‘Books don’t go viral’


From Nieman Journalism Lab:

A book deal is a big deal; those who have gotten one will make a point, as they should, of highlighting the achievement. A writer and an author.

And yet. The precise thing that makes idea-driven books so valuable to readers — their immersive qualities, the intimate, one-on-one relationship they facilitate between authors and readers — also make them pretty lousy as actual sharers of ideas. Books don’t go viral. And that’s largely because the thing that makes books lucrative to authors and publishers — their ability to restrain ideas, to wall them off from the non-book-buying world — is antithetical to virality. How can books be expected to share ideas when the very point of their existence is containment?

In an ideal world, of course, this wouldn’t be a problem. In an ideal world, Jarvis wouldn’t need to issue rebuttalsno, Mr. Morozov, what the book actually said was X — that both correct the record and imply the assumption that most people won’t actually be reading the whole what-the-book-actually-said. In an ideal world, everyone would just buy the book, and read the book, and luxuriate in the book’s arguments, and discuss those arguments with friends and family (who would, of course, also have bought and read the book). In an ideal world, books’ ideas would be honed by vigorous debate; they would be adopted or rejected as they deserve; and Progress would be made.

But we’ve never lived in that world. Even before the web came along — and, with it, the mechanisms that disentangle public discourse from mass media — we’ve discussed books in, generally, the most derivative of terms. The same process that reduced The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to “there are these things called paradigm shifts” and Democracy in America to “Americans are chatty” evolved, in the mass-media age, into a complex system devoted to teasing ideas from the books that contained them — systems devoted to what Jarvis might call publicness and others might call publicity — which work (again: generally) by whittling books down to their constituent sound bites and presenting them to the public via a mix of book reviews, TV appearances, and other ex-post-libris affairs.

The system itself is essential. Jarvis would be right to assume that most people — even among his fervent fans and followers — won’t be reading Public Parts. Books are long; time is short.

“‘Public Parts’ and its public parts: In a networked world, can a book go viral?”, Megan Garber, Nieman Journalism Project