Nielsen Book’s Jonathan Stolper recently released data to Publishers Weekly finding that “ebook unit sales from reporting publishers were down 16% in 2016 from 2015. Units fell the most in the juvenile fiction segment, where e-book sales dropped 28% in the year and accounted for 10% of total category unit sales in 2016, down from 14%. (Ebooks have never been a big factor in juvenile nonfiction and accounted for 1% of units sold in 2016.) Unit sales of e-books in the adult fiction segment fell 15% in 2016, and, while the format accounted for 49% of all units sold last year in the category, that was down by three percentage points from 2015. E-book unit sales fell 13% in 2016 in adult nonfiction and accounted for 12% of all units sold in the segment last year, compared to 15% in 2015. In total, e-books’ share of trade unit sales was 23% in 2016, down from 27% in 2015.” Many reasons have been offered for the decline, but the key point is that this digital revolution is clearly not happening as fast or transformational as pundits have predicted.
In a recent research article in Public Research Quarterly, Alex Grover looks at the development of ebooks going back to the 2001 Rosetta Books versions—a device that used a “self-destructing” book—that was quickly replaced by better ideas and newer technologies. “For e-books to extend their potential as a format, they must either become simpler to create and easier to use or adapt into a more immediate and central technology than smart phones, e-readers, and the like. Book publishers cannot afford to compete with game publishers in the complexity of their content. What they can do is continue to create content from authors that readers enjoy.” As we move through the third decade of the internet, we still have far to go before we can finally realize the full potential and value of ebooks and digital reading; however, we can assess where we are currently in this era of unprecedented change.
It Today’s Ebooks Aren’t the Answer….What is the Future of Reading?
At the 2017 Digital Book World in New York, Stolper reported that unit sales of hardcovers overtook unit sales of ebooks and experienced a 5% increase from 2015 to 2016. Hardcover sales of 188 million units were greater than ebook sales for the first time since 2012. At another session, Book of the Month Club’s Maris Kreizman reported that 90% of the people who have subscribed to the BOMC service are women, and 70% of those women are in their 20s and 30s. Clearly we have not lost a generation to the value of information or the inspirational/recreational value of a good read. However, there have been many recent studies on reading that allow us to better understand readers, their needs and enhance their experience regardless of their preferred technology.
For the past ten years Scholastic Magazine’s publishers have conducted studies on reading and children. Their latest study—just released—includes some good news: “Parents shared with us that when they consider the meaning of diversity in books
for children and teens, they believe these books include “people and experiences different than those of my child”(73%), “various cultures, customs or religions” (68%),“differently-abled people” (51%), “people of color”(47%), and “LGBTQ people” (21%). We also found about one in 10 kids look for characters who are differently-abled (13%), are culturally or ethnically diverse (11%), and who break stereotypes (11%). Hispanic and African-American families express more interest in diverse books than non-Hispanic and non-African-American families.”
Additionally the Scholastic study of nearly 3,000 families found the following:
- Average home with children ages 0–17 reports having 104 children’s books, however, there are large disparities in the number of books for kids in the home when considering kids’ reading frequency and household income.
- Children who are frequent readers have 141 children’s books in their homes vs. 65 books for kids among infrequent readers’ homes.
- Households with income less than $35K only have an average of 69 children’s books vs. 127 books for kids in households with income more than $100K.
- When looking for children’s books to read for fun, both kids (37%) and parents (42%) ‘just want a good story,’ and a similar percentage want books that make kids laugh.
- The majority of kids ages 6–17 agree “it is very important for their future to be a good reader” (86%) and about six in ten kids love or like reading books for fun (58%), a steady percentage since 2010.
- Parents underestimate the degree to which children have trouble finding books they like. Only 29% of parents agree “my child has trouble finding books he/she likes,” whereas 41% of kids agree this is a challenge—this percentage of kids increases to 57% among infrequent readers vs. 26% of frequent readers.
- Across ages, children turn to teachers or school librarians (51%), and friends, siblings or cousins (50%) to get the best ideas about books to read for fun. Among kids ages 6–11, school book clubs and fairs are also powerful sources of book ideas, as is social media among 12–17 year-olds.”
Research is clearly showing the strong continuing value that reading has for everyone, but especially for students.
The Long-Term Health of Reading: Our Children
Reading is a complex and important skill, the basis of what we define as literacy. As Martyn Hammersley has commented, “we tend to treat reading as a skill that is learned when we are children, as if it were something that had a well-defined end. But in an important sense, we are always (or should always be) still learning how to read.” (Reading Ethnographic Research, Routledge, 2016, p. xii) What is recent research showing us about this critical life skill?
Swedish researcher Skans Kersti Nilsson just published a study of young adults’ (16-25 years old) “reflections on the reading of literature, their reading of fiction in printed books as opposed to using other forms of media and format, and the benefit the reading of fiction is seen to give.” Her findings stressed that reading books in print format is preferred to filmed versions or ebooks and that “reading fiction is important for self-insight and personality development.”
