Platforms and the Shape of Reader Participation

July 1, 2014

[Cross-posted from the Digital Reading Network blog, where I was invited to share some ideas - they have lots of interesting stuff over there, and tend to be far more scholarly and rigorous than me. I'm realizing I'm more of a dabbler and paddler than a deep diver.]

Last week, I discovered yet another way to share reading experiences online: Call Me Ishmael. It’s a somewhat self-consciously retro website launched in the US in early June that invites readers to call Ishmael and leave a voice message about “a book you love and a story you’ve lived.” Selected stories are published on the site’s main page, along with links to find the book in a library or buy it from a bookstore and a synopsis. The site says nothing about who created it, and its domain has a proxy registration so is equally mysterious. It is, at least, transparent about sales supporting the site, though the prominent inclusion of a library search link suggests it’s not primarily commercial in nature. For each story selected, a video is introduced with a key phrase:

Maybe I didn’t have a place I could call home anymore . . .

Shortly after getting an autism diagnosis, I was so focused on trying to fix the situation, and on how to get my son back, that I was missing the point entirely.

I know it’s about love & ‘blah’ but …

(I’m on a plane and) all of a sudden I hit a stretch of narrative that just totally wrecks me, and I start sobbing, and I mean like complete, shameless, snot-flowing-down-my-face kind of sobbing.

Each audio recording is accompanied by a transcription that appears as if from a manual typewriter using a battered Courier typeface. A video introducing the project includes the image of the phrase “sometimes books give meaning to our lives.” The letters then rearrange themselves: “Sometimes our lives give meaning to books.”

Unlike many social sites devoted to sharing reading experiences, this one invites the performance of reading experiences, but is unusually anonymous. We don’t know who Ishmael is. We don’t know who the people leaving messages are; they share intimate stories with the world from the safety of anonymity. In the past week, a new part of the site has launched where visitors can listen to galley calls, referring to galleys as pre-publication copies of books and as the part of a ship where food is prepared. They then can vote for whether the message should be transcribed or not, with ratings chosen from a list and confidential. There is also a call for volunteers to help transcribe messages for the site.

This site bears less similarity to book-focused social platforms such as Goodreads or LibraryThing than to PostSecret, an “ongoing community art project” which invites anonymous contributors to submit artwork on a postcard. These have been collected into books and exhibited in museums by its founder, Frank Warren. Like the PostSecret site, Call Me Ishmael offers a curious mix of archness, cultural aspiration with a populist flavor, emotional connection, and anonymous exhibitionism. Its premise deliberately shifts the act of reading from the kind of literary analysis learned in the classroom into personal self-actualization. Books are a therapeutic mirror; after we gaze into them, the stories they tell us are turned into stories about us that we can share.

This is the kind of reading that Oprah and Richard and Judy encouraged. When books are hard work, it’s because they contain secrets about our lives that have to be coaxed out and interpreted. Some literary scholars think this affective and personal response to reading can tell us valuable things about the reading experience (as Janice Radway famously explored with romance readers) or because it might be a useful bridge for students toward more nuanced critical reading. Rita Felski argues that enchantment as a quality of the reading experience is distrusted by her fellow literary scholars because it is associated with women readers and their supposed tendency to succumb to escapist fare while also being a crass kind of manipulation performed by profit-driven mass media concerns. She writes,

 While much modern thought regulates such hyper-saturations of mood and feeling to the realm of the child-like or the primitive, the accelerating interest in affective states promises enchantment is richer and more multi-faceted than literary theory has allowed; it does not have to be tied to a haze of romantic nostalgia or an incipient fascism. Indeed, enchantment may turn out to be an exceptionally fruitful idiom for rethinking the tenets of literary theory. (76)

What interests me at the moment is not just what the act of sharing reading experiences tells us about readers and the role that books play in their lives, but how the technical platforms we use to share these experiences are mediated by both the commercial and cultural contexts of reading in the 2ist century and by the choices designers of technical platforms make. LibraryThing has both a different business model and ethos from Goodreads, and the way these platforms have been designed shape the ways readers use them to interact with one another and with the public. These underlying design features matter.

Trevor Owens has studied twenty years-worth of manuals to explore the ways coders’ and community managers’ changing assumptions about how and why people interact in online communities has influenced their platforms which, in turn, has influenced users. He points out that “online communities are governed by a logic of ownership, control, and limited permission (161) and he urges researchers to bear that in mind when using the record of these communities in research.

It’s important to ask whose voice is heard here? How do I know this is what it purports to be? What parts of this set of records are missing? Who constituted this collection of records, and for what purpose? Lastly, where might I look in this data for perspectives and points of view that differ from those who had the power to decide what is and isn’t kept? (169).

If we fail to consider the ways the platform shapes participation and expression, we are likely to read into people’s reading a kind of agency and freedom of expression that is constrained by the platform’s architecture and design.

As Lisa Nakamura puts it in a study of Goodreads,

Now more than ever, literary scholars must bring their skills to bear on digitally networked reading. Researchers who are versed in reading’s many cultures, economies, and conditions of reception know that it is never possible for a reading platform to be a “passive conduit.” For reading has always been social, and reading’s economies, cultures of sharing, and circuits of travel have never been passive.

image from Machines, Exposition universelle internationale de 1889, Paris, France by Detroit Publishing (LOC), courtesy of Pingnews


Review of Reading Beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture

August 2, 2013

[Note: Usually I review crime fiction here, but this time I'm reviewing a work of serious and heavy-duty scholarship. I've been following the work of the Beyond the Book project for a few years, now, so was excited to learn a book was on its way. It has now been released by Routledge. It will be helpful for my sabbatical project, though it's also a little intimidating. These authors did a lot of work!]

This book is a thorough and thoughtful analysis of a vast amount of qualitative and quantitative material gathered in the course of an ambitious three-year project to explore what the authors call “mass reading events” – social/cultural practices designed to bring groups much larger than the traditional book club together to read the same book. Though these events have grown popular since Seattle kicked things off in the 1990s, they haven’t been widely studied (other than Oprah’s Book Club, one form of the mass reading event.). Danielle Fuller (University of Birmingham) and DeNel Rehberg Sedo (Mount St. Vincent University) make up for that by conducting an ambitious research program in three countries (US, Canada, UK) and writing a detailed, probing look at the results. Though it may seem a highly specialized phenomenon to study, it’s one that gives the authors a chance to “interrogate the social and material relations among the reading industry’s agents and agencies” (18).

“Shared reading” they write “is both a social process and a social formation” (27). In the first chapter, “Reading,” they review the history of shared reading, including literary societies, the Great Books program, and Elizabeth Long’s research on book groups. They critique the text-focus of much reader-response theory and point out that there is a gap in how we think about reading: though the reader as the object of study has been historically situated, “there is little attention to the reader-reader interaction and no sense of the ways that nonacademic readers might employ various reading practices as part of their everyday lives as social beings” (39). Their methodology was an attempt to use mass reading events as a platform for focusing on the social experience of the reader and the interaction between book, reader, the book industry, mass media, and how those all intersect in events focused on reading as a community event.

Chapters on the ways television and radio have promoted shared reading prove an opportunity to see how reading books is framed as enlightening, empowering, self-actualizing, and entertaining, all at once. I found it particularly interesting to see national differences and similarities between the U.S. (Oprah) with the U.K. (Richard and Judy) and Canada (which has a particularly interesting situation, needing to promote local cultural production while saturated with books from the UK and US; the CBC’s Canada Reads program embodies those contradictions). These chapters would be of interest to anyone curious about how mass media work in these three countries. The cultural politics of the BBC and CBC are complex as they accommodate consumer culture and neo-liberal assumptions about the economic drivers of human social behavior.

