Anti-social behaviour

Hello, my name is Andy Miller and I’ve been away. The last time a book of mine was published was over a decade ago. Back then, there was no Facebook, no Goodreads, no YouTube and no Twitter. Readers still wrote you letters. There were loads more places to buy books, more independent bookshops and lots of chain-stores to choose from. Influential book bloggers did not exist because few people knew what blogs were; similarly, there were no podcasts, because there were no iPods, let alone iPhones and iPads, to ‘cast to. The only e-book anyone had heard of was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and that was fictional. Social networking was still a concept; words had yet to be invented to describe it. Or to put it another way: O brave new world, that has such Tweeple in’t.

As a reader, writer and recovering publisher, I was conscious of these developments. But the reality of diving into the new mainstream has been a shock, somewhere between a bracing dip in an Alpine pool and being waterboarded. Most authors are reclusive, solitary, awkward, introvert. The world increasingly demands we be none of these things – and I’m not talking about the publishing world here, I mean the actual world. And that takes some adjusting to.

In The Year of Reading Dangerously, I write about the several occasions I met the late Douglas Adams, first as a teenage fan, subsequently as a bookseller, and then briefly as an editor. I remember queuing up at Webster’s Bookshop in Croydon in 1982 and being shocked at quite how furious Adams seemed to be there. He signed books, made eye-contact with no one and hardly spoke. As a coping mechanism, over the years Adams learned to do a good impression of the Douglas Adams people wanted to meet; I know this because Adams had grown progressively nicer each time I encountered him. I wonder what he would have made of the current climate, where all writers must decide early on how much of themselves, beyond their books, they wish to give away?

I have been very fortunate in this regard. Because I’ve written a book about books, books are what people want to talk to me about; and these encounters, online or in person, are invariably delightful, largely because books are what I want to talk about too. I’ve devised a live event called Read Y'self Fitter, a ten-step programme to cure oneself of bad reading habits, somewhere between a motivational lecture and a stand-up routine. Readers enjoy it because it’s about books and it inspires them; booksellers like it because it also promotes backlist; and I love it because I get to hear people laugh at my jokes, an experience a writer of humorous prose is usually denied. It is huge fun and none of it would have been possible a decade ago, not least because the – yes – social networks of literary festivals, libraries and bookshops did not exist in the way they do now.

In other respects, of course, things haven’t changed. People still like to read rave reviews in broadsheet newspapers. And word of mouth recommendation continues to be the most important factor in any book’s success. But there are opportunities for authors to connect with their readers in a multitude of ways that simply did not exist ten years ago – for better or worse. I’m only just beginning to get to grips with what it all means. Every day I think about leaving Twitter, if only to get some writing done. In ten years’ time, perhaps there’ll be a clone of me who can Tweet, with another one to take care of public appearances. That would be a development of which Douglas Adams would surely approve. Otherwise, who’s going to write the books?

Andy Miller's The Year of Reading Dangerously (Fourth Estate) is out now. He can be found on Twitter.