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.