On Books and Birthdays

So the 5th of August in the year of Our Lord 1971, I was born in the Western city of Lisbon, capital of the once Kingdom of Portugal, recently re-named as the Portuguese Republic. This is the excuse I have for having done the least possible today. I picked up a book, a chair and a cooler spot and I read as much as I could, finishing a book I bought not long ago. That was my present to myself. Looking back I spent a few of my favorite birthdays exactly like that: on a safe place, quietly surrounded by loved ones, discretely sitting with a book in my hands. There is a long and complex discussion out there about what books should we encourage kids to read in school and what to do about reading and writing and publishing books. Are people reading more or less? And what kind of books should you read? And write? And how to publish? Let me speak my mind about these things.

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Reading should be fun. Not a duty, fun. Does that mean that you shouldn’t obligate students to read certain books? Well, books are knowledge as well, they are culture. I read a lot of important books in school that are much more important to me than all the math I learnt. However, I wasn’t discouraged by the mandatory reading as many others were – even though I did find that mandatory character bothersome from time to time. But make no mistake: I read books because I was taught to. I had parents and other parental-figures who read books and who encouraged me to read. My father bought me my first ‘no-picture’ book when I was almost 10 and in spite of my reluctance (it had no pictures!!) it was that first book which I enjoyed so much that propelled me to read more and more. Example is by far, in my view, the best way to encourage others to read and it’s upon us all to encourage the young.

But are people reading less? Many of the numbers say yes, even though there are several confusing statements about what is happening. According to The Washington Post, the NEA surveys in 2015 show that only 43% of Americans read a work of fiction the previous year. Of course, when you cross it with PEW research that says about 73% of Americans read at least one book the previous year you’d begin to think it’s only fiction reading that is on the decline.

However what we might actually be witnessing is a complete revolution in the way people ‘read’ and ‘write’. Audio-books, ebooks, and other formats have been systematically changing the scenario. Also, as many books are cheaper to buy, many may not be so pressed to read a complete book before tossing it away. But these are extrapolations of mine. What I would like to learn is what’s happening beyond America. More: what’s happening beyond the Western World? I would bet that people in Asia and Africa are reading more. Am I mistaken? I couldn’t find that out: somebody with data please help. The only thing I could find out is that literacy rates have been climbing in the whole World with particularly positive growth in areas as Southeast Asia – the most populous place on Earth. The rise of Amazon also means that books that once were only available to this or that region or country are now available to the entire World. The market is truly becoming global.

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But how about writing? I think that until recently the fiction-writing market was a star-market. Just like football players, the very few writers that were on top of the game were able to make fortunes, but the lower level writers couldn’t even earn a living – and that was the largest percentage of writers. Self-publishing, however, changed all that. Ebooks and Print-on-demand created a whole different class of writers: the class in the middle, who could earn good money from their writing but would not get famous nor rich. This is taking  publishers into a slow but relentless crisis. I have no doubt in my mind that self-publishing will in the near future take all vanity-press publishers out of the market  (they really have nothing to offer), but it will also make tremble the large towers of the great publishers in the habit of dictating their will on us poor writin’ folk.

Self-publishing is already doing two important things: 1) it’s bringing to the market a mass of new writers who were previously kept from publishing for several reasons – or at least publish what they wanted – and so there are a lot more titles in the market and cheaper ones as well; and 2) they are changing the rules of the game. Big publishers will still have a place in the market, but they will become more and more elitist and they will have to learn how to market ALL their authors: if they are expecting writers to market themselves they will be out of the game completely – what are they offering really beyond marketing?

Maybe that’s why in the end the numbers don’t add up. Because there are plenty of contradictions: people (Americans and British) read less, and traditionally published book sales are on the decline, but there’s a whole market of new sources of publishing that is definitely booming. You can look at the Scifi/F numbers right here. Even though the traditional publishers are showing concern because of a decline in consumption of Scifi/F writings, when the numbers are properly considered it seems it is actually increasing.

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I always say that writing is as reading in the following way: both should be done in pleasure. Both should give you pleasure and catharsis. The revolution is here. We don’t know how we will be reading or how we will be writing and publishing in the future. I don’t mean next century, I mean in the next 10 years. Everything is changing: the audiences are changing, the clients are changing, and so are the distribution channels and the ‘factories’ themselves. We’re witnessing something incredible that will change books forever. But the basic nature of it is still the same, though: we like stories, we learn from them, we become better people when we read them, and so we should encourage our young to take pleasure in reading as well. Some of the best days of my life were spent reading. And/or writing. So today was good day.

 

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