The fourth chapter is on money – the complex dance between commercial interests (both in selling books but also in attaching the cultural value of reading to other interests. These events seek sponsors, and the sponsors seek “useful symbolic capital” (126). Again, though the topic of mass reading events may seem rather narrow, it’s a lens for looking at the relationship between consumer capitalism and cultural production in the late age of print. “Ideologically,” the authors argue, “culture ceases to be valued primarily as a ‘public good,’ and instead becomes subject to the rules of domestic and international marketplaces . . . National and supra-national legislation about trade, monopolies and mergers, copyright, and intellectual property all played their part in the commercialization of culture” (130). There is a mixing of culture’s purpose that substitutes measures of utility and popularity for social well being. The authors contrast Richard Florida’s vision of culture as an entrepreneurial economic activity that provides levers for social change without relying on state intervention. The mass reading event then becomes a vehicle for shared consumption that has a a patina of “good for you” social capital. This intersection of motives also shows up in the different ways the NEA’s “Big Read” program and the IMLS’s involvement in it make the case for reading. One is more geared to the text as a work of literature that has transformative benefits, the other is more accepting of a wider range of reading tastes and the value of many kinds of reading. The authors argue that the “one book one community” model has migrated through these English-speaking nations because it fits with dominant neoliberal approaches to cultural value. It promises betterment without threatening the status quo.

A chapter on the people who put these programs together is another way to unpack the multiple motives of community reading programs, mixing a social mission with a celebration of celebrity culture, reading as a spur for social change and a way of bringing people into the fold of normative reading practices. Nancy Pearl’s rise to “superstar librarian” status is sketched out, a different path than that of her colleague who continued to work as a librarian. She tells a moving story of reading a novel about Japanese internment during World War II and how powerful it was to have elderly internees recognized by the community. (I dare you to read that passage with a dry eye! It’s a powerful emotional argument for how reading together can actually promote understanding.) The amount of donated labor and its cost is addressed, and the British Get Into Reading program is described, offering a different way to tie mass reading events to social change. This program doesn’t market events in search of an audience or work through traditional literary channels such as schools and libraries, but takes the program into community-based social services programs for immigrants, asylum seekers, the homeless, and others who might not identify with commercial literary culture. Further, it focuses on “quality” or classic literature in the belief that it shouldn’t be only enjoyed by the privileged. In some ways, it reminds me of the Great Books program in the US, but with a bigger emphasis on outreach to the disenfranchised. This exploration of cultural workers who promote reading “demonstrates how gender, generation, and geography shape the reproduction of traditional values about book reading as socially and morally transformative activity, as well as influencing more holistic, therapeutic, and creative ideals of the social change, pleasure, and relationships that shared reading can inspire” (204).

The final two chapters, “Reader” and “Book” explore what readers experience when participating in mass reading events and how they experience books as material objects. They use the term “citizen readers” to convey people who “read to belong just as they feel that they themselves belong to reading as an activity located in a place, along with others who share the same interest” (211). Sharing reading is an opportunity for them to share their own feelings and to promote a sense of belonging. It can also provide a personal link to authors who participate as the author shares stories about their lives. There is always the possibility that this sense of community is limited and may silence or exclude people. (A discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird in the south attracted a primarily white audience, for example.) At the same time, such events can “bring attention to issues of racism, cultural difference, and social injustice” at a time when “public forums for discussion are increasingly rare, and people’s agency over their material realities has declined” (242). One Book events allow participants a chance to experience the feeling of “being and belonging.”

The authors have lived up to their promise to interrogate “the paradox of promoting a prestige-laden activity on a large scale and via mass media [that] opens up a productive critical pathway for thinking about the ways that cultural value is brokered within ‘creative’ communities” (258). Though it’s limited to one kind of reading activity in three countries that have a lot in common, this is a remarkably in-depth study that teases out many insights into what reading means to readers, how book culture combines prestige with consumerism, how the radical potential for growth through literature is entangled with a conservative desire to belong and be comforted, and what role books and reading have in mass media and popular culture. This book is an important and insightful interdisciplinary contribution to reading studies.


