The world of books is agog about Mark Zuckerberg’s apparent new-found enthusiasm for books in the form of his New Year’s resolution to found a Facebook Book Club.
Let me say this first: Mark Zuckerberg promoting books (any books) as a content form is an unambiguously good thing. The people who have taken to the media (social or otherwise) to question his motives, scoff at his taste in books or dismiss the relevance of Facebook are missing the point. One of the most powerful people in technology, in charge of the biggest social platform the world has ever seen has just told people that reading books is an activity worthy of their time. This is a big deal.
It also gives us some good reasons to be optimistic about the future for books and the people who buy them (if not necessarily for the publishing industry as it stands). And in the following blog post I’ll set out three reasons why I think the Facebook Book Club is a good thing for readers, the industry and publishers’ relationship with technology.
1. The beginning of the Oprah effect — but for millennials
At the moment to find an ‘influencer’ whose opinion sells books you have to look at people like Oprah in the US, or Richard and Judy here in the UK. Their book clubs are amazing things, but they appeal to a baby boomer audience and skew heavily towards women and certain types of trade fiction. Currently there’s no one out there acting as an advocate for books (and by this I don’t mean their books) who has: -
- An audience of millions of people who are under the age of 30 and comfortable with social media and technology — usually called millennials
- A strong following among young men
- A high degree of influence in the technology, business and finance communities
Zuckerberg has all three. So it means that the books he reads and recommends via his Book Club will reach audiences that the publishing industry doesn’t market to effectively because they don’t understand them. It may even serve to fill a much-needed gap in publishers’ knowledge about what younger demographics want from books.
Which brings me on to my second reason to be cheerful.
2. A Value Proposition for the book
In one seemingly artless statement, Zuckerberg has mounted a more convincing case for the continued survival of the book than anything I’ve heard from the publishing industry in years.
“I’ve found reading books very intellectually fulfilling. Books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today.”
Taken at face value this is a very obvious point. This is what books do. Yet it is also a profound point. Books are immersive; books nurture engagement and understanding of complex ideas; books are things that the reader can consume at their own pace.
Do you see what he’s done there?
He has just explained what books are better at than other more ‘modern’ forms of media.
He has given books a reason to exist in an environment where an unprecedented amount and range of media are clamouring for our attention.
A book may no longer be the only form through which one can tell a story to a large audience — films, TV, radio, even podcasts have all demonstrated they are just as effective as narrative forms. Equally, books are entertaining, but they’re no longer the best way to pass the time anymore. If we have half an hour to spare we may well open a book, but we can also watch TV, play Candy Crush, use Facebook or fire up Tinder.
Yet what books are still demonstrably better at than other content forms is exploring an idea. It’s here that the innate characteristics of the book — being in-depth, immersive, something you consume at your own pace — work in its favour. He has identified the single point at which the book provides more value to its consumer than a competing form of media would.
In technology parlance this is called a value proposition. And Zuckerberg’s value proposition (as articulated above) is way more convincing than the statement ‘but people will always needs books’ that passes all too often for a passionate defence of the book within our industry.
3. Books and Technology live together in perfect harmony
Perhaps the single most harmful effect of the digital disruption of the publishing business has been the culture of distrust it has sown between ‘book people’ and ‘technology people’. The assumption that someone who likes technology is diametrically opposed to books (and vice versa) is pervasive and pernicious but also false.
There are plenty of publishing professionals and book enthusiasts who embrace technology. To give just one example, few people were quicker to grasp the world-changing possibilities of the internet than Douglas Adams. Equally there is a great deal of respect within the technology community for literary culture. To use the term I heard being bandied around at a publishing conference last year, it is entirely possible to be a ‘techy geek’ and love books. The person who reads crime fiction on their phone on the tube isn’t less of a reader than the person reading a first edition of Ulysses in an armchair in their library.
What Mark Zuckerberg has done by sharing his enthusiasm for reading is to send an important signal that the false dichotomy between technology and books is false. Regardless of what he reads, and where and on what, he has demonstrated the the world of books can admit everyone from the CEO of Facebook to Lord Peter Wimsey.
And that is a good thing.