3.13.2014

Readers vs. Watchers: The Digital Revolution is Not Over

Lately a huge controversy has developed around the theme "Indies are Beating Traditional Publishers", and one publishing guru, Mark Coker,  the father of Smashwords, has loudly predicted that self-published authors will outrun traditional publishers by 2020, see here. Indie authors, carried forward by the digital revolution that has lowered production costs and leveled the field, are in a feisty revolt led by Hugh Howey; find all the rebels on his Author Earnings website here.

This race between indies and publishers, no matter how exciting, obscures something much bigger: the sea change that is investing the entertainment industry as readers lose out to watchers

We're into a brave new digital world where the written word is losing out to the image.

Evidence of this vast change is still anecdotal, but putting all of it together, it adds up. 

Take ebook sales. After years of exuberant growth, ebook sales started to flatten out in 2013. I've blogged about this before (see here). At first, I thought it was nothing to worry about: a physiological slowdown that indicated the market had reached maturity, that it was better balanced between printed and digital books (good news for the publishing industry!). But now I'm convinced the situation is actually much more serious than that. 

It's the book market's very survival that is threatened.

Why? Look at what's happening to the entertainment industry and more generally to our cultural life. Particularly noteworthy:

  • people are about evenly divided between readers and watchers: those were the results of a recent survey carried out in the UK and reported by the BBC (see here) and it's obvious that the divide is very likely to be the same in the US or any other Western country;

  • the performance of the tv and videogame industry suggests that more and more people watch films and play videogames and less and less people read books
The videogame industry is huge and has become as big as Hollywood. It is projected to grow from $67 billion in 2013 to $82 billion in 2017, a change happening largely at the expense of the movie and music industries (see this interesting article here explaining why this is happening).

TV is no longer an 'idiot box'. The ponderous New York Times itself in a recent article signed David Carr (see here) came out with that arresting statement. Look at what David Carr has to say about TV's "New Golden Age", here's a screen shot of a high point in the article:




What a feast indeed! There's no doubt that TV series, like House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones etc are entertaining and well worth watching. 

What is worrisome is that more and more intellectuals who were once upon a time big readers now binge on TV series. I know I have - I recently enjoyed for several weeks the Danish political TV series called "Borgen" centered on a fascinating female politician. My consolation is that it is considered "the hottest show in Europe" (see here). And here's the trailer, you can get it no matter where you live:



In our brave new digital world, the image is displacing the written word, it's as simple as that. 

The ebook has proved to be a neat way to make the written word more accessible to people - on your mobile devices the written word can now follow you anywhere, in the waiting room at the dentist's, on the plane, in the bathroom, in your bed.  

But the written word has to fight against films and music and videogames, a tough fight!

As to the suggestion that Smashwords is a big success and therefore we shouldn't have to worry (see article below), there's no secret: the number of writers who decide to self-publish is increasing exponentially and Smashwords is the platform of choice for them - user-friendly and able to upload  ebooks everywhere, from Apple's ibook store to Kobo to Barnes and Noble (though you still have to upload yourself on Amazon's KDP). 

But please note: Smashwords' success does not translate into increased sales for ebooks worldwide. The two aren't related.


Don't get me wrong. The flattening of ebook sales is not for tomorrow morning, there are still big markets to conquer, in particular India, the country that reads the most in the world, see the reading data here

I'm talking about a long-term trend, that is affecting the written word in all its forms, including blogging. It is now well known that blogs based on the written word alone have much less traffic than those lavishly using videos and photos (see tips #9 and #25 in this comprehensive how-to article for bloggers, click here). 

Images win out every time!

The handwriting is on the (digital) wall. This is the end of an era that opened with Cervantes' Don Quixotte in 1605, the first great novel of modern times, and was propelled by Shakespeare, Molière, Voltaire, Dickens, Goethe, Tolstoy, Tolkien and so many fabulous writers over the next four centuries. 

How this new video trend can ever be reversed, I have no idea. 

Any suggestions?

Personally, I do see a silver lining: writers will always have a lot of work on their hands, even in this new image-obsessed world: because the images must tell a story, and writers are the story-tellers par excellence...

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