September 22, 2017

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The Future of Reading: Don’t worry. It might be better than you think.

Earlier this year, several nerdfighters1 sent me a link to the Web site ThisIsNotTom.com, which features a picture of a man, seated, wearing only a bathrobe. At the bottom of the page is written, “The quck brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” The “i” is missing from that sentence; click on the eye of the guy in the photograph, and you are taken to another riddle; solve that one, and you’ll find yet another. The riddles become progressively harder until finally you have to, like, call your local librarians and ask them to whom the book PostSecret is dedicated.

Nerdfighters ran “who is” searches to track down the name—and eventually the phone number—of This Is Not Tom’s creator. So I called him one afternoon. Alexander Basalyga was a student at Penn State—just a guy who liked riddles. While he and I were talking, I got the idea to write a story based on some strange emails I’d received a few weeks earlier.2 Basalyga liked the idea, and within a week I’d written a chapter, which we posted on a Web page hidden behind riddles created by Alex with the help of my brother Hank.

Illustration by Hanoch Piven

The novella This Is Not Tom (TINT) tells the story of a young woman who calls herself YFN (Your Faithful Narrator3) and who has access to technology that allows her to experience virtual-reality interactions of amazing verisimilitude with the likes of David Foster Wallace and Kurt Cobain. But in exchange for this opportunity, she has forfeited access to her identity. The story begins with YFN realizing in a flash that she doesn’t know who she is. She leaves the complex in which she has been living, intent upon recovering herself.

To reach each chapter of the story, you must first solve three insanely complex riddles that involve literature, video, audio, mathematics, and quite a lot of Bible verses. The riddles are so hard that I can’t solve them myself, which means that if I want to read the chapters of my own story online, I either have to call Alex for the answers or play along with This Is Not Tom’s readers, who gather in a chat room and spend hours working through the puzzles and the story, together. (TINT is basically impossible to solve alone.) The story is also reader-responsive. When, for instance, readers didn’t notice that YFN was coding her latitudinal location inside story chapters, she was stuck hiding on her own. When they figured her location out, I gave her a companion.

Today, This Is Not Tom is almost finished. The novella has attracted a couple thousand passionately dedicated readers, a tiny fraction of the readership my printed-on-paper stories have found. I think there are two reasons for this:

  1. The barrier to entry is high. The riddles are so hard that most people get frustrated and quit.
  2. While the riddles are elegant and beautiful, the story itself kind of sucks. (More on that later.)

Someday soon, someone will come along with a more entertaining story told behind a curtain that is easier to part, and some variant on the TINT Internet-based book will find a much broader audience.4 I don’t think books have anything to fear from movies or television or Facebook. I see no evidence that reading itself is in mortal danger. But how we read will change. Or continue to change, I should say, because it is always changing.5

It is a fun parlor game to speculate about what the future of books will look like. Will our stories be read on screens and supplemented with gaming, illustration, video, and multimedia riddles? Or will they look more like the emails on which I based This Is Not Tom—distributed anonymously to tiny audiences? Will the fabled smell of books become as antiquated as the taste of a postage stamp?6 Or will publishing continue to soldier on as it always has? These are important questions, but I worry sometimes that our speculation takes on an air of powerlessness, as if others will choose the future course of books and reading. In fact, I believe the choices are ours to make.

I hate change. Always have. I despise innovation for innovation’s sake. (I am, for example, possibly the only person with a million Twitter followers who basically hates Twitter.) But just before my brother Hank and I began making videoblogs in 2007, Hank told me something that has stuck with me: participating in technological innovation allows us to shape the change innovation makes. Hating Twitter makes nothing happen; using Twitter to talk about something other than what you had for lunch, however, can make something happen.7

We will not stop the march of change in publishing or in reading. But I believe that school and children’s librarians will have a great deal of say in the shape of that change—more say, in fact, than anyone else: your choices will guide us as publishers stumble, as bookstores struggle, as the reading public becomes too bewildered to know what they want, and as authors—like always—do whatever you tell us to do.8

The apocalypse is coming

I remember once in college telling an aging professor that the Y2K computer bug was going to be a huge problem and that it might even put civilization itself in danger. (As is probably already clear, I am, by nature, an alarmist.) My professor listened to me awhile and then said, “Always deny the apocalypse, John. You’ll usually be right, and when you’re wrong, no one will be left to say, ‘I told you so.’”

