Promoting Teen Reading with Web 2.0 Tools - Part III: The Future of Reading With John Green and David Levithan

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Just when I thought the first half of my YALSA Preconference was worth its weight in gold (the academic research presentation and then the author panel on using 2.0 tools), we have a snack break and I get this - an amazing brownie and cookie with free sodas and water.  Hello!  I didn't know we were going to get food to say nothing of kick ass food (thanks, Embassy Suites hotel).  This was extremely well timed considering I had come to the preconference 2 hours early so I could get a front row seat, specifically for this part of the preconference, because I was just so totally psyched to be in the same room as John Green and David Levithan, authors of the recent book, Will Grayson, Will Grayson which I enjoyed tremendously!!  This meant forgoing lunch and simply eating a slightly stale trail mix packet from the hotel gift shop but it was worth it to be up front.  Life does play these funny little tricks on you - I was now in the position of trying to eat oh-so-ladylike my gihugic brownie (it can be a word if I want it to) and every now and then I would wedge too big a piece in my mouth, sort of choke a little and have chocolate crumbs all over my face - which of course my two heroes sitting up front could witness all to easily because I was sitting 10 feet from both of them.

Also new to me on the stalker radar was the delicate art of talking someone's picture (that's my water bottle cap in the front of the picture) so you can text it to a few of your closest teenagers so they can text-shriek, "I'M SO JEALOUS!! HOW CLOSE??!!" back to you.  So I now I had chocolate crumbs and a smug expression on my face; I'm sure it was super attractive.  But it turns out that despite my unbelievably high expectations of my two fave authors, they actually exceeded them.  Their part of the preconference was entitled "The Future of Reading" (John Green's recent School Library Journal article had the same title) and it turns out that these two individuals were more than capable of tackling such a weighty topic.

Both authors just plunged into the topic, demonstrating a comfort with each other while showing the idea of how teens are reading is something they have both mulled over on more than one occasion.  John used David's project of 39 Clues as something revolutionary in the world of reading, albeit for a slightly younger age group.  For those of you without a tween in the house, 39 Clues is a multiplatform reading experience that engages readers and gamers by intertwining book reading and online gaming.  Kids have to read the book to research how to play the game and players are rewarded by seeking out extra information on their own.  The story is essentially no longer limited to a 200 page book, but instead presents thousands of pages of reading to young kids and they swallow it whole.  It is obviously working since the site, sponsored by Scholastic, has over 1 million registered users.  Both John and David emphasized that it was a false distinction to separate readers and gamers, but that's exactly what so many educators have attempted to do.   The negatives are obviously that this is a very expensive project for the publisher and also demanding on authors.  John Green felt that the amount of collaborative writing necessary for this project also makes people uncomfortable as so many readers enjoy buying into the romantic notion of one person writing a fabulous novel by candlelight in a basement, but if it helps kids read and is a compelling story, than obviously we should go for it!

The dynamic shifted into the two men asking each other questions (they were both excellent interviewers).  David asked John to talk about his philosophy of using the web since he's done so much with his social network, Nerdfighters Made of Awesome, and his website which is home to his extremely popular video blog.  Prompted by David, John spoke about how he always though his job was to intellectually engage his viewers and that video was such an accessible medium for anyone and fit his mantra, "Go Where the Readers Are."  John wrote a novella "This Is Not Tom" which combines video clues online and reading in order for searchers to find the next part of the story.  He said that teamwork was an absolute must to solving the story and a goal of his was to inspire collaborative problem solving.  When David asked John if he was ever tempted to do a book combining video and a story since he was so facile in both mediums, John said that he wasn't, simply because he was highly satisfied with the novel as a comfortable and accessible medium for readers.  Both men agreed that paper will be a continued option for some time, but that lots of other options will become available and be highly appealing for readers.

Now the format shifted into them answering audience questions.  Here are my notes about the questions and their answers.  Obviously I'm not a court reporter so my notes might not be totally complete but this is the gist of what they said!

Q:  What do you think of fan fiction?
JG: I like it because those writers are readers and it's inherently non-monetized.
DL: And I've never met an author who had a problem with it.  Publishers have occasionally had a problem, but not authors.
JG: It deepens "fandom" within that community, so there are a lot of good outcomes from it.
Q: What do you think the significance of the recent publisher ebook battle with versus the iBookstore from Apple?

DL: I'm going to have to sit on the fence for this one since I work for a publisher but a lot of the debate reminds me of a crazy Christmas price war on a toy everyone wants.  Books aren't toothpaste.
JG: Ebooks have a lot of advantages, a big problem for publishers is the remainder system with all these books that have been printed and not sold.
DL: Publishers are really still figuring it out.  Ebooks can save costs but there are other costs involved with producing them.
JG: I think we're sitting among an audience who knows the cost of getting books to kids, particularly for libraries and schools. (*smattered applause and head nodding from audience*)
Q: Do you see a time when libraries will be largely electronic?

JG: Digital divide issues will always be an issue; where does the money come from for the readers and computers kids would need for that?  I think we're pretty far off before we are in that place.

Q: How do you use the internet to lure readers?

DL: Social networks are the life's blood of authors and publishers since they can energize communities prior to publication.  It used to be that publishers did some promotion prior to a book but it was inherently limited.  Now you can have millions of people pumped up before a book is released.
JG: I stole this technique from Lauren Conrad from The Hills who had trumped up interest in her books.  (*audience laughter*) We live in a personality driven world.

Q: Are you planning on doing a spin off starring Tiny Cooper? (Note: Tiny is a very memorable character in Will Grayson, Will Grayson)

JG: (smiling) Possibly.
DL: (also smiling) There obviously a musical that needs to be written there.
Q: Do either of you envision something similar to 39 Clues for the YA market?

DL: It would be exponentially harder since the choices are infinite.  39 Clues is largely successful because of the educational buy in from educators and parents - this wouldn't be the case with a YA product.
JG: I can't emphasize enough how insanely expensive this process is.  For someone with an established market - Stephenie Meyer, for example - it could work.  Maybe I should call her?
Q: We are curious about how you co-write a book like Will Grayson, Will Grayson.  Did you send chapters via email or use a special software?

JG: We didn't use anything more comfortable than reading the chapters over the phone to each other and occasionally a piece in email.
DL: Collaborative fiction is so much more popular now since 2.0 tools can make this easier.  We didn't really use any of them, though.
 If this is the future of reading, I'm buying.  Thanks, guys!