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Welcome to the fourth installment of “How We Will Read,” a series exploring the future of reading from the perspectives of publishers, writers, and intellectuals. So far we’ve spoken to a nonfiction author, two magazine writers, and a designer-turned-writer-slash-publisher (there’s no good way to put Craig Mod in a box). But we haven’t yet gotten the perspective of someone who doesn’t write for a living.
Enter Ryan Chapman, online marketing manager at the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In many ways, this series is an investigation of industries that are intersecting in new ways. Ryan in particular sits at the intersection of publishing and digital media — or the way he puts it, at the center of “the Venn diagram of literature, new media, & some cool, mind-blowing third thing.” In addition to tweeting at his personal account, he also tweets for FSG’s official account. Ryan is the editor and creator of Work in Progress, an FSG marketing and outreach website. Publishing, needless to say, is undergoing an upheaval — at the very least, a radical redefinition of self. We wanted to see what the future of reading looked like from inside one of the New York’s most prestigious publishing houses. As an integral part of FSG’s social media arm, Ryan is looking for it every day.
How do you do most of your reading these days?
It’s very environment-dependent. I read print while I commute, preferably a trade paperback I can hold with one hand — I’m sure if I was on a subway line with more open seats I’d read more hardcovers. At home it’s a mix of laptop reading and print reading. Plus the Kobo for manuscripts from work. And nothing beats oatmeal, coffee, and the Times in print on a Saturday morning.
I keep track of my reading habits on Goodreads, except when I feel like I’m adding administrative duties to my leisure time. Or when I read a guilty pleasure I’d rather keep secret. Lately I’ve been underlining choice sentences and paragraphs for the FSG Tumblr.
If you could move one feature of paper books to digital books, what would that be?
Portability. I know it’s an odd thing to say, but tablet and dedicated ebook readers still carry the preciousness of tech gadgets. I don’t mind bringing a paperback to the bar. Go ahead, spill beer on my Geoff Dyer book. But my iPad? I’m already embarrassed for how irrationally angry I’d become.
Can you recall the moment you fell in love with reading?
My grandmother taught me how to read at a young age. While I was a source of endless disappointment at the piano, she did like my progress with the ABCs. And later I remember thinking it was cool that the Boxcar Children were allowed to sleep outdoors, without any parents around.
Has reading become more social for you?
Reading has become more social extra-textually, if that makes sense. I remember discovering Maud Newton’s and Mark Sarvas’ blogs in 2004 and thinking, “Oh, this is an internet I actually care about.” It works both ways, too: The first year I used Goodreads I realized I’d only finished eight novels. The unique shame this brought on motivated me to read triple that number the following year.
But reading has yet to become more social within the work itself. That’s fine, it’s a nascent space. We’ll discover the audience or the kind of book that works best here. Will it impact colleges more? Book clubs? I don’t know.
When is the last time you shared a clip of text with a friend?
I’ve been selfishly hoarding clips so far, as a kind of record of what I’ve found interesting. No more will I have to vaguely describe the title or misquote the salient stats from that great New Yorker essay I read a month ago.
From your perspective inside publishing, what do you think have been a few examples of successful strategies in the digital age?
I’m consistently impressed by Graywolf Press. Because of their enthusiasm and authentic voice, Erin Kottke and Fiona McCrae have grown a dedicated literary community. While flashier and more expensive promotions get the press, Graywolf’s marketing proves that slow and steady wins the race. Several other presses have perfected subscriptions and bundling as a way to build loyalty with readers. Some of my favorites: Featherproof, Algonquin, Coffee House Press, and McSweeney’s.
How do you see reading evolving in the years to come?
I think we’ll see formats and reading behaviors hew much closer to certain genres and use cases. We know romance and thriller fans are voracious readers: a dedicated e-reader seems perfect for them. And interactive, iterative publishing may benefit the Design and How-To communities most, as Tim O’Reilly has shown with his titles. Will literary fiction be the vinyl of publishing? Maybe.
I hope we’ll also see much greater interoperability between devices, ebooks, and social reading platforms. This might pinch a few companies’ bottom line, but it’ll greatly benefit readers and foster more innovation.
How do you talk about books after you’ve read them? How does your work in FSG’s social media contribute to the conversation going on around books?
This is a tough question. In a way, it’s my entire position at FSG. It’s also very difficult to quantify how our social media efforts translate to quality conversations. I’m very proud of our user engagement levels in our email newsletter, on Twitter, and the like. But we have to move past these metrics when thinking long-term. I trust that we’re headed in the right direction, though I can’t say how far there is to go.
(All interviews conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)