The Reader Symposium

About a month back I attended the Queensland Writers Centre’s The Reader symposium.

I’ll admit that I had to look up what a ‘symposium’ was, precisely, having assumed it was a fancy word for a conference or conversation but, not actually having attended one before, not being entirely sure. Thanks to the Macquarie Dictionary, I can now confirm that it is, as I suspected, a fancy word for a conference or conversation.

I was also intrigued as to how this symposium was going to approach the topic of the reader—the third but oft-forgotten figure in the trifecta that includes the writer and the publisher. It is, after all, a fairly elusive concept, especially in the current Chicken Little climate, which is seeing the publishing industry run around like headless chooks claiming that their sky is falling down.

The ridiculous panic is another blog altogether, and one I don’t have the energy or enthusiasm for right now. Let’s just say that as a Gen Y on the cusp of Gen X and nowhere near the Baby Boomer age bracket, I see ebooks not as the death knell for life as we know it, but as another reading opportunity that will see us read more and might even get some non-readers in the door.

But, given that I didn’t know what to expect from said symposium, I came away with some food for thought—not least talk about how we could play a ‘reader’ drinking game, knocking back shots for every mention of such words as ‘physical book’, ‘game changer’, ‘ebook’, ‘the smell of books’. It earned a few chuckles, as we all hunkered down for a day of debating the apparent reading revolution.

Some of the other gems I learned included (in no particular order):

  • The future is already here—it’s just unevenly distributed (this is a quote, but from whom I’m not sure).
  • A few years ago, electronic publishing was daggy—Stephen King abandoned his experiment in it and Amazon was originally mocked for the Kindle.
  • Authors no longer need publishers, but neither authors nor readers have abandoned the traditional publishing model—they’ve just expanded on the spectrum, if you like.
  • There’s still a publishing gate and gatekeepers—it’s just that the gate is no longer attached to a wall.
  • There’s been a shift towards community, which is why we’re talking about readers.
  • We have an ingrained need to tell stories that pre-dates the invention of the book and that will post-date it too.
  • The conversational style of Twitter leads people to say things in public that they shouldn’t.
  • Social media is about conversation—it’s not a one-way broadcast system—and readers expect it to go both ways.
  • The invention of the book allowed for private reading, as opposed to public, communal reading.
  • Health professionals used to consider reading novels the main cause for uterine disease (another example that truth is indeed stranger than fiction).
  • Our reading habits have changed. We used to be scuba divers, but these days we’re jetskiiers who skim and have a broader knowledge. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
  • We read websites like the letter F. If it’s important, don’t put it in the bottom right corner.
  • With the advent of technology and wifi in our homes, we have very little actual need to go out.
  • We’re attached not so much to the book, but to the sentimental values and memories and experiences we have while reading it.
  • As we’ve seen with Borders, books are not potatoes (teehee).
  • Libraries and bookshops have never really cannibalised each other before, and this is likely to continue.
  • You leave a little bit of yourself behind in a book (ewww).
  • Book buying can be determined by location. For example, if you’re in a physical book store, you’ll likely buy the physical book in front of you. If you’re at home and can’t be bothered going out, you’ll buy and download the ebook.
  • The book is a new technology—it’s just been around long enough that we don’t tend to think of it that way.
  • How do writers change the way they write for the digital environment? Write less (it got a laugh, but it’s true).

The symposium didn’t necessarily provide me with the answers I’m after about how the ebook war will turn out, but then nobody yet has them and we’re all kind of watching from the sidelines and waiting for the war to end and the dust to settle so we can move on. It’s frustrating for someone like me who doesn’t see this so much as a war but as an opportunity.

But, as I said above, that’s a blog I can’t be bothered writing right now. Until then, I’ll continue to ponder the gems the symposium threw out and remind myself that I now know what a symposium is.