In so many ways genre readers are incredibly fortunate right now. We have literally hundreds of new books a month to choose from in both digital and print; self-publishing is evolving to the point where solidly produced books are entering the market at very competitive prices; subscription services like Scribd, Oyster, and Kindle Unlimited are like private library subscriptions; and there is a tremendous amount of legally free content, through public domain digitization and author promotion, among other sources. Content is affordable and ubiquitous.
Simultaneously, purchasing content (or purchasing a license to view content) is becoming easier and more automatic. In his essay The Evolution of Money: Every Device Will Become A Vehicle for Commerce, Dan Rowinski points out that while cash still is the medium of choice for global economic transactions, we are in the middle of a fundamental shift from money as a thing, a physical object, to money as data, transferred in entirely digital environments. And smartphones are facilitating this process, along with platforms like Apple Pay and the Amazon Dash Button:
Eventually, payments may become invisible. Instead of handing over cash or a card to a person or machine, our mere presence will be able to conduct a transaction for whatever good or service we desire. The progression from hard currency to fiat currency to the digitization of money and payment cards mixed with the power of smartphones and the Internet of Things is what makes this not just feasible, but probable within our lifetimes.
It’s is the ultimate endpoint for the notion of currency.
And, of course, the easier it becomes to buy things, and the less physically connected we become to money as a physically limited resource, the easier it is to buy, buy, buy. Which is exactly what commercial agents want us to do, from publishers, to authors, to bookstores, and any number of retail outlets. In fact, we routinely hear the message that buying is good, especially when we’re buying books. We’re supporting the continuing production of creative content; we’re ensuring that authors can feed their kids and pay their bills; we’re keeping bookstores in business and helping our favorite authors to keep writing.
The more we’re encouraged to buy automatically, to push a button every time we run out of laundry detergent or toilet paper, the less attention we may actually be paying to what we buy. And attention, like digital money, is a limited and invisible — but valuable — resource that we’re constantly being invited to spend indiscriminately:
Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging. Lately, our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.
Matthew Crawford goes on to point out that in our current consumer environment (he mentions the ads in the bottom of the airport x-ray trays as an example), “[s]ilence is now offered as a luxury good. . . . Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it.” In other words, we’re not treating attention as a public good that needs to be protected like any other shared resource. And that means we’re more likely to over-spend it, and to do so in ways that are not always aligned with our best interests.
Like money, attention is a resource we have to spend to use, and we are invited to spend it in myriad, competing ways every day. I have talked a lot about being an aspirational book buyer at this point in my life. Which means I am buying a lot of books that I aspire to someday read, once I have adequate attention to spend on them. In other words, right now I probably have more money than attention to spend on books. My mistake has been to assume that price is most important measure of affordability for me.
So I’ve decided it’s time to spend some of my limited attention on a more reflective, mindful approach to buying and reading. Because at this point I’m basically using my Kindle shelves as a wish list. And I’m purchasing in digital, which can cut two ways: the technology may change by the time I am ready to read those books (I think of the Adobe digital books I’ve lost over the years to software upgrades), or the theoretical perpetuity of digital means that I can buy the book at any time in the future. In some ways the ubiquity of books has been great, because I have discovered new authors re-discovered DNF’d titles by having a ridiculously large digital TBR. But now I’ve got too many books, many of which I cannot even remember buying, let alone why, and scrolling through my Kindle library feels overwhelming rather than inviting.
I’ve already made a little bit of progress by not buying anything during the Audible half-off sale. And I’m still reading the Daily Deals posts, because I still love a bargain, but I’m starting to put books on my wish list, instead of buying every inexpensive or sale book simply because they’re cheap. I’m getting a new library card and am going to figure out how to use Overdrive, and I’m going to try out at least one of the subscription services to see if the model suits my reading habits. If I give myself too many rules, I’ll feel deprived and jump off the wagon, but I think even small changes have the potential to make a big difference. After all, I have ultimate control over when I buy and read, no matter how much marketing is out there. It’s not the marketing as much as my own lack of attention that’s the problem here. And even though attention is a scarcer resource for me right now, that doesn’t mean I can’t and shouldn’t be spending it smarter.
I realize that this plan may seem to conflict with the goals of the book buying culture that is so prevalent right now. But if I’m not actually reading most of the books I’m buying, I don’t think I’m engaging with books in a way that communicates much value, anyway. And more than anything, I want to be more focused on books, and more constructively and meaningfully engaged with reading and talking about books. And to do that, I need to be more mindful about how I’m buying, borrowing, and reading them.
With the return of Agency Pricing and the myriad options available to legally acquire book content, do you feel you’re getting everything you want out of buying and reading books right now? If there’s one habit you’d like to change, what would it be, and what would it take for you to make that change?