A reader's manifesto

When I didn’t give Philip Jones a title or a topic for this talk, he billed it a reader’s manifesto. That’s a very strong word, manifesto. Muscular. I can imagine Charlie Redmayne delivering a manifesto. I’m not sure if I’m in the manifesto business. But this is certainly about the reader. We spent a lot of time today talking about the reader. The Reader with a capital R. We are trying to understand the reader.  We are, all of us, clustered around the reader, trying to figure out what makes them tick. It’s very crowded around the reader right now.

Some of us are analysts, market researchers, statisticians. And we know that there is no one reader; there are lots of different kinds in all shapes and sizes. We segment them and study them. Collect all kinds of data about them. Every once in a while we capture one in the wild and bring it back to the lab and study it. We stand around like scientists saying, “Hmm. What does it eat? Why isn’t it moving? Give it an e-book at 99p - oh now it’s moving. How about a print-digital bundle? Nope, not so much.  Now poke it with a stick. Hmm, interesting.” (Health and safety tip: don’t poke the readers.)

Some of us are publishers. Publishers will often say: “Our goal is to get as close as possible to the reader, to understand what they want, and to have constant, direct contact with them.” Which sounds fine but also, when repeated over and over in an intense and focused way starts to sound vaguely, I don’t know - stalker-ish. So publishers: here’s a test to determine if your desire to know the reader is making you sound creepy. It’s a very simple test. Replace the word “reader” with “Taylor Swift”. For example, if you said: “Our goal is to get as close as possible to Taylor Swift, to understand what Taylor Swift wants, and to have constant, direct contact with Taylor Swift.”  Things will not go well for you. Not at all. So, don’t be a stalker.

But publishers have admired the reader from afar for so long, now they are hoping to a chance to get close.

You want to know as a publisher because you want so much from the reader. If you’re a publisher you want them to love all of your titles, your authors, your spring catalog, your backlist. You dream, deep down, that maybe they might even love you as a publisher, just for being a publisher, you could be a brand, and you could have a line of coffee mugs with your book covers on them, just like those ones from Penguin that you both love and quietly resent. (Here’s a secret statistic that Nielsen won’t tell you — Penguin coffee mugs and adult colouring books together now represent 85% of total bookstore sales, with 10% left for Mog’s Christmas Calamity and 5% for everything else. That’s a true fact. Look it up. In fact, the same statistics that were being used to predict that the market would be 50% digital in three years could now be used to predict that all reading will be replaced by adult colouring books in the next 11 months. So get ready to attend the FutureAdultColouringBook conference here in 2016.)  

Now of course if you’re a retailer you want so much from the reader too - you want them to discover you, buy from you. You want it to be just like the end of the romance novel - the one where you’ll stay together for as long as you both shall live, reading happily ever after. You don’t want it to be like the erotic novel - a series of empty encounters, hopping from one retailer’s app to the other, an orgy of choice at the expense of happiness and commitment. Retailers want a relationship. We retailers are, when you look at it, shockingly needy. Buy one thing from us and we’re like the crazy person who you go on a first date with who then texts you 18 times in 24 hours. “Thanks for signing up. How about an app? Have six bookmarks. Here’s 10% off. Here are some recommendations. What’s your favourite colour? How do you feel about a June wedding?”

We all - publishers, retailers, authors - want a lot from the reader. And as a result, we think a lot about what readers want. And I mean that very specifically. What they want. What is the next book? The next author. The recommendation, the acquisition, the new category, price point, cover. And the fight to be better at knowing what a reader wants has us occasionally acting like scientists or stalkers or needy boyfriends. Because it’s an important question to ask - the essence of publishing and book selling.

But when you think about it, our real fight right now is not to find the next book. Now books compete against everything else. There are more and more things trying to answer: “What else could you be doing now?” So I suggest that we need to ask a different question. I suggest that “how” is just as important. How we read. The quality of that experience, how we read - the need that it satisfies. “What” determines what fills the time. How determines whether we give it any time at all.

So if I take off my retail hat and my e-book hat and my device manufacturer hat and just think of myself as a reader, a few ideas come to mind. They aren’t a reader’s bill of rights. They aren’t a manifesto. They aren’t a magna-biblio-carta. They are how we want reading to be.

I picked five.

1. Easy. We want everything related to reading to be easy, frictionless, even relaxing. What you’re reading doesn’t have to be easy, but whether it’s escape or information, reading is an enjoyable act. Being in a bookstore is a soothing thing. Being in an online bookstore or an e-reader should be too. It shouldn’t just be the reading of a book that makes you feel better. The buying of one should make you feel better even before you start reading. Everything that surrounds a book should be easy.

2. Shamelessly. We want to feel good about what we read. Forget about guilty pleasures. The great gift of digital reading is the liberation from the judgey person on the tube looking sideways at my fiction choice that is covered in rocket ships or exploding aircraft carriers or low-cut bodices or an embossed photo of David Cameron. We love what we love and that should be the end of it. And we want to feel good about what we don’t read. Or half read. Or read three chapters of and then abandon. We’re grown-ups. We don’t have to eat our vegetables. Books don’t have vitamins in them. We can have extra dessert at every meal! It’s okay. We want to read shamelessly.

3. Freely. And I don’t mean in cost. We want time. Time to read. We fight for time. Finding time to read in the midst of this distracting world of work and kids and social media and smartphones and TV is like trying to wash your hair while sharing a bathtub with live octopi. It can be done, but requires inventiveness, agility, and great effort. (Waterproof Kobo Aura H2O on sale now at WH Smith, Argos and other fine retailers.) We want more time to read freely.

4 and 5. Publicly and privately. We want to talk about what we are reading unless we really don’t want to talk about what we are reading. To be able to maintain a public reading life and a private one. Sometimes you’ll run into someone who says: “I live out loud. I’m a social reader. I post everything to GoodReads to enrich my social connections and society as a whole.” No you don’t, you big liar. It’s like Facebook. You post the photo of the sweetly beautiful hand-made Christmas card that your five-year-old made you out of glitter and pasta. You don’t post any photos about the same child shoving a raisin in his ear and your attempts to extract it with eyebrow tweezers. Books are the same. You post the books that make you look like this intoxicating mix of smart and awesome and sexy. You don’t post that every time your boss gives you an especially hard time at work, you re-read Bridget Jones's Diary, which means you have read it 72 times. (And it is not true that I speak from personal experience on that.) We want to be helped but not intruded on. We want to share and hold back.

Easily, Shamelessly, Freely, Publicly and Privately.

Five ways to answer how we want to read. I picked these five - I’m sure there are others. There should be. But it’s a good place to start.

This is a bit of a pivotal FutureBook, in a way. It’s about the end of the beginning. We now have four ways to sell a book - bricks-and-mortar, print online, audiobook, e-book. None of them are going anywhere. And each of them gives us a nearly infinite list of options to answer the question “What should I read next?” But from now on, when I feel like I’m being too much of a scientist, or a stalker or a needy boyfriend, I’ll ask how readers want to read. The reader’s wants are so fundamental, so basic, that they sometimes get lost. They are hard to quantify and obstinantly resistant to analysis. But if we answer them well, we earn the right to the reader’s attention, we elbow out all of the other media that is crowding in, we get to keep doing what we love to do. And so do they.

Thank you.

Michael Tamblyn is c.e.o. of Kobo. This speech was originally delivered at the FutureBook Conference on 4th December 2015.