On Literacy and Change

Recently, talking to a friend/fledgeling, she told me that she didn’t even know if she wants to write traditional novels anymore, since we’re moving to a post-literate society.

Um…. no, we’re not. About the same percentage of people read for fun as always did.

Literacy is down at the “every day functioning” level, partly because the schools are becoming anti-literacy. I.e. your kids are more likely to learn to read if you leave them alone with the written word, than they are to learn if you send them to school. (I swear, I sent both kids to school reading fluently, and then spent four years screaming “SOUND IT OUT, no GUESSING” because the school taught them bullsh*t “guessing” instead of reading. And that was now 25 years ago.)

So a lot of people who used to be functional on the “read assembly instructions” or “write work report” level now aren’t, or are having to acquire it in their twenties, now thoroughly convinced that in fact it’s very difficult or impossible. (When it’s actually almost second nature for humans.)

There is a smaller number that come from the schools “just functional.”

But those able to read at the recreational level were always a minority — I have no clue what the estimated number is, but I think it’s about 20% (we are Odd.) — and a bunch of people who’ve analyzed the date say it’s stayed more or less constant since Shakespeare’s day.

My friend then mentioned a half dozen trad published writers who are going into video format, to sell themselves “Because the rest no longer works.”

And here, the two intersect and I need to explain.

Yes, trad pub authors are seeing a dramatic drop in their numbers. I understand now 1500 to 2k print runs are “not bad.” And won’t get you terminated.

To put this in perspective, I sold around 10k of each of the Shakespeare books, and this got me not only terminated, but having real trouble finding another publisher. That was 20 years ago now. I’m told that in the seventies printruns of less than 70k earned you a pink slip.

But the problem is not that people aren’t reading. That’s the excuse, not the reality.

The excuse traditional publishers used — for decades — was that it was television pulling their readers away, or video games, or–

Having heard it about RADIO in Portugal, whose publishing industry was messed up before messed up was cool? I never bought it.

The truth is that since the nineties I would go to bookstores to be “disappointed by” the bookstore. I, whose primary entertainment is reading, found myself just re-reading old books, because nothing new interested me.

And if by chance I found a new book I loved, it was sure that it was already years old, and that the author had been given his/her marching papers after three books.

The fact of the matter is that the publishing/bookselling industry has only got more embuggered since then.

Indie didn’t take root because it’s cheaper, or because we can drunk-order from Amazon (though those help) but because the publishing industry was already committing suicide.

If any of you are interested, I can do a run down of causes, but it would take an entire article to explain things like “ordering to the net” and the consolidation of bookstores under megalopolies that treat books like a pair of shoes. Also the publishing apparatus is used to being a gatekeeping service, but forgot they were a gatekeeper for ‘if it’s saleable” and view it as a pulpit to preach holy wokeness.

As I said, too much to go into. I can only say it’s gotten worse, because the Covidiocy and lockdowns hit the bookstores something awful. Hence the sudden, precipitous drop in sales for traditional.

It’s nothing to do with literacy. Literacy can’t even decline that fast. Besides, most kids are literate enough to be on line, where it’s still mostly word-based.

It’s the stuff offered.

And even for those publishers — well, I do know of one, of the main ones — that publish things the public wants to read are suffering from…. well…. inability to adapt to the new business model.

We all know that in indie, the time between books is around 3 to 6 months. Or at least it has to be if you want a career. If you really want to make a ton of money, you put out something every month, even if only a short story.

Traditional publishing refuses to even consider changing its model, of a book a year, sometimes two. And they claim to have “quality” to compensate for this.

But all the quality in the world won’t get you past the fact that the super-readers, the people who read over ten books a month, and who always made publishers most of their money (despite their emphasis on the “Blockbusters” that rely on people who buy a book a year) are now used to looking for new books every three to six months. Your offerings, unless they are from people already established and very — very — well known, just roll off and are forgotten. By the time the next book comes around, readers don’t remember it or the series, or simply don’t look for the new one, because the impression is it came out “a long time ago.”

Yes, even for prolific writers it’s hard to retool (look, I’m trying. I’ve just been…. moving. But it’s IS getting better) but traditional publishers don’t even seem to be aware it’s NEEDED.

So, yeah, it’s not so much that people aren’t reading. People are. (Though it seems like pulpish style and pacing sells best of all.) But the publishing industry is taking its sweet time to adapt to how technology has changed the consumption of books.

Yes, they might die from it. But that’s what happens when industries change rapidly. They don’t call it Catastrophic Change for nothing.

In the mean time, there’s still gold in them there hills. And people who are willing to dig it the right way can get at it.

