A strong claim. I’d better explain further: I don’t mean that books, as a tangible item, are redundant, but the way in which we’re accustomed to using them.
A decade or so ago, books were the founts of all knowledge, and one of only a few ways to attain escapism from our daily grind. They represented a route to self-improvement and a better standard of life. Books still deliver all this and more, but it’s us, as readers, who have changed.
Past vs. present
Google is the first place generations turn to for information. Rather than schlep down to a library, rifle through index cards (if you were lucky enough to know the category/area you wanted to research), then spend an hour or so finding the exact passage in a particular book relating to our query, we can today hunt down the same educational nuggets within seconds using a search engine. Ask someone under thirty a question they don’t know the answer to, and it’s their mobile you’ll see them pull out, not an encyclopedia.
Fiction books are still used for escapism, and many of today’s younger generations join their senior counterparts in their love of tangible paperbacks/hardbacks, against digital e-readers and apps – preferring to flick through pages and feel more attached to the story. But fiction is not just competing with the standard four channels on the box as it would twenty years ago, but an ocean set to burst with digital programmes, games and films. We can spend our leisure time doing anything we want to.
'We don’t need no quarantine…'
It’s important authors understand this shift, and the different claims on our attention. Anything going viral in our parents’ generation would have been shut away in quarantine, but today we’re hungry for things spread in this manner. There’s so much choice and noise to cut through, when a cause/news item/debate/product starts to peep out above the layer of chatter, it’s snatched upon by swarms of people, desperate to show they’re up on the latest craze, which, in turn, adds fuel to the viral fire.
Despite technology making us more physically more segregated, we feel better connected than ever. We want to be a part of the latest craze, yet we want to simultaneously express our specific individuality. Books are integral to this behaviour. Who amongst you read 50 Shades because everyone was talking about it, even though it would be the last book you’d pick up normally?
Conversely, how many of you like to ‘discover’ new authors and be a part of their journey from the outset? Niche audiences are springing up everywhere; every author is capable of finding the right reader for their work. Appealing to the masses is a risky strategy, given the sheer volume of authors shouting: ‘Buy my book! Buy my book!’. Why fight it? Spend that time on your market research before you write your book and know exactly where to point it once it’s complete and the type of person who’ll be clamouring to read it.
Who ARE you?
Books, nowadays, give us a sense of identity – maybe they always have. Consider how you arrange your bookshelf at home – do you display the more intellectually challenging titles more prominently, perhaps subconsciously demonstrating to visitors how learned you are? Maybe your most inflammatory books are the ones clearly visible, to instigate debate or to display the ‘rebel’ inside? Have a look at your bookcase – what does it say about you?
I know some readers who don’t even display the books they actually read – these are kept in their bedside drawer or under the mattress. Not because they’re shockingly erotic, for example, but because they’d be considered ‘trashy’ (someone has to be buying Katie Price’s autobiographies). It’s common for readers to create more than one identity through the books they choose.
Understanding what books can mean to people in today’s digital world may help some authors better understand their audience – it can be exponentially more than the content between pages. It can also give readers an insight into why they choose the books they do.
I don’t foresee a future without books, but I do recognise that we’ve changed how we use them. Self-publishing authors are in a better position to harness the benefits. They can seek out and appeal to minority audiences and niche readerships, delivering exactly what these readers want. They can introduce new thoughts, concepts and ideas without worrying whether each will align with the income of a shareholder. They’re more agile, and ultimately, more capable of starting the next ‘trend’ – because they won’t need twenty layers of permission to try something new.
Ride the wave, self-publisher. Your time is now.