Putting The Multidirectional In Conversation

February 20th, 2008 · 2 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Last night, I missed my bookclub*. My fault. I hate missing my bookclub meetings, but, well, someone screwed up her calendar. No names. When I first joined, I was a paranoid newcomer who thought it was about intellectual discussion and critical analysis. I read some serious dreck before I caught on. Maybe your bookclub trudges through slog, but, wow, mine is about the social. And the books.

You’re reading but are you particpating?

Reading is a beautifully solitary activity — I’ve mentioned before that my elementary school, a school based just outside Vandenberg Air Force Base, had a program called USSR (Uninterrupted Sustained Reading, according my mother, also the school librarian). Best time of my academic career was USSR (and, yeah, I’m going to point out the irony for the one of you who missed it). Free reading time during a school day. Anything I wanted.

There were also sick days. If I were to be honest (Mom, close your eyes, no need to know everything about your children), I was not so much a sickly child as a child who knew that she’d get to spend an entire day in bed at her grandmother’s house with — suppress your envy — all the new books that had arrived in our school library. Looking back, I can see the valuable service I provided to my fellow students, reading all those books. I mean, someone had to. It makes sense that the right person for the job would have to fake an illness or two to do the heavy lifting.

Book discussion in those days was largely about book reports (someone, who shall remain unnamed, was a book report overachiever) and classroom discussion about textbooks. I don’t remember those books. I remember Mrs. Busick reading The Island of the Blue Dolphins out loud. I remember Sir Gawain. I remember Betsy, Lacy, and Tib. I don’t remember a single thing from a textbook.

It amazes me how our system takes something that should be so magically social and reduces it to…book reports.

Yes, this is indeed about the 2008 ”’Tools of Change Conference”’. Social hit the Internet radar in a big way about the time that Friendster peaked and waned, but it’s the topic du year in publishing (also passion — 3rd chug). It’s a bit like everyone is grasping the thing that bookclubs around the nation have been flashing in Vegas neon: reading is solitary, discussing books is social.

Ben Vershbow of if:book presented on “Books as Conversations” at the conference. His first point was critical, and I’m sure this is almost a direct quote: Reading and writing today are multidirectional conversations. Later, he circled back to note that this isn’t a new notion. Books have always been multidirectional conversations.

Then and now, there is a non-linear aspect to the discussion. Some might write out loud — a scary prospect to serial editors — while some might write, publish, and let the conversation flow after the finished product is cast in stone (so to speak). The conversation is happening everywhere and it’s happening in different times and spaces.

I sometimes think that the publishing industry doesn’t fully grasp the lack of control they have. No, I wouldn’t limit that thought to publishing. I don’t believe that business today realizes the lack of control they have over the conversation. Your products — from stoves to books — are being discussed in nooks and crannies that are far more public than previous imagined without your control. You have lost the conversational thread. You don’t own the direction of the conversation. You cannot stop the good, the bad, the ugly.

Hmm, you’re saying I’m wrong. At least I hope you’re saying I’m wrong. I’ll admit to being half-wrong. You cannot stop the myriad discussions out there. You can, however, come together to create better tools to bring the conversation closer to home. You know, bring people who want to talk about your books together with other people who want to talk about your books together with people who want to link discussions with your books with discussions about other books. Think of it like voting across party lines — it’s not about the entity as much as the industry.

Vershbow analogized today’s conversations with the age-old tradition of writing in the margins, suggesting that the private notation space had shifted to a public notation space. He suggested that editorial roles are not necessarily focused on moving a book from acquisition to release. I liked how he viewed one role of publishers as chairing the discussion.

However…wow, how are you going to do that? Right now, I’m sorry to say, the onus for building the conversational aspect of books is on the reader/fan/consumer/customer. Publishers are offering very little in the way of real support and infrastructure. We — the people — own the conversation. You don’t own enough to claim even a tiny piece.

Of course, if publishers shaped the message, they would make it unnaturally positive. Reader voices offer honest balance. There needs to be a conversational space where publishers offer as much as the readers. It’s a different way of thinking about books, selling books, talking about books, and bringing everyone in the book chain together.

There is a lot of passion (4) out there in the wilds of the Internets, but I’m not seeing strong, concerted effort on the part of publishers to seek out, shape, and support these many, many conversations. What effort is being made to bring similar but not known to each other readers? I know you’re reading, but are you participating? Are your authors? How are you engaging in this multidirectional conversation?

* – AKA “wineclub”

[tags]toc, toc08, tocconf2008, tools of change, publishing, reading, writing, ben vershbow, if:book, future of the book[/tags]

File Under: The Future of Publishing

2 responses so far ↓

  • bowerbird // Feb 20, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    you’re only twice as smart as ben. :+)

    -bowerbird

  • Kassia Krozser // Feb 20, 2008 at 11:57 pm

    Only twice will make the BS mother sad, but, wow, way better than I would have guessed. I’d be happy with 1/2. Truly. I love a man who can articulate basic and, most especially, complex thoughts (a skill I hope to achieve someday). It was one of those presentations that left me inspired — which always makes me happy.