So Where Has All The Reading Gone?

I’m on the road at the moment with a book for younger people – 8-12-year-olds my publisher says, and they would know more about that than I do (though it already has some adult readers too). Like anything I write, at some level it got written because the urge to write it was an itch I couldn’t scratch any other way but, at a pragmatic level, it’s no bad thing it’s being targeted to that demographic.

Why? Because they read. They have time to do it, many of them like to do it, people buy them books and they read. I don’t mind what platform they choose to do it on – whether the book be e or p – but most of them still opt for the paper version. If a child shows an interest in a book, if the family has money for it, there’s every chance that book will come their way. We know what reading does to young brains, and it’s good.

But what about the grown-ups? Who’s still reading? And what are they reading? Are you 30 and still reading a lot? Or 40 and still reading a lot? Or 50? I suspect a lot of people aren’t. I fear we’ve shed readers this century, and I don’t know if or when they’re coming back.

Here are some factors I think might be at work. For many people, there’s work, study and family responsibilities, but there’s nothing new going on there, so I think there’s more to it.

There are some economic factors, though I don’t think they’re the whole picture either. When the GST came in in Australia in 2000, books were taxed for the first time and unit sales of books in Australia dropped 19% the following year. A few years after that, the financial crisis made people cautious with their spending – novels were a discretionary purchase that suddenly became way more discretionary – then in Australia a major bookselling group collapsed.

Some books are still selling, because they’re textbooks or some other kind of non-discretionary purchase. And kids and YA books are booming. All of which means some segments of the adult discretionary market must be quietly tanking.

Who is still reading? Some voracious readers of genre fiction are perhaps more voracious than ever. When the numbers were crunched on all sales in Amazon’s Kindle Store for one day last year, three genre categories dominated: romance and its subgenres, crime/mystery/suspense, and fantasy and the other spec fic genres. If you look at the numbers and extract only those relating to adult fiction, those categories are the killers and everything else is in their dust. Three per cent of adult fiction purchases in the Kindle Store that day were literary fiction.

Readers of genre fiction often read a lot of genre fiction. Maybe what we’re seeing is people with 200-book-a-year reading habits suddenly working out they can buy 300 books a year for far less by ebooking it. And genre readers talk. They are networked and they were in chat rooms when the rest of us thought all rooms needed walls and a ceiling. Some genre fiction has surged from nowhere to huge success on a tide of reader support.

But what about the rest of us? The people who read outside those genres and used to read, say, 20 books a year? If that was you in 2000, how many books are you reading now? My guess is a lot of people are reading less. So, where has all the reading time gone?

On public transport, people used to sit reading novels. Now most of them are working their phones. A handful might be reading books on them, but most aren’t. I can’t complain. I hit level 52 of Fruit Link before I started dreaming too much about playing it and made myself back away. Here are three interesting stats that might be part of the story.

In 1971, the world videogame industry grossed $0. The following year, Nolan Bushnell and Allan Alcorn put a Hitachi TV in a wooden box and created Pong. By 2013, the world videogame industry grossed US$60 billion a year. That’s a huge amount of human time going to videogames.

And then there’s all the enticing interweb time-suckage options (news sites, Facebook, Twitter, you sitting here reading this when your time could be gainfully spent purchasing my books, ahem, I meant reading books). I buy into these as much as anybody, but here’s just one to think about. By the time Gangnam Style racked up its billionth view on YouTube, if each view had involved only one person and they had watched to the end, it would have used up 50 million hours of human time. Indulge me in some pure speculation: if a fifth of that time would otherwise have gone to reading and an average book takes ten hours to read, that’s a million books that weren’t read. A million books. Because of one song on one platform of a vast, captivating internet.

Twelve days ago, Netflix became official in Australia. We signed up on day one. This is a golden age of TV, and some of the long-form drama now being made for grown-ups is remarkable. On night one, we watched episode one of season three of House of Cards. I am now binge viewing it until it’s done. Here’s one point that surfaced on Netflix’s launch day: despite it being illegal, 200,000 Australians households had set up fake US addresses to access it already.

