Where Did All The Readers Go?

By Chris · Jan 18 2011

Publishers Weekly had an encouraging headline last week.  It read, Pubs See Big Jump in Holiday E-book Sales.  The article reported that Simon & Schuster experienced a 150% jump in e-book sales this holiday over last, Random House a 300% increase, and Kensington enjoyed a “whopping” increase of 400%.

Back on November 9, 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported in Same-Day E-Book Sales Propel Grisham’s Thriller, that John Grisham’s latest release, The Confession, had better first week sales than his last release and that it was the first of Grisham’s novels to have the e-book edition available simultaneously with the hardcover release.  The news that the WSJ was reporting, which was both disturbing and encouraging in my mind, revolved around these two stats: (1) While Grisham’s previous release, The Associate, had sold approximately 223,000 copies in hardcover its first week on sale as compared to The Confession’s 160,000 copies; (2) The Confession’s e-book sales in the first week stood at approximately 70,000 copies, thus propelling Grisham’s total unit sales for The Confession to a higher cumulative first week than his previous novel.  Grisham was quoted as saying, “The e-book sales are astonishing,” and the article concluded with this encouraging statement: “[T]he nation’s largest publishers have seen steady growth this year in their digital sales even as bookstore sales remain soft.”

These two separate articles get at two of the hottest questions in publishing today, namely, what should the digital royalty rate be as sales of digital copies continue to rise (you can see some of my thoughts here), and will the continued proliferation of electronic reading devices push us to a tipping point where digital sales overcome traditional print sales? But I want to talk about something that I don’t see the publishing community talking much about at all, and that I predict will become a greater concern than the impact of digital distribution of long-form content.

What happens when people just stop reading books altogether?

On November 20, 2010, I read two New York Times articles that I can’t stop thinking about.  The first was entitled, Growing Up Digital, Wired For Distraction, and the second was entitled The Attention-Span Myth.  In the latter, reference was made to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, and reads: “Nicholas Carr . . . argued in ‘The Shallows’ that Web use practically causes brain damage, [and] told PBS that technology is ‘pushing even more distractions and interruptions on us’ and thus will never ‘return to us our attention span.’”  Virginia Heffernan, the author of the article,  argues against the idea that we humans posses an “attention span” that is malleable and suggests we should stop worrying about it.  The problem is, my own experience tells me that Mr. Carr may be right.  I often find it difficult to focus on a specific task in light of other distractions, and I bet you do too.  I grew up with a computer from the age of 6.  Has my time on the Web caused, as Mr. Carr puts it, “brain damage?”

In Growing Up Digital, Matt Richtel describes the challenge for 17 year-old Vishal Singh, who struggles to complete his summer reading assignment when faced with an onslaught of other, more immediately stimulating digital options.  As Richtel writes of Singh’s experience, “On YouTube, ‘you can get a whole story in six minutes,’ he explains. ‘A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.’”  Contrary to Ms. Heffernan’s belief, Richtel writes: “Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.”  Of even greater concern, however, is the effort being made to adopt more of these technologies in the classroom.  Again, Richtel writes, “But even as some parents and educators express unease about students’ digital diets, they are intensifying efforts to use technology in the classroom, seeing it as a way to connect with students and give them essential skills. Across the country, schools are equipping themselves with computers, Internet access and mobile devices so they can teach on the students’ technological territory.”

Have you seen the baby holding his/her parent’s iPhone, quietly tapping away while the parent enjoys a momentary respite?  Me too.  Do you know any 10-year-olds who received an iPad for Christmas and lots of iTunes gift cards, but not a single book?  Me too.  I’m also guilty of encouraging the same behavior.  Our kids spent more time “watching” entertainment then “reading” for it.  Sometimes I wonder if my lack of insistence on reading time (something I grew up with) might ultimately result in me looking for work in another industry.

The publishing industry has focused on moving toward digital distribution of its content in the belief that we need to have the content where the readers are.  But what if we’re training entire generations to seek entertainment in forms other than long-form reading?  What happens if the publishing industry morphs into experts on digital distribution of long-form content, but there’s no one left who cares to learn or entertain themselves with the medium of reading?  Those who remain unconcerned point out that many of these online options are still forms of reading – blogs, twitter and the like – and while true, that’s where attention span comes into play.  Reading short blogs and shorter tweets do not train the mind to pay attention to, and allow the imagination to run wild with, books.

These are longer term questions, but questions the industry as a whole should begin bracing for now.  After all the excitement around new reading devices has died down and they’ve become ubiquitous, and holiday shopping sprees for digital content no longer happen on the heals of opening a shiny new device, we may learn that digital sales can’t keep pace in the same way Mr. Grisham experienced in the face of dwindling bookstore sales, because the real problem is a lack of readership in general.

So tell me, do you believe book sales have suffering as a function of not having content where the readers are, losing readership in general, both or something else?

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Comments

  1. Nicole says:

    I grew up on computers, but don’t see any less of a demand for books. It’s relaxing to sit for an hour or two and read without distractions.

    On the other hand, I almost did a TL;DR on this blog! For me, the difference in not wanting to read long copy on the computer is because backlit screens hurt my eyes after a while. Some eReaders are fixing this, so maybe it won’t be such a problem in future technology.

  2. Doug says:

    “The publishing industry has focused on moving toward digital distribution of its content in the belief that we need to have the content where the readers are.”

    I don’t believe this to be true. I think the publishing industry has focused on moving toward digital distribution because it is cheaper and quicker to produce and has the potential to make them money more easily. The above is what they are trying to sell the public on.

    I agree with most of the rest of your assessment, however. Good post!

    • Chris says:

      Doug, check out Thomas Nelson’s CEO, Michael Hyatt’s post about the cost of ebooks here from a publisher’s perspective. I do believe that costs may come down significantly as the industry continues to shift, which is why the ongoing debate on royalty rates for digital books, but not sure we’re there yet.

  3. Emily says:

    I believe we are going to keep seeing a decline in book sales which is so unfortunate. Younger generations aren’t going to buy. Books are of lesser value to them. So, I share your exact concern about the distraction levels of younger generations because of technology. As a college student, examples of this are practically laid in front of me. I can tell you that each one of my brother’s friends as well as roommates have under a 2.3 GPA because of their insistence on playing video games, watching t.v., ichatting, texting, skyping…you name it and they spend their time doing it. We are so quick to write it off as adult ADD or something of that sort. It can’t possibly be our faults that we have let responsibility (studying) come second to pleasure….

    • Chris says:

      Thanks, Emily. I heard this week an interesting thought, that teenagers return to reading past 25. Hope that bears out in future studies!

  4. Frisbee says:

    I was sitting on twitter trying to find something to cure my boredom – and SPLAT – somebody I follow tweeted this post. Now, I am not quite as bored. Thanks for posting nice material. – Frisbee

  5. [...] Where Did All the Readers Go? – An interesting read detailing the effects digital technology has on people (especially children) [...]

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