Four countries down and two to go on this wild European tour, and every publisher I’ve worked with has been amazing. We have had a ton of great conversations over meals and in bookshops these past weeks, mostly about this changing publishing landscape. And one topic in particular keeps coming up. It’s as universal as the Starbucks on every corner. What does the future of books look like?
Here’s what I usually say: The future of books depends on happy readers. It’s that simple. Let’s start from there. Because there are a lot of ways people can spend their time, and our passion — as readers, writers, publishers, booksellers, librarians, editors — depends on growing the enjoyment of reading.
I’ve pointed out in numerous interviews that authors are not in competition with one another. We are in this together, and we are in it with readers and everyone who loves a good tale, however they love it told. But beyond not being competitors, authors owe it to themselves to be cheerleaders. I have spent a good bit of time on this tour telling publishers about the upcoming new releases I’ve been asked to blurb and that I think they should be interested in (one of my publishers read one of these works and made an offer!) I also tell them about the rising indie stars whose works I enjoy and whom I see busting their butts to keep readers happy.
I do not stand to gain a single thing by doing this. Not directly. But I know this, as a reader: When I pick up a great book, it makes me want to pick up another. When I read a so-so book, I might take a break. I’ve always been an avid reader, but most of us read in waves. We also tend to fly through the books we love, which gets us back in the market in days instead of weeks or months. Great books are the key, and they don’t have to be our books.
I owe my career to the authors who wrote awesome books that sold tons of copies. Especially those who turned new readers onto reading. That’s why I tell everyone to check out Max Barry’s LEXICON, Justin Cronin’s THE PASSAGE, Ernie Cline’s READY PLAYER ONE, and the forthcoming book by Andy Weir, THE MARTIAN. It’s why I tell people about indies like Matthew Mather, Annie Bellet, Jason Gurley, Patrice Fitzgerald, and Michael Bunker (and yes, I’m an ass for stopping there. I could go on and on).
The best thing we can hope for is that someone else writes a great book and that it gets discovered. That’s how we grow the pool of readers. I aimed for this before I even became a writer, always trying to convince others to check out some book or another. I’ll never forget a first mate I worked on a yacht with who said he hated reading. He hadn’t read a book since high school. I knew he was into blackjack, so I bought and handed him a copy of BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE. He read the book in two days. He looked for more books like this. I was just a guy with a passion for reading who wanted to infect others.
So here’s how we save books: We create happy readers. The first thing we need to do is start young. No one should be handed a “classic” until they get into college, and even then it should only be lit majors. Sounds extreme? This sounds extreme to me:
1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
57 percent of new books are not read to completion.
What we are currently doing does not work. Yes, we stuff a few classics down the throats of our kids. Success. Most of them quickly learn to hate reading, that it’s a complete chore (and bore), and remove themselves from the market. We should encourage them to read whatever they want, whether that’s a magazine about cars, or articles about their favorite soccer players, or Harry Potter, or Twilight. We should exercise some patience, turn people onto reading, and then trust that they will broaden their tastes as they get older.
I know a teacher who operated like this. She taught middle school in North Carolina, and her classroom was full of books like THE MAZE RUNNER and HUNGER GAMES and some weird MOLLY FYDE thingy. Her classroom was also full of kids who loved books. Without exception. All they talked about was books. They wanted to be writers. They infected others with their enthusiasm. They were helping to save books.
Smiles on readers. That’s the theme. For writers, that means writing the most enjoyable and engaging stories possible and making sure they are packaged professionally. For publishers, that means getting rid of DRM forever, lowering prices, not worrying about piracy, and bundling ebooks with hardbacks. For bookstores, that means more community events, more book clubs and contests, more writing groups, and it means shelving books based on quality and variety rather than money. It means reaching out to local authors and stocking their books, bringing those authors into the store, and fostering a community both of writing and reading.
What I see around me is a ship taking on water, and the reaction is to eye everyone else to see who is going to eat whom first. The threat is coming from without, not within. We are in this together. My hope is that a ton of readers pick up a great book today, one that I didn’t write, and it makes them want to pick up another. My hope is that we’ll look at our kids and realize they don’t have to be adult readers, that they will probably choose not to be. So stop worrying about what we can force on them before they give up on reading, and instead create a new generation that will seek out the great books because they are as passionate about this medium as we are.
Audiobooks, digital books, paperbacks, hardbacks, it doesn’t matter. Self-published, indie, traditionally published, it doesn’t matter. What matters is smiles on readers. There are hundreds of things we can be doing to make readers smile more. Let’s focus on that.