Competing for Eyeballs: Reading in the 21st Century

August 11th, 2009 · 22 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

There is no doubt we live in a time of change. Last week, I wrote that it’s never good for an industry when its customer base changes faster than the business model. It’s even more dangerous when you assume your product is recession-proof, technology-proof, distraction-proof.

I was reminded of this again when I read David Ulin’s Los Angeles Times piece about the difficulty of shutting out the rest of the world and finding the time to engage in deep pleasure reading. He calls it “The lost art of reading”. I call it a shot over the bow.

Ulin talks about the constant distractions he faces during the day and well into the night. The need to be in the know, part of the mix, to respond rather than think. It’s easy enough for me to say, “Disconnect, dude. It will still be there in the morning.” I mean I have to force myself to do it, and, yeah, that itchy worry about the world having fun without me persists far longer than it should. But I’ve discovered it’s really okay to not be the first, the fastest; I can take my time and consider.

Even so, I cannot find the time to read as much as I’d like.

What I meant about Ulin’s article being a shot over the bow is this. David Ulin is a die-hard reader. Not only is it his job, but it’s his passion. If he’s being squeezed by life and technology and distractions, what about the rest of the readers out there? What about the readers who like the occasional book, but can, well, take it or leave it each time (with all due apologies to Mr. Hell)?

I am often asked about the reader I see in my mind when I talk about the typical ebook reader. That reader is female, she’s married, she has kids, she has a full-time job. That reader is, generally, booked every minute from six o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night. She loves to read, but, wow, when? She reads in those in-between moments. Forget the luxury of immersive reading, we’re talking about a few paragraphs snatched between appointments and meetings and meals and shopping.

The typical ebook reader looks a lot like the typical book reader. Typical book buyer. It is hard to explain, to some readers, that for many others, finding long stretches of time to read is a luxury. This is the challenge the publishing industry faces, the fact that people who buy and read books are faced, not only with normal day-to-day demands on their time, but with a constant stream of alternatives to sitting down and reading books.

The competition for books isn’t necessarily other books as much as everything else in life. Given all the demands readers face, I am amused by publishing people who insist on “preserving the value” of what they publish. I’d be more sympathetic to this argument if publishers could make it less patently obvious that “value” often means “supporting our pricey, risky business decisions”, such as paying million dollar advances for books about cats…and I say this as a cat person! Even if this title earns out, even if the advance is structured with lots of hoops, honestly, one million dollars?

Am I going to “value” this book the same way the publisher does? Or am I going to look at a book priced to recoup this crazy amount of money and think, “You know, I just don’t need it.”

Then there’s the value of reprints. Yesterday at the grocery store, I saw a dump filled with “value priced” Nora Roberts titles. Older stuff, priced at $10.95. Value? For a cheap-feeling trade paperback of a book originally released in 1998? To make it easier on us all, the publisher has apparently pulled the mass market version in favor of the pricier “reprint”.

Creating false scarcity, trying to manipulate customers into paying more by calling it a “value”, hoping nobody notices that this book is over a decade old? The digital list price of the Kindle edition is $7.99. At this point, every sale of these titles is pure gravy for the publisher. As I stared at that bin filled with reprints of books, I thought of all the demands on my time, all the things standing between me and reading.

I also thought, for a moment, that I wouldn’t mind having at least one of those book on my Kindle, because I am a re-reader, and I already own paper copies of the titles I liked the first time around. Despite all those demands, had the publisher chosen to value me, maybe I would have bought the book. Again.

This is what I think about when I think about the challenges facing the publishing industry. It’s not enough to publish good books. The books have to connect with readers, and pretending the way business has evolved is the way business must proceed is dangerous. When someone like David Ulin finds it hard to settle into a long evening’s read, when someone like me considers then reconsiders buying a book, then maybe it’s time to think about how business as usual is impacted by readers who have changed.

We’re moving at the speed of light, we readers.

File Under: Square Pegs

22 responses so far ↓

  • Deborah Talmadge // Aug 11, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    I agree. It’s really difficult to find the time to read. I have to read because of my profession, but its still a juggle to arrange priorities every day to find enough time to read all that I have to. I have other things that need to be done too.

  • vicariousrising // Aug 11, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    Awesome, spot-on post. And really kind of depressing. I’d wondered why it felt like even though I have more in my possession, I have less time to enjoy them.