44 comments

    1. Some stories work better as books; some as movies. For evidence I offer “Dune” the novel (not a lot of visual content in it compared to, say, “The Terminator”) as compared to “Dune” the (possibly-worst-of-all-time except for *maybe* “The Sorceress” or “Highlander II”) movie. Doing non-visual in a visual medium is a good way to produce garbage (and vice versa, for that matter). Some things are better/faster in each medium, but they’re not the *same* things. Just my 20 mills; YMMV.

    2. I thought that as well. Then I found out most of the younger kids put the playback on double speed. Depending on the narrator it doesn’t always come out sounding like a chipmunk. (I know I’d wished I’d known that trick through listening to a goat gagger which was chock full of filler, even to the point of having the characters discuss at length if authors pad books. (I rolled my eyes sooooo hard. Why yes, trad pub with HUGE marketing push.)

      1. Love it! “I wonder if authors pad books.” he said, padding the narrative at length. You just can’t make up this stuff… Re: playback… I remember the days of recording broadcast shows on the VCR when I’d fast-forward through the commercials; there was a “Thighmaster” commercial with, IIRC, Barbara Eden demonstrating the product. My immediate reaction the first time it caught my eye (I was younger then) was “Holy crap; look at her go!” 🙂

    3. I still remember a history series that covered odd facts about history, and it took an entire episode to do one paragraph of the book.

      1. Not unusual. It’s been my observation that a short novella is good for about a 2-hour movie, and to do a single longish (600-800 pages) novel requires at least a 6-episode miniseries. Sometinmes more, depending on content.

    4. I think some of it is translation artifact– I definitely read faster than I can watch, but I also translate stuff into actions better from reading unless it is something showing me how a thing physically works, preferably with minimal talking.

      A lot of folks who like video don’t seem to actually pay any attention to the words used, more all the other stuff like tone, hand gestures, props…..

  1. Sarah, everything you say is true, but you did not include one of the most important and least-noticed forces affecting the publishing industry and that is the undeniable fact that the pace of our lives has changed dramatically since the development of the internet. In the early days, I used to write articles about this until it became so commonplace that I got accustomed to the new speed of life and gained a new perspective.

    Our speed of action and interaction is at least 5 times what it was before the internet (Maybe 10 times). It has affected our written correspondence, our rate of closures on prospects, and most importantly our need for speed when it comes to gathering information. I use search engines several times a day and when I find a source of real data and not propaganda I am very unlikely to read more than 800 words. When I am looking for data, I want it now and I want it concisely!

    When I read for pleasure, and I read two books a day, I want fast access and availability on a computer or a mobile device. If an author does not provide access to their work on Amazon. they had better provide a website that lets me purchase the book from the site and download it immediately when I decide to buy it.

    In my humble opinion as an author and more important as a reader, increasing low cost access to written works and fewer lengthy articles will increase traffic and purchases.

  2. I write six (minimum) 400-word book reviews a month. (I also do 2 book blurbs/week for Epoch Times) I only review books I feel are worth reading, so that means I read more than six books per month. (You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a gem.) And that excludes books I read for pleasure, just for the joy of it. So I am a reader.

    The problem I have found is not that people are not reading. It is that too much of the stuff tradpub puts out isn’t worth reading. That is why it does not sell. it is not written to entertain or inform. It is written to proselytize. To sell the approved media. In non-fiction, facts be damned. In fiction, entertainment value be damned. The Narrative is all. And it is garbage. Political correctness is killing tradpub.

    About 50% of the books I review are indy because that is where the entertainment is.

  3. Went to B&N looking for a history on China. The “world history,” section was one bookcase. Amazon is looking better all the time.

    1. Books-A-Million no better, in my experience. And if you want, say, a book on the history of the ginseng trade between Japan, Korea, and China… nope, you’re not finding that in most brick and mortar stores!

    2. At this point, B&N is basically a giant toy store with a few bookshelves in the back. I’ve been in their to spend some gift cards people give me, and I suppose I might go again if we need any new board games, but I certainly wouldn’t go to look for a book.

    3. Check out a typical 4-year highschool curriculum today. “World history? What’s that?”

          1. Don’t know. Wish I knew what the person who made the site was thinking, seriously. If I still haven’t heard back from them in a week, I’m going to have to think about what to do next. This sucks.

  4. A Kansas CIty, MO study, some years ago, found that the Kansas City (MO) School DIstrict HS graduating classes had a functional literacy rate of only 25%. The KCSD taught the students how to pass the state test, not how to read, write, or do any form of math.

    1. Then the state test is part of the problem. If a test is properly constructed, if you teach to it, you will be teaching the subject. Of course, properly constructing a test requires mastery of the subject, understanding of test methodology, understanding of teaching methods, and a LOT of work.

  5. We always say that more people would read for entertainment but only if they find the books they want to read.

    “Improving” novels have a very small fanbase but my gracious do librarians, publishers, and teachers like them. They can’t understand that other people don’t think like them and like different things.

