Books, Sex and Why Publishing Still Matters

I remember reading John Naisbitt’s Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives years ago and being struck by the concept of high tech/high touch. That is, the more high tech our lives became, the greater our demand for high touch elements. This could account for everything from office design through to the interest in gadgets, and surprisingly, books. And everywhere I looked I could see evidence.

Then, as eBooks began their steady march forward, there were many who suggested that the book publishing industry was on the brink of collapse. We now know this is not true – and that book publishing may well be in the healthiest shape that it has been in for decades. BookExpo America indicates that there were over 130,000 active publishers in 2008 – an increase of 27%. And virtually all this growth occurs in the small publisher category. Clearly it would take something seismic to destroy a $40.3 billion industry.

BookExpo America — Book Industry TRENDS 2009

View more presentations from bisg.

But despite the growth of blogs and other forms of social communication, books continue to hold a prominent position in our culture. Think about the recent conferences you have attended – how many of the keynote speakers are authors? Think about the way we still continue to revere books. Perhaps it is the lure of storytelling or something more primal. Bruce Temkin suggests that part of our biological makeup, fundamental to evolutionary success, is the way that stories transform our brain’s responses:

People relate to stories because it is part of their evolutionary makeup. Stories cause our mirror neurons to fire at similar experiences, helping us remember and relate.

In my own experience, as the author of The Dialup Guide to Blogging, and more notably, publisher and contributor to The Age of Conversation, extreme care is taken whenever a word is laid out in print. We take more care with words when they are perceived as more PERMANENT than the digital variety, and we pay more attention to their context when they are given physical presence. Yes, a potential employer may Google your name before an interview, but they may throw a quote back in your face. Words really can eat you.

But on the consumption side – as a reader – books are also becoming status symbols. Up until recently, our book collections or libraries signalled our own tastes, follies and predilections to a private audience – those who are invited into the inner sanctums of our homes. (I don’t know about you, but when I visit a friend’s house, I scour their bookshelves for insight and maybe even scandal.) These days, however, we wear our libraries as badges of social honour – with sites such as, Amazon and Shelfari bringing our reading list into the social networking space.

Nowadays, books are indicators of our conscious attention decisions – when we choose to read a book, we choose to immerse ourselves in its world and the imaginings of the author. Kyle Mitchell, agrees:

Reading a book on the NYC subway is the ultimate declaration of refusal to be distracted by anything around you

But books go beyond this too. When we read a book, we are making a statement to others as well as to ourselves. We invest in an unwritten contract where the rewards on offer can only be reached via our own commitment. As readers, we delay our gratification until the very last page. It’s like a slow dance with an uncertain ending. It’s like sex – or more precisely – like seduction.

There is much that marketers can learn from publishing in this regard. How do we capture the inbuilt Auchterlonie Effect provided by books (allowing others to tell their story about OUR story)? How do we mimetically reproduce that high tech/high touch aspect that is bound up in hundreds of years of publishing history? I think Jeremy Lebard, creator of points us in the right direction:

Reading provides a quiet solitude seldom found in our busy world. It invokes in me a quiet chamber of the mind that shuts out external distractions and focuses on the story at hand. From that quiet room I get the best view of the world no matter where I am. The view is like no other; I watch a story unfold through the eyes of the author. The author’s words become the script and I the producer and out springs a living breathing story within the walls of my imagination. I am forced to interpret that with which I am unfamiliar. Every story I read takes my imagination for a workout. Reading forces you to become a producer that even with the merest budget it takes to buy a book you can compete with the latest commercially produced multi-million dollar production. Don’t believe me? Just listen next time a book is turned into a movie. More often than not you’ll hear “It’s not as good as the book”.