  • Clare Forrest // Aug 12, 2009 at 3:08 am

    Just did some time calculations on reading and travelling on my blog today. I think there’s a lot of people out there who just don’t ever think of carrying a book or a kindle – so they never fill their empty time spaces with reading. Such a shame.

  • Kate Eltham // Aug 12, 2009 at 4:40 am

    My husband and I (and a bunch of friends) are trying an experiment this month. It’s called “No TV August”. (Join the Facebook page!) We’re not unusual in our TV consumption, but we are fond of series television like Deadwood and The West Wing and often use that as our relaxation time at the end of each evening (even while we’ve got our laptops open browsing and blogging etc)

    At the start of this month I hypothesised about how I would spend the time I gained from not watching TV. I thought I’d write more, blog more and read more and so far of all those things, only reading has won out. My reading has more than tripled since the start of the month. I’m staggered by how many books I’ve managed to consume and not really feel like it’s impacting on the rest of my life.

    Two things that interest me about this, relevant to this post:
    1. Almost all the reading has been done on my iPhone.
    2. I think the reason why reading has replaced television is that this was time I previously used for relaxation, entertainment, social time with family and friends.

    I suspect reading is being squeezed by all the other channels that compete for the same “type” of activity or social practice, not just because it is one of many media channels we now have in our lives.

  • Diana Hunter // Aug 12, 2009 at 4:59 am

    Thanks for the great post, Kassia. I wrote a response, but it got too long (you struck a chord with the sentence, “The competition for books isn’t necessarily other books as much as everything else in life.”). So I took my response and posted it here: http://dianahunter.blogspot.com/

    Thank you!

  • Rich Adin // Aug 12, 2009 at 6:50 am

    You ask when one can find time to read? For me, it’s easy. I simply read rather than watch TV. I also read at breakfast and lunch (unless my wife is joining me at those times; then we converse, another seemingly lost art these days). I haven’t turned on my TV in several years (excluding the presidential debates, which I watched) and don’t miss it.

    When my children were young, TV was limited to 30 minutes a day. After dinner it was reading time, either as a group (i.e., one of us would read to the others) or individually, but the habit was born. Now my children, who are adults themselves, spend a lot of time reading, albeit perhaps not as much as I do.

    Time can be found to read. One just has to make reading a priority — a priority over such pastimes as watching TV or playing on the computer. I also make it a point to turn off my computer early and I do not use my cell phone for anything more than making a telephone call — no text messaging, no twittering.

  • What I’ve Been Reading… « Upsidedown Duck // Aug 12, 2009 at 8:12 am

    [...] Competing for Eyeballs: Reading in the 21st Century via Booksquare [...]

  • Eoin Purcell // Aug 12, 2009 at 10:29 am

    Oddly enough I’m beginning to feel the pressure of not having enough time to read only now as I have so much time on my hands.

    On the other hand I completely agree with you about the competition that each book faces. It is an often misunderstood phenomenon. Nicely expressed.

    I agree that we need to change the general outlook of the industry, to connect more to our readers and to make our stories part of the fabric of their communities. Sadly, to some degree the peril of the $1 Million cat book is that it will always exist (though perhaps not as extravagantly in the future). Even if the bulk of the book/reading market has evolved into some kind of genre based community of communities, some publishers will try to create a MASS market by trawl the lowest common denominator.

    Eoin

  • Kassia Krozser // Aug 12, 2009 at 10:29 am

    I am going to be contrary and suggest that telling people to just turn off the television is too facile. As is the suggestion that one just has to make reading a priority. Go back and look at my model reader. Go back and read the David Ulin piece. Sometimes it’s not as simple as all that, and it assumes reading is every person’s primary choice of entertainment. The truth is that we are far more complex than that: some people far prefer music, but do enjoy reading as well. Some people prefer visual entertainment such as television or movies, but also like to read the occasional book. Some people really get into athletics, either playing or watching; they like books, too, but they are not primary.

    Book people — hardcore readers (I count myself in that group) — often forget that our primary choice of entertainment is not the same primary choice of everyone. In some ways, television, the telling and acting out of stories, is closer to our historical selves than immersive reading. While the Ulin piece points to the problem faced by a hardcore reader, the bigger issue remains the multiple challenges faced by citizens of today’s world. Every obstacle placed between someone who wants to read and the actual book is an excuse to choose another path.