  6. Historically, cheap, comforting entertainment that allowed the buyer to escape(albeit temporarily) and left them feeling better able to cope – novels per se, as they lasted longer and could be shared, handed on or even sold after enjoying them, was a countercyclical thing – sales went down in fat times, and up in lean times. Beer, seeds and camping gear being other examples. The last couple of recessions were equally bad for the publishing industry as other normal cyclicals. This, IMO, is because the ‘entertainment’ being sold was no longer cheap, comforting, or escapist and didn’t leave readers feeling better about the world and their life.

  7. I will say that I do think, as a whole, society is migrating to a “post-literate” mode. I noticed about 10 years ago that I lot of the internet creators that I enjoyed reading were moving to either pre-podcasts or to YouTube videos. It may not affect the percentage of people who read for fun, but I do wonder if, in twenty years, the ability to read any great amount will be seen as exotic.

    1. I’m not so sure. I know audiobooks exploded once untethered from physical mediums, but they were such a tiny niche before that I’m not sure what the actual size of the market will shake out to be. Certainly, I see people get into novels via audio and move on to print, just as surely as others get into print and move on to audio.

      And then there’s the assumption that if you don’t have literacy by high school measurements, you’ll never have it. Not sure that holds true: I’ve watched coworkers go from purely talking about TV shows to en masse all working through the same book series. So, it’s entirely possible for people to become at least 1 book a month readers for the first time in their 20’s. Not to mention the number of youtube / podcasters who’ve gone on to put out a book. I mean, would you have ever dreamed of over a million men and women going from watching youtube to reading Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitzsyn, via Jordan Peterson, before it happened?

      But then, I remember being told that nobody was reading anymore, and certainly youth couldn’t handle large books, they had to be chapterbook size even for high schooler, and don’t write above an 8th grade vocabulary…. and then Harry Potter happened. So I’ve seen this before.

      1. The thing about audio books and podcasts is you can consume them while doing something else, like driving, exercising or taking leaves.

        I read fast, but I can’t drive and read at the same time.

        1. That’s my problem. When I was on public transit for an hour and a half a day, I would burn through 3-5 books a week. Now that I drive… not so much.

      2. Yep.
        The audio book thing has exploded because of blue tooth. I can range over most of the yard, listening to a book on one-ear clip on speaker.
        It’s useful, when doing things like weeding.

      3. I recently got into audiobooks (January IIRC) and listen to them in the car more than I listen to the radio. The stuff on audiobook I get is usually different than the stuff I get as an eBook or DeadTreeBook. But I really enjoy listening to them in the car.

  8. Growing up I was always paying attention to the announcement of a new Heinlein book. I knew that one short year later it would be released in a MM paperback edition that I could afford. But back then every drug store and soda shop had a rack of popular new release paperbacks.
    These many years later one of my vices is that I enjoy reading while eating a meal. Easy at home, I bought a little stand that holds the Kindle up at the proper angle. Much more convenient than trying to wrangle a paperback dead tree book.
    When eating out by myself I always carry the Kindle. Fairly often servers or even other customers will remark on what I have there or what I am reading. I have taken to telling them that I proof read for several authors and let them incorrectly assume that is what I am doing, ie a working lunch. Hey, I stated a true fact. They’re the ones making a wrong assumption. And it lets me read and eat in peace.
    So thank you Sarah, and Amanda, and David and several others of you lot for being my beard that hides my addiction as RAH used to call it.

    1. I got most of Heinlein’s older titles from the book rack at the local 7-11 in the ‘70’s. Every time I bought one I hadn’t seen apparently whoever ordered the books took note. He or she must have been a SF fan, because they knew what I wanted before I knew it existed.

  9. “Yes, trad pub authors are seeing a dramatic drop in their numbers. I understand now 1500 to 2k print runs are “not bad.” And won’t get you terminated.”

    I’m feeling much better about my lonely little book and it’s sales numbers now. ~:D If I work at it maybe I can get up to Real Dead Tree Author numbers. ~:D

    I’ve been wondering if what happened in the comic books is happening with paperbacks, and it seems similar. In ~1990, they would cancel any title that dropped under ~30-40,000 copies per issue. Recently the Te Nahisi Coates “Black Panther” title was canceled at ~8,000 copies per issue. (That was the one that prompted the VP of Sales at Marvel to denounce comic book readers as racist/bigot/homophobes I think.) Spiderman used to do numbers like 300,000+ per issue, now they’re lucky to get 100,000+. But they keep right on digging down at the bottom of that hole they’re in.

    In other news I got my email from Amazon today, the Kindle pool is $45 million this month. I’m inspired by the heatwave and crappy trad-pub numbers to work on my cover for Angels Inc. ~:D

  10. If you’re Trad you have to toe the line on the woke propaganda. James Patterson just had to apologize for saying that white male writers are facing a form of racism.

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