Experience is the new cultural currency. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but it’s radically changed the way I write for theatre and TV, and I wonder if it's going to influence the way authors and publishers approach books.
In 2015, my theatre company Les Enfants Terribles created its first piece of immersive theatre - "Alice’s Adventures Underground". It was a huge hit, getting nominated for an Olivier award, returning for a second run and even inspiring a Chinese production which ran for two years in Shanghai. Why was it such a success? Because rather than watch Alice disappear into Wonderland – you got to BE Alice, and experience Wonderland for yourself.
We were lucky to hit a wave which has been running through creative industries for years. The way that we consume media is changing, with audiences progressively moving from a passive to an active role; from the outside, to the centre. And that is likely to only increase, now that Covid has come along and shaken us all up from the ‘normal’ way things are supposed to be done.
My television show "Flack" starts streaming on Amazon Prime US from late January, and while I was writing it, I thought about the audience in a very different way to how I might have done just a few years ago. This shift was also the inspiration behind our new show at Les Enfants Terribles, "Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the hung Parliament?" Digital and immersive, our production takes the classic literary hero and reinvents him for readers (and non-readers) who want to participate. Rather than listen to Sherlock’s verbose, rambling deductions, they get to solve the crime their own way.
We are living in the world that Andy Warhol told us about, where everyone is famous for 15 minutes. But in Warhol's model, he still assumed that there would be some kind of gatekeeper to bestow this honour upon the proles. The reality is far more chaotic. Whether it is the boom in constructed reality TV shows, or the fact that "Strictly" is teeming with ‘celebrities’ that no one over 40 has heard of because they are YouTube or TikTok sensations, the shift is inescapable.
People don’t want to be passengers, they want to be protagonists. We don’t want to be influenced, we want to be influencers. We are experiencing the democratisation of celebrity and of culture – art is becoming less about other people’s stories, and more about our own. And from music to Hollywood, creative industries are struggling to adapt to this change.
Except publishing. That one appears to be holding strong. Sure, there is the obvious danger of the death of the bookshop, alongside every other high street institution, exacerbated by the pandemic. But bookshop.org, combined with customer loyalty, seems to be fighting back. And although there was a time when many people thought that readers would just download everything onto their Kindles and ditch print, of course that didn’t happen But why?
Well, what is a book, if not the interface to an experience? The touch, the feel, the smell of the pages, the self-importance you feel whilst strolling around the shelves of a fancy book shop, the satisfaction at scoring off another classic from your list, and the cultural capital that being well read offers you... all of this adds up to an irresistible and very personal offering.
The publishing industry was gamified before we even knew what gamification meant. What are the bookshelves we see in the back ground of every Zoom call, if not the trophies of past intellectual conquests? What is the difference between strolling through a bookshop and scrolling through the Netflix menu? (In both scenarios you can be comforted by the fact you will never run out of content). Every book ticked off a ‘100 books to read before you die’ list is a levelling up. Every Penguin Classic that gets sold is another notch on somebody's cerebral bedpost.
This perfectly suits our modern goals of completionism (Noun - in a video game: a player who attempts to complete every challenge and earn every achievement or trophy ) - something anyone who has a child obsessed with "Fortnite" will recognise. When reading a book, you are, in a manner, already in control. You get to decide what the characters and the world look and sound like, you get to fill in the gaps, you get to live in the world. It's an experience most other industries are currently spending millions trying to replicate.
However, does all this mean that publishing is exempt from the prodigious paradigm shifts occurring in almost every other industry? Unlikely. So how will things change?
Will we suddenly see a massive resurgence of the ‘choose your own ending’ books which were so popular in the 80s? I doubt it. But there is no question things will shift, somehow. Gen Z is coming of age; a generation bred on social media with chemically shortened attention spans. Will they still curl up for hours of end in the company of a good book, or will they demand quicker, more condensed hits of lit? Is the decline of long-form literature in sight?
And what about the authors? Before long, authors born in the internet age will start outnumbering those from an analogue era. Already we are seeing huge generational crevasses appearing - neatly documented in the recent controversies surrounding J.K. Rowling or Lionel Shriver. So how will the cult of personality affect the publishing industry? Will the number of Instagram followers an author has become more important than a favourable mention in the literary press? Now YouTube can create its own ‘home-made’ stars, will publishers finally lose their place as chief gatekeepers, and self-published authors start carving out ever more lucrative and inventively formatted paths for themselves, with die-hard fanbases groomed on a diet of Instagram, Twitter and Tiktok?
What is without doubt is that the world is changing, and fast; almost too fast for our little monkey brains to keep up with. How do books - and publishers - remain relevant to a generation who have barely ever had to use a paper and pen?
I don’t know, but two things are sure. One, publishers must do their very best to ensure that books retain their cultural capital, their value in the game. It's what's kept them relevant so far, and if they lose that, they lose everything. And two, they must start thinking hard about the future rather than resting on their laurels. Books are incredibly resilient, but nothing is immune to widespread cultural change. The first digital revolution may have settled, but the behavioural one if just starting.
So how are you planning to change?
Oliver Lansley is the Artistic Director of Les Enfants Terribles Theatre Company. He is also a writer for television and theatre. His TV show "Flack", starring Sophie Okonedo and Anna Paquin, airs on Amazon Prime in the US. As an actor he has appeared in numerous television programmes from "Sherlock" to "Dr Who" and the upcoming BBC drama "Vigil"
Les Enfants Terribles’ "Sherlock Holmes: An Online Adventure: ‘The Case of the Hung Parliament’ " will take place from 27 Jan – 10 March. For tickets visit www.sherlockimmersive.com.