Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
Working in this industry, I frequently think about the state of reading today. Given that many of us now read more on digital devices than we do with physical books, I find myself wondering how that shift has affected our reading habits. Do we skim more and retain less? Does it matter what type of device we’re reading on? Is reading, to some, merely an app, on par with Angry Birds?
To many people, it is. And this mindset can be consistent regardless of whether or not they read digitally. The act of reading for pleasure is often considered just another activity—and perhaps a boring one at that—up there with watching a TV show, listening to a podcast or sending endless texts.
It’s clear that reading does not hold the overall importance in today’s society that it did for previous generations. With so much more technology available, it’s understandable that many people—young people, especially—don’t find the act of reading to be all that exciting or compelling.
To that end, it’s wonderful that there exists a bounty of publishing and technology companies that are trying to get to kids at a younger age to instill in them a real desire to read.
But while, for many, the way we’re reading books has undeniably changed, what’s even more interesting to me is the way in which books themselves are changing.
A good example comes in the recent news from author James Patterson and his publisher, Hachette. From the New York Times:
To date, he has published 156 books that have sold more than 325 million copies worldwide. But Mr. Patterson is after an even bigger audience. He wants to sell books to people who have abandoned reading for television, video games, movies and social media. So how do you sell books to somebody who doesn’t normally read? Mr. Patterson’s plan: make them shorter, cheaper, more plot-driven and more widely available.
In many ways, this move is potentially very good for business: it opens up reading as a possible option to new, untapped customers, it provides the possibility of a new revenue stream and, as the Times notes, it allows Patterson and Hachette to attempt “to colonize retail chains that don’t normally sell books, like drugstores, grocery stores and other outlets.”
Moreover, the timing makes sense. From the Times again: “Many readers have already developed a taste for shorter digital works.”
But I’m not so much interested in how this move affects a publisher’s bottom line.
This initiative—however good and noble I or anyone else thinks it might be—is a clear reflection of reading adapting to the times. Not as many people read as before, and for many people who do in fact read, they have neither the desire nor the time to read something lengthy, or to waste any time reading a book they may ultimately put down unfinished.
This Patterson news got me thinking about a conversation I heard a few months ago. After Jonathan Franzen published his latest novel Purity, the authors Bret Easton Ellis and David Shields discussed the book on the former’s podcast.
Over the course of the hour-plus conversation, the authors take a high-level approach to discussing the current state of literature, whether or not Franzen is the last great American novelist, and, apropos to the Patterson news, how books are changing.
The authors submit that readers today have neither the time nor the capacity to reading epically long works of fiction. Gone are the days of the Dickensian novel, the authors suggest, with its winding stories and mammoth length. Today’s world of content revolves around short attention spans and hooking readers in early.
Now of course, literary fiction still holds a valuable place in society, and there is still an audience for it (and I’d imagine there always will be). But what Ellis and Shields are getting at is the idea of art reflecting the time in which it is produced. Must it? Moreover, what is the audience’s role in all this, and what responsibility does the literary author hold? Should she continue writing books in a way that burns deep within her, or should she change with the times? What are the consequences if she does not?
The Ellis/Shields conversation gets at ideas that are a bit more esoteric than what the Patterson news points to, but I believe the issues are connected, regardless of the degree to which they may or may not affect our daily lives.
I’d be curious to see how other people feel about the role of reading today, as well as the notion that books should adapt to a changing audience.
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