Books Are Becoming Fringe Media

I just finished a book — Richard Price’s excellent “Lush Life” — hardly a noteworthy feat except it’s the first book I’ve read cover to cover in several months. It languished for years on my reading list, which has itself grown longer by the week. In fact, of all the books I’ve read in my life, a shockingly small percentage have been read in the past several years.

This has a lot to do with the people who write, publish and sell books. The big threat to Amazon’s Kindle isn’t people reading e-books on the iPad or the Nook. It’s that books are becoming fringe media.

That’s not to say that books are dying. They’ll always be around, and Amazon can count on a loyal audience for Kindles for some time. Kindle owners say they’re reading more books, although they remain a small portion of the population. But notably, according to an informal survey of Kindle devotees, 59 percent of people who buy the e-readers are over 55. Meanwhile, as a NEA study pointed out two years ago, people under 25 were already doing most of their reading on the web, with only 7 minutes a day devoted to books.

Since that NEA report appeared, the shift in our attention to the web from books has intensified. Just in the past month, I’ve heard several friends — some whose careers are dedicated to writing books — say they are reading fewer of them, if they read them at all. The main culprit that they cite is the web. Whether published in ink or pixels, books are facing tough competition from updates, posts, and a blizzard of free, brief and ephemeral writings that distract eyeballs from the task of digesting 300 pages of text.

Book publishers may be hoping the iPad and other tablets will solve this problem, but I think such devices are only going to make things worse. Electronic books may have a place on the iPad’s home screen, but they will be battling for attention against dozens of other web apps: games, news, social feeds and so on. In the end, not being a multifunction tablet may be the virtue that saves the Kindle: It’s a refuge from the distractions of the web, a quiet garden walled off from the web except to download a book.

Like other media, books will change to adapt to the new readers, and I think this means less non-fiction. Even before the web, all business books — and the majority of non-fiction books — struck me as 1,000-word pamphlets puffed out to book length with heroic amounts of filler. So if some books are forced to condense to keep our attention, so much the better.

As for fiction, there will always be an audience for people who know how to tell good stories. According to Nielsen BookScan, sales of non-fiction books fell 7 percent in 2009, while adult fiction rose 3 percent. There may well be a home for fiction in a world where the web takes up an ever larger portion of our mind share, but novels — like  books and e-readers in general — will have to fight their way back from the fringe.

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