By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid
As more people buy e-readers and tablet computer sales continue to grow, will more people read books than did before? Will people who read books already read more of them?
Publishers are less optimistic in 2011 that the shift to digital will mean more people reading more books than they were in 2010, according to a Digital Book World survey conducted by Forrester Research, Inc.
In late 2011, book publishers representing 74% of U.S. publishing revenues were surveyed on a wide range of topics concerning digital books. The same survey was conducted in 2010.
When asked whether more people will read books than did before, thanks to digital, 47% said yes, down from 66% a year ago. When asked if people will read more books than before, thanks to digital, 60% said yes, down from 66% last year. (Full results from the survey will be presented by Forrester analyst James McQuivey at the upcoming Digital Book World Conference and Expo in New York City.)
The proliferation of new technology likely means more people will read more books in the immediate future, according to book publishing experts and observers.
“In the short run, digital is likely to increase book consumption for two simple reasons: It’s easier to get them and it’s easier to have them with you at any particular time,” said Mike Shatzkin, a long-time book-industry expert (and, full disclosure, partner with Digital Book World on the Digital Book World Conference).
Now, anyone with an e-reader, tablet computer or smartphone and the right software is carrying around the world’s biggest books store, with literally millions of titles at their fingertips. Amazon has said in the past that those who buy their Kindle e-readers increase their reading consumption.
People have become accustomed to filling in smaller and smaller breaks in their day with reading on portable devices, according to David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, an Internet research lab. People are not necessarily reading books, however.
“What we’re reading frequently is shorter – and on the Web,” said Weinberger.
Of course, monochrome e-readers are dedicated reading devices and so encourage the reading of books. But smartphones, tablets and other devices have multiple uses.
“If you have a Kindle Fire, iPad or Nook Color, then there are other consumption alternatives available,” said Shatzkin. “The portability factor is not only working on behalf of a book, it’s working on behalf of everything you can get through a device, which includes the Web, movies and TV shows.”
To be sure, the tidal wave of new devices flooding the market could result in more books being read overall despite changes in the media-consumption habits of consumers.
“The more ways that people can read books, the more books people will read,” said David Houle, a futurist and author of the book The Shift Age, adding that “It doesn’t matter what kind of new-fangled thing there is, there’s no media that has gone out of business.” (Disclosure: Houle is also a keynote speaker at the upcoming Digital Book World Conference.)
Hear more from Shatzkin and Houle talk about the future of publishing at the Digital Book World Conference + Expo in New York City from January 23 to 25.
Long-Term Trends Don’t Favor Book Consumption
In the long term, as more people do their reading on multi-purpose devices, there could be a negative impact on book reading as other, more bite-sized media crowds out long-form prose.
“There has been an argument that the born-digital generation will not have the attention span to consume single works of many tens of thousands of words and I see the logic in that,” said Shatzkin.
With the rise to prominence of the Internet, long-form non-fiction has been deposed as the dominant form of spreading ideas, argues Weinberger, which is a long-term trend that could mean people will need to read fewer books in the future to engage with important ideas.
“Reading the Web does not lead you along a logical path, it leads you along a path of interest,” said Weinberger, who is also the author of a new book about the new nature of knowledge, Too Big to Know. “I’m not saying that the Web chases long-form out, but if you write long-form now and it goes unnoticed on the Web, then, very likely, it has failed. The Web is where knowledge is developed and where it lives.”
The Next Generation of Readers
There were fewer media distractions decades ago than there are today and it remains to be seen whether those who are under 18-years-old now and have grown up in a digital world will read as many books as they get older as past generations did.
The older people get, the more books they read, said Shatzkin, an adage that book publishing companies have long banked on.
That may be true because the older they get, the more solitary they get and the more time they have to read, said Houle.
“As people get older, their social connections die off and move away. They retire and see fewer people at work,” he said. “If you’re a 10-year-old today, most of your life is about connecting to others on an ongoing basis, so I don’t know if they would become solitary as they get older.”
Still, as technology evolves and changes the habits of those who use it, the core technology of the book – a long-form narrative – has retained its appeal.
“People still appreciate getting carried away by a story that takes many hours to get through,” said Shatzkin.
Write to Jeremy Greenfield