Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Good-bye, books

Your lifelong ambition was to become a published author? Better kiss that dream good-bye:
The specter of commercial death has been haunting the whole book business lately. It wasn't exactly the best of times for publishers and booksellers before the economy melted down. Afterward, the headlines got truly grim: There was "Barnes & Noble Braces for 'Terrible' Season" and "Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Places 'Temporary' Halt on Acquisitions." (Translation: Publisher with scary debt issues can't afford to pay authors for books.) Then came "Layoffs at Random House, Simon & Schuster," followed quickly by "Publishing Death Watch."
On Dec. 1, Publishers Weekly posed what could be construed as a hopeful question: "As Bad As It Gets?"
Not likely. After the holidays, most observers believe, things will only get worse.

Just posting this for future reference, the next time somebody tries to tell me that the death-spiral of the newspaper industry is a function of liberal bias. On the contrary, the decline of publishing -- not just newspapers, but magazines and books, too -- is a consequence of the coming-of-age of the post-literate generation.

Remember, next time you board an airplane, to observe your fellow passengers to see if any of those under 30 brought a book, magazine or newspaper to read. Instead, in nearly every case, you'll see them zone out to the iPod. Reading for pleasure, or for edification, is a habit that almost no one under 30 ever acquired. Or ever will.

Whatever their ability to read, reading's function for the under-30s is almost entirely utilitarian or job-driven. The idea of browsing a bookstore to purchase an anthology of short stories, a history of colonial New England, or a new volume by their favorite columnist -- dude, they don't read newspapers, how are they supposed to have a "favorite columnist"?

What we have been watching over the past few decades is the slow but relentless decline of reading as a mass phenomenon. Without a mass market to pay the bills, publishers are trying to find a business model that will permit them to survive in a world where reading is the province of a dwindling elite.

UPDATE: One of the commenters has accused me of hyperbole. Here are just a couple of data from this year's Pew survey of American news consumption habits:

  • "Since the early 1990s, the proportion of Americans saying they read a newspaper on a typical day has declined by about 40%; the proportion that regularly watches nightly network news has fallen by half." And online news readership has not made up the loss.
  • "In spite of the increasing variety of ways to get the news, the proportion of young people getting no news on a typical day has increased substantially over the past decade. About a third of those younger than 25 (34%) say they get no news on a typical day, up from 25% in 1998." Note that these figures for the "newsless" include news from all sources, including TV and online.

There is a net decline in readership, and the driving force behind this overall decline is the relatively low rate of readership among the younger generation. Of course, the Pew survey's focus was specifically on news consumers (including people who watch TV news), rather than on literacy or general reading. But the data are consistent with my argument.

We are living in the Age of the Image, where the picture on the video screen is utterly dominant over any truth that can be conveyed by the written word. Children who are immersed from infancy into an all-pervasive media bath of images in motion -- 24/7 cable TV, DVDs, video games, etc. -- are permanently stunted in their mental habits, glued to the floor, as it were. A child raised on a diet of nonstop image-action will never develop the reading habit, and without habitual readers, there is a dwindling market for the written word.

FACT: In 2000, the two magazines with the largest paid circulation were the AARP Bulletin and Modern Maturity (about 20 million each). The leading news magazine, Time, had a circulation of about 4 million in 2000, which fell to 3.3 million in 2007, while AARP Bulletin/Modern Maturity subscriptions increased to 24 million each. Do you get the point?

The problem faced by the publishing industry is a problem of diminishing demand. It is not an issue of content or marketing, and technological innovation (e.g., Kindle) will not fix the problem. The decline of habitual reading has passed a tipping point, so that it is no longer possible to speak of a "mass market" book or a "mass market" magazine, especially for the younger generation.

Now, it may be that you are under 30 and object to this broad generalization -- after all, you are reading, aren't you? But aren't you conscious of what a relative rarity you are amid your generation?


  1. "Reading for pleasure, or for edification, is a habit that almost no one under 30 ever acquired. Or ever will."

    Jebus, hyperbolize much?

    The generation that is now under 30 is spending the bulk of its time online - much of it is on Facebook and YouTube, but there's a lot more reading happening than past alternatives. Maybe your grandparents spent hours a day reading, but if you're under 60 you're in no position to cast aspersions on an entire age group. Older generations spent more time zoning out in front of television - tv as we know it didn't even exist under the baby boomers came along.

    The truth is that dropout rates have been slowly declining for 35 years - in 1972 the dropout rate was 15%, and in 2005 it was 9%. What do you know about the boom in slam poetry teams and events all over the country? Or do I have to define it for you first? As for, "dude, they don't read newspapers" - since when was reading the newspaper the gold standard of intellectual curiosity? Being committed to your daily paper means you're just fine and dandy with one point of view, one editor, and one small stable of regular contributors. That's not literacy, that's ritual, and rituals, like fashions, will disappear sometimes.

    Of course none of that matters because reading is only "reading" when it's printed on physical media. In which case, in spite of your regularly updated blog, you are not a writer.

