Jun. 22, 2009

Writers as Performers

Obviously the internet has blown a hole in the business model of the publishing industry, and we have all heard dire predictions that digital will obliterate printed books altogether. The doomsday scenario usually maps to the demise of the music CD: Kindle equals iPod, Amazon equals iTunes, eBook equals MP3. The details may vary, but the end is always the same — the poor printed book is the next unfortunate dinosaur technology to be smashed into extinction.

If that is indeed how things play out — and who knows — then we writers may well find ourselves in a situation like today’s emerging musicians. In the MP3 era, bands do not “break” by getting radio play. They freely give away much of their music over the web and make up for the lost sales by touring constantly. Ticket sales replace CD sales, at least in theory. This may be a lamentable change from the musicians’ point of view, but the truth is “any new music-related business must accept the fact that it’s competing against a huge store of readily available free music, and build that fact into its business model.”

There is as yet no iTunes for books, no single, dominant legitimate online seller, let alone a killer peer-to-peer platform like Napster or Bit Torrent. And the Kindle and Sony Reader are as yet no match for even the earliest iPods in terms of design, usability, or sheer coolness. For many other reasons, especially having to do with the nature of books and book readers, the switch to digital is not likely to be as apocalyptic for writers as it has been for musicians, at least in the near term. But when the change comes, however it plays out, how will authors replace the income lost to digital distribution and piracy?

One thing is for sure: Malcolm Gladwell is sure to survive the flood. Gladwell is flourishing even in this twilight era by doing what indie bands have done: performing. He reportedly commands forty thousand dollars for live appearances, no doubt much more for the corporations who often hire him to speak. Last year he even displaced “The Lion King” from its home in the Lyceum Theater in London’s West End, for one night only, for two shows. The Gladwell shows sold about 4,000 tickets at £20 apiece. Gladwell said of his London shows, “The Lyceum evening was very 19th-century, in a way. Dickens and Twain and countless others gave lectures of that sort in theaters like that all the time.”

Does all this have any significance for the rest of us? Can mere mortals take a lesson from Gladwell? Well, most writers cannot do what Gladwell does, obviously. Gladwell is a celebrity. He also happens to be a gifted speaker. In appearances on stage and on TV, he is a natural storyteller and raconteur. Whatever you think of his books — and the backlash against Outliers has been harsh; Michiko Kakutani’s review in the Times described it as “glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing” — as a writer looking to the future, you have to wonder if Gladwell isn’t onto something.

Consider the usual bookstore reading. The author is sweaty and uncomfortable on stage, or vaguely pissed off at having to do a dog-and-pony show merely to sell books. Usually he has little to offer beyond a bald pitch for the book. He will relate a story or two about where the idea for the book came from, invariably he will read (badly) a paragraph or two, answer a few desultory questions, and that’s it. It’s not much of a show. Now watch Gladwell on stage. He takes seriously his duty to entertain the audience that shows up to see him. He has a story to tell. He has practiced the craft of live storytelling and honed his material. He is a thoroughly professional speaker — which is to say, he is an entertainer.

Most writers will never be able to earn a dime on the speaking circuit, as Gladwell has done. Nor, frankly, should we have to. A book is not a song or a speech: it is not intended to be performed live. It is intended to be “heard” only in the intimacy of the reader’s mind.

But I have a feeling that the writers who survive will have to be a little more like Gladwell. We will have to be better showmen. Gladwell has a point in looking back to Dickens and Twain, who also lived in an era of looser copyright protection and rampant piracy. What these writers knew was that, while their books could easily be reproduced, the author’s genuine presence could not. Unlike indie bands, we cannot replace book sales with live appearances. But we can do a much better job of using these appearances to drive sales by taking seriously the opportunity that a reading or live appearance provides.

How? Watch Gladwell. Or watch any of the presenters at the TED conference. Don’t sit behind a desk or stand behind a lectern. Don’t lecture; tell a story, preferably one that is not just a pale summary of your book. Learn to use PowerPoint or Keynote. Study presentation gurus like Garr Reynolds or Nancy Duarte for ideas. Whatever you do, don’t read — at least, don’t just read. You have twenty minutes to fascinate your audience. Make it count. Put on a show.

I have broken every one of these rules thus far in my career. I have been told by editors and agents not to waste my time on readings, that you cannot reach enough people to move the needle by speaking to a dozen people at a time. But the world has changed in the last few months, and in the wreckage of the publishing industry there will be room for fewer writers. So writers, grab every opportunity you can, including readings. It is one of the few opportunities you will have to separate yourself from the run of ordinary writers.