Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Twitter: inspiring underinformed journalism throughout the land

Twitter, much like Jonathan Ross, seems to have quite a knack for annoying certain people. Cue inevitable snooty article in The Independent's Friday Review section, then, upon the news of @wossy's Twitter based Book Club. "The very idea!" you can almost hear Boyd Tonkin snorting, while failing to properly research his article. In fact, what he actually said was

It sounds like some belated April Fool's gag designed to tickle every exposed nerve of anxiety, greed and fashion-victimhood in the palsied frame of the book business.

But that phrasing probably came a bit later.

It's not the choice of the first book to be read that seems to have got his goat (sorry); or even entirely that Jonathan Ross was behind it; rather, his main issue seems to be that Pan MacMillan were craven and obsequious enough to make it "alarmingly for authors, briefly available as a free download".

The thing is, they actually didn't. And nor did Jon Ronson appear at all alarmed (or no more than usual).

What actually happened was: on the back of Ross's recommendation a paper copy of The Men Who Stare At Goats became almost impossible to get hold of; to meet the demand an e-book was swiftly made available as a paid for download, on Exact Editions; and only for the hour during which the @atwossybookclub Twittering was to take place was a copy available for free, though even then only to read and refer to online, not to download. Which all strikes me as, in fact, a commendably quick reaction; one that for the participants of the book club at least might have actually put the book industry into quite a decent light.

As for the suitability of Twitter as a venue for book club discussion, even Jonathan Ross isn't claiming it's ideal - at least not unextended.

Tonkin's real beef, though, it seems, is with the British publishing industry; which he seems to think is focusing too much on the gadgets on which we will be reading our books, rather than on creating the readers who will read them - the way Pan MacMillan pandered to the Ross book club (or at least that was the story as Tonkin understood it) is just another example of their short-termism; a quick fix. But even here his argument seems to have got a bit confused: doubtless British publishers do need to think about how to "nurture fresh readerships", especially in certain genres, but surely the proliferation of different reading devices, from the Kindle to mobile phones, is a big part of the answer, rather than a distraction?

Imagine, for instance, this article on the humourous bits of Haydn - but read on a device that could supply in-context MP3s. At present, it alienates anyone lacking a certain level of understanding of musical theory, but being able to instantly hear what's being described would bring a whole new reading experience; perhaps a whole new readership - the until now only Classically-curious.

Moreover, the Exact Editions e-book platform mentioned above, which makes it possible to link to and cite individual pages of the text, is if anything evidence of the publishing industry trying to nurture new readerships - for people who might be unable to attend an offline book group, Exact Editions could be used as a common edition, then a forum set up, and problem solved. Indeed other e-book platforms, as demonstrated by the Golden Notebook Project, go even further towards enabling communal reading online.

Whether there are enough of such initiatives, however, Tonkin I'm sure knows better than me, and there's doubtless a valuable article to be written on the matter. But harumphing about a book club on Twitter, that boosts sales and brings fresh readers to a work like Leaves of Grass, or indeed to graphic novels, really isn't the way to start it.

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