But if there’s a book-publishing apocalypse, we’ll all still be here, some of us gloating from the gallows, the rest of us claiming that no one could have foreseen x or y. (I know this because I hang out with a lot of newspaper reporters who are now more or less professionally in the hindsight business.)

Maybe you believe that book publishing hasn’t changed in a long time and won’t change now.9 Maybe you think the way we read, and the way we find things to read, will continue to change slowly. Sure, you’ve gotta pay lip service to social networking, but kids are still kids, and books are still books.

You might be right. The apocalypse may yet be distant. But consider this: the stock market, which is fairly good10 at valuing things, thinks the overall value—or market capitalization—of Amazon is around $50 billion. The combined market cap of Barnes & Noble and Borders is around $1.1 billion. If you add all the other bookstores in America to that total, the entire bookstore business in the United States is currently worth about six percent of Amazon’s book business.¹¹ At least according to the stock market.

Well, you may say, so what? I’m a librarian, not a bookseller. What’s any of this have to do with my library?

Just this: if, in the future, most books are sold either online or in big box stores like Costco and Wal-Mart, you will become even more important to American literature. How you choose to build your collection, whom you buy from, and how you discover the works you want to share with your patrons will shape what Americans—whether or not they ever visit libraries—will read and how they will read it.

So don’t screw this up, please.

Choosing the status quo

It’s nothing new to note that school and children’s librarians are important not only to the lives of the kids they serve, but also to the entire enterprise of reading. There’s no question, for instance, that librarians are to thank for the astonishing growth of YA fiction over the last decade.

Children’s publishing is as vibrant and diverse as it is because of the strength of our institutional market. Children’s and school libraries serve, in the best sense of the word, as gatekeepers. You don’t collect only the books your kids already like; you also try to bring them to the best books. Adult librarians are like lazy bakers: their patrons want a jelly doughnut, so they give them a jelly doughnut. Children’s librarians are ambitious bakers: You like the jelly doughnut? I’ll get you a jelly doughnut. But you should try my cruller, too. My cruller is gonna blow your mind, kid.

To understand the significant consequences of this ambition, it’s important to bear in mind the fundamental rule of the modern publishing business: publishers make more money on the millionth copy of a particular book than they do on the first copy of that book. A lot more, actually,¹² which means that publishers would rather sell one million copies of one title than a thousand copies of a thousand titles. Focusing on blockbusters has dominated publishing for decades, and it has proved profitable.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this blockbuster model; in fact, I think it often leads to more kids reading more books. (Many readers of Twilight are not looking to read a book. They want to read that book.) Publishers like to argue that blockbusters pay for the small-audience stuff, and while I’m dubious, there can be no question that the current model of publishing allows for an impressive array of content being made available to our audience.¹³

But when combined with the changing consumer market for books, the blockbuster model poses a real threat to this vibrant diversity. Wal-Mart and Amazon represent opposite visions for reading in America: Wal-Mart stocks a few books, most of them written for the broadest possible readership. Amazon stocks everything, making no real distinction between a classic like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and the self-published picture book My Puppy Is Adorable and These Illustrations Prove It. If these channels become the primary outlets through which people buy books, libraries will be the most important home for books that aren’t blockbusters but deserve to stand out from the crowd.

