Stuff I Say

Our Emotional Attachment to Books

Posted in Reading, writing by 51future on April 2, 2008

It doesn’t surprise me that we’re hopelessly attached to the ancient, potentially hardcover-bound tomes that we’ve been reading for thousands of years.

Contrary to the music world, where people swiftly adapted to digital distribution methods almost to the point of leaving behind previous formats in the dust, where books are concerned, we have different priorities. The “album,” which in my mind is the closest thing music has to a singular novel or non-fiction volume, is something that Radiohead seems particularly interested in preserving the sanctity of. But put any two people in a room and I think you’ll find that while they both have their own ideas about whether or not the album-unit can be spliced into smaller requisite parts, neither would agree that buying individual chapters of a book makes any sense.

However, as a contrary argument, Blogger Kevin Kelly talked about the Long Tail recently and in that entry he brought up an interesting revenue model that’s been tried by a few brave authors:

In 2004 author Lawrence Watt-Evans used this model to publish his newest novel. He asked his True Fans to collectively pay $100 per month. When he got $100 he posted the next chapter of the novel. The entire book was published online for his True Fans, and then later in paper for all his fans. He is now writing a second novel this way. He gets by on an estimated 200 True Fans because he also publishes in the traditional manner — with advances from a publisher supported by thousands of Lesser Fans.

However, even this approach, selling or releasing an individual chapter once certain monetary thresholds are reached still ultimately sells a product– the story, in this case, that absolutely depends on both continuity and wholeness. To say to your fans, “Once the first threshold is reached, I’ll release a random chapter and/or a chapter of your choice,” would be unsustainable. This is the same reason that great television like LOST and Battlestar Galactica seem to receive lower ratings over time. Television as complicated as LOST or BSG can’t easily be picked up mid-season, or even at the season breaks without those viewers missing a lot of what makes the show addictive and compelling; exactly the same way you can’t just pick up a good novel and start reading it from the center without potentially missing out on the hooks and characters that create a compelling whole.

And I think it is for this reason– that the way literature is written isn’t conducive to the sort of nibbling culture that pervades the internet and the music world (or the brain’s inability to cope with an information overload) that bound books will survive well into the future.

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4 Responses

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  1. Corey said, on April 3, 2008 at 5:56 am

    Well there are two things I want to point out. First of all, novel serialization is a tradition that dates back hundreds of years at least. Remember Dickens?

    Secondly, for longer and more epic musical works, you have to start looking back to when music was more art and less commerce. If you’re willing to specify that “The ‘album,’ which in my mind is the closest thing music has to a singular novel or non-fiction volume” refers just to modern pop music then I agree. But there is more to it than that. There’s opera, but if you want to go farther back there’s Bach and his life’s work. Most writers don’t write as many pages of words as he did of fully arranged music. I expect some of the longer ones could easily be compared to novels in terms of their scale.

  2. 51future said, on April 5, 2008 at 3:54 am

    I did conveniently forget about serialization, but I think that my point still stands… Serialized novels are akin to modern day television series, really.

    Didn’t know about Bach, etc. I was mainly talking about pop albums, but that’s really interesting.

  3. John said, on April 7, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Oh, hey, it’s Corey!

    Finally! About something I care about and in English!

    …even though your idea is most depressing for a wannabe writer!

  4. John said, on April 7, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    …oh, wait. I meant reassuring! not depressing. I frequently confuse the two.


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