For the past few days, Vroman’s, as well as others in the book and publishing world, have been co-publishing a new Rick Moody story called “Some Contemporary Characters” via Twitter. Every ten minutes, a new section of the story emerges in a 140 character chunk. The distribution scheme is the brainchild of the story’s publisher, Electric Literature, a relatively new literary journal that publishes simultaneously as a gorgeous ebook and a fine print edition, as well. The hope was that, by syndicating the story across so many different accounts, Electric Literature would reach a wider audience.
It didn’t work. There was too much overlap among the social networks of the various co-publishers, leading to many people seeing the same tweet several times. The book world has responded at first with confusion, and then moved quickly to anger, scorn and ridicule. As Electric Literature editor Andy Hunter said in commenting on the blog HTML Giant, “One problem with the copublishing is that the people getting multiple feeds are the people who avidly follow publishing and literature – bloggers, media, other publishers, etc. Not a good group to annoy! They shape the narrative.” Yesterday afternoon, I made the difficult decision to stop co-publishing the story. I did this primarily because it’s December, and I needed the full power of my Twitter feed to promote the store at this crucial time. The addition of my own Tweets interspersed with those of the story was too confusing for many people, and I just couldn’t afford that with the holidays approaching. If the story had run in April, I’d have let it finish. As it is, I think it was a noble failure.
Okay, so the publishing and bookselling world didn’t love it. Should that matter? What about the people outside the book and publishing world? Aren’t those the people we should be trying to find and reach? Did the Moody story reach any of those people? I think it did, whether the literary world wants to hear it or not. When I announced that we were ending the experiment, @minorheroine said “WAIT! But, are you gonna do this again?! I LOVED IT!!” Others retweeted lines they particularly enjoyed. Some people, it seems, were enjoying the experiment, even if it annoyed people who follow lots of book feeds.
The Moody Twitter experiment (and Moody wasn’t to blame for its failure, though I’m sure the first couple comments will be “ZOMG!1! Rick Moody is teh suck!1!!1″) depressed me for a number of reasons. First, it made me wonder what we’re all doing on Twitter. If so many of my followers are book industry people, am I wasting my time with it? All this time, I’d hoped I was reaching customers. To be sure, Twitter is useful for talking to colleagues in the book industry, and I’ll continue to use it for that purpose, but if it doesn’t have a reach beyond that, I’m not sure what the point is. So much of the dialog that happens on Twitter and on the literary blogs feels masturbatory to me. It’s the same couple hundred people talking about the same issues to the same audience. Is that what I’ve been doing these past few years? Is that what the book business is at this point? If it is, then to quote the modern day philosopher Bunk Moreland “We ain’t about much.”
The book business is in major decline, and while we can all howl about the reasons why, the main one, it seems to me, is that not enough people read (and those who do, read less than they used to). There are more ways than ever to get your entertainment and information, and books are having a lot of trouble keeping up. Those of us who rely on selling books for a living need to devote a lot of time to finding people who are not readers. We have to grow our market, or we are in for a very dark future indeed. The reaction to this Twitter experiment seems to indicate to me that we’re not all that interested in doing it. Or maybe we are, as long as it doesn’t interrupt our conversations about ebook formatting and the National Book Awards.
In the evening on Monday, one of my Twitter colleagues remarked that she couldn’t believe “Moody” hadn’t become a trending topic on Twitter for the day. Really? I can. You know why? Nobody cares. Oh, not nobody. A few thousand people care, the same few thousand who care about the National Book Awards and ebook formatting. Those few thousand are enough of a market if you’re set up to do business that way. But it’s not enough to support the whole industry. To the general public, Rick Moody’s name probably rings out only as the guy who wrote the book that the movie The Ice Storm was based on, if that. Books simply don’t have the cultural reach of movies or music or sports or politics. And that, right there, is the problem. But from where I sit, much of the book industry seems content to talk amongst themselves. For recent evidence of that, look at Book Expo America deciding not to open its doors to the general public. As Richard Nash put it, “Don’t want to have to rush erecting our foamcore cover mock-ups.”
I’m not arguing that books aren’t important or an inherent good for society, nor am I arguing that we’ll see the disappearance of the book anytime soon. But we have to ask ourselves if we’re producing and selling something that fewer and fewer people want to consume, why are we doing it? And if attempts to reach new readers like the Moody Twitter experiment are met with instant derision, how will we reach those people who aren’t currently reading? I don’t have the answers, I don’t think. At Vroman’s, we’re willing to try just about anything to get people into the store, and to be honest, we don’t care if they’re readers or not. We sell all sorts of non-book products, including clothing for children, stationery, toys, musical instruments and food. And that seems to anger some people, as if selling those products makes us less of a bookstore. It’s the same thinking that leads book industry types to force something like the Moody experiment to failure.
We need to consider what people like Gary Vaynerchuk are doing to sell books. Here’s a guy who put up billboards for his book, who went on a 24-hour airport signing tour, who bought video ad space at gas station pumps. Did it work? Well, his book debuted at #2 on the NYT Bestseller list. But many in the book world dislike him, as he has repeatedly stated “I don’t read books.” Exactly. If we’re trying to reach people who don’t currently read, maybe we should be paying attention to them. Since the Twitter experiment didn’t work, the attitude should be “What do we try next?” That’s question I’d like to see answered. Maybe I’ll ask it on Twitter.
[If you were enjoying the Moody story and would like to see it through to the end, I encourage you to follow @ElectricLit on Twitter.]