Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The future of books and reading

The future of book publishing, marketing and reading is in flux right now. Not only are hard times, economically speaking, impacting every aspect of the business, but the demographics of the reading population are changing rapidly.

L. E. Modesitt, Jr., a well-known fantasy and science-fiction author, highlighted some of these issues on his blog recently. Speaking of the publishing industry, he said:

In overall terms, the world of books is rapidly becoming a scary place. Borders Books is teetering on the edge, with an anticipated report of poor sales in the third quarter of the year. While Borders is not the largest of the chains, it still represents a significant chunk of the retail book market, and no author, me included, wants to see something like 400 super-stores vanish. Nor does any publisher. Fall sales of virtually all new titles from all publishers have declined, and one major publisher has reputedly ordered the editorial staff to stop acquiring new titles, at least for a while. Some agents are reporting more difficulty in pitching titles to publishers.

Is all this just because of the economic slowdown? In some respects, I'd like to think that it is. Unfortunately, it's not. The economic hard times are revealing a real weakness in the market for books, especially for fiction. As I've observed in earlier blogs, the modest increases in books sales have come more from greater sales to an ever-smaller percentage of the population, because the percentage of the population that reads is decreasing, and the greatest decrease is among the 16-25 age group. Likewise, historically the over-55 age group, particularly those who are college-educated, has had the highest reading percentage, and retirees, often steady readers, are economically harder-pressed and are likely buying fewer books.

But, there's far more to the decline in book sales than these factors.

. . .

... there are hundreds of malls without any bookstores, and whole sections of major cities without bookstores, and most of the corner drugstores are long-since gone, and I don't see many book displays in the generic drug chains that replaced them. Yes, many supermarkets, and even WalMarts, have book sections, but most Super WalMarts are lucky to have 20 F&SF titles, or for that matter more than 50 titles of any genre or mainstream fiction. In other supermarkets the selection is even more meager. Even the tiniest of Waldenbooks used to have several hundred titles in each genre [and I know, because I visited that store before it was closed].

By concentrating resources in book superstores, the book chains have largely eliminated what was effectively a feeder network that helped make books available to a larger segment of the population. It's unscientific, but I've traveled most of the United States in the past fifteen years and found that very few malls in minority sections of most cities have bookstores. The bookstores tend to be concentrated in or near affluent white, higher-income neighborhoods. This is a great way to maximize an existing customer base, but given the fact that a considerable number of children in lower income areas will grow up to be higher-wage earners, it's a very poor long-term strategy, and another example of our cultural mindset to maximize short-term profits, regardless of the long-term implications.

Add to that an educational system that tries to do too much with too little discipline, too few teachers and inadequate resources, and it shouldn't be any surprise that effective reading levels continue to decline, regardless of what the school "tests" say, since more accurate Department of Education tests on college graduates show that almost 60% lack the capacity to read and understand a complex newspaper editorial. On top of that, regardless of the intellectual brilliance of students, the current teaching systems and the video culture have created a mindset where long-term concentration is difficult, if not impossible, for all too many students -- and long-term concentration is definitely required for reading books.

. . .

... those who believe that recent declining sales are all a function of lower income and higher unemployment are seriously deluding themselves.

Sobering thoughts for aspiring writers such as myself. In another blog entry, dealing with the future of fiction, Modesitt comments:

Over the past decade the number of fiction titles and the number of copies sold are up, but not so much as population growth. Other studies suggest that there actually may be fewer readers, but that those readers are individually buying more books, as a result of the growth of chain bookstores and on-line stores. This possibility is bolstered by the distribution of sales figures as well. With the exception of authors of block-buster works such as Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, and the top romances, most authors are writing more books, but the numbers of copies of each title sold tend to be lower. In the F&SF field, more than a few authors who used to be mid-list authors published by major houses are now being published by smaller houses, even while they're getting quite favorable reviews and positive critical attention. Recent surveys also indicate that fiction reading has dropped off enormously among the 16-25 year old age-group.