So let’s say you collectively believe in children’s book publishers. After all, they’re pretty good gatekeepers. They efficiently sift through tons of manuscripts and manage to publish a variety of good books for kids. If you are pleased with their performance, you—basically on your own—can keep the present business model afloat. Publishers will continue to publish broadly as long as you collect broadly, and authors will continue to work with publishers, because libraries give authors millions of readers who otherwise would never have heard of our books. So if you decide that you will only acquire books published by reputable houses, we will continue to work through those houses, because we need your readers.

So you can do that. Or you can get power hungry.

Choosing power

In the coming years, you may decide to encourage authors to abandon publishers and work through alternate distribution networks. You and the distributors you work with might choose to buy a growing percentage of your collection from Amazon’s print-on-demand, CreateSpace, or a similar service. Authors will see your acquisition methods changing, and those who won’t get stocked at big box stores—which is to say almost all of us—may be inclined to abandon traditional publishing models. (This is not speculative fiction, by the way. Cory Doctorow, a major YA writer, has stopped working with publishers and shares his work via a hybrid of print-on-demand books and free ebooks.) Publishers will be able to hold on to their lucrative backlists and blockbusters, but if we’re smart, the great unwashed masses of non-Wal-Marty authors will follow you to wherever you buy.

If school and children’s libraries, collectively, threw their weight behind such a move (which, by the way, I’m not recommending), the world of reading could change dramatically: imagine a world in which most new books are at least to some degree self-published and distributed primarily online. Anyone can upload a story and sell it; all of us must scramble for attention and sales. If you want marketing dollars, you either put them up yourself or find someone to put them up for you.14

Imagine the world of books is like YouTube: millions of books get a few readers, and a few books get a million readers. Most of the stories that find a broad readership are the literary equivalent of squirrels waterskiing or Charlie biting your finger. But some of the good stuff finds its way to prominence. Just as long as the author is reasonably cute. (Come to think of it, that’s not so different from the world as it is. Maybe publishers aren’t such great gatekeepers after all.)

Now take this flat, open marketplace and add cheap, effective e-readers as ubiquitous as iPods. There is no longer such a thing as “collection development,” because even the tiniest library’s collection includes every book ever written so long as it pays a fee for database access. Any patron can walk in and download a book in 30 seconds. And the definition of book has changed: books needn’t be only text and static illustration; the text of David Macaulay’s new book is woven through an exquisitely detailed three-dimensional rendering of a cathedral.15 The new James Patterson yarn about flying boys and the girls who love them includes CGI videos of the winged warriors soaring through the clouds.

But to bring you back to Earth, I have a question: How, in this unmoderated sea of crap, would anyone ever find anything worth reading?

Through friends and family and advertisements, of course. But also through authorities. When overwhelmed by choice, people turn to gatekeepers, begging them to find the good stuff. And in the world of children’s and young adult literature—particularly in a world where publishers and bookstores don’t define the marketplace—you are the authorities. And if we find ourselves in an unregulated YouTube of a book market, good stories will need you even more than they do now. This will mean a lot of reading. These days, assistants at publishing houses read thousands of manuscripts from what is called the slush pile. But in a world where everything gets published, that job would fall to the new quality-assurance gatekeepers: you. Blessed are the gatekeepers, for they shall inherit the slush.

This Is Not Tom, redux

Here’s what I learned from This Is Not Tom, my foray into nonprofit, Internet-based, multimedia book publishing: the cleverest riddles do nothing to improve a mediocre story. I’d like to blame the narrative deficiencies of the story I wrote on those initial emails I received, but the fault lies with me: I was too often rushed when writing the story, and I was trying to do something—write science fiction—that I am frankly unqualified to do.

Story trumps all. It doesn’t matter if you get to see clips of The HillsLauren Conrad at a photo shoot on the screen while reading her new novel, This Book Is a Symptom of Publishing Companies’ Desperation. The story will live or die on its merits. Text does not need enhancement to compete in this media-soaked world, because text-based stories give us something that video games and movies cannot: the ability to take ownership of a story.

Because reading is an act of translation—taking seemingly random scratches on a page and turning them into a story in your head—a book is, more than any new media, a cocreation of reader and writer.

