. Kris is right about never losing a love of books. Finding the right subject to interest someone is the key. Thirty-five years ago, I made a friend who had been pushed through school until old enough to quit. He didn't like reading. But he liked watching the original Star Trek on TV. I handed him a few of the Bantam novels and said, "Try these, They're new." In the years since, he's gone on to find writers he likes that for the most part are different from my own favorites.

Sandra Ruttan said...

That's very cool Randy. See, there's something out there for everyone... it really just is guiding them to the right thing.

Evil Kev said...

I would agree with Sandra. There seems to be lethargic detached attitude toward books, especially in literary fiction community. Reading is almost a enlightened or quaint pursuit. If you prefer reading to watching TV, then you are held up as either a throwback, poor or a snob.

I think what Sandra is referring to is "Must read books", the concept that you must have read a certain book to be "in the know". We saw that to a degree with The Da Vinci Code and The Harry Potter Series. I know kids who get the book at midnight and start reading it right away, sometimes finishing it in a few days. A 600 to 700 page book, read by a child in a few days when TV and video games are available and tailored to their interests. Why is that? Because NOT reading the book makes you a social outcast.

The is a phrase "Read the book, don't wait for the movie." We are encouraged by popular media to let them bring the experience of reading a great novel into watching a so-so movie. That is a serious mistake as what makes a book great sometimes can not be effectively translated to the big screen.

I must disagree with John here. It is not a solid supply of books that reduces the urgency to read a book, it is that there is no cultural stigma to not being well read. Oprah was able to form a book club that gave that sense of urgency to reading, If all your friends who watch Oprah had read the latest book she was endorsing, you would not want to be the only one who failed to read it.

There is nothing noble about reading, so we should not act as if it is the action of the enlightened. As easy as it is to rail against the Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter, the idea that you must read a book to be culturally aware is worth while.

DesLily said...

I really enjoyed this post Sandra! Thinking back it made me wonder if the teachers enjoyed reading? Most schools hand out "reading assignments" (HOMEWORK: A DREADED WORD) They rarely discuss what is read outloud and are told to write about the book when they are done. As a kid that whole deal was a turnoff. Sometimes I think they should start younger and use some "reverse psychology".. "I would like you to read one chapter.. and ONLY one chapter".. the next day discuss it, doing things like asking "what would you do that so and so didn't?" (thereby putting THEM in the book) As a kid if I were told NOT TO READ MORE THEN ONE CHAPTER... you know darn well at least SOME will do more!

I know that's not really an answer, but it popped into my head as I read your post.

I wish there were YA authors like there are today when I was young, or even when my kids were young. (when I was young there was at least, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and Huck Finn)

I was delighted to see the name of Inkheart (Cornelia Funke) in your comments! She's WONDERFUL!

I came upon her by accident. I was going to a convention and was going to see Andy Serkis (Gollum/ LOTR)so i did some research on him before I went and found that he was in a "new movie being made called: INKHEART".. so I sent for the book to see what sort of part he would play, and got hooked on her! (gads, I'm 63 and hooked on a kids author!)

Myself, as you noted, I went thru the "hormone stage" without much reading.. then my brother got me to read The Hobbit (which btw was a mandatory reading in his senior year of HS).. the rest is history ..and why I read Fantasy.

I read a number of "book blogs" and will be sending them here for this post... it gives one food for thought, that's for sure!

Eileen said...

Have you heard about the one city, one book program? Various cities are picking a book and encouraging everyone to read it- making an entire city a book club.

Kris said...

I mostly agree with Evil Kev, although I would say that being culturally aware is not necessarily worthwhile in itself. We are wading through our sixth season of Big Brother here in Australia and I defy anyone to tell me it has any redeeming cultural or social merit whatsoever. I watched the first three seasons like everyone else under the age of 40, but I came to realise it was like a heroin addiction - it took five or six hours of my life each week and gave me nothing in return.

There has been a lot of concern over feeding kids junk food and their subsequent obesity. I think the inverse is true with entertainment; we're feeding them too much junk and their brains are being undernourished. Writing may not be an action of the enlightened per se, but given the alternatives (of the kind youth will indulge, anyway) I think it is.