What do these changes mean? For one thing, I personally believe that they largely reflect a change in personal entertainment preferences, and that change is driven, in large part, by the impact of technology on our lives and in the corresponding transformation of the nature of work. A greater and greater percentage of work has moved from physical labor to tasks requiring mental efforts or services with social interaction, if not both, and the hours worked have not decreased in the U.S.A., and in many fields, have actually increased significantly. I have heard more and more individuals say, time and time again, that when they get home from work, they're simply too exhausted to be able to concentrate on a book, and like it or not, reading does require a certain amount of concentration.

Bookstores are also carrying larger and larger sections of graphic novels, anime, and manga. This isn't totally surprising, given that younger Americans are a more video/visual entertainment generation, which also explains the growth of video/computer games. The concern that I have about this shift is that reading, fiction in particular, requires the reader to construct a mental image of the setting and the events, rather than merely to observe and participate, as is the case for visually-based entertainment.

. . .

... Some differences that I've observed and that concern me are: (1) the younger generation seems to have a greater difficulty in visualizing or imagining things described only in words; (2) they have more difficulty in transferring skills learned in one application to a different application; (3) their writing skills, in general, are far weaker than those of earlier generations; (4) while constructing and supporting statements/arguments logically and factually has always been difficult for students, that difficulty seems even greater now than in earlier generations.

More sobering thoughts. I've certainly noticed that the supermarkets are stocking mostly the sort of books that don't require much reading effort - Westerns, crime thrillers, 'bodice-ripper' romances and the like. I've watched people buying them, and I've seen the book choices of many people in the military, law enforcement and emergency services professions. Most of the latter seem to want light reading: something that isn't intellectually demanding, merely a 'quick read' to help while away the hours in between crises, or relax after a demanding and eventful work shift.

There's also, undoubtedly, the influence of video games. This has already had a major impact on the military's recruitment of young men and women. Witness the US Army's online game, 'America's Army', which it admits is a major recruiting tool.

"We want kids to come into the Army and feel like they've already been there," said Col. Casey Wardynski, who as director of the Army's office of economic and manpower analysis came up with the idea. "A game is like a team effort, and the Army is very much a team effort. By playing an online, multiplayer game, you can get the feel of being in the Army."

Books based on computer games, both stand-alone and online, are selling well, demonstrating a link between electronic and printed entertainment. Many films have been made on the same basis.

Books are also (very slowly) moving into the electronic realm. Book reading devices such as Amazon's Kindle, Sony's Reader and others are beginning to making inroads. One commentator has stated that Amazon sold about 240,000 Kindles between November 2007 and August 2008. An analyst estimates that it can sell 500,000 to 750,000 by the middle of next year. Personally, I find all the 'electronic readers' presently available to be less than satisfactory: but they're improving all the time, and it wouldn't surprise me to find a really useful model on the market within two to three years.

Another interesting (and very new) development is the advent of electronic books (e-books) linked to online services. The first of which I'm aware is a German novel, 'Senghor On The Rocks'. This is a so-called 'geo-referenced' book. If you go to the link and click on the cover, you can page through the book. The right-hand 'page' contains the text; the left-hand page is linked to Google Maps, and brings up a satellite view of the area mentioned in the text. The author comments:

"For me, the project always has been related to a map in a certain sense. Only that it wasn't hi tech, online satellite imagery but the rather worn out paper map I had carried with me throughout all my time in Africa," says Benda who wrote the book between 2002 and 2005.

Set in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, the story takes place on the day in 2001 when the nation's jubilation over its first qualification for football's World Cup is overshadowed by news of the death of Leopold Sedar Senghor, the republic's legendary first president.

The novel's main character is an Austrian camera assistant called Martin "Chi" Tschirner, who arrives in Dakar on a promotional job for the soft drink giant Coca Cola.

