Thinking Out Loud

January 17, 2017

Christians and Reading

bookstore-signThis is part two of two articles on the general subject of reading and language, especially as it relates to the closing of bookstores in the wider market, and Christian bookstores in particular. Click here for part one.

Times are a lot tougher than in the past. Millennials struggle to find jobs and wealth creation is not as it was in the days of double-digit interest rates. The R-word — recession — is occasionally mentioned; some say we’re moving into it, some say we’re in it, some say we’re in recovery. Christian bookstores could have reason to claim immunity for the following reasons:

  1. In full out economic depression, people turn to religion.
  2. Also in depression, people turn to entertainment. While the book industry doesn’t have the same profile as movies, music and television, it is most definitely a subset of the entertainment industry.

So why have so many Christian bookstores closed? As with yesterday’s article, I haven’t taken the time to cite studies and statistics, but trust me on some things I can offer anecdotally.

First, we mentioned the various time pressures, distractions, and diminishing attention spans. I would argue that this has led to decline in the traditional devotional reading time. Bill Hybels has tried to give this new life by christening it with a new name, Chair Time. I wrote about that in February, 2016. Curling up with a good book and building a personal library are becoming rare activities. The only way to ensure people have contact with books at all is sometimes to have small groups or home groups which are essentially book study groups. That doesn’t always happen however. Many house groups use church-provided outlines or small study guides related to DVD curriculum they are watching. I do like the traditional book groups, especially in the sense in which they provide accountability (to cover the chapters for the next meeting.)

Second, I think the problem is self-perpetuating. Focus on the Family did some studies a decade ago on the spiritual influence the Dad has in the home, citing things like church attendance over time. I would contend that a generation is arising that has never seen their fathers sitting in a chair reading and when I say reading here, I would settle for the Sears catalog or Sports Illustrated. Many homes no longer receive a newspaper; and I understand that, you can read it online. But online reading is very personal. I could be doing anything online now: Checking the weather, balancing my bank account, posting a social media status update, watching YouTube videos, playing an online game, reading a serious article, or writing for my blog. But when someone sits in a chair reading, they are very obviously reading. Kids need to see this modeled for them as a life component every bit as normal as brushing your teeth.

Third, I believe that leadership is not setting the pace. In the retail store where I hang out, we see Sunday School teachers, we see worship team members, we see small group leaders. What we don’t see is elders, deacons, board members. Sometimes I will visit other churches and I see the names of these people printed in the church bulletin and I don’t recognize any of those names. We even had an instance of a pastor who we were told on good authority did not use his book allowance in ten years. (The man was incredibly arrogant and probably felt he knew all there was to know.) There are a few exceptions to this, but many people are chosen to serve their church in this capacity because they are business owners or executives who are successfully managing the company they work for and are considered wise enough to run the affairs of the church. Maybe they’re too busy to work on their own spiritual formation. That wasn’t the case with Stephen however. When The Twelve needed to create another tier of leadership to do the everyday running of things, they chose, “a man of faith, full of the Holy Spirit.” (The solution to this is pastors who buy the books in bulk they want their elders to study and then give them out as required reading.) 

Fourth, the stores need traffic generators; they require a constant hit bestseller to pay the bills. The Left Behind series accomplished this. The Shack brought people to the stores to both discuss and purchase the book. The Purpose Driven Life did the same. (I know there are people here who aren’t fans of these three examples, but they make the store sustainable for people looking for a classic Spurgeon commentary, or something by Tim Keller, or an apologetics resource.) Even on the non-book side of things the Gaither Gospel Series DVDs provided that traffic. These days, whenever something takes off in the Christian marketplace, Costco and Barnes and Noble are quick to jump into the game. Conversely, it doesn’t help when major Christian authors experience moral failure. The publishers occasionally offer products exclusively to the Christian market, but they only do this for specific chains (Mardel, Parable, Family Christian, etc.) not the independent stores who so desperately need this type of support. You have to be inside the stores to see other products you might wish to read or give away.

Finally, we’re not presently seeing a spiritual hunger. People are not desperate for God in North America and Western Europe right now. We hear reports from Africa or South America, though it’s hard to really quantify what is happening when there are often fringe movements or revivals based on extreme Charismatic doctrine or a mixture of Biblical Christianity and local animistic beliefs. In my early 20s, I remember hearing a Christian speaker say (quite tongue in cheek) “We don’t need the Holy Spirit, we have technology.” There is a sense in which this is true. It does remind me of the adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, but you can put salt in his oats to make him thirsty.” We have to find ways to instill that hunger for reading in our local congregations. Pastor recommendations of books from the pulpit are the most significant factor driving customers to make purchases or place orders.  Another way the technology can be made to work is by providing chapter excerpts for people to sample; but publishers are very reluctant to do this, for reasons which escape me. 

