I watched a comedy special by Nick Mullen over the holiday. Mullen describes his "matrix" reaction to watching other comedians' stand-up routines, where he begins to analyze the craft-work at play rather than laughing at a good joke. It's a great example of what happens when you actually get to do what you love for a living. That said, if I'm pitching and analyzing reading books most workdays, sitting down to read a book takes a little bit more effort.
Don't get me wrong: I love talking about books. I love talking about the way we write them, the way we read them. Both are apt realities for the saying "No man ever steps in the same river twice." But ask ten agents, editors, and booksellers how they feel their work has impacted their leisure reading and nine of them will admit that it is harder to read in your downtime for fun.*
I joined Goodreads in 2019 and swiftly abandoned the platform in 2021 when the notifications and the drive to report on my reading felt too immense. And while BookTok is riveting to watch, it can often remind those of us who want to read everything under the sun that we haven't remembered to read that book that's life-changing and so emotional and beautiful... The app has certainly enhanced FOMO for many.
Inspiration comes from the most unexpected places. For me, I found inspiration for my 2024 reading goal to read less on #booktok.
On Nov. 28, 2023, TikTok user @Kerstin.loves posted this series of her most unpopular opinions on the BookTok phenomenon. Swiping through, I felt a weight lift as I smacked my head. "D'oh! Of course I can read less!" Kerstin compares today's book production pipeline and reader performance to "fast fashion." While this feels a bit hyperbolic to me, she's got a point. I haven't watched the Real Housewives, the Kardashians or the Bachelor in years (the fast fashion of TV, in my opinion) but I can still riff about it at a happy hour if needed simply because of the publicity they receive.
So this year I've decided to read with intention and linger when I do. No more rushing through leisure reads. No more trying to keep up with the latest releases with a stack of TBRs on my bookshelf. God knows we have enough information coming in every day to keep an eye on trends without personal experience with a book.
If I've already given you the permission you needed not to set that 40-book reading goal or to only read what you genuinely want to read in 2024, great! My work is done and I'm glad to have a compatriot. But if you need some convincing, buckle up. We're going to speed through the reasons why reading a lot doesn't necessarily help publishing -- at all.
"The Aesthetic of Bookishness"
"Bookishness" was coined by Jessica Pressman for how experimental writers were drawn to the physical nature of text on a "page," oftentimes in a bound form, even when working with digital content. Or so I read in Terry Nguyen's article for Dirt "Booksmart: The aesthetic of bookishness, Industry Q&A, and the latest streaming news."
And as Nguyen pointed out, Pressman's definition of bookishness predated the craze for showing off books as a social symbol. Since this 2009 coinage, we've seen the creation of "Credibility Bookcases" where virtual interviews feature their speakers in front of shelves stacked with titles to augment their authority and Goodreads, Bookstagram, and Booktok taking over the day-to-day performance of being well-read. As Serena Smith's 2022 article in Dazed pointed out: the book deal is becoming the ultimate symbol of professional success.
It might shock many to learn (or remember) that mass-market paperbacks were originally developed and distributed to supplement sales to those outside of U.S. cities in the 1930s., whose rural residents didn't have the same access to a library or bookstore as their urban peers. And when World War I and World War II proved the mobility and novelty of the paperback, well, there was no stopping the call for profit.
The reason we have inscribed, dog-earred, and clearly loved antique books is not because that copy survived move after move of March Madness style book sorting, leaving a wake of "donations" behind them. It's because that book was a precious item, near singular.
Even now, when we can heed the call of the "1-Click Buy" on Amazon and get a title delivered within days, if not hours, most Americans own less than 100 books.
So the odds are that you're still well-read. Your algorithm is just showing you the 1%.
Oh, Goodreads. Like many great ideas, it has been less-than-perfectly managed. In a perfect world, Goodreads would have stood as an asynchronous and virtual book club or reader community where you can rely on what is posted because you know who posted it and trust their insights. It would have been people-based, eliminating the smoke and daggers of marketing campaigns.
In reality, anyone can post anything (even marketers), and the site is owned by Amazon.
So before you start debating whether to make your reading challenge 30 or 36 books (dare you consider 50?), consider this article from the Guardian (2023) on the way one soon-to-publish author review bombed her competitors to draw attention to her book, or this one from the Atlantic (2023) showing how inconsequential personal rifts can rock careers before launch, or this one from Time Magazine (2021) outlining the exploitation (!!) that authors endured to keep their books afloat.
The only person you're letting down by not posting that 36-book challenge to yourself is your randomized following and a few Facebook connection crossovers.
Splitting the (Book Deal) Pie
As I discussed in the first edition of Layered Text, the mega-bestseller has drastically changed its definition and qualities in the last twenty years. If you, like me, fondly remember lining up at Borders or Barnes & Noble for midnight book releases, you probably know that now you're better suited to download the version at midnight to your e-reader or have it delivered to your doorstep on launch day.
And while many publishers say that this shift towards a fragmented readership makes it harder to determine the value of a book during acquisition, it also trickles down to the income and opportunity "greener" authors receive.
Most books published today sell around 5,000 copies, though the sales of national book club picks (like Oprah, Reese Witherspoon, or Good Morning America's book clubs) are exorbitant. And while you hear the word "platform" thrown around for nonfiction sales, your platform is measured in how much engagement you incite, not how many people know you exist. Popping back into Smith's Dazed article, she quotes Erika Kolonen of Hodder & Stoughton (now with Atlantic books) differentiating the two metrics as:
"Even if you have a massive follower count, that doesn't necessarily mean you’ll get a book deal if you’ve not got the engagement to match it...There have been so many people whose proposals we might have received or we might have thought of approaching, but if their engagement rates aren’t high enough then it usually ends up being a no on the book, just because publishers don’t see enough of a market for it."
And genuinely, what's louder right now than BookTok?
Closing the Loop: BookTok
I'll admit, I'm voracious on #booktok. I won't post anything, not for a long shot, but I will "heart" and follow and save all of those clips that show books I want to read -- and the merch that goes with the bookish aesthetic.
But what's the most convincing part of all of this? The human reactions the books seem to elicit out of their reviewers and a desire from the watcher and soon-to-be reader to feel the same.
That's been the draw since the phenomenon began. In particular, crying reviews drove the sales. When interviewed by The New York Times in 2021, Mireille Lee (@alifeofliterature) simply said that she posts reviews and recommendations because "I want people to feel what I feel."
I think that's the reason we all (as readers and publishing professionals) continue to feel enamored with books. We feel seen, heard -- part of an invisible yet potent community.
It's why we keep those antiquated copies (or price them for auction at high values).
It's why we search for likeminded recommendations, whether in a starred review by a critic, a friend, or a trusted stranger on the internet.
It's why we study writing, why we consider it a craft.
I felt that resonance and tied spirit in @Kerstin.Loves's TikTok criticism. And this year, I'm releasing myself from reading anything on my down time that doesn't authentically engage me in that moment. And I can't help but wonder if by choosing to accurately give ourselves in the reading if we won't change the landscape once again from the "fast fashion" version Kerstin compares to today's book market to the hand-stitched and love-worn versions we keep in our dreams of what it means to be bookish.
*This is, of course, an estimated statistic, but one that I feel confident in.