My Mysterious Year

January 2, 2013

I didn’t read nearly as many books as Bernadette did in a bad year, but I can’t say I suffered from lack of books to read. I participated in quite a few of the discussion at 4MA, including three series discussions, a record for me. I read some non-mystery fiction (including Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, which slowed me down because of its length, but in an entertaining way). The following are my top ten reads of the year.

Whispering Death by Garry Disher
He does such a good job of weaving together a lot of plot threads, all of them very believable.

The Gods of Gotham by Linsday Faye
Wins the “socks blown off” award from me. Loved her use of language and how she conveyed the zeitgeist of NYC when much of Manhattan was farmland.

Invisible Muder by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis
I enjoy the way these co-authors pull together multiple points of view. Also enjoy the not-totally-likeable protagonist.

Lake Country by Sean Doolittle
This guy writes so well and has such a tender heart for people in trouble. Loved this book.

Wolves and Angels by Seppo Jokinen
A Finnish police procedural that gave me what I want from a procedural: a realistic workplace and a nice mix of characters.

The Dark Winter by David Mark
My dark horse. I especially loved the writing style; plot was pretty dandy, too.

The Fear Artist by Timothy Hallinan
A different take on fathers and daughters; great setting, as always.

A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller
I had to slow down and enjoy the scenery for this one. Very vivid sense of place.

The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina
How does she do it? How does she knock one wonderful book out after another? Loved it.

Paradise City by Archer Mayor
Another nicely done procedural series with multiple POVs, this one including a Chinese artisan looking for her own Workers Paradise (in western Massachusetts)

If I had a top eleven, it would include Michael Stanley’s Death of the Mantis, which I enjoyed very much (another 4MA discussion book which I’m very happy I read).

Four of the ten were new-to-me authors. Four were by women authors. I am not doing charts, much as I like a nice colored chart, but thought I would map my reading in the past year. This doesn’t include all the books I read, but most of them. In some cases I had to pick one place to drop a pin though the book moved around (as was the case in Reamde, a real globe-trotter of a book).

Here’s hoping for a great new reading year for everyone!


the loneliness of the unshared e-book

May 30, 2010

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Oh, Mr. Klinkenborg- we are on the same page.

New York Times contributor Verlyn Klinkenborg (who visited my place of work once and was overwhelmed by the “deep-keeled Minnesotan politeness that states, as a life proposition, that you should not put yourself forward, not even to the raising of a hand in class” – and used it to write an interesting piece on young women’s hesitance to claim authority as writers) reflects on reading on an iPad. And he has exactly the same reservations about the experience as I do.

“All the e-books I’ve read have been ugly,” he writes. There is no design of the words on the page, no distinction among books. They all look alike, and every at every page you feel as if you’re in the same place in the text, somewhere in the middle. It’s impossible to get a sense of how old the book is, what makes the book visually distinctive, or where you are in the text. There’s  a profusion of editions of classics and translations, but because they’re all dressed in the same burlap duds, it’s hard to tell which is newer, which is more authoritative, which is more accurate. This seeming democracy of words has made every book wear the same drab, ill-fitting uniform.

But I am particularly pleased that he ends with this point that will have the greatest impact on our reading culture.

I already have a personal library. But most of the books I’ve ever read have come from lending libraries. Barnes & Noble has released an e-reader that allows short-term borrowing of some books. [ed. note: many major publishers have insisted this feature be disabled for their books.] The entire impulse behind Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iBooks assumes that you cannot read a book unless you own it first — and only you can read it unless you want to pass on your device.

That goes against the social value of reading, the collective knowledge and collaborative discourse that comes from access to shared libraries. That is not a good thing for readers, authors, publishers or our culture.

photo courtesy of Jemsweb.


what is lost

December 26, 2009

I bought and read my first e-book on a phone this year using an iPhone app. I don’t plan to repeat the experience, not because it was horrible but because I know too many booksellers personally and until it’s easy to buy from them I’m not planning to purchase e-books. But I felt as if I needed some experience with e-books.

