23 February 2014 - BOOKS YOU WANTED


G'day folks,

Welcome to a feature post from David Streitfeld, courtesy of The New York Times - BOOKS YOU WANTED.

"Anyone can publish a book these days, and just about everyone does. But if the supply of writers is increasing at a velocity unknown in literary history, the supply of readers is not. That is making competition for attention rather fierce. One result: ceaseless self-promotion by eager beginners.

 Another consequence is writers’ thirst for more data on how they are being read, so they can shape their books to please their readers more. This is something novelists have always done, using sources like fan mail, personal appearances, reviews and sales. Technology is starting to give them data that is much more precise, and thus potentially more helpful.

“If you write as a business, you have to sell books,” said Quinn Loftis, a very successful self-published writer for teenagers. “To do that, you have to cater to the market. I don’t want to write a novel because I want to write it. I want to write it because people will enjoy it.”

But my article last week outlining how the digital book subscription services Oyster and Scribd plan to collect and share data with writers like Ms. Loftis resulted in little enthusiasm, at least among potential readers. Nearly all the comments on the article expressed dismay about where the trend could go.

“This generation will get to read the books they really, really like,” wrote A. Raja Hornstein of San Rafael, Calif. “Any thinkers who are unpopular or outside the box or, well, creative, won’t be read. The next generation will get to read the books written by the vapid, money-hungry writers of this generation who never read any creative works. In a few generations, there will be no new ideas, only popular ones. But there will be lots of new problems and nobody smart enough to solve them. Way to go!”

Another commentator quoted the poet Joseph Brodsky, who wrote that “in cultural matters, it is not demand that creates supply, it is the other way around. You read Dante because he wrote ‘The Divine Comedy,’ not because you felt the need for him: you would not have been able to conjure either the man or the poem.”

Brodsky was a Nobel laureate who famously said, as he was being tried by a Soviet court for being a “parasite,” that his gift for poetry came from God. That comment helped get him sentenced to five years of hard labor. Like most poets, even prize-winning ones, he never had many readers, and could not have conceived of them influencing his work.

But now it will be a matter of public knowledge exactly how devoted your readers are. In data shared by Oyster, which started this fall, Mark Helprin’s 1983 novel, “Winter’s Tale,” was finished by 60 percent of its readers. His latest novel, the less rapturously received “In Sunlight and in Shadow,” is finished only 24 percent of the time.

An Oyster spokeswoman said, rather surprisingly, that the service was discovering that “everyone is nostalgic about the classics from A.P. English, but no one actually finishes them.”

“The Last of the Mohicans” and “Pride and Prejudice” are both among the most opened books on Oyster but are finished less than 1 percent of the time. This is easy to believe with “The Last of the Mohicans,” but not with “Pride and Prejudice.” Maybe men look through Jane Austen before going on dates but never reach the end.

Or maybe with most books, even works of fiction, a taste is enough. “The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll,” a major work by the 1972 Nobel laureate from Germany, has been started by over a hundred readers on Oyster but has yet to be finished by any of them.

KAsdo, a reader from Texas, might have been thinking of writers like Böll when he commented, “I can imagine how discouraging it must feel to be an author who is not being read. It makes a lot of sense for those unread authors to migrate to a system like the one described in this article. It enables them, perhaps, to understand both the weaknesses and strengths in their own writing, both of which can only help them to write better.”

Clancy's comment:  Many thanks, David. So, what influences you with books? Do you finish the ones you start? Guess what I do when I read a great book? I pencil the date on the inside cover and give it a star-rating. That way, next time I rummage through my study looking for a good read, I know what is worth reading, and how long since I last read it. Any book that does not warrant a star-rating goes out!

I'm ...

Think about this!

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