The “Death” of Reading?

50012_library_mdSales of many independently-published eBooks have taken a marked downturn in recent months, one that–to the average indie writer–seems almost as sharp as that of the price of crude oil during the same period.

Authorearnings.com recently posted, in its January 2015 earning report, that “U.S. ebook sales have plateaued — or are even declining, relative to print — declare some widely-cited industry statistics.”

Many an industry expert seems baffled by “the slowdown” in eBook sales and none of my writing contacts seem to really be able to explain why, exactly, nor how to remedy the problem. Format and medium diversification strategies don’t seem to be as effective, nor do social media promotions, paid advertisements, pricey PR campaigns nor the old standby of limited-time Free eBook promotions.

Despite our break-out success last year post launch, compared to last year’s eBook royalties for March, this last month was downright dismal ($250 VS $5700)… and worse, this statistic is also suffered by 90% of the indie writers I have queried on the subject.

Apparently many traditionally-published authors–backed by media departments with wide advertising budgets–are also going through a kind of sales ‘funk’ of sorts. Some of the more well-known authors have turned to desperate measures, such as awkwardly hawking their ‘new’ books on badly-scripted television spots.

Smashwords’s Mark Coker recently blogged about the slowdown of 2014 eBook sales, as well as the slower “growth projections” for 2015:

… most authors experienced a slower growth year – especially when compared against the go-go days of exponential growth from 2008 to 2012. The causes for this slow down include a new equilibrium between print and ebook formats; immortal ebooks published by publishers and indie authors alike that will never go out of print; the continued growth of self-published titles; and myriad low-cost and free non-book alternatives competing for slices of consumers’ time such as social media, Internet video and games.

In the same piece, Coker also predicted that many indie writers would drop out of the self-publishing market in 2015, after finding dwindling sales too steep a precipice to descend.

While my own experiences and observances, regarding the indie eBook glut and increased traditional-publisher price slashing, seem to corroborate Coker’s predictions, it does not allow for a rather ugly market variable: decreased interest in leisure reading.

Recently, I found myself in a library–yes, the building kind–a place I had not visited in nearly two years.

My seventeen-year-old wished to use her new library card and read through C. S. Forester’s Hornblower series, as well as get free materials to brush up for the SAT with. As my daughter bustled around the quiet, bookish smelling aisles grounded in comforting gray carpet and well-used stepping stools, I moved–as if my instinct–over to the “Classics” wall and selected one of my favorite weighty tomes The Count of Monte Cristo, unabridged.

Having procured my book, I settled in one of the many vacant reading chairs by picturesque window and began to read. A few pages along, however, I reflected on how long it had been since I spent a considerable length of time reading for leisure. I began to count the minutes–during my average day–that I really read. Between fellow writer’s blogs posts on eBook advertising strategies, articles on digital publishing industry trends, articles on the stock market and oil futures, and well as various sources for world news, I spend–on average–three to four hours a day just reading. But, hardly any of my daily reading has to do with personal enjoyment, let alone expanding my personal bank of consumed literature.

I am not alone in this modern reading ‘vacuum.’ Writing and editing expert Judy Goldman responded to my query on the slowing market of leisure reading:

I know I would be one who falls into that category. My ‘knee-jerk’ reactions to what I read these days is to respond to it somehow, not just read to absorb and enjoy.

I write about and respond to what I read, I don’t have time or desire to read for enjoyment and that is coming from someone who wouldn’t be caught dead without a book in her hands…

Adults are hardly the majority in the Reading Vacuum. Looking up from The Count of Monte Cristo, I saw (as I did upon my last library visit) quite a number of warm bodies sitting in front of the dozen-or-so library computers. Every computer was occupied. Unlike my last visit, however, the users were all young, ranging between the ages of fourteen and nineteen.

As discreetly as possible, I got up and moved around the stacks by the PC section and utilized a particular quick glance (the kind most mothers nowadays are experts at) at what each young person was so engrossed in.

SAT studying? Negative.

Applying for summer jobs? Nope.

Reading a free eBook at Project Gutenberg? Wrong again.

teens watching streaming videosEach young person was either chatting on social media, watching streaming videos or playing an online game. Each and every one. Those sitting and reading books–digital or paper–were all my age (late 30s) or older, my daughter’s presence notwithstanding.

The Reading Vacuum expanded as I walked around the library. The children’s books section in my last visit had been nearly full of moms reading to their young children. Now, it now boasted just two toddlers  playing with toys–or pulling books off of shelves–while their mothers were (I kid you not) busy swiping the screens of smartphones nearby, oblivious.

Not to sound all ‘Andy Rooney’ here, but libraries used to be the springboard for learning reading and leisure reading in off-school/work hours. Certainly there is room for technological moderation in our lives, but I don’t think pointing at gadgets/devices is helping to really identify the root of the problem.

In 2013, Robert Rosenberger posted an article in Slate magazine, pointing to the distractions present on tablets as the culprit for declining eBook sales. The theory, then, was that eBook sales matched the sale of dedicated eReaders, a device that has rather fallen from gadget grace in recent years.

While eReader stats may be a factor, the problem that I became aware of in the library points to something far more sinister: lack of interest in leisure reading at all.

Next generation of readersLong ago–in a decade far, far away (1991)–Mitchell Stephens, an NYU journalism professor, wrote an article for the LA Times titled The Death of Reading. In said piece Stephens outlined how distractions abounded in the modern home, that libraries and reading nooks were overrun with televisions and Nintendo and that architects had largely scorned bookshelves in favor of “media” centers. He blamed distraction and said the move away from reading sounded the death-knell of thinking civilizations worldwide.

