Monday, April 27, 2015

Books: no more “dead” than TV or pro sports

The Economist reported in January that books aren’t dead yet:

Even the most gloomy predictors of the book’s demise have softened their forecasts. Nicholas Carr, whose book The Shallows predicted in 2011 that the Internet would leave its ever-more-eager users dumb and distracted, admits people have hung onto their books unexpectedly, because they crave immersive experiences. Books may face more competition for audiences’ time, rather as the radio had to rethink what it could do best when films and television came along; the habit of reading for pleasure has fallen slightly in the past few years. But it has not dropped off steeply, as many predicted. The length and ambition of a bestseller such as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch—864 pages in paperback—shows that people still tackle big books.
-The Economist, January 2015 “The Future of the Book”

Rather than seeing the net decline in reading for pleasure as the death knell of the book per se, it might be more proper to see the situation in terms of marketplace diversity.

There are far more entertainment options than there were forty or fifty years ago. It is only natural that these new entertainment options would claim a few fiction or recreational nonfiction readers. It would have been somewhat unreasonable, in fact, to expect the inventions of radio, television, the Internet ,and video games not to reduce the net hours spent on reading for pleasure.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that there are plenty of people who don’t care overly much about YouTube, Twitter, or the latest version of Grand Theft Auto.

In fact, most of these new (and mostly electronic) forms of entertainment follow a predictable pattern: They enjoy an initial surge of attention, followed by a leveling off, or even a decline. In April Twitter introduced numerous “tweaks” to its homepage design. Why? The service had noticed a marked decline in new members.

Twitter’s user base of 288 million is still impressive. But is worth asking: Is the demand for a 140-character microblogging platform infinite? Or could it be that there are only so many people who are going to be interested in what Twitter has to offer?

There have also been industry concerns about the decline in attendance at major league baseball and football games. Time Magazine reported in December 2014 that “fewer people than ever are watching TV”.

Does anyone really believe that professional sports or television are headed for extinction? Probably not. But the proliferation of leisure options in the 21st century makes the marketplace for attention extremely competitive.

This is true if you’re a television producer, a professional sports team owner, the management of a social networking site—or an author. The much ballyhooed “decline in reading” does not signify a unique conspiracy against books, but rather a more competitive environment for everyone who would seek to gain money or recognition by entertaining others.

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