Italian researchers studying the link between fluent reading and overall scholastic performance found that “reading fluency predicted all school marks in all literacy-based subjects, with reading rapidity being the most important predictor. School level did not moderate the relationship between reading fluency and school outcomes, confirming the importance of effortless and automatized reading even in higher school levels.
American researchers studying science learning noted that text cohesion and reading ability “predicted comprehension with both high (noun-repetition text and ‘and’ text) and low cohesion text (synonym text and ‘no connective’ text). These findings highlight the importance of good reading abilities and text cohesion for promoting science comprehension and learning.”
Another recent study examined stereotypes of gender differences favoring females in reading comprehension and fluidity. The study found that boys underperformed girls when the task was presented as a ‘reading test,’ yet by simply reframing the task as a ‘game’ led boys to outperform girls. The authors note that existing stereotypes about gender and reading lead to a “gap [that] may reflect boys’ fear of confirming the negative stereotype about their gender group in reading, rather than intrinsic gender differences favoring females in reading ability and motivation.”
“Learning to read is sequential; each new skill builds on the mastery of previously learned skills. Early on, for example, children learn to break down words into their most basic sounds in a process called decoding. Later, they begin to comprehend the meaning of words, sentences and, ultimately, entire passages of text,” PBS Parents website explains. “Decoding creates the foundation on which all other reading skills are built. For many, decoding comes naturally, quickly becoming an automatic process. For people who struggle to decode words, however, the process requires such extreme concentration that they often miss much of the meaning in what they read. Indeed, according to many experts, decoding problems are at the root of most reading disabilities.”
“The easiest way to make sure that we raise literate children, is by showing them that reading is a pleasurable activity, and that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read,” notes author, Kirsten Spiteri. “We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read to them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices. To make it interesting. Use reading time as bonding time. As time when no phones are being checked. When the distractions of the world are put aside.”
Researchers Balu H. Athreya and Chrystalla Mouza recently published the new Springer collection, Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation (Springer, 2016) in which they consider how the internet itself is changing our habits, our attention spans, and our very thinking processes. They note that “the rise of technology has resulted in new ways of searching and communicating information among youth, often creating information ‘overload’. We do not know how the new technologies will affect the ways young people learn and think. There are plenty of warnings about the dangers of information technology. But, there is also enormous potential for technology to aid human thinking.” We have much to learn about reading and the impact of technology on learning and thinking, especially in our newer generations that have never experienced life without technology.
Nurturing Reading in the Millennial Generation
College students have been found to not complete much of their course required reading in another recent study, which found that “only 20–30% of undergraduate students complete required readings. Failure to complete course reading has been associated with declines in exam and research performance.” Reasons for this included not being prepared, unmotivated, too little time and, perhaps most troubling, “an underestimation of reading importance.” How can we overcome these obstacles and biases in these young adults? Perhaps we can learn a few things from bookstore innovations.
Barnes & Noble College Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Malat’s philosophy is focused on far more than just textbooks: “All of our programs, our initiatives, and our messaging is really all around supporting the academic and social experience of our students, of our faculty, of our alumni, and making sure that we’re always on point and aligned with that mission.”
“Right now we have strategies across all social channels,” Malat continues, “certainly Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Pinterest. We’re finding that our students, in all of our research, want their messaging, or their relationship with the bookstore, to be more through email and more experience-driven within our retail space on campus.” This focus is reflected in recently announced changes to their flagship downtown Minneapolis location, which is “the last bookstore left in the central business district of downtown Minneapolis,” and is vacating their two-story space for a “smaller footprint,” which will include a restaurant and other features now current in many of their other renovated stores.
Their upscale Minnesota Edina Galleria location was renovated into a smaller location at that mall, providing both a bar and a full-service restaurant—and far more overstuffed seating to encourage folks to get comfy and hang around. The 21,500-square-foot space is nearly half the size of its previous 38,000-square-foot store. The cafe changes aren’t the only innovations at Barnes & Noble in their quest to recreate a sense of community, a gathering place. Recent stores and renovations focus on added children’s events like story hours, author visits and hands-on play sessions in their toy and game department.
In 200 locations, B&N has decided to build on the success of adult coloring books by creating “For the Artist” shop-in-shops which include artist supplies such as paint supplies, and tools for illustration and cartooning. Based on strong sales in 2016, the company intends to focus on both vinyl records and graphic novels as well.
“In many ways,” say Athreya and Mouza, “Barnes & Noble’s plan reflects broader changes afoot in brick-and-mortar retailing: In order to give shoppers a reason to hit stores instead of shopping online, many chains are making their outposts more experiential. That’s why Lululemon stores offers exercise classes, or why Samsung has opened a New York location that features a live deejay and a walkable tunnel in which the walls can be lit up with your selfies. Barnes & Noble is hoping that if a bookworm can linger with a new title over a glass of wine, it will feel more homey and welcoming.”
