The new 
role of the reader

The Internet is changing the way literature is produced, with more and more people choosing to read and write together.

dpa/Dedert - Self publishing, social writing

The 21st century has brought authors and readers closer together. Readers have evolved 
and enjoy a new role as members of a digital community. What sets online book clubs such as Goodreads or the Sobooks project initiated by well-known German blogger Sascha Lobo apart from their analogue predecessors is the frequently symbiotic relationship between “producers” and “consumers”, especially in the area of popular fiction. On Germany’s largest social reading platform, LovelyBooks, it is not unusual for example for an author of historical novels to ask her digital fan club 
for advice: “Any tips you can give me may really help me to make my book better!” Popular fiction has always benefited from its identificatory potential, so allowing readers to have 
a direct say in the writing can multiply this effect. The author is not only able to consider the reader but can if necessary 
enter into direct contact with him – a kind of real-time customer survey, as it were.

The transformed relationship between readers and authors also encourages experimentation with new forms of production and reception beyond the boundaries of popular fiction, as is the case with Dirk von Gehlen‘s book project Eine neue Version ist verfügbar (i.e. There is a new version available). Readers who helped crowdfund his book were able to track 
its creation and received regular updates from the author in which the writing process was documented. It is true that these were for the most part silent participants who were 
traditional recipients in the original sense of the word to a far greater extent than those who take part in digital book clubs; their presence changed von Gehlen’s attitude towards his writing nonetheless: “It’s a bit like opening the door in your underwear: work that is not yet ready for print is released into the public domain. However, this is precisely how this approach differs from analogue writing: different versions are made available.” As a result, the author appears to become more vulnerable. Might revealing the various stages of the production process in the digital age mean hammering the last nail into the coffin of the genius concept?

A group of writers who met on the “Hundertvierzehn” blog 
in early 2015 to jointly write the mosaic novel Zwei Mädchen im Krieg (i.e. Two girls in wartime) also wanted to highlight this “version” character. Every week three texts were produced which could be publicly revised and commented on by the other authors. “Will I immediately find my work being crossed out, overwritten and rewritten, given that all of the writers presumably have access to my text”, Kathrin Röggla initially asked in the comment field. And: “Does a topic already constitute a story?” In raising such points, the author is criticizing not only the idea of culture as software, the concept upon which von Gehlen’s project is based, but crucially also addresses the question of who now has authorship under conditions of virtual synchronicity. Is there still a future for the novel and authorship in the collective time-displaced domain that is the Internet?

Over the past decade, the concept of literature has broadened considerably – not always in the best interests of literary quality – and has given rise to a new type of writer who explores the opportunities and limitations of new public spheres. The field for digital experimentation for authors, readers and not least publishers is wide, and its possibilities are far from exhausted. ▪