My work with Orange Frazer Press has required me to become a social media junkie. I come into the office and settle down at the Mac adjacent to our head publisher’s office. Sipping my usual 12 ounce cup of Highlander Grogg, I open up my first three tabs unconsciously—Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter greeting me with their usual smorgasbord of information, relevant and irrelevant. If I’m feeling particularly focused that morning I will immediately switch to using Facebook as the Orange Frazer Custom Books page, tune my Twitter stream to my private list of “publishing- types,” my Gmail to my work account, and sip away with satisfaction, knowing that I have trounced my soft addiction to distraction for the morning. If I’m feeling particularly, well, less focused, this switch will take a bit longer, I will linger a bit more, open up additional tabs, browse a few more articles from the Times...
And it isn’t just me. Yes, I am particularly built for distraction: I own my own laptop, carry an Android smartphone, have at least seven different social media profiles, and an unlimited texting plan that allows me to communicate with as many people, in as many characters, as I so choose. But so do most people my age. Just yesterday, while reading a Fast Company article about the now-common effects of “Phantom Vibration Syndrome” I was reminded, once again, that I am not alone. Have you ever felt your phone vibrating, just to check and realize that no one was calling you? Disappointing, right. And worrisome, actually. In fact there have been a number of articles recently about the mental effects of such impulses. If you think about it, we are now hardwired for distraction. We wait for the interruption of a text, a call, an email, a chat, and we have instinctual reactions to their particular sounds—the beeps, buzzes, bings, and bleeps of our technology. Was anyone else rocked off balance a bit when Facebook changed the tone of the chat notification? No longer the resounding “pop” of a Facebook chat, but rather, a very Gmail-esqe bing. It was downright unsettling.
Our reliance on interruption is very unique. Never before have we been so attuned to such shallow external stimulators, reacting immediately like Pavlovian dogs whenever we hear that one precious chime of communication. And it has a lasting effect. In an article by Matt Richtel in the New York Times, these enduring effects are described as “nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought,” damaging our long-term focus in ways that, frighteningly enough, may be partially irreparable.
And so what does any of this have to do with publishing? It has everything to do with publishing. Because, it has everything to do with our ability to read. As a kid I could read for hours, even full days. I distinctly remember shutting myself in my room and sitting in front of my door with a book, so that my mom couldn’t even open it to call me to dinner, or give me new chores. Those days are, sadly, gone. In the past two years, I’ve noticed my reading time steadily decrease. I am still reading great amounts (believe me, an English department will require nothing less) but I read for shorter periods of time, an hour at most without break. I find that I have developed noticeable technology “tics.” Every few pages I check my phone sitting next to me, press the right hand button to light up the display, brush my finger lightly across to unlock it, and flip through a couple of screens—almost unconsciously—returning to the page only moments later without even recognizing that I’ve looked away. Even worse is when I have my laptop next to me and my Facebook open. Every few minutes I wave my cursor over the homescreen, allowing new posts to magically fill themselves into the real-time feed. I don’t care what they are. I don’t even really want to be on Facebook, but it’s habit.
I have trouble focusing long enough to read, and I even have the audacity to call myself a reader. I can only imagine how frustrating this is for those who have no previous inclination to read, no special affinity for books. It would be downright impossible. And publishers are getting it. The recent wave of e-books testifies to nothing less. Books have become compatible with our fragmented concentration. Don’t know which book you want to pack for your plane ride? Pack three hundred on your Kindle and you’re good to go. Convenience trumps tradition and we’re back on track to read.
But that isn’t the end goal of the e-book. With this new medium has come a new responsibility for publishers to cater to it, develop it, optimize it. Just look to Penguin’s newest “amplified” e-book on Jack Kerouac. You can now read On the Road in an entirely new dimension, with recorded audio, period photographs, and interactive maps of his trip West. New York Times’ praise of the book is quoted by Penguin and could not say it more clearly: “Tricked out with more fancy bells and whistles than a BMW M5...pretty much the only thing missing is the chance to hear the novel read aloud by that sexy-voiced woman from your GPS”. This is the age of the walking, talking e-book, and the bells and whistles of the “amplified” e-book know their audience perfectly. It is the audience of tabbed browsers, the readers who need more information, in smaller pieces, delivered to them in real time, all the time. This audience will download this book to their iPad, Kindle, Nook, or smart phone and read, listen, watch, and consume the story in an entirely new way. And frankly, this audience is me—it’s me, and it’s you.
So what do we do about it? Adapt. At this point there is little else we can do. I am still a lover of traditional books, and will always treasure the look and feel of an old hardcover copy, worn in by many page-turns and more-than-a-few previous readers. But I’m also a modern-day consumer, and a reader that is desperate to continue reading, learning, and experiencing books, even if it is in new, unforeseen ways. So don’t be surprised if Orange Frazer enters the “amplified” book world; it will certainly happen when the time is right and the product is pleasing. The medium will never change their attention to perfection, beauty, quality, and storytelling, but it will cater to, perhaps, a broader audience. And we, the nicked, fragmented, distracted readers of the 21st century, will accept these new editions with excitement, but hopefully, also, with a healthy dose of occasional technology detox, and a good ‘ole hardcover book.
And in that vein, some tips for the easily distracted:
Miranda July: The Future on Nowness.com.