My bet is a lot of those people used to read and now they read less. Anyone I know who has signed up to Netflix has done it because of a love of quality long-form narrative with complex characters. A great novel used to be our best and maybe only option for that, and now it’s not.

I’m wondering if, one way or another – and often in many ways – our entertainment time is being sliced up finer and finer until there’s no longer a space big enough to fit a novel in.

In case there’s any doubt, let me be clear about one thing: I am not talking about the end of writing or the end of literature. I’m aware the world is in another phase of that debate at the moment (see this article in the LA Times). Writing will continue for the simple reason that far too many of us can’t resist the urge to do it. But how is reading going?

How about you? How is your entertainment time carved up? Are you reading novels? Are you reading as many as you once were?

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9 Responses to So Where Has All The Reading Gone?

  1. Funny, i was thinking about this only last night. I’m definitely watching more films and reading less novels. I don’t want to sound like a loon, but I suspect that the electronic vibrations from TV and film screens are more comforting than the non vibes that come off paper books. Just a theory, but there’s definitely something going on there. If I’m feeling down or just tired, I’ll watch TV or put on a film, rather than read a book. People have a name for this; they call it ‘vegeing out’.

  2. Reblogged this on Perth Words… exploring possibilities. and commented:
    I have to agree with Nick – I am reading less books. My reading time is swallowed up by judging (lots of reading), research on the internet, blogging/reading/writing, Pinterest, grandchildren, day-job! Not so much Facebook anymore and I am certainly buying more e-book (less shelf space needed) but find I have to take a screen break quite often… Loved this article – has made me re-evaluate. Thanks Nick.

  3. Dimity Powell says:

    My reading time is definitely ‘carved up’; reading blogs for one. Online manuals to find out how the heck anything works anymore, for another. What am I reading (mostly) now? Mostly stuff for 8 – 12 yos. Am I reading more? The nature of my beast dictates that I do. And because a great novel was and will always be (my) best option. Thanks for giving us reasons to at least continue to test that belief, Nick. 🙂

  4. Kate Myors says:

    Because I’m dabbling in the writing game plus studying English at Uni, I am reading just over 20 books a year. But I made a conscious decision to increase my reading. I agree time can easily get sucked up by other forms of entertainment.

  5. I can’t imagine having the time to read 200 books a year. Maybe that’s what retirement is for. I have to confess to having a Kindle, which I love. It means I can buy more books and I don’t have to find a space for them in my home, but I doubt I will ever read 200 in one year.

    • nickearls says:

      I’m with you. I can’t imagine having a brain that could read 200 books a year, but I bump into a few people who do it. They read quickly, they devote a lot of time to it, they often have long commutes and they often read genre fiction. Aside from time issues, my preference is to read slowly, and to read books that repay a slow reading. I remember the legendary Thea Astley once saying to me, ‘Speeding reading’s bullshit. If I could pay someone to teach me to read more slowly, I would.’

      • Reading on a long commute I can understand, although I would be worried I would become so absorbed I would forget to watch out for my stop!

        Right now, I’m reading the second of Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, which has a trillion pages and many characters with long Roman names, so there is no speed reading happening! I need to concentrate!

  6. Pingback: Reading Update | La République Bananière

  7. Eskarina Earthworm says:

    Somewhere in my early 30s I stopped finding new authors to read (and new artists to listen to). I am hopeless at finding my own ‘new’ authors…which is why I regularly check the internodes to see if my favorite authors have published anything new.
    I think I would read more if I had more good books to read, so it’s clearly you good authory people that are to blame here, and not my laziness to go out and discover more authors!
    I ‘discovered’ you, Mr Earls, in a book of Australian short stories with ‘Heart Shaped Box’
    in it. I was reading a lot in the mid 1990s while I was in bed recovering from the teenage belief I was indestructible. That story struck a very loud chord with me, thanks Nick!
    Any recommendations, anyone?

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