A friend of mine said to me on twitter today, “Brad, kind of struggling lately with the idea of being a writer, given so few people read these days. Any recommendations?”
It was an innocuous enough question, and he was probably just looking for me to say “Keep at it!” or “You’re great!” or some other such fluffy nonsense (at least this is the response I imagine most people would give), but being that I am a writer and a thinker [NOTE TO SELF: Can you be a writer without being a thinker? Future blog post.], the question really got the gears upstairs moving.
Now, I am a writer of fiction, and avoid research at all costs, so I don’t have any fancy numbers to back up all the stuff I’m saying, just the observations of a crazy person and the random bits of data that I have heard and gotten lodged in my brain. Plus, I write this blog post as my wife drives, so I don’t have the power of the Google-machine to research these facts even if I wanted to.
It is a really loaded question because of the basic assumption, that people generally read less. As a middle school teacher I can definitely vouch for the trend. Many students simply don’t want to read, and getting them to do so, even as part of a required component of the class, is a constant challenge. This is echoed by their statements about their parents not reading, or even owning books. Beyond these observations, there is certainly a decline in book sales as a whole. Stores like Borders and Barnes and Noble can’t seem to keep their doors open, and I constantly see used bookstores going out of business (though this could easily be attributed to the fact that they can’t possibly compete with the Amazon used book model). For the purposes of this blog post, we will allow the assumption to stand, that people are, at least generally speaking, reading less.
As my brain ran through its higher gears to contemplate all the implications of this seemingly simple question, I thought back to comments made last night by Eric Ruben (generally awesome dude. Follow him on twitter @rubenagency), literary and showbiz agent. He was talking about the state of the publishing industry now, and one thing he said really hit me: “Now more than ever, writing is showbiz.” He made comments about readers being accessible to their readers, but I think it goes beyond that.
Technology is truly starting to blur the lines of what is and is not a book. For example, is an ebook a “book?” It doesn’t have pages, and you just can’t hold it in your hands like a real book (as I’ve heard many people complain when talking about my own love for ereaders). I find myself particularly torn when you start to talk about audiobooks. If someone listens to an unabridged version of Harry Potter, can they truly say that they “read” that book? Trust me when I say that this is not the post for me to delve into that argument [NOTE TO SELF: Future blog post].
I ramble about all of that so that I can tell you my recommendations for my friend. With the lines blurring, we as writers have to start to change the definitions of ourselves. I think the new thing we need to call ourselves is “content creator.” There are people out there who are respectably successful running a twitter account and finding ways to monetize it (one of my personal favorites is @sarcasticrover). There are lots of people who are successful YouTube producers, and as this channel becomes larger as a place for original content, they will be in need of writers. Others make a comfortable living doing freelance writing, a magazine here, blog post there.
So, while I don’t think people are reading novels as often, the human species as a whole will always have a thirst for knowledge and adventure. We as writers just have to be willing to find the new way our audience consumes the content we have to offer, whether it is through the spoken word (which would arguably be a regression instead of a progression) or 140 characters at a time.