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?