"It's a fast paced adventure that starts as a job, develops into an involuntary journey and culminates in a reflection about the possibilities and limits of cross-cultural understanding," explains Florian Ledermann, a software engineer at the Vienna University of Technology, who worked with Benda on the project.

Benda and Ledermann began collaborating to "geo-annotate" Benda's novel began about one-and-a-half years ago.

"We wanted to add something to the story that helps readers - especially as the story is set in an unfamiliar environment - to envision the mood of the story without illustrating it," says Ledermann.

"The satellite images provided by Google Maps do not constrain the reader's imagination but are capable of actually triggering imagination by giving a rough impression without too much detail."

Benda says that as a newbie author, the project to geo-annotate Senghor on the Rocks appealed to him because of the experimental nature of the format.

"I am pretty sure that we met a much wider audience - in terms of media coverage as well as readers or at least interested people - than we ever could have found with a 'classical' print publication," he says.

The launch this year by Amazon of the internet-connected Kindle electronic book reader, means that it may not be too long before geo-referenced publications hit the mainstream.

Interesting! Mr. Benda may be one of the first pioneers in a 'cross-over' form of publishing. If this idea takes hold, it may have profound implications for traditional publishers.

Another powerful influence on the book market is the so-called 'Print On Demand' or POD business model. This has led many wannabe authors who can't find a 'traditional' publisher to market their books themselves, sometimes through so-called 'vanity publishers', sometimes through online services such as Lulu or Amazon's Booksurge. Most, of course, won't sell more than a few copies: but some have gone on to considerable success. For example, my online friend Larry Correia, whose book 'Monster Hunter Nation' I recommended earlier this year, published it himself. It sold so well that he's been given a contract by Baen Books, one of the top publishers in this field, and his book will appear under their imprint next year. A sequel's already in the pipeline. Well done, Larry!

I know of a number of university lecturers (and even some high school teachers) who are using Lulu to make course documentation available to students. They simply compile all the articles, book extracts, etc. that they want to use, put them all into a single document on their computer, edit it for ease of use, page numbering, indexing, etc., and then publish it as a textbook on Lulu, requiring their students to buy their own copies. This means they can hand-pick their materials and update the book for every new course - but it also means that 'traditional' textbook publishers will derive less business from their students. There are also copyright implications, of course. Ethical lecturers will pay royalties to copyright-holders . . . but many won't bother.

As 'traditional' publishers cut back on accepting new books, thanks to poor economic conditions, I'm aware of many aspirant authors who are looking very hard at the POD route. Some (including myself) are considering combining this form of publishing with a 'free book' offer for e-books, which may be downloaded to a user's PC or electronic book reader. They may have a series of books planned, and offer the first one free of charge as an e-book 'carrot'. Readers who like it will then be able to buy subsequent books in the series, either as print or electronic publications. Some mainstream publishers, such as Baen Books with their Free Library, are doing the same for their established authors.

Print-on-demand will also extend 'publishing' to a whole new type of 'author' - ordinary individuals who just want one or two copies of a bound volume with special meaning for them. Michael Hyatt, the President and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, did this himself the other day.

Two weeks ago, two of our dear friends celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary. Their daughter asked me to photograph the event, knowing that I am an amateur photographer. I happily agreed.

I took about 250 photos altogether, using the quantity-over-quality method of photography. (I assume that if I shoot enough pictures, I’m bound to get something I can use.)

Last weekend, I sorted through these photos in iPhoto, assigning ratings and then editing the best ones. Next, I assembled the photos into an iPhoto book. The whole process took about four hours from start to finish. I then uploaded the files to Apple early Monday morning with two-clicks.

On Friday—a mere four days later—Apple delivered to me an elegant hardcover book, with a full-color dust jacket. It contained almost 100 color photos on 40 pages. It cost $49.79 plus tax and express postage for a total of $70.76.

That’s not cheap if you compare it to a typical, mass-produced hardcover book. But for a one-of-a-kind custom, coffee-table quality book, I think it’s a bargain. And my friends loved it.