All of this may remake the bookstore experience and create greater customer loyalty, but with the ongoing technological revolutions, what will reading look like in another five or ten years?
“The human brain, with the use of language, is our means to thinking. Previous discussions have approached thinking with attention to two components, the rational and emotional. But in the current Age of Information Technology, we must also consider the role of technology in our thinking.”
“There is no question that the rise of electronic media and the Internet have created new demands and new possibilities,” Athreya and Mouza explain in their book. “There is a great need for the digital generation to learn how to organize and process the vast amount of available information, think critically, and turn information into practical knowledge easily accessible for decision-making. There is also an urgent need to help the digital generation consider the advantages, constraints, and problems of electronic media. Like previous types of technology (including the book), all new technologies come with their own advantages and disadvantages. And they do not exist in isolation. The effects of the technology on the individual and the society and vice versa cannot be known fully yet. As a result, current and future generations of youth must keep an open mind and be prepared to think critically about the role and impact of new and emerging technologies. They have an unprecedented opportunity to enhance their thinking skills through technology.”
“Educators and researchers agree that the digital generation has grown up during a time of rapid technological changes where personal computing, networks, mobile devices and the internet created fundamental changes in the way people communicate, socialize, create and learn,” Athreya and Mouza continue. “As a result, this generation shares a common set of characteristics; they have access to a range of new technologies, they multitask, they use the internet as a first source of information and they carry mobile devices at all times. Additionally, they read blogs rather than newspapers, they download or stream their music online, they instant-message someone rather than calling on the phone, and they organize their social lives with technology.”
And What About Adult Readers?
New York Times Magazine writer Clive Thompson recently decided to try reading the entire War and Peace on his iPhone and found that “reading huge works of literature on tiny devices we hold in one hand may seem odd, but in another sense it’s just like the beginnings of writing itself…By the time I was done with War and Peace, I had amassed 12,322 words of highlights and marginalia. It was a terrific way to remind myself of the most resonant parts of Tolstoy.” By using Siri and voice dictation, he was able to amass an 84-page summary of his notes and “highlight a cool passage and then dash off a paragraph of my own observations, dictating it like Henry James to his secretaries.” Perhaps it just takes some of us a bit longer to adjust to this new format.
Or, perhaps the future of reading is in listening. Audiobooks are now outselling print. MarketWatch’s Jeremy Olshan believes the “rise of audiobooks isn’t just about the quality of the performance but the fact that many readers prefer the experience to text….Management guru Peter Drucker said there are two kinds of people in the world: readers and listeners. He was referring to how we learn and process information, but, based on the sales figures for Thaler’s economics book, Peterson’s thrillers and Harper’s romances, he could just as well have been talking about how we consume books.”
Author Robert Fulford notes in a National Post article that the future of print indeed “frightens many of us, not only because the structures of literacy are threatened but because books have been at the core of intellectual life for centuries and we cannot imagine what might replace them.”
Whatever the preferred medium for books and reading in the future, University of Virginia Rare Book School Director Michael Suarez reminds us that the book is not dead. “The world of writing or chirographic culture, didn’t replace orality. Print didn’t replace writing by hand, film didn’t stop radio, television didn’t stop the world of film.” At the same time, Suarez sees the value of change and progress. “We’re in the digital world. It’s not going away and it’s a good thing.”
In a recent article in the journal Literacy, authors Anne Mangen and Adriaan van der Weel contend that “the static, linear modality of written text (including the book) is now supplemented by an increasing complexity of multimodal, dynamic, and interactive representations,” and cite the need for better understanding of the “immense potential for collaboration and dialogue across disciplines and paradigms.” These authors believe this is an “urgent occasion as well as an excellent opportunity to conceptualise reading, bottom-up, accommodating the full range of complexities of texts, substrates, technologies and reading processes and outcomes.”
Today We Have a Myriad of Choices
In the recent book, Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age (Bloomsbury, 2015, ISBN 9780857856616), Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward look at the rebirth of analog records in our digital age, focusing on the tactile features of the medium that represents a holistic work of art, bringing various arts into a single material form. DJs are described as “revolutionaries” who have kept analog records in the public eye throughout the movement to digitized music. The Slow Book Movement is a parallel effort to preserve some of the best, most ‘comfortable’ aspects of reading print today.
As writer Walter Mosley has said, “There’s nothing like reading. That interpretation through the nonconcrete medium of words fosters creativity in almost every bookworm. Basic imaginative talent is cultivated by reading, and that process cannot be replaced or lost because we, as long as we are human, will always have words and thoughts, pains and ecstasies, that must be expressed.”
Books in print clearly have a future—as does the affordances offered by technology. The future is unclear, but the present offers something for everyone today, and that isn’t bad. We can embrace a variety of methods for our reading. And, in today’s very unsettled political world, the important thing is that we continue to read, to learn, and to keep up with these critical issues and themes that face us all.
Nancy K. Herther is librarian for American Studies, Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus. firstname.lastname@example.org