    I have talked in the past about how my mother, a librarian, read to her children every evening during dinner. She taught us the value of books. Yet only two of us have the reading gene. One sibling is a casual reader. Two, well, I’m not sure they’ve ever read a book for pleasure. It’s not what they do, not what they like. A major challenge facing publishers is reaching the casual and the non-reader.

  • Stan Scott // Aug 12, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Excellent article. Lassus. Some people set aside a half hour each day for reading; some set a goal of x number of pages. Not everyone can do this (the mother you described. But these help some people.

  • Stan Scott // Aug 12, 2009 at 11:34 am

    My iPhone auto-corrected Kassia to Lassus. Sorry.

  • Brian O'Leary // Aug 12, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    K, I wonder if you are describing the problem (finding time to read) or the opportunity (providing content that can be consumed in slivers). I could have been reading a book, but I was reading your blog, about reading a book. Harlequin’s short-form experiments suggest that there is a market for “just this much” content. That doesn’t mean that longer books (in whatever form) are going away, but maybe the alt-form content will draw in new and different readers.

  • Kassia Krozser // Aug 12, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    Brian — honestly, I think I started one and ended up lurching toward the other. Your example of shorter reads is, certainly, one way of solving the problems of the push me/pull you society we call home. I agree that longer form books aren’t going way. In some ways, my questions here anticipate some of the questions raised in Mike Shatzkin’s post today. How do we make it easier on the people who just want to read a book?

    This is playing off of other incomplete thoughts. Part of me is looking at the sheer number of new titles (big, heavy, expensive books!) dropping in the next few months, another part of me is looking at the amount of life that has to fit between (increasingly short) hours of sleep, and then there’s the part wondering who will be left standing in December.

  • Clive Warner // Aug 12, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    I started reading when I was about three years old, in what feels like about 1897, and devoured everything I could find in my parent’s house including a book on the design of toilets. But now … even though I run a small press and you would think I spend a lot of time reading, I don’t. It is exactly as David Ulin said. Exactly.

  • ReacherFan // Aug 12, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    I play games, chat, keep a blog, read the news, shop, email, swap books, mail books, manage my work in a voluntary standards group, and in my spare time, I work for a living. Yes, books compete for my time. I read books when I spend the day on my computer and print books when I shut it down. I do not Twitter, text, or Digg. If I allowed it, technology would consume all of my time. Every waking hour, every single day. It’s an easy trap.

    Lately, I’ve noticed that people are so fixated on communicating in every mode possible, they have less and less of interest to say. It’s like intelligent thought has taken a vacation with its partner, critical thinking.

    When was the last time you sat down and played cards with friends? A board game with the kids? They have computers of their own and chat, text and twitter with friends – but how many just get together and DO things that have nothing to do with technology? We had a gathering in June and the hit of the party was – croquet. Now, every person with a croquet set, raise your hand! Shut of your computers, phones, Blackberry, iPhones, iPods and all the rest of the junk and go outside and play a game with your family and pick up a good book and read each night.

    Now, my TBR pile is threatening to crush me to death as it teeters on the back of my sofa, so I think I’ll start working on a new book – my 3rd this week. I have learned the art of disconnecting from electronic life.

  • Kassia Krozser // Aug 12, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    Ha! Official game of the BS household is croquet. We hold an annual tournament (sometimes twice a year).

    This leads back to Kate’s comment about other forms of entertainment being social. We have game night (I admit, I lose a lot). But it’s about all this stuff, you know? I do my best reading at the gym on my Kindle. The big paddles on Kindle 1 are conducive to rapid page turning while I’m on the machine. In that one hour, I am both multitasking and immersed in a story. For me, that’s a win.

    When I get back home, it’s not so easy to disconnect. My business is spread across multiple states. My larger business network is around the world. My friends are global. I still find time to read, but I am lucky in that I don’t have kids. I don’t have many of pressures that many of my peers face — I was at my real-world bookclub tonight, and one member was talking about the fact that her kids and husband were going out of town next week. She’s seeing that as catch-up-with-her time, but already her schedule is filled.

    I’m going to keep pushing back on this: look beyond our own lives at the craziness of others.