The good side? It didn’t weigh much when traveling and I could read it in the dark on the long shuttle ride from the airport. The bad side?

Let me count the ways.

First, the pages look ugly. There’s no other way to put it. There is no page design, just letters poured into a mechanical box, no art in the chapter headings, no thought given to initial capitals, words broken in the wrong place, justified lines full of gaps like bad teeth. And of course no page numbers. The design of a page in a printed book is a nearly invisible pleasure. Page design is something I appreciate more since seeing what is lost when it’s absent.

Second, reading on a phone is fine for e-mail and  for short form texts on a web page, but it’s hard to get lost in a book when you have to turn pages every paragraph or so. I also found it strangely disorienting to have only a bar at the bottom of the page telling me where I was in the book. A sense of place, of orientation in the arc of the story is harder to grasp. (I found this also true when I held my most recently published book in my hands for the first time. The last chapters felt different when measured between the thumb and fingers and the growing weight of the left side than when I was scrolling to the end of a document. Though I did read the galleys on paper, I shifted the pages to the back of the stack as I read and so was surprised by how profoundly the anticipation of an ending affects the reading experience.)

Third – I don’t like a future for the book in which sharing is disabled and ownership of an immutable copy no longer exists. It bothers me that a corporation could reach into my personal library and pluck a book back or alter it. I don’t like the fact that there is no such thing as fair use in a world of licensed content and that I can’t give a friend or family member a book I read and loved. Sure, I could buy them a second e-book version, but it’s not the same as handing on the book I read.

Fourth – this post from the Electronic Frontier Foundation spells out just how much we give away to Google and Amazon when we let them be our “bookstore” and “library.” Real booksellers and librarians have stood up for reader privacy. Personal information is a valuable commodity to these corporations. I don’t like the idea of my reading habits becoming a commodity and I don’t like the aggregation of readers’ behavior becoming a huge data mine of our minds.

Google’s new Google Book Search Project has the ability to track reading habits at an unprecedented level of granularity. In particular, according to the proposed Google Books Privacy Policy, web servers will automatically “log” each book and page you searched for and read, how long you viewed it for, and what book or page you continued onto next . . . your Kindle will periodically send information about you to Amazon. But exactly what information is sent? Amazon’s wording — “information related to the content on your Device and your use of it” — reads so broadly that it appears to allow Amazon to track all content that users put on the device, regardless of whether that content is purchased from Amazon. Some security researchers have indicated that the Kindle may even be tracking its users’ GPS locations. Is this the future of reading?

God, I hope not. Cory Doctorow has put some of this in sharp perspective in “How to Destroy the Book” in which he argues that the true pirates are the corporations who are remaking our book culture so that they can be in the center of it, controlling books for the sake of profits. He contrasts this perspective with that of “people of the book” who love books, want to fill their houses with them, and pass favorites on to their children.

Anyone who claims that readers can’t and won’t and shouldn’t own their books are bent on the destruction of the book, the destruction of publishing, and the destruction of authorship itself. We must stop them from being allowed to do it. The library of tomorrow should be better than the library of today. The ability to loan our books to more than one person at once is a feature, not a bug. We all know this. It’s time we stop pretending that the pirates of copyright are right. These people were readers before they were publishers before they were writers before they worked in the legal department before they were agents before they were salespeople and marketers. We are the people of the book, and we need to start acting like it.

What he said.

photos courtesy of brewbooks and Josh Bancroft.


rebuilding trust in our trust networks

January 4, 2009

Anita Elberse once again explains why spending millions on a potential blockbuster makes sense for book publishing,* an issue that she previously explored at greater length in the Harvard Business Review.** The only way to make real money is to go after books that will sell lots of copies. In order to sell lots of copies, you have to invest even more money into marketing (e.g. paying for it to be visible in chain bookstores and Wal-Mart and be written up in newsletters: wow, this is a book we think you should read – we won’t mention the publisher paid us to say so). Interestingly, she ties this not to consumer gullibility or to clever marketing, but to the social nature of reading, which has long interested me.

