Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Beleaguered Reader

The Beleaguered Reader

James O. Born

We hear with alarming regularity about the decline of reading in the United States. In the last six months it seems as though I've met several people who proudly proclaimed, "I don't read." Did I miss something? Is there a reason to brag about that? There a lot of things that I might keep secret. A degree from the University of Florida for instance. A betting slip from a sports book in Las Vegas picking the Detroit Lions last year's Super Bowl before the season started. Maybe even a membership in a Dungeons and Dragons group. But reading is not something anyone should be ashamed of.
Yet readers are an endangered species. Right up there with the Snow Tiger and Snail Darter, readers are becoming harder to find than a popular Republican. And what do I base this observation on? The incredible number of author solicitations, newsletters, blogs and other methods to attract readers. I'll admit that in the past I have sent out newsletters, but generally to either my friends or people stupid enough to sign up on my mailing list. I have not sent a newsletter out in over a year and one of the reasons is the enormous number of newsletters I get whether I ask for them or not. To my knowledge I have never knowingly signed up on someone's mailing list yet somehow I get plenty of newsletter e-mails.
Popular Republican Governor Charlie Crist pictured left.

I met a woman recently with several romantic suspense novels on the market and willingly gave her my e-mail because she said she might have a few questions about the MWA (Mystery Writers of America). Instead I have received two newsletters in two months. Great.

I'm not opposed to this kind of activity. I have many friends that I wish great success on and I do not care how they achieve it. This blog is an example of how I originally started out hoping to reach fans but have stayed with it because I enjoy the chance to opine weekly. I even joined Facebook because a local book club wanted me to participate in one of their meetings, which occured on Facebook.

Just the sheer volume and ingenuity of these efforts to reach new readers point to the fact that the reading base is shrinking. While older people still tend to read print newspapers and real books, the younger generation appears to be favoring electronic media such as websites and the newfangled Kindle. But it is clear that people under thirty, as a general rule, read less than people over thirty.

This generational reading gap was made very clear to me recently. I've had articles written about me in several magazines from time to time and will get a few comments from someone who happens to read it. But last month just my name was mentioned in an AARP interview with Elmore Leonard and I was flooded with e-mails. Everyone seems to read AARP. At least everyone over fifty. I wonder if there was a free magazine geared towards thirty-year-olds if it would be as widely read.

As budget cuts hit everyone from Wall Street to city governments, readers are about the last thing that anyone is worried about. And virtually every government from local to federal that’s talks budget cuts mentions libraries. And this goes back to my original premise: readers are an endangered species. And one of the main reasons is that our natural habitats, the libraries and bookstores, are being encroached upon by sports Authorities and downward spiraling property values, resulting in less tax revenue.

As an author I really do wish to attract the ever-shrinking reader base, but I would like to avoid annoying them as I do it.

How do you feel about all the all the newsletters, tweets and the other methods used by authors to hunt new readers? And as a secondary question; What can we do to save our libraries?


  1. My local library is a favorite venue (I'm over 50) but I was introduced to the school library in grade school. I think it all goes back to education, or the lack thereof. Teachers don't have time to read a chapter of Huck Finn to a quiet classroom at the end of the day. Love for reading begins early, or perhaps, not at all. My birthday gifts always included Nancy Drew or Trixie Beldon. I received the "Weekley Reader" in the mail and felt very grown up. It is SO sad that young people are not given the gift of love for books. I cannot imagine a fulfilling life without them.
    I wonder about University Libraries, will they become obsolete because so much research can be done online?
    Great post, Jim

  2. from Jacqueline

    I have no idea where I would have been without a library when I was a child, and that was doubly true for my parents. My mother was one of ten kids - and their mother in turn set the example by polishing off three or four books in a week; a woman with ten kids and only one good working eye.

