Incognito Books by Christopher G. Moore

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Winifred Gallagher, the author of Rapt discusses the Washington Post identity experiment involving violin virtuoso Joshua Bell who played his $3.5 million Stradivarius as street musician at a D.C. subway stop. Let’s be clear. Bell is a classical music star. In the 45 minutes that Bell played over a thousand people passed him. Only sixty-three people paused to listen. Only two people focused on his music. One had studied violin to the professional level. The other person recognized him. Bell made $32 during his short street performance.

The point of the study was that Bell, who people would pay large amounts to hear in a concert hall, ignored him in the street. Same man, same violin, same music. But they didn’t focus on the man or music. There attention was elsewhere. People expect their musicians and music in a specific context. Once the context is radically altered, the ability to focus is, if this study is accurate, lost.

Incognito music might well be the fate of incognito books.

Bell’s experience had me wondering what would happen if books were sold with the plain vanilla covers that adore most Arcs. And there would be no author’s name or advertisement. The only identification on the cover would be something like: Book 10888. In this experiment, all other books in the street vendor’s stall also have plain covers, no author’s name, no identification other than a different number.

Would readers passing on the street ignore the books on sale like the commuters who passed Joshua Bell?

The chances are readers would not notice anyone one of these ‘books’ because they are detached from their authors and the eye attracting covers that attracted our attention. Except for the number, they look the same. There is nothing to focus our attention on a specific cover.

Of course, in the real world, we attach a great deal of importance to the author of a book. So do publishers and reviewers. Names create expectations. The author’s identity is the hook that makes us focus on a book. Readers want to know who wrote the book. There would be something alien about books without an author’s name.

Readers often form an attachment to their favourite author; they follow news and gossip about the author, buy his or her books. If the reader had to simply decide to whether to purchase a book on word of mouth or reviews or advertisement with no connection to the authorship, then how would a person choose a book? The decision would be made from reviewing the available information whether she liked the story or characters to buy the book.

Most scriptwriters for film and TV fall into the incognito category. When is the last time you went to see a film or watched a TV show because of the screenwriter’s name? Most people outside of the industry couldn’t count three or four screenwriters by name. With fiction, that is a different story. The names roll off the tongue: Stephen King, Dan Brown, John Grisham, J.K. Rowling are just a good start if you ask most people to name authors.

Some authors are stars in the way that Joshua Bell is a star. You see their names on the New York Times Best Seller’s list. But if you dressed most of these authors as street vendors and had them selling copies of their coverless books off a blanket in front of D.C. subway station, how many out of a thousand people passing would stop and look at the book? Recognize the author? Buy the book?

People often buy books because they like or have read about the author. They can identify with their personal story. This identification gives them the confidence to buy the book. There is another reason. The author who wrote the book has creditability. She has earned a reputation for accuracy, depth, understanding and sensitivity. In other words, the name carries with it a promise of quality and the promise of a certain kind of experience…

Not all musical compositions are by Mozart or Bach anymore than all books are by George Orwell or Graham Greene. A lot of music and books are enjoyable for the experience but ultimately forgettable.

Perhaps somewhere there is a study about the number of people who buy a book by a famous author or celebrity author (not the same thing) and how many actually start and finish the book? We are creatures of brands, icons, and personalities. They influence our lives in profound ways. They shape our expectations. They also provide us with a context. We are in a concert and we have read that Joshua Bell is a great musician. We listen, we focus, and he has our attention. The same with buying a book, we have certain expectations where books are available, who writes them, how they fit in certain categories and these expectation put us on automatic pilot when we enter a bookstore or stop at a street vendor’s stall. Our attention is drawn to those books whose authors we recognize.

If we suddenly lived in a universe without such context cues, we have to find the books that interest us in other ways. Through what friends said about the characters or story they read; or through reviews which shower praise on one book and withhold it from another. We’d have to work at it. No doubt short cuts would evolve over time because ultimately we love taking them.

In Asia, as in the West, authors’ names appear on books. Once it is named, a context is established. An identity is born. Would people write books if they knew that their efforts wouldn’t carry their name? Or would they write if each and every book meant starting over again, trying to win an audience with the characters and story of the latest volume? The author’s name wouldn’t allow him or her to glide for a book or two. In such a world, in theory, only those books, which worked as narratives to grab and hold a reader’s attention would sell. That might be a very different world that the one we inhabit.

What was revealing about the Joshua Bell story was how grateful he was when some dropped some coins into his busker’s box. The one who recognized him left a twenty dollar bill. An artist takes his validation of his art by being paid for it. Outside of his normal context, Bell found an emotional satisfaction in this small change, which would have been a grave insult if offered to him to perform at a concert.

If the books offered for sale were stripped of the author’s personal identity would the best-selling author feel like Joshua Bell, a sense of accomplishment, when a passer-by bought his coverless book for a few dollars? It would make for an interesting experiment. And, even without the experiment, the ideas of context and attention and focus are useful tools when thinking about how books are acquired, published, and bought.

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