Saturday, 12 May 2012

...click; click; click...

I've been reading Retromania, Simon Reynolds' brilliant take on why pop music and pop culture is so addicted to its own past - seemingly gone are the days of new genres springing up, of innovative, 'modernist' bands determined to create something new. Instead, 'originality' in pop seems to consist of combining or using old styles in new way: sampling, mashups, irony and juxtaposition. (Don't worry, we'll get to how this relates to books in a minute...)

Part of Reynolds' argument is that, ironically, the futuristic technology of today allows us to wallow in the past to an unprecedented degree: any album, any single, any b-side, any Peel-session, any unreleased song can probably be found on Youtube, or on a blog, or as a download (legal or otherwise). His description of the psychology behind such behaviour struck a chord:
You're stockpiling so many albums, live bootlegs and DJ sets that you never have time to unzip the files and play them... Only now am I getting around to deleting some of the stuff I downloaded.... Most collectors know deep-down that quantity is the enemy of quality... the more you amass the less intense relationship you have with a specific piece of music...
I too have a ton of music I've never listened to on my hard drive; paradoxically the most satisfying moment, the most therapeutic, is deleting some of it - spring cleaning, leaving the stuff I actually want to listen to. The songs that will actually be part of my life - the "intense relationship" as Reynolds describes it.

History repeats: since getting my Kindle I've also downloaded far too many books onto it that I know I'll never read: free issues of obscure magazines; classics from Gutenberg by authors I've read before and hate (hello Dickens!); some self-published drivel where even the first line is bad enough to send me howling to the hills...

The majority of this has been stuff I've downloaded for free; stuff I pay for I am more picky about. But is it really free? It takes about an hour to listen to an album; but it takes far longer than that to read a novel or a short story collection. And I'm a strong believer that a good book should be reread, too - that it should be part of your mental and imaginative life in the same way as a good song. I have hundreds of paperbacks and hardbacks downstairs, some still unread; I have many great books just waiting on my Kindle - I've discovered more new, exciting authors in the last few years than for a long time before, from diving into the the self/indie published world - so why exactly do I sometimes feel the urge to download something that looks vaguely okay just because it's free? Without wishing to show off I can afford books; I can certainly afford an ebook for less than three quid, so why should free matter?

There are too many great books in the world; I don't have time to read just 'okay' ones.

I suspect I'm not alone in feeling something like mental-indigestion when I contemplate the glut of books (and music) I've downloaded that I'm not even sure if I want to read: I'm not even sure where I got some of the book from, or who the author is. My own experience with giving away books indiscriminatingly for free on Amazon is that it doesn't seem to any real long term increase in sales of my other books. I suspect many people have just acted like I did when I first got my Kindle: free! free! books for free! And then months later wondering just what the hell this First Time Buyers thing is that's clogging up their Kindle, and their mental space - wondering why they ever downloaded it when they don't even like short stories, or horror fiction, or...

By contrast, the slow but steady increase in sales of The Shelter (in the UK at least) did seem to reach some kind of tipping point, leading into decent sales for the more expensive The Other Room too. In about the last four months The Shelter has sold about the same as First Time Buyers did for the few days it was free... but all the evidence is that a far, far higher proportion of those people read the book, and reviewed it, and told others about it, and bought my other books...

Reaching a large audience with a freebie can only go so far with books like mine, I think - the key thing is reaching the right readers, the ones who have similar tastes and passions as me. Certain authors are destined to only ever be cult favourites at best - and given that many of those authors are likely to be among my own influences, that probably should tell me something...

Anyway, enough self-absorbed and possibly incorrect rambling from me. Let's end with a song - a song about the future from back in the past:


(Just to prove Reynolds' point - this song is sixteen years old. Roughly the same span of time as from The (early) Beatles to The Sex Pistols. I'm sure playing I Wanna Hold Your Hand would have sounded anachronistic in 1976... but I heard The Universal on XFM the other day and it just merged into all the other songs around it.)

No comments: