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But How Much Are You Reading?

Image – iStockphoto: Last 19

Listening Up

For me, it’s always a kind of relief to write a piece for Writer Unboxed. That’s because you, Unboxed one, are among the most consistent elements of publishing.

Writers tend to work through the upheavals of the industry by focusing ever more intently on writing. This actually is not the pathway taken by many others in the industry.

As economic and market forces bash and bang up the business, company people (rightly) believe they have a mandate not only to adapt but to innovate, to look for things that will accommodate and/or ameliorate the changing circumstances of a creative industry in profoundly changing times. The industry! The industry!

And so my reporting at Publishing Perspectives and at The Hot Sheet have a lot to do with change: lots of trial and lots more error, fits and startups, big trends that fizzle in under two years, minor fads that flatten everybody’s expectations, and the abiding difficulty that this industry has in understanding itself as part of a major entertainment complex that has overtaken it.

On that last point, it’s not everyone. I love the exceptions: some of publishing’s brightest leaders are working well to associate themselves with studios and other production players to reposition bookish content for survival in a screened landscape.

But another thing I value in the Writer Unboxed community is the authorial viewpoint that, of course, isn’t always factored into industry thinking.

And today, I’d like to “provoke  you,” to use a pleasantly over-strong term, to give me your input on an important distinction that I fear some in the business may be overlooking, and that I’ll bet many in the author corps are not.

Let’s say that there’s a difference in the content and the act: the story and the reception of it.

Heres what I’m on about. As you know, publishing’s shooting star at the moment is audiobooks. Oh, those double-digit gains. The Association of American Publishers just reported that between January and August of this year, downloaded audio was up 37.5 percent over the same period last year, by far the biggest gain in all publishing. And this is being replicated in other world markets we cover.

Audio is hot, hot, hot. (As long as it’s downloaded. Physical audio in the same time-period comparison tanked by 24.6 percent. We don’t need no stinkin’ CDs or cassette tapes, thanks just the same.)

So big is audio that at The FutureBook conference in London in November, my former associates at The Bookseller will be staging a full day of audiobook sessions–there’s an entire audio conference running parallel to the main stream. (And we could have bought stock in headphone makers,  you know.)

As I’m sure I’ve bored you by saying before here, my own pet pleasure in this thing about audio is that in some markets like the UK (but not yet in Canada, we just learned), guys are leading the way in audiobook sales. Yes, guys. Outbuying the women in books. Sounds like another planet, doesn’t it? But it’s true. As long as it’s audio, the guys are in the lead. They don’t like reading, but they like listening, especially while doing other things, surveys show.

But that brings me to my provocation for you today.

Reading Books vs. Consuming Content

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

If audiobooks are soaring, and more people (especially those British guys) are reading, this sounds great, right? Your books are being … consumed.

Of course, they’re not quite being read. Except by those saints who are prompted by one medium to turn to another.

Similar effect in film and television series, of course. PBS recently aired the all-too-short BBC/Masterpiece production based on Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist. Granted, some viewers will be tempted to get the book. We have to assume, however, that they’re in the minority.

And as studio work becomes better–as even those audiobooks get better–what’s happening to reading.

My irritating question for you: are you reading as much as you used to?

Let’s make a few assumptions, to try to clear the table of a bit of understandable and natural clutter.

  • Writers don’t always get to read as much as they like because they’re busy writing. It was ever thus, that’s perfectly okay.
  • Writers also tend to become more discerning as their careers progress, so that they may read less but make more exacting choices of what they’d like to read, either to support their own writing or even to support colleagues at times. Also perfectly okay.
  • Writers may also from time to time need to avoid reading. Some find that another writer’s style can become tangled with their own, or another’s good story can sway them from their outlines. Also also perfectly okay.

So those caveats and any others you feel are appropriate are easily taken onboard here, no worries.

But what I think we’re seeing is that writing really is becoming “content,” as much as some may not care for the term. I mean to say by that that your next piece may be read by far fewer than it might have been 10 or even just five years ago. It might be heard by a lot more English blokes at the gym. Or it might be watched on Hulu or Amazon Prime or Netflix or HBO by a lot more people. It might even be murmured by Alexa from a whole lot of Echo devices, right?

But reading? That’s where I’d like your input.

Being writers here, we’re all likely agreed that the act of reading is valuable in many important ways–the cultivation of imagination, the development of concentration capability, the joy and necessity of critical thinking (whatever happened to that?), the marvelous gift of vocabulary expansion, and so on. There’s little need for us to defend the value of reading to each other; other choirs need to hear us preach that one, not us.

But how say you, then? Whither reading? Not books, reading.

Start with your own reading. And be honest, we’re all friends here and my secretary will disavow all knowledge of your actions. Are you reading as much as you were? And secondly, do you think your work in progress will be read as much as it would have been in the past? Or might it be listened to, watched, whispered or otherwise transmitted (I’m ready for the Amazon implant, myself) more than actually read? I’ll appreciate your input, as always, and will no doubt be ridiculously late in replying to you, another of my more dependable traits. 

By the way, Jane Friedman (“Porter’s Brain”) and I are holding our third-anniversary Hot Sheet flash sale today, with 30 percent off on a year’s subscription when you use code 3YR on checkout. If you’re interested, more info is here. The Hot Sheet is the essential industry newsletter for authors. We’d love to have you join us, And if you don’t, we still love you.



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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.