Media companies’ hit-focused marketing did not emerge in a vacuum. It reflects how consumers make choices. The truth is that consumers prefer blockbusters. Because they are inherently social, people find value in reading the same books and watching the same movies that others do. This is true even in today’s markets where, thanks to the Internet, buyers have easy access to millions and millions of titles.

But, but . . . buyers also have access to loads of reader’s responses to books, thanks to the Internet.

This happens to resonate for me with a comment that popped up when a George Mason professor had students in a class on history hoaxes create their own hoax and spread it virally using the social networks made available through Web 2.0. The commentor said it violated trust networks – that people believed in the hoax not because it had been marketed to them or because it was reported in USA Today, but because historians they trusted talked about it. Their trust network, wired through Internet channels, had been breached by someone who deliberately manipulated that network and their trust for false purposes. There are pedagogical and ethical issues involved that are better discussed elsewhere – but the existence of those trust networks woven together by online connections replicates the “invisible college” or Polanyi’s Republic of Science. It’s bound together by trust and based on both expertise and disinterestedness (in John Ziman’s sense of the word).

Readers have trust networks, too. The best way people can determine what to read next is to have a trusted and well-known fellow reader make a recommendation. There are thousands and thousands of online communities that exist for this purpose. The goal isn’t to sell books, it’s to share information about really good books. A side-effect is that it leads to buying books and to satisfying reading experiences that builds an audience for books.In other words, a trustworthy and disinterested social network that promotes reading is good for business. Once it’s corrupted, it’s nearly useless.

Sadly, they are vulnerable to stealth marketing, and have been exploited that way from the birth of Web 2.0. There are countless websites, blogs, and experts explaining how to use people’s social impulses to sneak in marketing messages. To me, this is fundamentally immoral. And it totally permeates the book business, at least in US culture. I don’t see the same frantic marketing dynamic in the Scandinavian countries, where enthusiasm for books is nevertheless high. And I’ve heard British authors say it’s much worse in the US than in the UK, where a hard sell is simply boorish and unwelcome.

The only way for bookish social networks to work well is for us to draw the kind of firm line between sharing honest information about books and advertising that the best news organizations embrace. Authors, too, can be much clearer about when they are promoting their work and when they are acting as members of a reading community.

Here’s my attempt to adapt the Society of Professional Journalists’s Code of Ethics to book blogging and other social networking. I realize that journalists rank a little lower than lawyers in the public eye, but I have a strong attachment to these principles – which I have borrowed from liberally in this adaptation.

For readers (including those who happen also to be writers)

  • Seek out interesting books and write about them honestly. Don’t rely on marketing materials to make your choices. Don’t read other reviews before you form your opinion. Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of literature by seeking out the lesser-known and unusual. Shun sources that are a hybrid of information and promotion, and recognize the special obligation to speak the truth of your experience with books regardless of other people’s opinions or any potential for personal gain or harm.
  • Minimize harm. The temptation to be clever should never lead to an unfairly humiliating review. Criticize the book, not the writer or the reader of it. Pursuit of critical rigor is not license for arrogance. Balance the book’s right to a fair reading with readers’ right to know. Likewise, make sure your enthusiasm for a book you love is accompanied with concrete reasons for your enthusiasm so that other readers can make a more informed choice.
  • Act independently. Avoid conflicts of interest. Disclose any relationships that might compromise your objectivity or even the appearance of compromised objectivity. Do not review books in exchange for favors, however intangible. Don’t let the potential to grow close to a much-loved author (or to any other opportunity) influence your judgment.
  • Be accountable. Don’t get your feather’s ruffled when people disagree with you. Be open to alternative perspectives without abandoning your best judgment.

