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Summary:

Of all the books I’ve read in my life, a shockingly small percentage have been read in the past several years. 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.

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.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

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  1. Interesting post. It all makes sense. Non-fiction sales, logically, should decrease; the web replaces lots of non-fiction reading and filters it to a finite degree. And as we know, there is lots of fiction out here as well.

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  2. I think you need to do a little more research- since the advent of the web reading has increased drastically and publishers are publishing more titles than ever. Merely looking at last year’s stats is poor reporting- last year the economy was in a deep recession and people weren’t buying. However, library use was up sharply.
    I don’t believe there is a future for printed volumes. It makes no sense economically. However, I do believe there is a book-like format that will survive because all the media you describe do not deliver long format information, including stories, well. Books are an immersion experience, not a skimming experience. Probably more like gaming than anything else.
    As for the age gap, I think it is an attention span issue- mine was a lot shorter in my twenties than it is know.

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  3. This reminds me of a point made in Everything Bad Is Good For You: some arguments cannot be made in the space of a post, article or essay. Sometimes you need a book to really create whole picture for a point of view. I find this time and time again with stuff I read. Could Parasite Rex be as effective when compiled from random web articles? Could Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare biography have carried the same depth and punch as a few blog posts? Would Conn Iggulden’s excellent Emperor books have illuminated Caesar (albeit fictionally) as terrifically in the form of short articles?

    I think not. But this just illustrates what we might be losing and doesn’t refute your point. But I should caution at taking a short-term view here. Though I am a big reader, for the better part of a decade I hardly read anything before getting back into the habit. There are lull periods when it comes to reading and I find they happen mostly around you twenties. After that the patience to digest something bigger more slowly seems to take hold. I would argue that the spate of all-you-can-eat bite-sized information is creating new generations of readers, who will discover the unique potential of books soon.

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  4. The factoid about about sales of fiction rising even as non-fiction sales fall strikes me as a rare bit of good news – full-length non-fiction books have limited advantages compared to fiction books.

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  5. a very good article, good books and of course you always succeed

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  6. I agree with martin edic that you you need to do a little more research. :-D

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  7. I think you may have misinterpreted one of your major points.
    If e-readers are primarily bought by older people, that might not be because older people read more books, but because they want to be able to enlarge the print.
    I say this as a 50-year-old who owns a Sony Reader (and an iPhone, several Palm devices, etc.)

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  8. “Lush Life” is indeed terrific.

    Philip Roth of all people has weighed in on this. He was interviewed by Tina Brown about the future of the novel in particular, and whether the Kindle (and other devices) might save that particular form. He sees novel reading becoming a “cultic activity”:
    http://vodpod.com/watch/2402752-death-of-the-novel

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  9. I agree that too many non-fiction works could stand a good editor, and that when one places those in competition for attention, they lose out. Even well-done non-fiction often can’t compete with shorter (more focused?) attention spans.

    But I think the hint at the end that fiction isn’t suffering makes the general statement that books (in terms of length, not format) aren’t dying. Short stories simply aren’t winning out over book-length works, and online reading, I think, eats more into TV time than fiction-reading time.

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  10. The factoid about about sales of fiction rising even as non-fiction sales fall strikes me as a rare bit of good news – full-length non-fiction books have limited advantages compared to fiction books.

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