A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I'd been to the bookstore with some people who have no connection to publishing other than their relation to me. I won't say it was a shocking experience -- more like, it was a strong reminder of the state of publishing if you're on the reading end rather than on the production end.
To begin with, as we were walking into the store, one of my companions asked me what the hot new hit was. I said that there had been a lot of very popular books, but he stopped me and said, "No, I mean, something like The Da Vinci Code. Or Harry Potter. What's the new book that everybody is reading?"
So he was interested in reading the latest mega-blockbuster. That's no surprise. He's someone I would describe as a casual-to-heavy reader, someone who probably reads in the neighborhood of a book every six weeks. He likes reading, but he likes a lot of other stuff, too, like movies and TV and video games and browsing the Internet and playing cards with the boys in his garage on a Friday night.
In other words, he is a shining emblem of a problem we hear discussed a lot these days. People like to do a lot of things for entertainment. Books have to compete with all those other things. (Stay tuned. You can hear a dissenting opinion on that down below.)
So I told him about the Stephanie Meyer series, which is probably the closest thing we have right now to a mega-blockbuster, and at that point, I was pretty sure that all I had to do was name the book and it was sold. People like reading these super hits. Reading is usually a somewhat solitary occupation, but if everyone reads and discusses the same books, then it becomes a communal experience. It's like a book club but on an enormous scale. People get the pleasure of a good read, but they also get the pleasure of being able to tell their friends about it and discuss it with the others who've already read it. It's fun. We've all been there.
My other companion seemed less interested in the blockbusters. She said a friend of hers had offered to loan her the Stephanie Meyer series, but when she looked at them, she knew she wouldn't like them. She said she wanted to read grown-up books. When I asked her which was more important, a book that made her think or book that helped her escape, she asked, "Are those qualities mutually exclusive?" Good point.
She had a much easier time finding books to buy. She started at the front tables, skipping the table with the new hardbacks and going straight to the three-for-two trade paperback table, where she found two books she wanted to read but couldn't find a third. Those two were by Emily Griffin and Jhumpa Lahiri. An interesting combination.
By this time, our other friend had examined the hardback table and the face-out upright racks next to it. He had picked up and set down probably about six books, including the Stephanie Meyer book which he rejected because he thought it would be creepy for a man to read about the romantic lives of teenaged girls. He scanned the three-for-two table for a third book to round out our friend’s two, and added a David Sedaris title to her pile.
Then she and I moved on to the romance section, where she repeatedly picked up books, flipped them open to the middle, and read a sample page. I asked her why she was reading a page from the middle instead of the first page, and she said she could tell more about the book from the middle. She said she had been burned too many times by books that started strong but then fizzled. She named one author of popular historicals which surprised me a bit. She described reading the books as “like reading TV.”
I handed her two books, one by Nalini Singh and the other by Madeline Hunter. She knew Madeline Hunter and had already read all of her books, but she added Nalini’s book to her pile. (There you go, Nalini, hon. Now you’re a bestseller plus one.) She also picked up a David Baldacci mystery, which she was excited to find because this is a favorite author. So she buys by author, and she picks new potential authors by a random middle page in the book which she wants to be as well-developed as a first chapter.
While we were browsing romance and mystery, our friend was browsing the rest of the store. He picked up a book called "Then Ditka Said to Payton," which looked like a very entertaining collection of anecdotes about Da Bears. In other words, a tie-in title, something that supports an interest outside of reading. (In case you're wondering, the only thing I bought was a knitting magazine. I've picked up over a hundred paperbacks this summer, so I didn't feel the urge to buy any more until I read the ones I've got.)
As we were standing in line, I asked them point blank what would make them choose to read a book instead of going to a movie or watching TV.
“But I like reading,” he said.
“And I don’t really like TV,” she said. “Well, except for certain shows.”
"I understand that," I said. "But let's say you have two hours, and you can do anything at all in those two hours. What would make you choose a book over something else like playing computer games or watching a movie?"
They had a hard time articulating an answer. At first they said it depended on the options, but when I dug a little deeper, it became apparent that they don't think about books the same way they think about other kinds of entertainment. They describe video games as mindless, for example, in her case too mindless to be worthy of attention. They describe TV as a filler, more or less, something to do when they're bored with everything else, except for certain particular shows which they watch faithfully. (In his case, he said, “I can always watch sports,” as if there was some comfort in that idea.) Going to bars and restaurants, playing cards, and similar activities are all clearly categorized as social, things that they do when they want to be with other people.
Their attitudes towards movies probably most closely parallels there attitudes towards books. They pick movies based on who is in them and based on the hits, much as they would pick a book by its author or by its placement on the bestseller list or front table.
Publishing for some time has been very conscious of the fact that it has to compete with all these other entertainment avenues for consumer dollars. There's been a tendency to try to make books quicker, lighter, more suitable for today's short attention spans, as a way of making books more competitive with video games, web browsing, and TV.
I've always been skeptical of this position, and my experience at the bookstore supported my skepticism. Publishing is dominated by "the same, only different" mindset which leads consumers to buy books in clusters. And that's fine. We know that works. If someone reads a great YA series like Harry Potter, there are more open to reading another great YA series like Stephanie Meyer’s. (Maybe. As it turns out, both of my friends considered and rejected those books.) If they read a mystery and love it, the more likely to go back and look for other mysteries just like it. We know that, and that's fine, but it only gets us so far. It doesn't explain, for example, why my friend would be interested in reading both Emily Griffin and Jhumpa Lahiri.
When we start competing against the larger marketplace of all possible entertainment options, I think we need a different mindset. "The same, only different" no longer works. They don't buy books because books are like TV. In fact, one of my friends specifically rejects books because they're too much like TV. I think we ought to be focusing on the things that distinguish books from other kinds of entertainment. Product differentiation, not cluster identification. (Though to be fair, tie-ins function on the opposite principle -- my friend bought the Bears book because he loves sports, a non-reading activity that led to a book sale. That's a type of "the same, only different" that cannot be discounted.)
So how are books different from all these other forms of entertainment? I think the most obvious difference is in point of view. Only in books can we get inside another person’s experiences and thoughts, and I think this is one of the reasons that first person and subjective third person have become almost standard point of view choices in many genres. (Movies can use voiceover narration to achieve a similar effect, but for the most part, the camera is an objective witness that doesn't let us into another person’s head.)
So now it’s your turn. Am I way off here? What do you think of this? Is it something you think about while you’re writing? What makes you choose a book instead of some other form of entertainment?