Category Archives: Readers

Reading groups: keeping the book industry viable

While book sales generally may not be thriving, one positive feature of the contemporary reading scene worldwide is the growth of reading groups, book groups, book clubs – call them what you like. The ritual that brings friends together regularly to discuss their recent reading is so widespread that, in the aggregate, it’s surely keeping the book industry viable.

These groups take various forms, from quasi-academic study circles to (more often) informal chat sessions. They meet in various places, from members’ houses to libraries and cafes. Though essentially self-managed, many have links to particular stores through which chosen titles are bought at a discount or borrowed through a consignment scheme; e.g. there are several hundred reading group members under the wing of my little local indie, The Well Bookshop.

Other groups may belong to a network coordinated by a small business operation, which provides fee-based services such as lists of recommended titles and discussion notes. A lively and well-run Californian example is Literary Masters.

Some groups known to me have been going for very many years, with original members continuing to participate actively as their tastes ripen. Other groups are newly established. I see no sign of a decline in the phenomenon, and in fact it seems to be burgeoning. According to John B. Thompson in Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the 21st Century, reading group membership has doubled in less than a decade. It’s estimated that there are now some 20 million members in the US alone.

Oprah Winfrey’s book club choices, publicised since the mid-1990s through TV and the internet, have had a demonstrably huge effect on sales.

A comparably influential British example is the Richard and Judy Book Club, which began as a TV chat show and was credited at its peak (2008) with 26% of all book sales in the UK. Subsequently, in association with the retail chain W.H. Smith, it became a website, and still has a large following.

In Australia the ABC’s nationally televised Book Club, hosted by Jennifer Byrne, is now a decade old. Its popular website and wide social media outreach have generated a high level of interest across all parts of the country in forming and joining satellite reading groups.

Several Perth-based reading groups have invited me along to their meetings to discuss one or more of my novels. I’ve always found it pleasurably informative to make this direct connection with a sample of my readers, respond to their questions, listen to a range of opinions, and observe how differently they go about comparing their literary experiences.

To judge from conversations with the groups I’ve attended as a guest and from positive comments that reach me from other such groups, it seems that my novels work well as a stimulus for the exchange of readers’ views. If you belong to a book group that hasn’t yet chosen one of these titles, you may like to consider doing so in the light of discussion notes that my publisher’s website provides on The End of Longing, That Untravelled World and The Mind’s Own Place.

Happy reading, happy talk!

Pleased to meet you

ian reid at bookcaffe 1

Writing is an incomplete activity. For the most part, using language has a communicative purpose, and writing doesn’t fully become an act of communication until someone reads it. Of course you can write purely to ‘express yourself,’ but most people wouldn’t see much point in being the sole reader of what you’ve written unless it’s just a shopping list or similarly ephemeral memo to yourself. When a well-considered piece of writing (poem, story, or whatever) circulates publicly, it becomes a medium through which readers can ‘meet’ its author.

That’s one kind of interpersonal encounter, though it’s an indirect one: at most, words on the page simply allow a reader to imagine the individual who produced the words. And because we’re curious creatures, we frequently want more than a mediated encounter-at-a-distance. We’d like to communicate in person, hear the author speak, ask the author questions, exchange remarks face to face.

Direct contact with readers may be an uncomfortable experience for some authors – not surprisingly: in some cases the impulse to write is associated with shyness about oral communication, while in other cases an author takes the principled view that a written work should speak for itself.

At any rate, many readers do want to hear an author talk about his or her books, so only a few rare literary birds (Thomas Pynchon, J.D. Salinger…) can afford to be reclusive. Appearances at literary festivals, promotional talks and readings – these are routine obligations for most writers, who are well aware that their readers (prospective or already engaged) generally expect to have access to conversations with them.

A friend of mine, Brenton Doecke, has recently drawn my attention to an essay by German critic Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller,’ which meditates on historical changes in the way that narratives circulate. Traditionally, Benjamin remarks, someone would share a story with listeners (families, friends, workmates) who in turn often reframed it in terms of their own experience and passed it on to others. This communal chain of storytelling was gradually replaced, he says, by literary narration, tending to create a ‘dependence on the book’ – a dependence that separates author from readers, and readers from one another. It occurs to me that the desire of many readers to meet authors and fellow readers face to face, and discuss books together, may be partly motivated by a wish to restore a social dimension to the telling and interpretation of stories.

At any rate, I enjoy meeting readers in person and talking about my books. I hope this isn’t  just a form of self-parading vanity. I’d like to think that, whatever value it may have for the people who come along to these sessions, it has a beneficial effect on my writing by keeping me in touch with the interests and tastes of my readership.

During the year since publication of The Mind’s Own Place, I’ve met and talked with groups of actual or potential readers of my work on more than 30 occasions. These encounters include sessions at literary festivals, recorded media interviews, formal presentations to many different gatherings (various literary and historical societies, library groups, English teacher associations and other professional bodies…), plus less formal discussions at book clubs, writing workshops with school classes, and so on.

Coming up in the weeks ahead are several more meetings of different kinds: a Literary High Tea on a university campus, a talk hosted by the Fellowship of Australian Writers, a regional literary festival, a public conversation as part of the next Perth Heritage celebration… You can find the details here, and I’d be delighted to see any of my readers at any of these forthcoming events.

So although writing is done in solitude, a writer’s life can be intensively social. For me it’s a pleasure to encounter some of my readers in person. But virtual encounters are also important: I welcome the occasional exchanges that take place on this website, especially as some of the comments that come in are from people I’ve never met face to face.

Readers who don’t just read

In some previous posts I’ve ruminated glumly on the decline of the book trade in general and of some traditional publicity vehicles such as book launches in particular. Faced with such dismal trends, and conscious that publishers have trimmed their marketing budgets, writers can sometimes feel burdened with lonely responsibility for the promotion of their books.

But that ignores a large group of potential publicists: a book’s readers! Writing a few days ago in the Huffington Post, Cindy Tansin issues a challenge: if you’ve enjoyed reading a book, consider returning the favour to the author – e.g. by actually buying it for someone else rather than lending it, by reviewing it in a forum such as Goodreads, by following the author on social media, by visiting the author’s website, by posting a photo of yourself holding the book*… and so on.

*My own alternative suggestion: send your friends a photo of the item on display in a bookstore – like the following one sent to me by someone who spotted my novel The End of Longing among featured titles in an airport shop!

photo-20

 Cindy’s stimulating article on ‘being more than a reader’ is at  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cindy-tansin/be-more-than-a-reader-how_b_4568997.html#!