And as reading changes, that mustn’t change. We must preserve that magical moment when the space between you and me evaporates, and we are all of us making a story real together. Bells and whistles are all fine and good, but the writer must not leave the story behind, and the reader must not be allowed to abandon her responsibility as cocreator: she, and she alone, can make a story real.

My job is to write down words in a sequence that can be translated by the right reader into something meaningful. Your job is to find the best way, in a world of rapidly shifting formats and distribution, to get the best word sequences in front of kids.

I kind of know how to do my job. But I have absolutely no idea how to do yours. The choices you make—whether to defend the status quo or to attack it, whether to reinforce the gatekeepers or to undermine them—will affect reading and readers for generations to come.

No pressure or anything.


Author Information
Printz Award–winner John Green (me@sparksflyup.com) is the author of Paper Towns (2008), An Abundance of Katherines (2006), and Looking for Alaska (2005, all Dutton).

 


Footnotes
  1. This is the only required reading among the footnotes in this essay: my brother Hank and I make videos on YouTube that have become quite popular (much more popular, for instance, than my books), and the videos have spawned a tight-knit community of people who call themselves nerdfighters, because they fight for nerd culture and intellectualism. (We also read books together and build water filters in Bangladesh and stuff.) Many nerdfighters are teenagers, and they are really awesome.
  2. These emails were from someone who claimed to be traveling the world with the novelist David Foster Wallace. (This struck me as impossible for a variety of reasons, the most compelling being that Wallace was, by that time, deceased.)
  3. Spoiler alert: she’s not so faithful.
  4. Hypertext stories are as old as the Internet, and, God knows, I didn’t invent them or even innovate them in any interesting way, but none have ever reached blockbuster status, despite having the notable advantage of being free.
  5. I mean, what do we like to read these days? Quick chapters. Plenty of white space. Short sentences. People want books that look like Twitter feeds.
  6. How weird is it that no one under the age of about 15 will ever know what it’s like to lick a stamp?
  7. A really good example of this is the Iranian election of 2009, in which people all over the world used Twitter to help Iranians organize protests, to maintain Internet access even when the government tried to shut it down, and to disseminate evidence of militia attacks on protesters, particularly young women. The attempt to overthrow the regime failed, of course, but many observers believe the internal strife has slowed Iran’s nuclear ambitions. So it’s possible—not likely but possible—that Twitter stopped Iran from getting the bomb.
  8. If you don’t believe me, I encourage you to calculate the total poundage of vampire fiction currently weighing down your shelves. We wrote that because we heard you wanted it.
  9. This is one of the most common arguments made in defense of the book’s survival: the way we listen to music or watch movies changes all the time—laserdiscs, Betamaxes, 8-tracks, CD players—but books stay the same. True enough, but plenty of old things have been abandoned in a hurry—like film, for instance. Also horse-drawn carriages. It doesn’t matter how long we’ve used something; all that matters is how awesome the thing replacing it is. MP3s and automobiles happen to be really, really awesome, whereas ebooks—at least so far—are fairly limited in their awesomeness.
  10. Not that good, obviously, as anyone who recently dreamt of retirement well knows. But still—and I don’t mean to sound like a capitalist or anything—the stock market is a really good leading indicator.
  11. Emphasis on the about. Amazon doesn’t break down its book sales, and it’s hard to know where the market thinks Amazon’s growth potential is. Also, I am bad at math.
  12. There are a lot of reasons for this, but if I get into that your eyes will bleed with boredom.
  13. For instance, we are way better at this than Hollywood. Imagine if Hollywood made tens of thousands of movies every year.
  14. That someone might be called a publisher, but he or she will really be more like a venture capitalist.
  15. Another argument in defense of the book is that screens will never reproduce illustrations as effectively as print does. I don’t buy it—not because I think the screens of the future will be so wonderful, but because I don’t see what’s so great about paper. I mean, paper doesn’t even have a zoom function.

 

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