Friday, 12 August 2005

Some further thoughts on Doug Hoffman's question. The story so far is in my post from yesterday.

Today's thoughts are about how people get into reading particular books and authors, other than through marketing effort. My hypothesis is that, far from being the private and solitary activity as it is often portrayed, reading is, for many people, an intensely social activity. If we see reading as taking place within a social structure we can understand why some books succeed and others don't.

So what do I mean by reading being a social activity? The actual reading of the words is usually a solitary pursuit, of course, although I still read a chapter or two of some children's classic to young Wenlock in the evenings. But I reckon that reading is more than that. It's about talking about the book with other people who have read it, or might read it. This is where book groups come in, and is behind the extraordinary impact of Oprah's book recommendations (and Richard and Judy over here). This social thing finds its most extreme expression in the world of SF, with events such as WorldCon. Indeed SF recognises and to a large extent embraces the concept of fandom to a much greater extent than any other genre (with the exception of graphic novels and comics, perhaps, which have a significant overlap with SF).

Fan conventions, Oprah recommendations, reading groups and even informal conversations with friends and colleagues about our reading habits all offer a degree of social support, telling us that we are not alone in our activities and our tastes. We are a social species by nature, so this is a comforting thing. And in these groups and conversations we talk about the books we are reading, and what we think about them, and maybe how they relate to our own lives. And of course conversation will turn to other books, and so recommendations will be made by word of mouth, and readers will find new authors beyond the 3 for 2 tables at the front of the shop.

As a reader of SF and crime as well as historical and romatic fiction I found out about Alastair Reynolds through recommendations at work, and about Henning Mankell. My father learned about Stephen Booth and Laura Lippman from me. In those last two cases the appeal of the books was the settings - the Peak District where my family comes from in the first case, Baltimore, in whose shadow I was living in the second. It was easy to explain the books' appeal.

And that's where we may start running into problems for books about relationships aimed at men. It's a cliché sure, but men don't casually talk to each other much about their own relationships, at least not at any level of personal detail. I suspect that men are even less willing to do so in mixed groups, or across generations. Sadly I think that this tendency would undermine the development of the sort of social networking that generates the word-of-mouth that supports successful authors as much, if not more than their publishers' marketing budgets. There are ways around this - Nick Hornby started with a book about football, which may have been a negative with publishers and agents but certainly legitimised it for male readers, but that sort of thing may not always be available.

I don't think that marketing can solve this, although it can help (but spare us the horror of Penguin's ghastly, laddish "Good Booking" promotion, now largely gone from their website). Whether anything else can do the job I don't know.

3 comments:

Douglas Hoffman said...

Just as men are dragged unwillingly to "date movies" (chick flicks, call them what you will), I think some might be brow-beaten into reading a book by their women.

Here's the success scenario: our male POV romance -- aw, hell, we need a name. Deep Hunger, the best I can do on the spur of the moment -- would have immediate appeal to the usual (female) romance crowd. They read it and think, "If my boyfriend/husband reads this, he may understand himself better. He may realize how much he craves love and affection deep down. He has to read it!"

If the author has done his job well, the guy may pick up the book reluctantly at first, yet find himself turning page after page.

Instant audience!

So: we market it to the romance crowd and cross our fingers as we wait for the book to jump the sex boundary.

You know this market far better than I do. Is this a pipe dream?

pam cleaver said...

Before we were married, my husband had read two Georgette Heyers - Infamous Army and The Spanish Bride. When my collection of GH's came into the house, he tried one or two and found he liked them. He often picks up books from my reading pile and dips in. He reads Janet Evanovich, for instance, because I laughed out loud so much, he wanted to find out what the jokes were. We regularly discuss the books we read.

Stephen said...

Janet Evanovich is an interesting example. The Stephanie Plum books are usually shelved in "crime" in UK bookshops, although they have a strong romantic element running through them. I assume that they are shelved in crime in the US too, where (unlike here) "Romance" is an available option.

Maybe men can safely read and discuss JE's books because they are treated as crime rather than romance? Lindsey Davis' Falco books fall into the same territory, I reckon, with the added de-gendering that being a historical provides.