How Are Books Changing?

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

reading, e-reading, ebooks, e-books, e-readersWorking 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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16 thoughts on “How Are Books Changing?

  1. Catherine Dunn

    Is it possible to be on both sides of the fence on this one? (Maybe if it’s a very low fence!)

    I don’t dispute that people’s attention spans may be declining on average, but I also suspect that the change is overhyped. People do still enjoy reading books (not just literary fiction, but a range of genres that demand a bit of time and concentration even if they aren’t ‘intellectual’), even though a lot of different factors have come together to change people’s habits somewhat.

    There are also a lot of people in the world who can’t read – many in places where literacy levels are going up. The whole landscape of reading, writing and ‘what people like to read’ may shift as some countries develop further and improve literacy among their populations. That could be a game-changer in a few decades (perhaps sooner).

    On the other hand I do think it’s good – and essential! – for writers to adapt to changing reading habits to some extent. Not so much that their work is shaped by the market and lacks integrity, but in the sense of trying new forms or resurrecting lesser-used ones, why not?

    Ultimately I think writers should be driven by their stories and how they need to be told. And you can’t think about how a story ‘needs to be told’ without thinking about how the audience needs to hear it.

  2. Anita Sibrits

    Dickens himself already then recognised a preference for short bursts of reading; his novels started life in serialised form.

  3. Will

    “It’s clear that reading does not hold the overall importance in today’s society that it did for previous generations.”

    Data? I would really love how you quantify that, especially since a great deal of activity on the internet is text driven.

    1. Daniel BerkowitzDaniel Berkowitz Post author

      Hi Will, I should’ve qualified that: book reading for pleasure—the act of sitting down, undisturbed, with a book and nothing else. No data to support, but I don’t think I’m the only one who believes reading for pleasure has decreased, especially among younger people. Yes, many of us read all day long—emails, articles, etc.—but these forms are not books.

  4. Chris Palma

    \Gone are the days of the Dickensian novel, the authors suggest, with its winding stories and mammoth length.\

    What comes around goes around. Dicken’s novels (and those of other Victorian authors) are so huge because they were written piecemeal, for newspaper serialization. They were consumed by the lower classes who, while literacy rates were on the rise, nevertheless could not afford to buy hard-cover books.

    Books are ridiculously cheap today (by historical standards). The scarce resource now is time.

  5. Lizzie Newell

    It seems that the market for books can be audience driven or author driven. Publishers try to predict what readers want and then hire or find the authors who can consistently deliver this product, much like selling lattes. The product might be popular only because the publishers thought it would be popular. You can’t buy something if you can’t find it. The books which are burning to be written get lost. The search engine categories and keywords don’t fit. Readers groups haven’t formed around these books. The books have no fan base. Some writers have the wherewithal to continue to write without further financial, marketing, or publisher support. Most do not. As a sad result, their stories are never written, and the fare offered to readers becomes bland or fad driven or both. We could argue either way about a preference for long or short. Serial epic is doing quite well in the form of RR Martin and JK Rowling. We desperately need a change in how discoverability is handled so that new writers with burning ideas are identified and identifiable to readers.

  6. Michael W. Perry

    Quote from within the article; \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.\

    How do I feel about that? Imagine a terrible famine. People stand about with pipestem arms and legs along with swollen bellies—classic signs of severe starvation. Yet in their midst strides someone so overweight he waddles rather than walks. With great pride, he talks about developing \an even bigger\ diet. He wants to sell more, he says, so he can eat more.

    That’s James Patterson only slightly exaggerated. Yes, he might offer the excuse that he intends to sell books to those \who don’t normally read\ by making \them shorter, cheaper, more plot-driven and more widely available.\ But that seeming benevolence doesn’t withstand close scrutiny.

    Is he the only author who can do that? No, not even remotely. In fact, other writers by the hundreds and thousands are already doing what he is merely planning to do. In my writing on personal medical topics—childhood cancer, patient embarrassment, and nursing morale—I’ve been laboring for several years to do just that. Each chapter opens with an engaging picture, focuses on one theme, and is rarely over 2,000 words long. Its a book much like a blog posting or online stories. My stories are true. Others are doing the same with fiction, and there are lots of us.

    Yet here comes the chubbier-than-chubby Patterson, acting like he and his team are the only writers on the planet with those ideas.. He seems either unaware of our existence or disturbingly eager to elbow us out of the way so he and the writing stable of Patterson Inc can rake in more money from will be for him a new sort of writing. Those other writers, already living hand-to-mouth, will have even less to eat. That’s the famine I mentioned. It isn’t a product of the weather or a nasty war. It’s Patterson-induced. The more one man insists on eating in royalties, the less there is for others less well connected.

