A Woolly Encounter

Is that the time? I better hotfoot it if I’m going to make it to the store before the action is over and I miss my opportunity.

A thorough showering later, I stood before my dresser and puzzled over what to wear. Formal was out of the question, but business casual might make an appropriate impression – and I really should shave…

What am I doing? I’m planning this like a dinner date – am I looking for romance at the bookstore? No, I’m hoping to catch a few seconds with Hugh Howey as he tours the few remaining bookstores around Melbourne signing copies of his books Wool and Shift. I’ll get to this encounter a little later, but let me pause for a moment and consider.

I guess I’m considered a voracious reader by some standards, although I’m knowledgeable enough to understand my reading exploits pale in comparison to some others. I have my favourite authors and there are quite a few, but as I look at the zero hands required to tally up the times I have endeavoured to meet these authors or even to discover that they are in town, I start to tease at Hugh’s visit. Why should this author inspire action where others have not even brought about curiosity?

I think my response is related to my perceptions of the fiction market. Only a couple of years ago, I would have called this a market of books. The author, for me, remained very much words printed on the cover; a way to group a selection of books to maximise my reading pleasure. I read many books during that “era” that still sit at the top of my exclusive shelf of favourites so I could hardly call myself regretful. However, my perceptions have altered, my first e-reader purchase, the catalyst. My eyes now see the fiction market as authors who write stories. I was well behind the curve on that one, so don’t imagine I have any delusions to the contrary. Interestingly, this is an internal metamorphosis I had already gone through with music and software development years before. The fact that it took so long for me to discover the same truths about the world of fiction is testament to my lack of evolutionary prowess.

So how does a market of people differ from a market of books? For me, the answer is self-evident. More than ever before, authors are coming out from behind their work to commune with their readers. Maybe that’s just good business sense in this new digital market with a glut of content and drastically increased competition for an audience that could not possibly be increasing in linear proportion. Then again, maybe authors always wanted this connection, and the increasing ease of communicating through social media platforms and blogs has provided the means. There could be multiple reasons and I don’t presume to have my finger on this pulse, but the impression seems to be that author/readership communities are much more prevalent and more immediate than ever before.

Hugh Howey is an example of how this evolutionary market might work well. He is very much a human being, one who seems to enjoy connecting with his audience as human beings. He doesn’t engage in tirades against those who might exploit his work. He won’t let casual theft of his work result in any action that might disadvantage those who choose to support him. He encourages the creativity of his reader community by publishing their own art on his site and even endorsing derivative works of fiction. So does all this “heart of gold” activity leave him poor and loved? Well, I guess a self-pubbed author being able to fly over to Australia to sign books as a result of his control-retained-print-only publishing deal with a major publishing house pretty much answers that question. Of course, being able to write great stories that people want to read isn’t going to hurt his prospects either.

I have trouble imagining a publisher caring for an author the way a reader might. No publisher is going to have the reach of a dedicated set of readers around the world who will further the aims of that author without any compensation other than being able to read the author’s stories. How can a publisher hope to compete with that? The answer is that they can’t. So authors engaging with readers seems like a pretty savvy thing to do as Hugh’s success in the industry demonstrates pretty well.

So this is all very well, but Hugh’s success doesn’t make me want to meet him any more than Stephen King’s does. It did provide me with today’s opportunity for which I’m grateful, but success doesn’t make me want to shake another’s hand. What compelled me is possibly a feeling of equality. This doesn’t mean that I feel capable of writing a New York Times best seller. But it does mean that the writing and the reading is starting to feel a bit more like a partnership, and why wouldn’t you want to meet a business partner, someone with whom you have a relationship? I would think it was a natural inclination. And nothing in Hugh’s words or actions dismisses the notion.

And so there I was. Hugh arrived a little late with his publicist and I was a little late as well – we actually arrived at the same time. He jumped immediately into signing books left aside for him and I waited quietly wondering how I could introduce myself without interrupting him. The problem was solved by Hugh himself when he noticed me standing nearby and the introduction was made. He remembered me which was nice (or very smoothly done if you’re a natural cynic), and we chatted a little. It was fairly harmless – we didn’t delve into the meaning of life and I didn’t fall on my knees and pledge eternal devotion. Both outcomes would have been ludicrous and I have no talent for hero worship. However, although I would certainly have liked to have coffee or a meal and get to know Hugh further, I left satisfied that we had connected for a few moments, politely and respectfully. Perhaps I’ll get my dinner date on a future visit to Australia – after the publication of Dust? If so, I’ll definitely shave.

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