    It's more than just a case of age and what we were used to when we were kids, though. The concentration span has gone down at both ends of the age spectrum. The fact that in Japan whole books are composed via cellphone speaks to a worrying trend But on the other hand, Harry Potter bucked that trend for kids, so maybe change is on the way again

    Some years ago I wrote a couple of articles for a series of magazines aimed at the "50-plus" age group and was told by the editor that "500 words is the limit." people don't want anything longer than that as they get older. Is that why my 90-year-old mother-in-law reads books that are several inches thick, and my father's favorite magazine articles are in National Geographic?

    The interesting thing for me is that, when I was in the UK, I noticed that just about everyone on the train or on the tube was reading a book - from a paperback to a guy lugging The Lord of The Rings, hardback edition.

    The thing is that, historically, reading by the people is a relatively new concept. And it has had such an enormous impact on freedom from oppression, poverty, and slavery; reading has given opportunity, has lifted us up and has offered us a conduit for understanding, empathy and wonder. How can we possibly let such a gift slip through our fingers and take it so much for granted? Just think of those children in countries where it is nigh on impossible to go to school - holding a book in the hand is like touching a vein of gold.

    Funny, I still feel like that, and I had my first library card when I was two years of age.

  3. I agree with you about the proliferation of unsolicited e-mails from authors I don't know. Not an effective way to build readership. I assume they harvest them from the membership rosters of various organizations like MWA. Unless the message is from somebody I know, I delete it. I only send out a newsletter when I have a new book and then only to people who have signed up for my mailing list.

    I once opted out of an unsolicited newsletter and got an angry message back asking me why I'd done that. Not cool.

  4. I enjoy getting authors newsletters BUT only the ones I have signed up to get. If it is unsolicited I delete it unread. I read to my son when he was young and always had books around the house for him to read as he grew. As an adult he is still a big reader and now we are teaching my 3 year old granddaughter to love reading. I can not imagine a life with books. .... Mo

  5. Hi,

    Gotta say, I'm not so sure kids aren't reading. I have a young friend who right now is very excited that he's starting to read "chapter books", i.e. books without pictures. I've known him for several years, and throughout every school year and during the summer he's been involved in school-sponsored reading programs, which are very well attended.

    And let's not forget the Harry Potter phenomenon.

    I do think encouraging children to read requires more commitment from parents and schools than it ever has before, because there are so many more distractions than there were previously.

    On the topic of distractions, I'm personally sort of horrified by the number of after-school activities that are expected, many of which are meant to prove that the youngster is "well-rounded" enough to be accepted to the college of their choice. What ever happened to hanging out with their friends, or reading, or just day-dreaming?

    As far as being beleaguered, I just don't have time for Twitter or Facebook or any of the rest of it. I read a few blogs, and trade email with my friends, and that's it. I haven't found myself inundated by newsletters, but if I'd have no problem unsubcribing if they started overwhelming me. And Patty, totally agree with you that the author who was angry with you for opting out was very, very uncool.

  6. First: "A betting slip from a sports book in Las Vegas picking the Detroit Lions last year's Super Bowl before the season started."

    I'm from the Detroit area and I hope that's a joke. Otherwise, uh, join Gamblers Anonymous. Or at least, take some remedial coursework on Better Ways To Waste Your Money.

    Second, amen. I've got some ultra-conservative nut who thinks I want to read all his jokes about Obama (indicating he really doesn't know me) and I can not get him to stop sending me his crap. I've tried a lot of different ways to get him to stop (including asking), but he keeps sending them, and as soon as I see the name I delete it.

    I've signed up for a lot of e-newsletter and that's okay, but I get a fair number unsolicited and I've got to say, I don't read them, they're annoying, and stop it, it's not going to make me buy your book.

  7. I missed your mention in AARP magazine. Or maybe I read it and forgot it.

    Either way, stop sending me your newsletter. Whoever you are.

  8. The AARP magazine is not free; it comes with your membership in that organization. (I believe you will be eligible to join soon, Jim.)

