Readers as main figures in the book ecosystem

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The world of books is living a silent revolution, and the main figures of such revolution are readers. In the traditional book ecosystem, they were valued as distant, blurry subjects… Today, due essentially to the Internet and social media, readers have gained importance and imposed themselves on authors and, even, on texts.

The printed book has required more than 500 years to consolidate its power and, in turn, to contemplate its crisis. This crisis should not be understood as decadence (the end of books), but as an opportunity to look at its renewal. This can be done from a dynamic perspective that sees new cultural products—the electronic book, to name one—as reinventions of others because it joins together new communication systems that allow their resurrection and adaptation to a different historical environment.

The world of books is made up of an ecosystem of actors, whose prominence has changed over time. Some of them are authors—key, of course—and readers. It also includes editors, graphic designers, sellers, reading promoters, commercial agents, marketing people, librarians… After the revolution of the Internet and social media, the main actor of such ecosystem is the READER.

Lector (2)

Autonomous reading requires conditions of possibility; the most important: the democratization of access to books. The first revolution of the written culture in Colombia resulted in the elitization of reading. In effect, books, already published in a broader margin of manufactured production, were still ruled by elites that built the image of the “cultured reader” (male, white, wealthy, with a social status, and power politics). It is the image of a reader who devotes a large space in his house to accumulate books in a private library of thousands of volumes that publicizes his elitism.

Another elite that has played a questionable role in the democratization of books is scholarly literary criticism. It has certainly fulfilled a role of exclusion, focused on legitimizing canonical texts, and thus neglected the reader, above all, the “weak reader”, as named by Joëlle Bahloul in Lecturas precarias (2002). The truth is that the literary canon, as an external reading command, is living on borrowed time; a form of mass reading that some define as postmodern is developing.

Undoubtedly, a new reader was born with the emergence of the Internet in the first decade of the 21st century. The first change, which makes the reader a main figure in the book chain, came with the comment sections that were provided by the digital versions of newspapers and magazines. Another unprecedented space in the history of writing that revolutionized the digital world was social media. Facebook and Twitter gained prominence. Created in 2004 and 2006, respectively, by large US communications empires, they gave rise to a new form of relation between people and virtual communities.

All digital texts are characterized by not being closed, but open verbal units due to links. Intertextuality and hypertextuality offer a new power: Texts can be continuously erasable and adjusted, while allowing the reader to establish relationships with unknown people anywhere in the world.

Then, new readers have discovered then that they can be part of one or several communities. Being able to write, upload a video, express ideas through the network empowers them. YouTube allowed a new speaker to win a name for himself: the booktuber. Teenagers and young people took advantage of this means to show their literary tastes that were usually outside the canon. Scholarly criticism in several cases looked down on these guys’ opinions accusing them of being manipulated by publishers and lacking a hefty critical judgment. But, right now, a girl—most of booktubers are women—, in some city in Colombia, is discovering books by Paulho Coelho, Gioconda Belli, Carolina Andújar, and is promoting them openly, without caring about the opinion of literature professors or gurus.

They are not literal readings but hyperinterpretations, in which readers go beyond the text and alter it for their own benefit, appropriating them, giving it a nuance of extreme subjectivity.

Personal appropriation of texts entails their atomization. These new readers do not usually read complete works or in the framework of context references. Phrases and isolated fragments gain ground in social media. The notion of unit literary work is broken, leaving isolated scenes, chapters, sentences.

In another context closer to publishers’ marketing divisions, these new atomized, fragmentary digital texts can be used to attract readers.  For example, the canonical novel The Magic Mountain (1924), by Thomas Mann (a thousand pages), can be read not only as a whole corpus on disease, isolation, and the most rancid spiritual aristocratism, but also from the perspective of isolated texts close to current readers. Topics such as a recipe to prepare chicken, care to be taken when using snow skis, an explanation of how an opera tenor should educate his voice, a tourist guide of Davos (Switzerland), the beautiful description of the beloved woman’s body, whatever. Microtexts circulating on the Internet would probably bring new readers closer to a work that is considered sophisticated and from the Western literary canon.

A central task of innovative publishers is to win new readers with books that the traditional market would reject because they are not profitable in the short term. If so, then we will have to study how these new readers operate and what texts they would need to enrich their collective imagination. We will have to look for authors that write these texts.

Carlos Sánchez Lozano

Holds a master’s degree in literary studies. He works as a professor in Bogotá, Colombia, and as an international consultant on issues related to the field of books and reading, children’s literature, Colombian and contemporary literature. He has a blog called Escribidores.

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