Ask the audience

Picture the scene: last Monday, on a UK bank holiday, I visited Beeston castle, the ruins of an ancient castle fort in Cheshire. The ruins are visible for miles as the castle is set on top of a hill, and the scenery is breathtaking. When we got there we found that we had to pay five pounds to get in. This fee would apparently allow us to view a display of castle artifacts and information on the area.

We stood in the queue for about ten minutes with several families with children ranging from toddlers to teens. The parents were very excited, but the children seemed subdued and moody. The day wasn’t particularly hot and it was just after lunch, so no obvious lack of basic needs. Suddenly the mum in front of me rolled her eyes and dipped into her handbag, saying, “OK Sebastian, you can have it. Just stop moaning.” She took out a small handheld games machine and the boy eagerly fired it up and a smile lit his pale face. Looking around, about a third of the children waiting had some kind of entertainment device. The other children looked miserable. They were visiting a castle, for goodness sake.

I became very indignant and maneuvered into moanaholic mode until my Blackberry beeped with a message from my friend and I had to go online to retrieve it. All the way up the hill to the castle one or other of our phones were beeping and children were playing on games machines as they walked, their parents bravely trying to point out items of interest in the real world.

All this computerised wizardry makes me worried for the future of writing. I am not naive enough to not realise that the writing industry is moving online. The plethora of agents with blogs, publishing houses with online guidelines, writers with blogs and websites, writing forums where you can readily get your work reviewed and the social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter – all these are positive mind-shares where people who previously felt isolated in their art or occupation can connect with others. But how much is too much?

I see a broad area of no man’s land dividing two very separate operations. On one side there is the online publishing and author presence, marketing for all they are worth. On the other side is the product: the book.
While I don’t think the book as a product will die out, I do feel that we are facing changes in the way we use books and the way that authors are perceived.

For example, I recently completed a PhD. I read about seven key texts in actual books. I researched journal articles online. I found demographic information online. I even contacted my supervisor online, often conducting supervision sessions by email and MSN Messenger. I stored my thesis online in my webspace in the two years to took to type it up. Then, and only because of the University and British Library rules, I had my thesis bound into a book. Twenty years earlier and this would not have been possible. All the research would have been done in the library and I would have had to make hand written notes and type it up on a typewriter. Grateful as I am for the advance of technology, the change in the way we access information has been rapid and continues to march on.

Because of the amount of information available online and the number of people with computers, the laws of supply and demand insist that the commodity of knowledge is less valuable. The internet is saturated with information in varying degrees of accuracy, but if one can find out the population of Washington DC in three key-taps, why would one go to the library? So, as this online knowledge swells and we spend more time in front of our computer screens, even when outside visiting a castle, are our entertainment expectations changing?

I have noted the change to a more web orientated format to children’s television, in programmes such as The Night Garden, and the extention of the television into website for children as in the Ceebeebies website. The focus is off children’s books and onto the big or small screen.

For adults, non fiction books are being replaced by Wikipedia and specialised sites. For fiction, whilst the market is still reasonably strong and Amazon continues to mail out actual books to customers, the movement towards online fiction becomes ever nearer with websites such as Authonomy and YouWriteOn allowing the opportunity to read other people’s work online. Additionally, with the focus so heavily on maketing and sales of real books online, the trend can be reversed in a few minutes and the marketing strategies brought to chaos. #amazon fail on twitter and websites has, with hardly any input from Amazon itself, damaged the online book market, with many people now questioning their trust in Amazon as an ethical company. Whilst it is not clear what actually happened, be it an attempt to censor readers or a cataloguing glitch, it highlights the potential for both Amazon and the internet public to influence the literary market.

Kenneth Gergen, a sociologist who studies saturation of the self by modern media, predicts an over saturation by unreliable online knowledge in the same way James Lovelock predicts that in thirty years we will be practically swimming to work.

At the end of the day, literature supply and demand is largely influenced by the audience. I see people on the bus reading every day. I still buy books and Waterstones seems to be thriving. The protests against the closing of many libraries in the UK are strong and we are still reading. But what about the boy at the castle? He couldn’t even be bothered to tear his eyes away from a screen for a moment to look at a castle. Is there any chance that he will, in the future, go to a bookshop, buy a book and take it home? I predict a rapid invasion of the no man’s land by those industry experts who recognise future generations hunger for technology and a turn to interactive online content.

Where would this leave the fiction author? As these children grow into technology obsessed adults will they expect ‘knowledge-share’ – will the value of words on a screen plummet as everyone joins in and the market becomes saturated? Will the kudos of writing and publishing a material product such as a book become a specialist hobby, a play on the ego of those who remember the value of the literary publication as books sell for less? Will we be able to visit our ancient monuments online in panoramic vista and exercise in our lounges in computerised interactive games, no need to ever move away from our huge screens? Is this the in the future? Or is it happening now? You decide. Or better still, ask a child when they last read a book by choice.

I’m going out for a walk!

1 thought on “Ask the audience”

  1. Jacqui–
    this week, I’m working on a story about getting children age 10-13 to read and keep reading. I’ve interviewed a children’s book author, a school librarian and a buyer for the children’s section of a large bookstore chain. At risk of scooping myself, here are a few things they tell me:
    1/yes, kids are doing much of their research online but many still like to read books, especially if they’re about dragons, fantasy, sci fi, magic and such.
    2/some successful children’s books ref back to websites, for more information as well as interactive content.
    3/children’s book publishers are making a lot of money, so either the kids are reading or their parents are buying them books.
    4/all said it doesn’t matter what a child reads, or where, as long as he/she reads. They’re expecting kids to grow out of the digital phase.
    hmmmm…maybe, maybe not.

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