    And will his books interest people in those other writers’ books? Hardly. Patterson runs the literary equivalent of a crack cocaine business. His books sell his books and those of no one else—except of course those whose name he allows to share space with him on the cover. In the language of politics, his success offers no coattails for independent writers.

    Patterson has lots and lots of money. He’s been generous with supporting free-standing bookstores. That is good. But he should devote less time to expanding his publishing empire—he hardly needs more money—and more to creating a healthier structure for readers—including those who read little—to discover books by authors who don’t bear the Patterson label. That’s what would truly help the world of writing and reading. More Patterson won’t do that.

    Sorry to be so blunt, but it’s almost supper time and I grow hungry. Fortunately, there is food in my refrigerator.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of My Nights with Leukemia et al.

  7. David Neal

    Reading tastes change over time. What Patterson is going to write are “Novellas,” which have been around since the Renaissance, according to Wikipedia. The long Dickens novels you invoke were originally serialized in “bite size” chunks. The Harry Potter series started with a novella size and ended with something twice the size.

    What hasn’t yet happened with “digital” is any significant change in the nature of narrative. The “Interactive Fiction,” “Create Your Own Adventure,” etc. digital “experiences” (dare not call them “books”) basically go nowhere. Whereas “books under glass,” the things that could just as well be printed do as well as dead trees.

    Yes, the time reading can be replaced with movies, TV, video games, etc. But there have always been alternatives: theater, gardening, daydreaming. I doubt very much that “digital” has anything to do with how much or little reading gets done.

  8. Palessa

    Evee since I read that article about James Patterson’s plan to sell shorter, more intense print books in unusual places, I’ve really been thinking about that seriously. He’s got the name recognition to pull it off and I’d be curious tomsee which of his genres does well. It’s an interesting idea that’s been happening digitally for years. What’s his price point going to be for those books with less than 150 pages? Can he pull it off? I’m all for getting people to read more because the brain is really the best television. I recently enjoyed reading Anna Karenina as well as a very short read by one of my indie colleagues. I read what I’m in the mood for. I write the story first then figure out how to market it later. Being flexible is an asset

  9. Caleb

    Schools continue to teach reading endurance. Young children and adults need to learn how to persevere through new challenging demanding fiction. Look at Proust or Lawrence Durrell, the latter revisiting while expanding his narrative through four separate books icomprising the Alexandria Quartet. There is unique pleasure in this type of work, whereas the James Pattersons of the world serve up the same shallow works over and over. He and others may be happy to be money machines feeding easy tastes, but they contribute nothing lasting to our civilization. Aim higher my friends! One man’s opinion.

  10. Claude Forthomme

    I’m Senior Editor at Impakter Magazine (an online magazine successful with Millennials) and I have to report on something strange happening in the last 2 years: in 2014, short articles (around 800 words) were the norm. Now, we sometimes publish articles up to 4000 words and yet they are immensely successful. At first, we were afraid, could such long articles really grab the readers? We were uncertain, shy, even calling them Impakter essays because of the length…

    At first, I thought it was a quirk – maybe the subject of an article was so engrossing that people didn’t notice its length? But then, it happened again and again. Long articles got re-tweeted more often, you could tell the interest rising. So, yes, even online, it would seem that people are interested in reading longer, more in-depth pieces.

    And that augurs well for books, I should think. Maybe the original phase of enthusiasm for all things digital is dying down a bit, and interest for genuine, real content is rising. It gives me faith in the human mind! And, incidentally, it might mean that Patterson’s strategy, while it won’t backfire (I’m sure that with good marketing and distribution, with his name and Hachette’s support, he can sell anything to his fans and they are legions…) – yes, it won’t backfire but it may not be so great as he expects. There is space for the likes of Jonathan Franzen, though I’m not as enthusiastic about Purity as I was about Freedom (though withholding judgment until I finish it, I’ve still got hundreds of pages to go…)

  11. Shayne Laughter

    I was brought up short by this line from the Times article on Patterson’s big idea: “… colonize retail chains that don’t normally sell books, like drugstores, grocery stores…”

    Goodness, have Mr. Patterson, his publisher and the Times writer never set foot into chain drugstores or grocery stores? Or Target, Walmart, or K Mart? These retailers have had book sections for decades, and Mr. Patterson’s books are prominent in them.



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