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The eagerly awaited and equally dreaded BookShots are here. You await them or dread them according to who you are. If you got fidgety in the vicinity of page four of Ulysses, about where Buck Mulligan is halfway through the leisurely process of wiping his razorblade, you will love them. If you finished Ulysses, you will read BookShots as the collapse of civilisation.
James Patterson is gambling on books which run at the pace of modern times —novellas which can be consumed in one sitting, or one commute, in the 150 pages and Rs 100 range. His series of quick, plot-powered reads is pitched thus on the BookShots site: “What if someone wrote novels… without any of the boring parts?” Them’s the parts traditionally known as “literary”. The bestselling author and former adman is gambling on public impatience with literariness in a fast-paced world which just wants to get the plot, and never mind the gritty realism, mordant wit and other qualities which jacket blurbs extol.
Will it succeed? Of course. Books conceived in Excel rather than Word always succeed. BookShots, some of which will be written by Patterson, some in collaboration with younger writers, and some selected by him, will vacuum up a section of the global population which is on the rim of reading, about to either fall out of the world of books, or about to fall in. In the US, Patterson is targeting the population spurning books in favour of social media, viral videos, TV and gaming. About one out of three Americans have not read a book in the last 12 months. The figure for Omaha could be worse.
But there is a much larger market in rapidly developing countries like India, with growing populations of first-generation literates who do not have enough to read in English, the language of aspiration. New readers who feel stonewalled by literature have always needed stepping stones, and have traditionally turned to quick reads in adventure and light humour. Shorter, tightly plotted fiction serves the purpose, and Patterson’s publishers Little, Brown aim to widen his catchment area by selling in non-traditional venues like supermarkets, chemist shops and grocers’, which usually do not keep anything more challenging than mass market magazines.
The focus on markets and distribution will very likely bring in readers who were not reached earlier. But BookShots is a small, incremental marketing idea, nothing like the big one that publishers have been dreaming of ever since disruptive technologies moved the goalposts and Amazon and Google Books rose like behemoths, to the alarm of the industry.
Initially, internet bookstores and archives were taken to be the big ones, but that’s obviously untrue. New business models are just nuts and bolts. Historically, literature and publishing have been altered when new literary forms arose to leverage new technologies and distribution channels. The novel seems to be a creation of paper: Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, now commonly accepted as the first novel, would have been impossible before paper came into wide use in the Far East. It appeared half a century before the Norman Conquest, and Europe would have to wait for the skill of paper-making to reach the Continent before similar work appeared there. The novel really flourished much later, in the 18th century, when the somewhat mechanised Gutenberg revolution created capacity and public education began to create markets.
The short story’s relations with the novel are contested. Did both fork from the novella, or is the short story a severely shorted child of the novel? Either way, it rode on a tidal wave of new periodicals. Magazines are niche almost by definition, their focus ranging from gardening through guns to erotica. A couple of nice stories tastefully scattered amidst the begonias, Glocks, centrefolds or whatever tend to refresh the reader, and global distribution reached niche audiences everywhere. In the 20thcentury, Playboy surprised by becoming a fine curator of short fiction and a scout for new talent. Apart from obvious suspects like Ian Fleming, some of the most engaging writers in English have published in its pages: Ray Bradbury, Haruki Murakami, Roald Dahl, Joseph Heller, Stephen King, Damon Knight… Exemplars of feminist writing like Ursula K Le Guin and Margaret Atwood have surprised by writing for Playboy, too.
These authors were beneficiaries of the mature phase of the Gutenberg era. We have stepped into another era, and it has happened so fast that we are only half-aware of its implications. Digital distribution and innovations like BookShots, hyperfiction and multimedia experiments are tentative steps towards new formats — new ways of telling. And maybe when they are found, they may turn out to be very old ways in a new avatar. Perhaps we’ll find authors gaming their readers. Or the oral tradition could make a comeback, borrowing from performance poetry and hip-hop. As a new age in publishing dawns, anything is possible.