    I am encouraged by the change in students in my college mystery fiction course. When I first started teaching it, the students were by and large those who need a humanities credit and wanted to do as little work as possible to get it.

    More and more students, though, are telling me when they introduce themselves that they like reading mysteries and are excited to have a course that lets them indulge-- for college credit!

    I think part of the reason why older people read more than younger ones is a time factor. 30-somethings often are working hard to establish their careers, raising kids and so on. As they get older they have more time available to read.

    I like getting newsletters from people I know, at least peripherally, especially if it includes something more than just "I have a new book out!"

    Jeri Westerson is a great example. She writes a historical mystery series, and her newsletters always include a sidebar based on her research.

  9. James O. Born8/20/2009 3:19 PM

    Everyone has plesant memories of libraries. No one ever got beat up in the library in school. It was a sanctuary.

    I'll change it up and do xomething on guns next week.

    Mark, I have to ask if I can borrow your comment from the other day. What the difference between a mid list author and a terrorist?


  10. While I've been utterly appalled at the proudly stated "I don't read" ignorant proclamation myself-- I don't agree with what you're saying.

    The rise in technology has nothing to do with readers diminishing, it has to do with the evolution of how we market our work. For example snail mail is used considerably less than it was before email was invented-- so would you say people are keeping in touch less? No! People are getting in touch faster and more efficiently than they used to.

    Your argument didn't seem to relate to why readers are diminishing at all. Your reasoning seemed to be completely off-topic. It was like saying I didn't go grocery shopping today because the sky is blue--Okay great but one has nothing to do with the other.

    Social media is simply the latest, most efficient way to reach people. (I'm mostly a big advocate because I blog for E-newsletters have replaced direct mailing and wowser--it's more affordable as well!

    Our youth reads, but they are also the generation that has grown up with technology, rather than having it thrust upon them at an older age. Why on Earth would they pick up a newspaper when they can Google? That's like me riding a horse to work instead of driving.

    If our youth didn't read, then authors like J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer wouldn't have become overnight superstars with screaming fans of all ages--especially teens--eating up their books like candy.

    I'm not knocking libraries, I personally love them, but a book is the newer scroll, and the scroll is the newer tablet-- So why don't you see that the internet and Kindle is the new book?

    If you are trying to appeal to the younger reader--online is the way to do it. If your readers are over the age of 50, well then-- What do you care?

    Surely I don't intend to be disrespectful in any way to you. You are entitled to your opinion of course. But if you're a man of literary prestige and a reader/writer like myself is supposed to look up to you--then I would just like to see it more supported.

    Of course on my personal blog I consider my opinion to be fact and don't care to support my reasoning--but on my social media blog you bet I better have done some research or have some facts to back up what I'm saying if I want to be considered credible.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this.

    ~Chrystal Rose
    An aspiring writer & avid reader

  11. I have a good number of people who've signed up to receive my newsletter (calling it a monthly is a stretch) and less than 20% actually open it (we can track these things). So, I wonder, why did they sign up in the first place--or why don't they opt-out (offered as a one-click in every e-mailing)? Maybe they like hitting the delete button?

    As to AARP -- you've hit it on the nose: it's the over-50s who actually READ more than a paragraph at a time. And the UNDER 20s. (my YA books are among my best sellers). I don't know about your in-store signings, but I see a lot of "light colored" hair at mine! Including my own.

  12. I agree there are more older readers than younger readers, but I think back and it occurs to me that I read more now than I did in my 20s--probably because from Jr. high through the end of college I only had time to read what I HAD to, and then felt compelled to take a break--I got back to it though.

    My kids are both readers, nurtured on nightly reading from their time in utero, but my teenager confessed to me she COULDN'T read a book that 'wasn't good' by the end of the first page--reader, yes, but you've got to get her QUICK (my son can probably go 10 pages before he decides, and as he's 10, he'll probably be FINE as an adult.)

    [side note: said 10 year old gets mail from the AARP--apparently someone of the same name is hiding from them and he is who they found]