Reading is such a deeply personal activity. It involves the reader and the book. Everything else is superfluous to reading. Even if a book isn’t read in solitude, reading is not an interactive endeavour. Neither sitting down in a café nor suntanning at the beach call for companionship when a book is involved.
Yet we tend to forget that reading is not just about that individual experience. Reading is larger than that. It goes beyond the reader, the book, and especially the writer. When a writer opts for the publishing route, then their book is taken out of their grasp and placed into the hands of the reader. Nonetheless, reading affects society and not just the reader. Books after all, are objects of cultural consumption.
The Commodification of Books
We can skip past the history of the printing press, technological advancement, and the rise of mass production. Fact is, books are widely available to consumers today. Take a look at the October 2012 — October 2013 Annual Report of the International Publishers Association, and you’ll be reminded that books are publishers’ commodities. In fact, the IPA estimated that the global spending on books amounts to €114 billion (approx. US$155.3 billion) per year (p.15). There’s no denying then that books are not always about the readers, the authors, or even the books.
What matters is how far-reaching books are. The more people read, the more lucrative the publishing business. At the same time, the more books are published and read, the wider ideas and stories spread. Crudely put, it all comes down to the economies of scale. Demand and supply need to coincide at high levels for books to be successful.
The Demand for Books
In order to publish a successful book, one needs to know their audience. Ryan Holiday wrote a guideline on the Huffington Post blog on how to create a bestselling book, noting that writing is essentially a marketing campaign. The book as a product needs to convince the reader to buy it. Thus it’s no surprise that Ryan Holiday insisted that marketing is intertwined with writing.
If readers are not interested in the subject matter of a book, then the demand for it will be lacking. Conversely, if a subject matter interests a multitude of readers, then there will be a great demand for the book. The greater the demand for a book, the greater the supply will be as well. I think a good example of that is the Twilight craze and all the vampire romance books that took over the teen sections of bookstores as a result. That’s where the money lay, so publishers took advantage of that.
Limit of Freedom of Choice
Technically readers have the choice about which books to read. However, that freedom of choice is finite. Readers can only choose to buy the books that are available to them. That choice is further limited if booksellers only carry popular titles, forgoing books that fall into the long tail. That means that readers are at the mercy of publishers and booksellers, which harks back to the economies of scale. Reading therefore is very much shaped by the commodification of books.
Identity through Consumption
Still, there are ways to set oneself apart from others through books. The tastes readers have in books can also be seen as a reflection of their identities. See, you can even identify hipsters based on the books they read. Millennials in their 20s and 30s read young adult fiction apparently because it reflects their world view about the uncertainty of the future that lies ahead of them.
Social networking sites (SNSs) have also appropriated books. The most prolific site is Goodreads, the social networking site for book lovers. Goodreads also allows cross-posting to other SNSs such as Twitter, for users to share their reading status updates.
Not to be outdone, Facebook encourages their users to fill out information about their favourite books on their Facebook profiles. In this manner, books contribute to online identities, based upon which others can form their impressions about other people.
Social Reading Experiences
As much as reading is an individual exercise, book clubs push reading beyond the individual readers. Books clubs allow people who read the same books to discuss them. There is an agreement that the same books be read to facilitate resultant discussions. Such discussions foster social relations between readers. Picking books that garner a lot hype even support and contribute to popular culture.
Then again, readers don’t even have to be part of formally organised book clubs. They just need to talk with one another about the books they have read.
Other means through which reading becomes a social experience are blogs. Tumblr is especially rife with quotes from popular books, fan art and also GIFs based on the movie adaptions of books.
Reading thereby constitutes an entire culture.
Expanding Material Culture
Books not only expand culture through the sharing of ideas. Books also have a tangible impact as they become blueprints for material culture. Book paraphernalia is not uncommon. The design of Penguin classics, for instance, has probably reached iconic status. Mugs, notebooks, postcards, among other things can be found with the familiar Penguin Books design. Then there is the theme park of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal Orlando Resort.
The media of books is not only confined to print matter either. Movie adaptions of books have been on the rise; the most recent adaptation being The Fault in Our Stars. Soundtracks for those movies are also available, consequently expanding those books to film and music. Newer editions with movie tie-in covers tend to hit the shelves as well, in a bid to boost overall sales of these books.
Based on these developments, books clearly are not meant just for individual reading pleasure alone; surely not in this modern age where capitalism is the driver of cultural consumption. Money, not stories, supports the production of books.