For writers in particular

  • Don’t see every social encounter as a chance to sell a book.
  • Don’t strategize everything you say based on what you might get out of it (good or bad).
  • Don’t join social networks to use them for marketing. That’s not what friends are for. Besides, it’s deceitful.
  • Don’t strike bargains, overt or unspoken, to cross-promote other writers’ works in exchange for their support. Disclose potential conflicts of interest.
  • Marketing isn’t half the job. Writing is the job.  Marketing is a semi-necessary evil that can do more harm than good.
  • Don’t go for the hard sell. Just don’t. It’s obnoxious.
  • Be honest. Be yourself. Act with integrity.

*Thanks to Maxine Clarke for pointing out his article and getting it on FriendFeed.

**In case anyone is wondering, I don’t read the HBR on principle. Any publication that will add to its expensive full-text licensed content in library databases a clause that it cannot be used for classes deserves to be shunned. I guess if your subject is filthy lucre, it’s a great way to write a license. It’s a lousy way to communicate research.


the tail that wags the tail

July 3, 2008

Fascinating article about the “long tail” in the Harvard Business Review that I picked up from Siva. Anita Elberse contents that the digital world actually favors the blockbuster. The reasons that people go for the hyped book, music, film – because it’s higher quality, it’s what everyone else is doing, and it’s abundant – are actually amplified in the world of digital choices.

Chris Anderson (not surprisingly) disagrees, but mostly over the methodology. Had she defined the head and tail differently, the conclusions would be closer to his – that the long tail has an advantage in a digital world.

What seems to me the two critical issues are that publishing still bets on the blockbuster. That’s where their resources go, and that’s where their profits come from. Second is that social urge to read what everyone else is reading and – failing a reliable source for ideas about what to read next – what everyone else is reading is a very common way of making a decision. If everyone’s reading it, it must be good. I can discuss it with others, and I won’t have any trouble finiding it. It’s probably at Wal-Mart, on discount.

This made me think about how I decide what to read next. When I started reading mysteries as an adult, I didn’t know people who read them, and I mostly relied on reviews in PW and the NYTBR. It was hit and miss, but better than the best seller lists, which proved absolutely useless. (The “quality” argument, above, fails, at least in my experience.) Marilyn Stasio introduced me to Dennis Lehane, and pretty soon I had a few names of writers I could count on. But I didn’t have a good method of straying outside that circle of known authors until I joined an online community of mystery readers. Now I don’t have any trouble at all  knowing what to read next, other than a slight feeling of panic that I’ll never have enough time to read them all before I die.

What one needs to take advantage of the long tail is a deep well of knowledge AND a good sense of which source of knowledge matches yours. For me, choosing a mystery is easy because I know what I like, and I know who else likes the same kinds of books, and we share our reading lists so each of ours gets bigger.

I don’t have that for other genres. I don’t have that for movies or music or restaurants, so I might fall back on buzz. (Actually, I’d ask my kids. They know.)

A problem with digital communities as wells of knowledge where you can learn about good stuff is that they can easily become polluted with BSP (blatant self promotion). Even more so, they’re polluted by subtle promotion, circles of authors who promote their buddies, circles of fans who promote their friends, and very little authentic reader response.

There are a lot of things that make my reading group – 4MA –  work, but one of them is that there is absolutely no promotional activity. None. Zero. Zip. And there is a ton of discussion about books, which oddly enough promotes books far more effectively. We have the advantages that hype supposedly provides: we know we’re getting recommendations of high-quality books, we have a social experience, and we know how to get our hands on the books we want because members have shared information about where these books can be purchased, even from abroad. In a pinch, we mail our copies to each other.

None of this works when trust goes out the window, when we aren’t sure if the recommender has ulterior motives. If the community of consumers is infiltrated by sellers. And the din of voices telling creative people they have to sell themselves is absolutely deafening.

That is the tail that wags the tail. Unless consumers can trust what they’re hearing, it won’t work. And right now, who’s wagging the long tail? It’s very hard to tell.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 63 other followers