  • Brian O'Leary // Aug 13, 2009 at 7:04 am

    I know that you’ve read them, but I have done a couple of pieces lately that may help. One is on lean consumption and organizing around (real-life) readers:

    http://www.magellanmediapartners.com/index.php/mmcp/article/content_from_the_consumers_perspective/

    The other, more recent, talks about how hard it is for publishers to get a grip and focus their innovation:

    http://www.magellanmediapartners.com/index.php/mmcp/article/a_fix_on_anything/

    I agree that times are challenging (and I too am not sure who’d left standing in December), but there are guideposts and lighthouses we can use to navigate. I wrote these two posts with that in mind.

  • Ode to change « The Book Publicity Blog // Aug 13, 2009 at 7:47 am

    [...] to change Over at Booksquare, a thoughtful publishing industry blog, Kassia Krozser penned Competing for Eyeballs, in which she exhorted publishing companies to change the way they (we) reach readers.  (Patience, [...]

  • Karl Lamb // Aug 13, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Its too depressing for writers.

  • Perry Brass // Aug 13, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    The real problem is much more systemic: the literacy rate in America is actually, testably dropping. Kids now graduate from most public high schools with a literacy rate that would have put them in 5th grade when I was in school (I graduated high school in 1964). Most colleges now have to do exceptional remedial jobs to get their freshmen up to speed, and many freshmen can’t take it. On the other hand, a lot of public community colleges have just given up, so we have community college graduates who are reading, with a degree, at my 9th grade level. This makes reading itself a huge chore for most kids. It also means that when the baby boomers die off, there will be little to replace them, certainly in the area of literacy. This itself is scary, since democracy really rests on literacy. Another strange bit of info: back in the 1930s, when America was knee-deep in the Depression, the country had a 100% literacy rate. Illiteracy was virtually unknown. Public schools produced very literate graduates, mostly because reading the newspaper was virtually the only way of getting the news. So before we start talking about no time to read, we have to ask ourselves, who are the readers going to be?

    Perry Brass, author of Carnal Sacraments, A Historical Novel of the Future.

  • Ted // Sep 2, 2009 at 7:48 am

    I would suggest something that increases the difficulty of reading “quality” books is the different narrative styles of years ago. Such writers as Joseph Conrad in his novels written in the late 19th – early 20th centuries had a different periodicity to their sentences. It’s the same for Robert Graves who wrote his historical works somewhat later into the 20th century but still before the TV and the Internet. A different style of journalism affected narrative style, and “hurried it up.” The novels of Conrad and Graves, for just two, were written for a readership that did not have TV or the Internet to interrupt their long evenings, especially in the winter. However, if you persist with a novel by the two writers mentioned above, you will soon “get into” their narrative style with the long periodicity of their sentences, and enjoy it. Such styles with diminish your interest for the TV, Internet and modern journalism because of the intelligence and perceptivity of the authors. Ted

  • Tamara Peace // Sep 5, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    As a former bookseller and avid reader, I’ve seen first-hand how time has “collapsed,” and how the Internet has both challenged and supported what, where, and how we read. My slightly rhetorical question is, “Who’s setting the criteria for what counts as ‘reading fiction’”? It seems to me that people are doing what they’ve always done: being eclectic and selective about what, where, and how they choose to read. It seems like it’s all about juggling the order of priority, particularly for those of us who “read and write” for a living.

    Different point: sort of riffing off of both Perry and Ted’s comments above, I think educators’ greatest challenge is in figuring out how to assist students in learning how to be more reflective and deliberate as they read. In a world where flipping from one website to another without deeply digesting anything has fast become a norm among people who DO read a lot, what sort of implications does this have for anybody trying to find the “time” to read? How do we help students want to grapple with a text? Reading certainly has several purposes, and is meaningful in different ways to different people. But the schooling process might be inadvertently contributing to a very quiet defection from reading later on in life—even by people who generally like to read.

    Last point: “Time” is a somewhat loaded word when it comes to reading. Many of us truly valorize making the “time to read”—which includes figuring out what we must/should/could read first. But there’s a lot of pressure involved with figuring out what you think you “need” to read versus what you may “want” to read. This is more about what sort of lifestyle you have, what your friends read, what your colleagues read, what you are “expected” to read, and so on. “Reading” inexorably then becomes a new kind of “work” in ways that we might not always want because it’s too closely linked to other parts of our professional lives. We might be unconsciously pushing away from “reading” because it’s too much like the work many of us now do.

    I really enjoyed both the article and comments.