Ironically, but not coincidentally, reading has begun fading from our culture at the very moment that its importance to that culture is finally being established. Its decline, many theorists believe, is as profound as, say, the fall of communism, and some have taken to prophesying that the downturn in reading could result in the modern world’s cultural and political decline.

Stephens went on to cite another work Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman:

We are losing a sort of psychic habit, a logic, a sense of complexity, an ability to spot contradictions and even falsity.

I thought on these things as I sat in the library, with Dumas’ complex and contested work sitting forgotten in my hands, gazing woefully at the young blank faces intermittently lit by the flickering media upon opposite screens.

But, all hope is not lost. A few young people–my resident teenagers have informed me–are still interested in a particularity type of leisure reading, or at least talking about it. Of the many YA book ‘fandom’ sites, chats and boards still in daily use, fully 1/3 of the people posting have actually read the title being discussed… according to my own brood of ‘experts'(whom also haunt said sites.)

“One out of three?” I thought, frowning at the nearly empty Fiction aisles across the quiet, gray room of the library. I glanced again at the PC users and shook my head, wondering if Prof. Stephens was being proven right faster than even he anticipated. Were the next generations doomed to forget how important literature and leisure reading are to civilized society?

At that moment, just such a young person flopped onto the empty chair beside me.

“I found it,” my daughter informed me, holding up a worn copy of one of Forester’s seafaring books. As she thumbed to “Chapter One,” her side pocket buzzed. Drawing out her phone, she glanced at it, shut it off and slipped it back in her pocket. She settled back in her chair and immersed herself in a world of sun-bleached, salty deck planks harboring borderline-scurvy-ridden crewmen unfurling sailcloth and scampering about under the hawk-like gaze of the captain, high up on the quarterdeck.

She was–of course–blissfully unaware that her mother was at that very moment gazing at her dewy-eyed, struggling not to weep aloud in sheer joy at what had just occurred. She was distracted, but not by digital screen nor any pixelated thing, but by a scene composed by a great writer long deceased, powered by nothing more than a fingertip and movements of the eye.

Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the foresight of people who had encouraged me to read daily to my young children, from toddler-age onward, and not leave such a weighty responsibility in the hands of under-paid, overworked teachers at school. That effort on my part, which then seemed like a chore (and intellectually stunting to repeatedly read sentences such as “the fat cat on the mat”) paid back enormous dividends in that tiny moment, there in the library. I went back to my own book, feeling a bit better about both the younger generations and the recent slowdown of eBook sales growth.

Is leisure reading truly dying? It may be in a distraction-induced coma, perhaps, but it’s not entirely dead.

Children Reading

L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books

Once more, into the Books!

50012_library_mdFreelance work acts much like a word ‘vampire’ on the mind of a fiction writer. To be fair, reviews, articles and copy-laden ‘crowd sourcing’ jobs make up the bulk of available work these days… but, just as much as these rigorously tight bits of employment put money in one’s pocket, they also strip away a few petals from one’s personal Stash of Inspiration.

After a particularly busy fortnight of submitting various pieces, entries and bids—from articles and advertisements, to logos and corporate presentations—I found that my fingers had lost their vigor, and my mind was given to wandering. The non-retina screen of my laptop reflected a rather wan expression back to me in the dim light of the living room lamp; I normally find that particular light “charming” with its near-natural glow… but now it seemed to embody a sickly sort of glimmer.

I rubbed my eyes and pondered the best course of action. The digital page I stared at fairly begged to be written on, its voice merely one among the three fledgling novels my intrepid laptop harbors within its quasi-metallic maze. One of these–at least–must be completed before the end of the year, when it will be edited, formatted and InDesign’d into a shape recognizable by global eBook consumers. These things I knew and thought of and yet, still no words would come.

Setting my laptop to ‘hibernate’ I walked around my home, absently picking up stray jackets, shoes and books, calling attention to chores left undone by young folk–who really aught to know better by now—my hands finally going through the motions of making my nighttime cup of tea. My eye fell upon a paperback–left casually on the counter–a bookmark within still valiantly holding its owner’s place. Sipping the tea I picked up the book, and smiled at the title. My teenage daughter recently discovered the Cadfael mysteries, a favorite series of mine in high school. I had not read them in ages.

As I stood there–skimming the pages with half-thoughtful fondness–I began to read. I continued reading as I walked around locking various doors and closing window blinds. I read in the laundry room, switching clothes from washer to dryer with one hand. Nestled comfortably in bed I sipped my now-tepid tea with little notice, thinking that the aging 12th century monk was transplanting wintergreen a week earlier than I thought was called for and wondering why his good friend Hugh Beringar–the sheriff– was hovering just outside the wicket gate with a foreboding look upon his dark brow.

Good books have a strange phenomena embroiled in their pages. Not magic, but a coaxing sort of promise that feels its way along one’s arm and shoulder–stealing up to the ear ever so gently–all the while making its case in clear language, laced with a dash of ‘lyrical’. Good prose does not beg to be read, nor does it demand. You simply find yourself reading it, and subsequently words become enjoyable again. I read through the novel before drifting off to sleep, my catalog of aulde English (not to mention my inspiration) more than partially restored. Next morning, the more commercial projects were hurried through in favor of once more stepping into the proverbial breach, that ominous chasm between the blank and the book.

You must pursue it,” said Cadfael with sympathy. “You have no choice.”*

slender floral dividerL. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books

*Dead Man’s Ransom, by Ellis Peters.