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July 2nd, 2014

Beating the distractions

People have never had so much content at their disposal—so publishers need to work extra hard to grab their attention

The dawn of digital was supposed to herald a bright new age for reading. Book lovers, the theory goes, have never had it so good. They enjoy a wider choice of books than ever before, with self-publishing providing thousands more options and on-demand technologies making the idea of titles going out of print a thing of the past. They can get these books quicker and easier than ever before too, whether in print format to their door or as e-books installed on their devices in seconds. And they have more places to read them than ever before, from computer to tablet to smartphone to print.

So why is there so much concern about the future of reading? Anxiety seems to be mounting that this wave of technology is not actually encouraging people’s engagement with books but distracting them from it. That’s because digital devices facilitate not just reading but a host of other entertainments, like video, gaming and audio content, not to mention email and social media platforms.

People who would once have immersed themselves in their books are finding themselves distracted by the digital tools that were supposed to make their lives easier. Publishers used to be able to get an idea of the kind of books people were enjoying by looking around them on a Tube or train journey. But glance over a carriage now and they see people holding not paperbacks but smartphones and tablets—and the chances are that not many of them are using them to read.

At the Literary Consultancy’s recent Writing in a Digital Age conference, several of the industry’s brightest thinkers were in pessimistic mood at times. “What I’m most scared about is the substitution of reading for other things,” said Faber chief executive Stephen Page. “We’re in danger of books becoming the language of the elite and video becoming the vernacular.”

The worries are particularly acute in children’s books. With so many attractions competing for their attention, the next generation of readers might not be as inclined as previous ones to pick up a book and devote their complete attention to it. So far, sales of printed children’s books seem to have held up pretty well compared to their grown-up counterparts amid the migration to e-books—but that might well be because parents are doing the buying. When they are old enough to make their own choices, some fear that these children will not be inclined to spend much of their cash on books. As the Literary Consultancy’s conference heard, Steve Bohme of Nielsen Book has the data to back up this fear. “I’m scared about the future of children’s reading habits. Their access to smartphones and tablets is increasing hugely—and at the same time, the time they spend reading is clearly falling.”

So what’s the solution? It is partly a visibility problem. All this technology means that children—and grown-ups too—are not seeing as many books around them as they once would. Some school classrooms use whiteboards, tablets and computers more than books now. The closure of many libraries and independent bookshops across the country isn’t helping either. As bookseller Richard Kemp pointed out in a blog for the IPG recently, “Reading has to be a part of the wider life of a child, and for this to work we need vibrant bookselling and library environments, with reading embedded in the home and on the high street.”

But another answer for publishers is to redouble their efforts to make their content as compelling as possible, in both print and digital. There is plenty of terrific innovation going on already, in e-books, apps and elsewhere, but the mounting number of digital attractions should be focusing everyone’s minds right now.

What consumers’ habits at the moment tell us is that content needs to lively, multimedia and above all interactive. Young people in particular expect to be involved in whatever form of content they are using, and the rise of social media is only furthering that trend. It doesn’t apply to all books, of course—straightforward paperbacks or e-books are perfectly sufficient for many subjects and age groups. But in others, it clearly isn’t enough to simply supply text any more. Instead, we need a whole new way of looking at things. “The music and the books industry have both been caught in a misunderstanding: that people bought the object for its intrinsic material value,” said Stephen Page. “But the object itself doesn’t have much value without the reading.”

Given all that, what emerges over the next few years might well be very different from the book as we know it. The text is just one weapon at publishers’ disposal now, and we need to view this new array of media as opportunities rather than threats. But even with so much alternative content out there, text is still a great place to start. Publishers have always had terrific material to work with—the challenge now is to work it up into something absorbing enough to shut out all the digital distractions.

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