You zombify books by selling them as if they were rectangular, inert matter. (My gosh, my spellcheck accepted “zombify”!) I didn’t say: “selling books as if they were sacks of potatoes” because I like potatoes. What I don’t like is “mash potato sandwiches”, a phrase I picked up from a friend.
In the case of the mash potato sandwich, you take a living, organic form and turn it into crap. You sell what you don’t know much about. You sell what you don’t care much about. If you sell books that way, you turn books into crap. But literature is resilient; it will sprout back!
The resilience of literature is a boon to the book industry, which doesn’t always realize when it’s being helped. I picked up a stimulating book on the movies recently, “American Cinema of the 1940’s” edited by Wheeler Winston Dixon. It’s an academic study published by Rutgers. But is has a movie still from Casablanca on it’s cover and that makes it cool.
The point is made in the book that the studios often underrated the innovations that would end up benefiting the industry. Major studios stalled on investing in color film technology because they thought that movies made in color would always be an exception.
When television started on an experimental basis in this decade, MGM wouldn’t allow its movies to be broadcast on the tube. They had a TV show in the mid-50’s, “The MGM Parade”, that promoted movies that were in release or re-release in theaters. The MGM executives figured that no one would want to sit in their living room and watch movies in monochrome on a tiny screen. Sometimes with cultural and technological change, there’s no tsunami until it envelops you. And then it’s so obvious, it’s barely worth mentioning.
In the dawn of the TV era in the 1950’s, there was Mr. Potato Head. That was a children’s toy where you desecrated a perfectly decent potato by sticking plastic appendages into it that were not biodegradable. The distorted potato now bore a crude resemblance to a human head. It was the American take on headhunting. Every child had one.
When I think of e-readers, social media and blogging today, I’m reminded of people in the book business who act like nothing has changed…until everything changes and then they still act as if nothing has changed. I think of them as Mr. Potato Head Sandwiches.
Books need to be talked about. They need to be pre-experienced as a lure to engage their most likely readers. They need to be read. Nothing is more pernicious to the long term health of the book business than books that are not read. I know that sales executives, thinking that they are acting smart, will say: “We know those books will not be read. We just want them sold”. And: “Let’s face it, how much time does anyone have to read?” That’s Potato Head talk.
More Potato Head talk: that lending books to friends, or exchanging books with friends, or using the library, or reading the books you already own, is going to depress book sales. It’s counter-intuitive; but taking books out of the library increases book sales. Because anything that enhances the book-loving community increases book sales.
It’s not a question of elite literary readers versus the mass market. There is no more dedicated reader than the fan of popular romances: paranormal, regency, erotic, urban fantasy, YA, contemporary, historical…whatever! The many types of romance literature demonstrates the vitality of the genre.
Although I’m reminded here of JR on Dallas, who when he was briefly sidelined as an oil magnate, stayed home rooted in a lawn chair and read cloth bestsellers, as a sign that he was wasting his time and feeling useless.
Literary readers are just as likely to buy a book and not read it…like when they hear of the latest Lithuanian poet who’s reading at an indie bookstore, with a line of book lovers queuing around the block, who has a 40 dollar collection they eagerly snap up so that it can sit proudly on their bookshelf unopened for the next 30 years.
Open that book just sitting on your shelf!! I’d like to do one of those public service ads in the subway: “Dust It Off!! It’s Read-That-Book-On-Your-Shelf-Month!”
You might be amazed at how good that unread book is. At how easy it is to talk about it to online and in-person friends. How…even if you don’t specifically mention the book…the book will mention YOU! If you read it, the book will be INSIDE YOU, affecting your angle of talk and vision. Keeping you ALIVE. Reading and talking books is a fine zombie antidote. It happened to me I must confess, with that book on the movies that I’ve just mentioned.