Building New Customers, $3,300 at a Time

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I can’t say it better than this headline says it, so I won’t try: If You Want People To Read More, Teach More People To Read.

This is a blog post by Laura Dawson about one oft overlooked way of expanding the book-reading public: Teaching adult illiterates how to read. (Dawson was until recently head of communications at Firebrand Technologies, a Newburyport, Mass.-based digital content technology vendor.)

While there are clear moral and practical reasons why society should promote literacy (those who can’t read are generally disenfranchised and are also less productive members of communities, for starters), there may also be a business reason to do so. Bear with me.

Actually, bear with Mike Shatzkin, a well-known industry consultant and DBW partner on our Digital Book World Conference in January, who tells the following story:

My late friend and mentor, Dick Wade, was the “inventor” of the field of urban history and a Zelig in the thick of the US political scene from the end of WW II until his death a few years ago.

Dick headed Governor Mario Cuomo’s Commission on Libraries in the early 1990s. In his report, he cited adult illiteracy as the most important domestic problem for the US. In his report, which included an explanation that Japan apparently requires literacy of felons who are sent to jail as a condition of their getting out, he recommended that libraries be the spearhead of a national effort to address the problem. At the time, it was said to cost $2,000 to convert an illiterate adult to one who could read functionally. Wade’s proposal, which I believe made it to committees of Congress but was never passed, was that the Feds put up $1,000 to be matched by the States to pay libraries for every person converted.

He also tried to get judges to start sentencing illiterate felons to “ten years, but five if you learn to read”. Apparently, if he could have gotten a couple of judges to do that (I don’t think he ever did), the equal protection clause of the Constitution might have turned it into a requirement for all!

One of Dick’s central points was that adult illiterates were shamed being seen going into a public school after hours, but they were proud to be seen going to a library.

Making libraries a spearhead in addressing what is both a great moral failure of society as well as a commercial millstone around our nation’s neck was a strategy Dick promoted because it was good for all of us. As it turns out, it would also have been very good for libraries.

He’s not around anymore, but it surely would be nice if these ideas could be dusted off and pursued anew. Maybe the first Governor Cuomo could make a suggestion to the current Governor Cuomo.

Adjusting that $2,000 for inflation makes it about $3,300 today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s inflation calculator.

What if a coalition of publishers, booksellers, authors and agents joined up and pooled their money to chip in? Say, Fed spends $1,100, states spend $1,100 and the group of interested parties spend $1,100, to be paid out to libraries for every illiterate adult converted into a functional reader.

If you are a publisher or other interested party, do you think this is a deal worth making on purely business grounds?

As a citizen (or otherwise concerned individual), is this the kind of program you’d like to see?

(Before you call this post naive, know that I’m aware of 1,001 practical concerns here, like in putting together a public-private partnership, in uniting disparate worlds within the publishing universe, in that a freshly literate adult might not become an avid book reader, in a thousand other things. Those obvious issues don’t stop me from imagining; and they shouldn’t stop you either.)

Jeremy Greenfield

About Jeremy Greenfield

Jeremy Greenfield is the editorial director of Digital Book World. Opinions presented here are his own. Read more of his work here.

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3 thoughts on “Building New Customers, $3,300 at a Time

  1. I love this idea. Our prisons are full of people who lost chances early in life. Not all of them are sociopaths (or at least they didn’t start that way.) I’m in, Jeremy.

  2. Excellent proposal! Perhaps we can politely ask Mark Zuckerberg, who will be gaining soon a gazillion dollars from the sale of a business that relies on readers, to help finance this program!

  3. What a fabulous way to get more funding for libraries! And to very likely shift the dynamic of folks who may not have been interested in learning to read the first time around. I think it is certainly worth creating a test in one region and then seeing how it goes from there. This topic would make for a great documentary as people went through the process of both learning to read as well as what they would do with that knowledge.

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