The book starts with the advertising posters produced by the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec, (after a nod to the great religions of history), and continues through the evolution of newspapers, cinema, radio, television, the internet and smart-phones.
One element of the story is the rise and exploitation of “celebrity culture”, as part of the mechanism for capturing people’s attention, which reminded me that in 1990 I published a book brazenly titled “Hype! – The Essential Guide to Marketing Yourself”.
The astonishing thing is that less than thirty years ago I was still only “predicting” an explosion in self-marketing. The full blast of reality television and the Internet was still to come. (I also remember Libby Purves reviewing it in the Times and being horrified that I had suggested self-publishing might not be quite the sin it was then generally considered to be).
As authors, of course, we can’t help but be complicit in this harvesting process. We need to get people’s attention to persuade them to buy our books and we then need to hold their attention for several hours while they read them. We need to be reviewed in book pages, interviewed in magazines and talked about on social media if we want anyone to even hear about our books, let alone be tempted to read them.
The most encouraging conclusions of Professor Wu’s story seemed to be that people are now moving back to long form entertainment, (as in binging on box sets), and seeking stories on their phones, (hence the rise in audio books). It seems that the novelty of constant bite-sized pieces of entertainment, (Facebook updates, YouTube videos etc), is wearing off, partly because the addition of advertising has made them feel less digestible and seem less anarchic. There is also the rise of micro-audiences and niche marketing, which means that every book is not having to compete for publicity in the mainstream media with the likes of J.K. Rowling and James Patterson.
I finished the book feeling slightly optimistic about the future of story tellers in our otherwise increasingly dystopian world. Professor Wu successfully harvested about eight hours of my life and I do not begrudge him a second of it.