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.