[I report, fixing it here, my outpouring inspired by this post by Zio Jo on Facebook, as there Zuckerberg wilfully continue to swallow everything, to devour everything and to take everything to the place where memory ceases to exist.]
The success of a book, just like the success of a song, of a picture, of a kick at the goal, is always the result of a mysterious alchemy made of dedication and fortune, effort and chance, talent and relationships. Thomas Alva Edison and/or Albert Einstein (the quote has been attributed to the former or the latter from time to time and, in literary circles, there are those who devotedly and casually attribute it to Umberto Eco) managed to reduce “genius” to just two variables: “perspiration“, the sweat of one’s brow, and “inspiration“, a genius’ inspiration. Fat chance. We will never run short of inexplicable successes. We will never run short of books no one will ever have read (were they good or bad? No one will ever know). We will never run short of roaring post-mortem successes, perhaps years, decades, even centuries later, as was the case, in music, for a 17th-century German organ tuner, one Johann Sebastian Bach.
Chance. Chance is the major protagonist in our lives, in very aspect. Even more so when chance is put in relation to the destiny of ephemeral things such as “intellectual property“. The examples are before everybody’s eyes, it is a glaring truth. And yet man, in his illusory anxiety to prove to himself that he can govern life and the world, has always underestimated its weight, to the point of nullifying it.
Consider this: Fabio Volo’s book is a best-seller.
Fifty year from now, maybe no one will still remember it. Or maybe, in a hundred years, it will be the only book left on the face of the earth. Many like it. Many others hate it. For some, it’s badly written. For others, it’s wonderfully written. For some, it’s unendurable. For others, making time to read it is the highlight of the day.
Really, think about it, go back to “Consider this” and replace “Fabio Volo” with your author of choice: everything that follows is still true, undeniably true.
So, what is the “quality” of a book? What can we anchor it to?
What should the “quality” of a book be anchored to? To an arbitrary act, and as such, not subject to anyone’s critique. The arbitrary act of a reader, of a publisher choosing to publish that book instead of another, of a critic deciding to acclaim it.
And to “arbitrary free-will” itself, it will be possible to anchor the judgment of “non-quality“: the arbitrary act of the reader who reads a page and then puts the book aside, of a publisher rejecting it, of a critic (be the latter, less and less, a professional, or, more and more, a reviewer) deciding to pan it.
Just as the quality of a book cannot be separated from the arbitrariness of chance (or in other words “of time“) which even decides whether someone is made aware of the existence of that book, or not.
This is why I continue to hold as wrong, rear-guard actions, the refined intellectualistic analyses of the many who, faced with the phenomenon of self-publishing (where self-publishing = a method by which more books and more authors can reach a bookshop’s shelves, gaining a chance for visibility), focus on the false problem of “overabundance“: Oh, my! Now there are too many books how can the reader choose and find his or her way? With all this stuff, they exclaim, there is a lot of rubbish, who will save us?
This is a spectacular optical illusion: all these books, which are clogging the shelves of virtual shop windows, and not thanks to self-publishing, all these books were already there, they already existed because people want to write, and want to be read. Period.
Regardless of the real chances of success, regardless of the obvious fact that in the vast majority of cases no one will give a damn about my book, regardless of whether they speak well or badly of it. Man wants to express himself. More than that: man is expression. More than that: man is such INSOFAR AS he can express himself freely. And writing a book is one of man’s modes of free expression, hence, of being.
What has changed for the reader in the time digital Barbarians and the hordes of self-publishing? How will they find their way in the jungle made of the myriad of titles increasingly besieging them? How can we help the reader to see his way in selecting the books to dedicate time to?
Halt! Let’s take a step backwards: I called the existence of too many books, according to the mainstream analysis of self-publishing, a “false problem”. This is not true. Those books, which thanks to digital technology and the Internet can now get a chance of encountering a reader, already existed, they were all already there: they were all already inside the authors’ desk drawers, in the publishers’ wastebaskets. Or they were all already there, inside their author’s head, because if there is a deterrent to writing a book, well, the strongest is not seeing even a chance that there may be a reader. They were all already there, “good” books and “bad” books. “Good” for some, “bad”, those same books, for others. Today they all reach, with equal opportunities, the shelves of the online bookshops, and the caste of those who thought they held the keys to the Kingdom of Books (the Guardians of Distribution) retreat appalled by such a spectacle.
This is not bad, not at all. It is not bad for everyone to be able to express himself by writing books, just as it is not bad for anyone to be able to play a musical instrument, or pick up a paintbrush and smear a canvas or a sheet of paper, or gather with some friends to kick a ball trying to emulate Maradona’s lobs or Cristiano Ronaldo’s kicks in the top corner. It is not a bad thing; indeed, it’s a good thing! OK, that said, the question remains: what about the readers?
How can they find their way? The answer is multi-tiered. First: by chance. From the reader’s viewpoint, there is nothing wrong with randomness (in these cases the more refined, when it suits them, use the expression serendipity, but not for the “new books”, they only evoke painful dramas) to look left, right and center for the next book to read. Which I will start and then toss away if it stinks, and talk very badly about, if that pleases me. Or, vice versa, a book that I loved so much that I will force all my friends to read it. Or which will leave me indifferent, leading me to try the next one.
Then, there’s the tools of”discoverability“, so trendy. Some already exist, others are being invented, some are investing in algorithms, others bet on the human factor. There are authors who don’t give a tinker’s dam about promoting their books, and authors who dedicate their life and all their energies to it.
I have my personal opinion: Publishers. New publishers, who can say “these are the books I publish, based on these criteria, having these people do it, with this story”. Publishers whose task is to transpose their worldview into a catalog, not because what is inside is the best, “quality“, compared to what is outside. But rather to offer honest readers a face, whether convincing or not, pleasant or not, to orient themselves in making their choices.
Take heed, even this is not what counts most, because when we are talking about a book, the experience of reading a book, what really counts is only ONE THING.
READING BOOKS. May the experience of reading books survive, be saved, and thrive for ever. May books be written, to safeguard that free expression which is the essence of man, and be read, to safeguard that peculiar experience which is the book. Saying this may seam sacrilegious, but I am utterly convinced: as a reader, as a publisher, as a free man. What interests me is for the experience of reading a book (so vital for people to be motivated to write, and thus express their freedom and their being) to survive and thrive in the era of digital technology.
Let us then talk about why we like this book and absolutely dislike that one. But let us rejoice for every book that sees the light of day, for every book written. And for every book read.
And let us rejoice in the fact that – thanks to digital technology – every book now at least has a chance of being read by someone, somewhere in the world, and at any time, because thanks to digital technology, and to the removal of barriers by these “Barbarians” (of whom I am honored to be one) today every book is immediately available everywhere and for ever and ever.
This post is also available in: Italian