Every now and then, I feel the need to do a post about the state of publishing. Are books really dying? It’s hard for me to believe because I LOVE books and cannot imagine life without them. But, it appears that many people can totally imagine life without them. According to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center, 27% of adult Americans had not read a book within the past year. Not one book. I have one word for this: YIKES.
In 2015, the publishing industry was driven by sales of adult coloring books and memoirs by YouTube stars (marketed to tweens). When I heard this, I was depressed–not only because I write novels, but because I love to read novels. I know how publishing works. They want to pump out more and more of the one thing that’s selling. Which means more YouTube memoirs and coloring books. And fewer novels. Once again: YIKES.
But, then I read Michael Taeckens’ interview with Carolyn Kellogg (book editor of the Los Angeles Times) in Poets & Writers magazine. Here’s her take on the coloring books and YouTube memoirs:
“As long as people are turning to books from different age groups, for divergent reasons, publishing has reason to be optimistic.”
Now that’s a good way to look at it.
The thing is that publishing (and writers) have to adapt. It’s actually quite fascinating that the novel has remained in the same basic form for all these years. Other forms of entertainment (movies, magazines, video games) have changed pretty drastically.
The world we live in now is FULL of content, for better or worse. If you want an escape, you don’t need to seek out a good book. There’s the Internet, with cat videos and blog posts and episodes of TV shows you missed. Reading a book is an investment of focused time, and most people have less and less focused time. The e-book format helps. E-books are less intimidating than hardcovers, I think. It’s a screen, which is what most people are used to these days (again, for better or worse). It’s easily transportable. Personally, I like hardcovers, but I also still own CDs.
With the influx of content, more people saying they are “so busy,” and the shortening of attention spans, how is the traditional novel going to survive? Right now, there are enough of us pre-Internet-ers who still read books, but what about when we’re gone? In his acceptance speech for the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award, James Patterson said, “Book publishing…badly, badly needs to innovate.”
Patterson, along with his longtime publisher Little, Brown, is introducing BookShots, which are short, fast-paced novels under 150 pages, priced below $5, and available in paperback and e-book formats. I think this is a brilliant idea.
Here’s what I know: People will always love stories. Here’s a hard truth: The way stories are served up may need to change. And readers need help wading through the choices to find a book they’ll actually like. Nothing is more demoralizing for a tentative reader than reading a book that’s “not their thing.” As for writers, maybe we need to keep modern day pressures in mind when writing. Shorter chapters, shorter books, enough story suspense to keep pages turning. I’m not talking about traditional “suspense,” like what you find in a spy novel. I’m not saying that the only books that will sell are Gone Girl remakes. I’m talking about sustaining interest in characters and plot so the reader really wants to know what’s going to happen next. Readers don’t want meandering. Here’s what Bill Robinson, editorial director for BookShots and Little, Brown, said:
“We’re trying to take out parts that people skim. It should feel like reading a movie.”
I think they’re on to something.