In this month's editor's blog, I'd like to discuss the most powerful publishing technology I’ve discovered to date. It’s incredibly immersive. It draws on the most sophisticated deep learning systems. And it is perfectly engineered to tap into the current social and cultural zeitgeist.
It’s called reading.
As I've written about technology over the years, I've realised that we really need some new verbs. Because although most of us spend most of our day staring at words on screens, most of the time, we’re not reading at all. We’re skimming or browsing or scrolling or experiencing or playing or interacting or watching - but reading we’re not.
In the majority of new book projects I’m invited to experience, I’m a consumer or a collaborator, a protagonist or a participant. Certainly not a reader. And that’s kind of bizarre, when you consider that old-fashioned, anti-social reading - whatever device or format you chose to do it through - could be considered a tailor-made panacea for our times.
Almost ten years ago now, in an article for The Atlantic called ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ Nicholas Carr wrote:
"Over the past few years, I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain [...] what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
And the truth is jet-skiing feels wonderful. For a while. But when it’s all you do, you feel kind of sick. Your attention span declines. Even though you’re always being ‘social’, your empathy erodes. You end up assuming that everyone thinks like you. You stop thinking at all.
I’m not denying that there are forms of entertainment other than books that instruct and inspire. I’m positive that a storytelling game or an interactive narrative can change lives (and if you haven't yet read our two-parter on interactive fiction from HarperCollins tech head Gus Swan, you must). But I also truly believe that, in the swift-moving digital stream in which we swim, our brains have never so urgently craved the pure, immersive experience of man-on-word - whether that takes the form of a literary prize-winner, or a miss-your-bus slice of crime.
Publishers are mad if they think the competition right now is print versus digital, publishing versus self-publishing, trade versus indie or big brand versus big brand. It's reading versus just about everything else.
The real challenge for publishing right now is to keep reading at the heart of our 'entertainment slots.' Last week, Kirsten Grant wrote a piece celebrating the success of World Book Day, on its twentieth anniversary. This campaign, and others such as Books Are My Bag, do fantastic work in getting more books in more hands.
But there's still much to be done in terms of spearheading a revolution around the way people view reading. As a rebellion against our fake-news, instantly-gratifying culture. As a true act of defiance against online filter bubbles and divided societies. As an act of activism, whether you're listening to the voice of a new BAME writer, or exploring new worlds through translated literature, or flexing your identity via the imaginative freedom of a YA fantasy. Most importantly, as a simple, delicious release from the frenetic surface-skimming - one that we all need and deserve.
Hot Dudes Reading is just the start.
Yes, publishers must exploit every new trend, technology and medium they can find to create more compelling stories and ways of delivering them. Sure, use all the other multimedia tie-ins you like gateway drugs to lure us in. Please, employ digital tools to better acquire, market, and sell. But also don’t be ashamed to stay focused on achieving the one thing only you can do: getting us to read, and read more.