Books to have and to hold

Sam Jordison, Author and journalist

At the moment I’m working on a website – Organic Peas And Orderly Queues – all about the agonies and absurdities of middle class life.

Running a website is very rewarding. For a start, it’s all mine. I decide how it looks, reads, feels and when it gets updated. Thanks to twitter and facebook I even have a degree of influence on who reads it and when. I get hundreds of visitors every day. I get immediate feedback and people even feed me new ideas. I can build up a rapport with my online visitors that I will never have with a book. That terrible sense of working in a vacuum – that no one will ever read or care about my ideas and that I’m heading in entirely the wrong direction – is absent. I can hone my work in public and with public support. I can even sell them a suitably over-priced middle class t-shirt or mug from an online store that gives me a far better financial cut than most royalty deals.

Even so, the truth is that my ultimate goal is to get a book deal.  Like most writers, I’ll only consider my work truly validated when I see my name on the cover that wraps it. Why this should be so is an increasingly interesting question, given the amount of time we all now spend online compared to holding a book in our hands. Why bother with old fashioned paper? Why would punters want to pay for a physical incarnation of something they can get on the web for free? Why too would writers want to go through the agonies of publication? Why put themselves through that painful birth and then see their brainchild try to make its way in a world already bursting with similar products? Where the almost entirely arbitrary decisions of the book buyers in Waterstone’s and can make the difference between success and abject failure? Where they lose control of a project that has, until then, been all their own?

Partly, it’s to do with ego – and the way a book massages it. You can’t touch the internet. You can’t hold it in your hands. You can’t sign a copy of it. A book remains a far more concrete achievement than a website.

But there are also good practical reasons writers prefer communicating on paper – and will do for a long time to come.

The simple truth is that it’s still more enjoyable to read things in book form – and it’s a more effective way of taking in information. Pleasurable as it’s been to put together organicpeasandorderlyqueues.com, I’m all too aware of the site’s drawbacks. Most people will only read two or three articles on the website in one sitting. It’s not impossible that they would engage in the same way with the book – especially, since it’s the kind of literature that people like to take in the smallest room. But even if they do, they will still get a bigger sense that it adds up to a coherent whole and that it’s a satire on societal values as well as a series of jokes. The turning of pages engenders a sense of purpose and continuity that clicking from page to page on the web just can’t replicate. Physical pages also offer many opportunities for visual jokes and jokes to do with order and place that don’t work on a screen. They allow for time and continuity – a sense of building and development. A blog only exists in the present moment, since you have to assume that a healthy percentage of people reading your front screen are there for the first time.  There are no last pages. And when those people move onto a new website, or turn off the computer, your work disappears from their life. Completely.

And that brings me to the other reason writers prefer books. They’re more durable. Websites disappear. Long before the Friday Project started, stalled, then started again I was devising a web project called Crap Towns (which can lay a pretty good claim to have been one of the first to make the transfer into best-selling book territory). While Crap Towns has long since ceased to be a meaningful online presence, the book is still out there. People still take it from libraries. Some still buy it. Others at least have it on their shelves. There’s still a hope that they’ll refer to it sometime. And even when no one reads it any more, I’ll still have  copy on my own shelves. I’ll still be able to use it to bore my grandchildren. I won’t be able to send them to the URL.

There’s also the fact that books still have a far bigger reach than websites. Before the book came out, the visitors to Crap Towns could be measured in the hundreds. The book sold more than 120,000 copies and reached many more people thanks to the associated publicity and furore. There’s also the simple fact it was there in shops – a tangible physical presence. People have to look for you online, or at least be directed to you, but with a book there’s always that wonderful chance that someone will pick you up entirely by chance. That they will be sucked in by the cover and maybe, just maybe, fall a little bit in love with your ideas. For a writer, there’s no bigger thrill.

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