The War for Our Time: Video VS Print

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We’ve all done it… clicked on a YouTube video to watch some news clip or interesting how-to and looked up to find 2 hours have vanished. It seems more American consumers than ever are spending their free time browsing the Internet and watching online videos. Many an hour of missing writing can be laid squarely on my own fingers clicking on the well-worn buttons of my marble mouse.

I find it interesting that some publishing research firms continue to put out statistical reports that display rather rosy forecasts for the book industry, indicating anything from ‘the majority of Americans are reading more print books’ to the idea that ‘more young people are reading books–in any form—than did so in recent years’.

The wording of such reports seems simultaneously uplifting, hopeful and insistent… indeed, to the point where it awoke a frank feeling of suspicion in me last week. There was no comparison in the statistics of the time spent reading verses the time spent online watching videos, online shopping, news watching, movies, internet browsing… a.k.a. not reading books.

As an eBook author, I am very interested in whether online consumers are doing less reading and more YouTubing/Facebooking/Amazoning/Googling (not discounting other sites) whether for entertainment or educational reasons. I set upon a week-long quest to find as much data–on that subject–as I could.

Unfortunately for the book industry–and entertainment authors in general–I found several sets of rather alarming statistics about video consumption, for free.

According to a 2015 article from Psychology Today, the average consumer with an Internet connection watches roughly 206 videos per month (a number which might be arguably higher for 2016) while a Pew Research report states that 73% of Americans read “a book per year”… as in one (1) book, per year.

The science behind these kind of numbers largely boils down to efficiency: the brain processes video 60,000 times faster than it processes text. Video has another seemingly unfair advantage over text, being it is far more adept at connecting with human emotions than the ‘work’ or reading.

“When we read something,” Liraz Margalit, Ph.D. wrote in this article “we are actively involved in processing the information in front us. Our cognitive processors are working hard. But while reading is all about thinking, video is better at getting us to feel.”

This emotional connection—per some studies–is proven to lead to higher awareness and conversion.

According to their website, YouTube reaches more 18-34 and 18-49 year-olds than any cable network in the U.S.

  • In 2015 two-thirds of Americans owned & used a smartphone
  • According to their site, more than half of YouTube views come from mobile devices

·      In Jan. 2016, Facebook announced users watch 00 million hours of video a day

·      In Feb. 2016, Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, reminded investors that YouTube’s audience watches hundreds of millions of hours of video daily

Since 2012, YouTube has measured its performance in terms of “hours watched,” not video views. As of 2016, Facebook now also refers to the “hours watched” metric, which is good considering Facebook counts a video “view” as a minimum of 3 seconds, verse YouTube’s minimum of 30.

Consumers seem to prefer video, too. According to Cisco Forecast, video will represent 69% of all consumer-based Internet traffic by 2017; this is expected to rise to 80% by 2019. Another study from Business Insider estimates that video advertising will account for 41% of total desktop display-related spending in 2020 in the US.

Digital marking firm Invodo says this on its website: “Marketers who use video grow revenue 49% faster than non-video users.” (Aberdeen via Vidyard, 2015)

My own consumer-driven experiences online seem to back up the video data: as an Amazon customer, I’ve noted a marked increase in videos being added to various consumer products–like women’s fashion–showing a model genteelly sashaying around in front of a white backdrop; that particular kind of video, however, gums up my processor speed, forcing me to click on a static image. Processor speeds aside, the idea itself has merit; it is kind of nice to see how a dress looks on a real person, verses a mannequin (if one can get past the ideal proportions of either display method) and I have purchased camera equipment based on the promotional video showing its capabilities.

Tying this in with internet consumerism, the entertainment aspect of writing these days seems more tied to video representation, with growing numbers of authors using sleek, movie-like ‘book trailers’ to hock their printed wares.

Even though it seems odd to reply on video to sell books, digital or print, it’s easy to see why authors have leaped into the video fray with statistics like these:

·      Readers are 64% more likely to purchase your book if they see a book trailer that effectively promotes your book. (Source: ComScore)

·      Authors who use book trailer video in email campaigns can experience Open Rates [increases] from 19% to 300%! (Source: Forrester Research)

·      92% of mobile video viewers share videos with others. (Source: Invodo)

·      Unbounce reports that using videos on landing pages raises conversion rates by up to 80%

But, apparently just posting a free video on YouTube or Facebook isn’t good enough to garner book sales anymore. One must seek out where their potential customers are hanging out online (data that is not free) and buy pricey ad-space for their video on said pages/sites to appeal directly to browsing consumer, competing with a glut of other writers/businesses/news outlets wanting the same space(s).

The irony of writing this piece is not lost on me. I post it knowing–full well–that it will not be read nearly as many times as a 6-second funny cat video will be seen on Vine but that merely makes the data I posted here all the more relevant.

This data has taught me one thing over the last year: all per-conceived ideas about marketing must eventually must concede to the facts. Earlier this year, our book company morphed itself from print only to including visual media, starting a photography & photojournalism business that has garnered worldwide attention.

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L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books and a photographer for Belator Media

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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