This is the third book I have created like this. I am always amazed by the process. But it also makes me wonder, What will this mean for traditional publishers?

All in all, it's both a difficult and an exciting time to be a writer. What the future holds for books is very obscure at the moment - but they're unlikely to be published or marketed in the traditional way. Times are changing - fast!



Anonymous said...

I feel about my books the way Charlton heston felt about his guns:

They can have 'em when they pry 'em from my cold, dead hands!

(I tried one of those electronic book-things: godawful, to put it kindly.)

Crucis said...

The loss of "readers" is, I believe, cultural---family culture. I spend, on the average, $75 each month on hardback books from Amazon.com. Add to that another $20-30 each month on paperbacks from my local Borders. I've been a large scale reader all my life as was my parents and my current library exceeds several thousand books.

My daughter and her husband are also readers and that culture has been ingrained in their older two children (the youngest being only one month old, the other two are five and eight.) They don't have the $$ to order from Amazon or frequent Borders as do I. They, on the other hand, frequent used book stores, or, on occasion barrow from me.

Several good friends of mine, fellow church members, college graduates, do not have that reading culture in their families. The result is that my wife has tutored one of their children in reading skills. The family supports reading skills---in school, but does not support reading at home by reading themselves.

This lack of a familial reading culture is one factor to the overall decline in reading as a skill and pastime. Lack of reading skills is also a factor in the decline of education as well.

Diamond Mair said...

Re: current hold'em-in-your-hands books - are you familiar with The Shack, by William P. Young? I read it in the last couple of weeks, at the behest of a friend who recently found his way back to religion & spirituality.

While it IS a good story, with a positive ending, as a {lapsed} Catholic, it made me uncomfortable {for lack of a better description} - I'd be interested in your evaluation of it ..................

Semper Fi'

Anonymous said...

Being able to read is a necessary precursor to having an inclination to buy a book.
Consider how many persons are graduated form schools every year who at best can maybe read at a forth grade level. These persons are products of a system DESIGNED NOT TO EDUCATE BUT TO INDOCTRI- NATE. And it is doing a damn fine job as proofed by the past election.

An ignorant population is far more easily led then an educated one. Books have always been a method of passing on hard-earned knowledge from previous generations.

Anonymous said...

As Crusis said: Reading is a family culture.

The 2nd grade teacher of my youngest daughter repeatedly requested that the parents should have their child read at least one book per week. For about 26 weeks she had the kids fill out a list with the title, pages, date completed and parents signature to check reading progress. At the end of the school year she prepared a reading thermometer showing how many books each child had read. My daughter led the class with 85 books registered, follow by another girl with 62 books and another girl in the low 40s. The bulk of the class of 24 had read between 10 and 20 books. And the lowest score was a scant 3 books.

But then reading runs in our family, since the grandma was known to read with a flashlight under the covers at night, the father did it also. And I have caught my daughter doing the same thing.

I actually find my children reading to much F&SF with the resulting loss of touch with reality. There is actually a lot of good historical fiction, biographies, history and literature geared towards kids of different age groups that is very captivating (even for us adults).

So, I vote to NOT discount the dead-tree-editions as an educational medium. You can't take a CRT and read it under the covers of your bed instead of sleeping. ;)

Anonymous said...

I come from a family of readers: when we were kids, the biggest sibling fights were usually some variation of "you stole my book!"

And Mom's top-of-the-line punishment was, for readers, a real killer. After the lecture, standing in a corner and/or a swat on the rear, the worst thing Mom could do to us was to declare an offense was SO bad that, that week, the offender would not be permitted any new library books (and yes, you had to return last week's). The mere threat of that one was usually enough, and I don't think she had to actually DO it more than once per kid.

I promise that I, and my siblings, are doing all that we can to support new book stores, used book stores, book web sites, book stalls at flea markets, book sales at yardsales, and any other place we can find them. (None of us will ever be alcoholics or drug addicts: that would waste money we'd rather spend on books!)