  2. Depressing as hell. My daughter, a freshman in college, told me her classmates "can't read hard words". Like what? "Like 'permissiveness'". You're kidding me, right? "No, they can't read words like that. When they have to read something aloud for class, they just sort of mumble over the long words. They can't read."

    Sad -- and very scary for the future of the nation.

  3. Your lifelong ambition was to become a published author? Better kiss that dream good-bye

    Well aren't you the harbinger of great tidings this morning. I suppose the time I was going to spend working on both a fiction and non-fiction book would be better spent darning socks. Ah well. There's always the family ebay business.

    By the way, for the record, I am the guy listening to the Ipod and reading a book, with the occasional Soduku break on the airplane.

  4. Just posting this for future reference, the next time somebody tries to tell me that the death-spiral of the newspaper industry is a function of liberal bias. On the contrary, the decline of publishing -- not just newspapers, but magazines and books, too -- is a consequence of the coming-of-age of the post-literate generation.

    the spiral of newspapers has only one source, the consolidation of ownership and they purveyance of corporate propaganda

    while some people think the media is "liberal" most people realize the downfall is the consolidation of ownership from legions to five, the rescinding of the fairness doctrine so that corporate bought "fair and balanced" infomercials like faux newz and Limbaugh, and producers bowing to the sponsors and their demands on stories and editorials.

    "the left wing media" is a myth pervayed by....errr

    THE MEDIA, much the same as a sheep in wolfs clothing but children and those uninformed fall for it, and of course the myth is pushed by those who the myth serves, IE, THE MEDIA

    "NEO-Conservatives"(who are NOT Conservative they have high jacked the term" now own what is promoted on media, corporate profit is promoted against public interest.

    if you want newspapers to be read again you are gonna have to break up corporate ownership, you are gonna have to insist on journalism instead of entertainment.

    and of course those who make believe the media is "liberal" will site right wing rubbish claiming some research to prove it, the liberals will easily site the reverse, the right wing will site some liberal influenced stories, the liberals will cite legions of right wing influenced stories

    for instance;

    when we know as a fact the information used to start a war was forged by those who started the war, (team b, a cheney invention and it is a pnac fact they were determined to star this war no matter what they wanted to do)reporting these facts are NOT "liberal" however "neo-cons" paint anything against a republican as "liberal" and anything against a liberal as "ballanced"

    it comes down to who owns the forum, if it's corporate it will have a corporate agenda, (duh), it it's "liberal" it will have a liberal agenda, however there aren't too many liberals owning newspapers now a days, there are of course corporattions owing said newspapers for the most part

  5. It appears that the educrats are succeeding-in keeping young people dumb and numb! This is but one more sign the we may have one of the most functionally illeterate group of people ever in this nation. Sad, very sad.

  6. Mr. McCain, it really is as bad as you describe. My wife is a school teacher, specializing in helping students who cannot read well. The truth of the matter is that the majority of them cannot read well, and an even larger majority cannot write well.

    The advent of the now-infamous text-message abbreviations wasn't brought about as a time-saving measure. It was done to make things easier for the illiterate adolescents whose parents were silly enough to buy cellphones for them. And now there is a gigantic army of people under 25 who cannot spell in any way but with the texting abbreviations.

  7. I'm one of the lucky ones--I've got two books in print from major publishing houses and a manuscript currently in entering production phase for a late summer release. But, I spend my semi-leisure time teaching political science classes as an adjunct at the local hick-town college.

    The comments on lack of reading among the younger generation are right on target. They don't read for broadening, they don't comprehend what they are mandated to read for their coursework, they don't assimilate what they are exposed to through any medium, and they exhibit a blissful ignorance of all that has gone historically before them.

    The Internet makes information easier to obtain than ever, but it also offers opportunity to avoid any sort of original thought, and rather than providing a rationale thesis/antithesis sort of debate, it simply gives the opportunity to reinforce the most appealing shrill sound-bite that meets their needs.

    I'm depressed by the outlook for the future, but even more so by the emotional defense of the status quo in many of the comments here.

  8. Wow, good one, Robert. Lots of sober information, and good thinkin' on what it all means. All in all, a solid, heaping serving of fresh, lean, meat.

    Of course it tastes rather rancid. Jefferson's quote about the society that wishes to remain ignorant & free comes to mind. This could mean many different things about where we're goin'...none of 'em are any good. Thanks for the wake-up call. I'll put that Great American Novel on ice as soon as I get home.

    Drink Brawndo. It's got electrolytes.

  9. The Liberal On The Board:

    It's "BALANCED", not "BALLANCED" and "CITE" not "SITE"

    Get over your self-aggrandizing bloviations and learn to spell before you lambaste the rest of us on the perils of misinformation.

  10. One reason reading has plummeted among the nation's youth is that most of the stuff they're being given to read is garbage. The ones who get taught by their parents to read for pleasure (damn few of us left, I know) are churning out and reading fanfiction, genre fiction, and pretty much anything except mainstream literature. Kids are also reading a lot of manga, which require a tad more reading skills than the Marvel & DC comics they're sometimes compared to.

    So all is not lost - unless you're a "journalist", or an author not writing SF/fantasy, romances, or mysteries.