By Kathy Meis, Writer/Editor/Entrepreneur
“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends,” wrote Charles W. Eliot near the end of the 19th Century. No matter how much action is taking place on the page, we always describe books, and the experience of reading them, as quiet.
“Even in their digital form,” wrote Moveable Type’s Jason Ashlock more recently, “they don’t seem to do very much…. Books are quiet objects: they don’t flash and whirr.”
As for confirmation of Eliot’s description of books as friends, just read a handful of the thousands of tweets that circulated as a result of Ashlock’s accompanying hashtag, #WhyIRead. Yes, Eliot was right on both counts.
Books are quiet, constant friends.
This intimate bond enhances other important relationships. We introduce the latest literature in our life to the neighbors. We join clubs to meet interesting new stories, biographies, mysteries, histories and humans. We drag our books to the table to talk about them with friends over coffee, dinner and wine. Amid all the haphazard pleasantries, engaging conversations, spontaneous laughter and tears, lively debates and serendipitous moments, we have no idea that we are acting as publishing’s single most powerful marketing tool.
Advertise, market, publicize. Publishers can try it all. But they know, if Martha next door tells her friend Mary to read Franzen… sold!
Trust is a powerful salesman.
At first, we resisted. Don’t mess with my Franzen, he’s peeeerrrrrfect!
But slowly, cautiously, we explored. We listened to each other’s experiences and realized that beneath the fancy new digital gadgets remained our quiet, constant friend. Comforted, Mary gave Martha the nod. And with a group hug of epic proportions, we bought eBooks and eReaders in record numbers this holiday season.
“Mary, doesn’t Franzen look great in ePub?” We were hooked.
But as often happens, popularity is changing our quiet little eBook. It has been subtle so far. A flash here. A whirr there. The same beautiful writing appears on the page, but something has changed.
Our eBook is becoming bolder, trying on new bells and whistles. Mary opens one of her many eReaders only to have a bunch of awards and badges pop up at her. Now, instead of Martha introducing Mary to a new thriller, an algorithm enumerates Mary’s library and emails her a suggested list of suitable companions. The email alert flashes in the right hand corner of her book. So efficient! What’s not to love?
Small advertisements appear on the pages of Freedom touting Franzen’s other works. What’s the harm? Martha loves Franzen.
Split screens allow new levels of multitasking so there’s no need for Mary and Martha to wait; they can actually share while they’re reading. And that’s just the beginning.
The temptation to start “enhancing” the relationships readers have with their books is strong. It seems logical to help Mary and Martha focus their conversations on our critical goal of selling more books during tight economic times. They love books. They won’t mind.
But then it happens.
“Martha, something’s wrong. Franzen must be mad at me. He’s been loud…practically yelling at me. I don’t know, maybe I need a break. I’ll miss him, but I yearn for a little peace and quiet.”
And there we have it. Good intentions. Destructive outcome. Too much noise damaged a perfectly beautiful relationship and the rich social culture that celebrated it.
Don’t get me wrong. Like all publishing businesses, my company is exploring new economic models that employ social reading technologies. It’s a natural extension of Mary and Martha’s tried-and-true social lattice. Capitalizing on new technologies to magnify the buying power of that network is good business.
That is, as long as we all remember the ultimate power of our quiet, constant friend.
Kathy Meis is a freelance writer and editor in Charleston, SC. She is currently ghost writing a work of nonfiction and recently founded Serendipitē Studios, a publishing technology company that builds artisan-quality eTools for readers, writers and content nerds.