Thursday, August 7, 2008

Rules for Radical Readers

As someone who is more frequently exploring the interweaving of social networking and bookselling, I can't say that I've ever found a sentence more exciting than this:

In one heavily trafficked thread entitled “Unhappy with Breaking Dawn? Don’t burn it—RETURN it!,” commenters debated whether returning the book was a valid way to express unhappiness with the book. <PW Daily, 7 Aug 08>

The above is referring to the less-than-enthusiastic reception of Stephanie Meyer's Breaking Dawn, the fourth book in the hottest YA series since that wizard kid (read Sarah's thoughts here). I can't honestly write that I've seen anyone return a copy to us this week - and if you're thinking of it, I recommend returning it to a megastore, instead.

Back to my interest in this story, though. I've recently finished Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody, a book on sharing, collaboration and collective actions through online social networking. It's a good intro to the rise of netroots actions across the spectrum - politics, business, creativity to name a few broad arenas - if less than critical. Still, I recommend.

In Shirky's world, collective action is the endpoint of successful online social groupings. As the chief advocate for our Ning network of book readers, I tend to concentrate on how the internets can facilitate sharing and collaboration - in essence, I'm hoping to initiate a conversation on books, etc. This blog, too, is an exercise in collaboration. Ideally, the collective action part of the equation is the translation from joining the network to helping independent booksellers keep their doors open by buying books from us (which you can do by clicking on a title or book cover).

In the 4 Aug 08 print edition of Publishers Weekly, (lo-and-behold!) Clay Shirky has a little piece on digital publishing, "Mattering to Readers", in which he predominantly argues for a more accessible publishing world to listen to and reach out to their readers, in order to form more personal relationships, or "to matter" to them. Shirky holds up Big Music as what not to do: don't become faceless, homogenized blobs, or folks won't have a problem digitally reproducing and redistributing your products without giving a damn about your coin purse.

The publishing industry has an advantage, maybe two: books are still not digitally-distributed to the extent that they can be "pirated". The second might be that mega-publishers haven't become blobs of homogenization, yet. I think there are more than a few arguments against that, though. Regardless, Shirky's claim only requires the first condition: folks can't rip off the publishers yet without the digital media; thus, the publishers still have time to become relevant to their readers. They'd better hurry, as some small publishers already are relevant to many readers.

What does this have to do with online social networking, besides the preferred method of distribution of digital media, you might ask? Two things: the writing process and the bi-directionality of networks.

Shirky writes that he wanted to write a book "to work with a publisher", rather than, say, make some money, share some knowledge, etc. Those things, I assume he knows, he can do - and foes - online. He goes for print due to a books ability to share and collaborate ("focus a conversation, creating social capital" are his exact words) across large scales and longer periods of time. (It talks longer to read and share a physical book, than forward an email, online story or blogpost.)

The conversation we want is one of sharing ideas, collaborating and collective action. Shirky, as a writer and communications theorist, understands the collaborative process inherent in bringing a finished book to the shelf - and how this is similar to what online communities can sometimes achieve. Here Comes Everybody, though, is published by one of the largest conglomerates in the publishing world - Penguin. (One can understand why he might not be interested in declaring that big publishing houses *are* exactly the same as their nameless, faceless music industry anaologs.) I can also understand why explicitly writing about the potential consequences of this conversation didn't make it into this article.

As Breaking Dawn is showing us, hosting that conversation can result in your readers trashing your products, for all to read, for some (if not most) to participate in, all at your hosting expense and their time. While there willingness to spend their free time is a strong sign of the readers' committment to the series, what I find more interesting is the power that the readers have wrested from the publishers, utilizing the tools the publisher has provided to organize a campaign to return the books. While I'm sure Little, Brown/Hachette was counting on kids flosking to their site to talk about Meyer's saga, I bet they weren't counting on losing their monopolistic power structure in the process.

And, to me, that is the power of the reader who is connected to other readers. The temporal and physical structures of our society may keep us divided - suburban sprawl, homogenization of commerce, lack of mass transit, ad inifinitum - but we can build social capital in spaces that are more resiliant to these pressures.

Join the conversation.

(And, if you're in SE Wisco, you can join our siblings at 800-CEO-READ for their second Pecha Kucha night on 26 Aug 08.)


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