Kris said...

Whoops, that was meant to be "reading may not be action of the enlightened", of course.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Evil Kev, yes, that's definitely part of what I was thinking about, for sure.

Here are simple realities every author has to acknowledge:
-No bookstore has to carry your book
- If bookstores do carry your book and it isn't selling they can return it
- Most give a time-limit to try new authors and then they stop carrying them
- Orders of further titles by an author are based on sales of their previous title
- Shelf life on hardcover, for the average author, is a matter of months


That's why it matters to sell steadily, and to sell early from release. 99.9% of us aren't Laura Lippman - we can't carry being in hardcover for a year and we don't get the promotional budget of authors who are in bestselling territory.

Hell, without word of mouth, 99.9% of us would be done being published. Writing only goes so far. Publishers evaluate sales strength.

DesLily, lovely to see you - I was thinking of you when I mentioned Inkheart, actually. My niece has read it. You've raised an interesting point. I suppose a lot of teachers may not enjoy reading themselves. I know when I was in grade 5 our teacher read Superfudge to us in 'story time' - reading for a very short amount of time. We were all hooked and people would groan and complain when it was over. No schoolwork involved. My grade 8 teacher did that with The Hobbit, at the end of the day.

I can see they were at least trying. I know from being in child care environments story time is very popular. I think the hardest thing is, most of the staff don't really get taught how to read to kids. It's just...bland.

All of that stuff matters when engaging kids.

Interesting how you ended up reading fantasy. My sister's a fantasy fan. My brother-in-law likes horror. All of us, somehow, found our niche, but I think like you, almost everyone found it through someone giving a referral. I'm an oddity.

Eileen, no I hadn't heard of that. Interesting.

Kris, I agree about the fact that a lot of what's out there in the popular mainstream isn't great for us. Reality TV certainly being one of those things. I doubt anyone would call The DaVinci Code high literature... But at least it requires a bit of brain fuction. I wish I could lay my hands to the study that talked about the fact that there's less brain activity when watching TV than when sleeping. Even the most basic reading tops that.

Sorry, I've had internet trouble today and wasn't able to get on earlier.

Kris said...

Stephen King recently wrote an EW column with some relevance to this discussion:

http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20034042,00.html

Anonymous said...

I don't have the answer either.
It's a good question though.
I go visit my friends in their new houses. No books! Anywhere!
I find it upsetting and can't get my head around it at all.
I was talking with a "friend in law" recently who is from Aberdeen. I asked him if he knew of Stuart MacBride. He hadn't a clue what i was talking about? After i explained he was really impressed that someone from his own city had written a book. It was all a bit otherworldish to him.
Maybe it's down to advertising. A lot of my non reading friends have read the Da Vinci Code. It bothers me.
chelbel

Randy Johnson said...

I can't get around the concept of no books in the house either. I literally have books in every room of the house. Over the years, I can't tell you how many people have been guests and have been heard to say, "I haven't read a book since I got out of school." They sound almost proud when they say it(shudder). I've lost many a book over the years by passing them off to people and not getting them back. But I figure it's for a good cause if I can get people to read.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Chelbel, obviously something carried The DaVinci Code... I don't know what! Word of mouth to groundswell to promotional dollars? No... they printed 10,000 ARCs of it. The promotional dollars let to the groundswell of word of mouth.

So why that book? Who's to say...

Kris, thanks for the link - I'll check that out.

Randy, it is a noble cause to lose the odd book for. Hopefully it bears fruit.

Melanie said...

How do readers find books they'd be interested in? You're right, part time employees working at chain bookstores are probably not the best route to go. Librarians, however, consider matching up the right book with the right person part of our jobs. We even have a fancy library name for it, Reader's Advisory. Most librarians love to recommend reading based on a patron's interests. I wish more people were aware that they can walk in to a public library and ask for help finding fiction to read. I know that it is one of my favourite kinds of question to handle!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Melanie, I didn't even know that. Is that a universal library program or nation-wide? That's really very cool.