There’s been quite a few pie charts tossed around the past week. With their colored wedges and little labels, it’s easy to see these pies as something to fight over. I see something else. I see all that white space outside the pie charts where the non-readers lie. I see people beyond the crust playing video games and watching TV. I see them on Facebook and on crappy-looking author blogs. I see them bored, antsy, and wishing they could be whisked off on some exciting adventure or to some exotic locale. I see places where we need more pie.
I am not in competition with any other author. My competition is with all the things non-readers are doing. I want more readers. I’m selfish like that. I justify it by telling myself that so many people would be happier if they had a book with them at all times. They can read while waiting in lines. While at the airport. While at the beach. Over meals. In bed. Less time staring at our phones and jabbing candy, more time reading.
It’s too late for many people. They’ve already learned that they hate to read. Breaking that mentality is difficult; I know from years of wearing down friends and family. Getting a first mate on one yacht to read a book about blackjack was a huge life accomplishment for me. A young man who said he hated books devoured one in a single sitting. We just need to get the right books to the right people. And we need to do it earlier.
Three months into my job as CEO of New HarperCollins, my next big push is to grow this pie. Instead of worrying about self-publishing taking a large slice, or dwindling bookstores, or a shift to digital . . . I’m going to start planning for the book world that looms ten years from now, twenty years from now. It starts with our kids. With our parents. With our schools.
We are going to launch an initiative called π. It looks like a little penguin house, doesn’t it? Or a book standing on its jacket edges. We are going to spend millions of dollars to support youth NaNoWriMo to invest in future writers and current readers. We are going to pump money into programs like Battle of the Books. We are going to urge schools to stop teaching kids to hate books and allow them to read whatever they want. Harry Potter, Maze Runner, Sports Illustrated, Hunger Games, you name it.
This will also mean phasing out dry history books. And math books. Anything shaped like a book must be fun. Must be delicious. That’s the goal of π.
Students will learn math from Kahn Academy and similar online, scalable, teaching platforms. They will learn history with movies and with the plethora of fun novels that take place in ancient times (Rick Riordan teaches mythology, for instance). When this next generation of kids grows up, book-shaped things will tickle their souls. They’ll want to read. Some of them will even pick up the classics that we wish they’d read sooner. But we’ll give them time.
They payoff won’t be immediate for us in the publishing world. But it will be immediate for the kids. I’ve seen classrooms where this approach is used. I’ve spoken with these kids, had pizza with these kids, have given talks at their schools. When good teachers allow their students to discover books on their own, with autonomy and no pressure, they attack reading with zeal. Many of them become lifelong readers. The pie grows for everyone.
There’s no war here. There’s nothing to fight over. There’s just empty space, people who are bored and don’t know why, a deficit of great books for every taste, and hidden potential in millions of undiscovered writers.
When we in the publishing business come at each other with trust, love, and respect, I believe we will find there’s plenty of pie to go around. Our goal should not be to point fingers or humiliate, but to lower barriers, to work for contracts that treat people like people, and to allow the great folks in publishing to do what’s right instead of what’s handed down from on high. I think we all have the same goals. We want to make readers happy. Let’s add to that goal this one: To win non-readers over every day. And let’s start with our youth. Let’s not wait until they hate books to try and convince them to give reading a chance.