In conclusion, all the factors mentioned in the previous article are impacting bookstores in general, these factors listed here are some things that concern me about the Christian market in particular.

not_enough_shelves

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January 16, 2017

The Erosion of Language as We Knew It

giant_library_scene

Yesterday I provided a kind of soft intro to the topic I want to look at today which bears on larger issues than just why bookstores are struggling.

There are some widely circulating statistics suggesting that in North America, western Europe and perhaps Australia/New Zealand as well, for the first time ever we’re seeing a generation with a lower life expectancy than their parents and grandparents faced; in other words, after better nutrition and medical knowledge have allowed us to live longer for years, suddenly it appears the numbers have peaked for both males and females.

On top of that, we’re also seeing a major decline in economic expectancy. Millennials are struggling to find jobs and the prospect of amassing enough wealth to secure their retirement years has somewhat vanished.

I would argue that parallel to all this we’re also seeing a major decline in literacy, or at least literacy as we have previously understood it or measured it.

There are a number of reasons for this, but all related to the personal computer revolution of the past 20 years. This isn’t a technical revolution, because the technology has been around much longer, and it’s not really a computer revolution for the same reason. Rather it’s the effect of personal computers being a part of every home, or even every individual. In the Fall of 2009, Finland became the first country to declare broadband internet access a legal right and by the summer of 2010, every person was to have access to a 1Mb connection.

I’ve written elsewhere about how computers and the internet have accelerated social change and how we’ve basically lived 4 decades worth of shifting paradigms in just 20 years. Today however we want to focus simply on language.

The simple answer to the question, “Why aren’t people reading books like they once did?” is easy.

  • We don’t have the time. We’re spending all our free time with our devices, or more specifically, screens.
    • The small screen in our pocket associated with our mobile phone
    • The medium screen be it a desktop, laptop or tablet
    • The giant screen in the living room be it Plasma, LED or LCD
  • We don’t have the money. We’re using up all our discretionary spending money on the same screens.
    • monthly phone bill and data plan overages
    • apps
    • cable or satellite television
    • home internet connection
    • streaming services
    • software bundles
    • accessories, extended warranties, virus protection, etc.

That is all fairly obvious.

We’re also seeing some other things at play at the same time.

  • Spell-check – You don’t really need to know how to spell a word anymore since the computer corrects it for you. Grammar-check is also slowly improving.
  • Texting – This is the reduction of the English language in the extreme.
  • Emojis – This is the reduction of written communication in the extreme.
  • Acronyms and Initialisms – I hope you’re taking this article seriously and not ROFL or LOL.

But there are also other factors beyond what’s happening online:

  • The end of cursive writing – They don’t teach cursive script in many (if not most) schools now. I would argue there’s something different about what we write when confined to individually printed letters. But this is a moot point when you think about…
  • The end of handwriting, period – If you’re of a certain age and are right-handed, and you look toward the end of your middle finger, there’s probably a callus there from many years of penmanship. Today, most kids spend far more hours keyboarding than handwriting.
  • The increasing emphasis on numeracy over literacy – Your ability to process numeric data is increasingly more vital than your way with words.
  • The diminished need to learn – It’s no longer necessary to know anything as long as you have mastered search and can locate the information needed. Unfortunately however there is a less sense as to the expected answer one is looking for, or a healthy skepticism as to whether or not the source is trustworthy or accurate.

The technology has also inflicted more damage to traditional reading:

  • Shortened attention spans – I don’t understand the psychological ramifications and I’m sure much ink has been given to this in professional journals and forums, but simply put, there’s something about the technology that has made us restless resulting in the often-seen response, “TLDR” (too long, didn’t read).
  • Increased distractions – One person well when they said something along these lines, ‘The problem with the internet is there are too many off-ramps.’
  • Dependency on rich text – I am referring here to our inability to follow a sustained argument through a lengthy paragraph. Rather we have become dependent on the use of italics, bold face, subheadings, bullet points, pull-quotes, and even (horrors!) underlining, color and enlarged fonts. (Yes, guilty as charged here.)

Next, there is the particular challenge of eBooks:

  • When they were first introduced, eBooks were offered at a substantial discount. The problem with this is that when you only spend 99-cents, or get the book for free, you don’t really have any investment in it. Many people would read a chapter or two, figure they got their money’s worth and never finish reading. This concerns me on several levels:
    • It strikes me as cheapening reading, diminishing the value of the author’s worth.
    • For some, it was all about the downloading experience; loading the device with titles for which the person had no intention of reading
    • It grossly inflated eBook sales which signaled a death of print which never happened.
    • The side effects of sore eyes and headaches caused by the devices turned some people away from reading.
    • It made it more difficult, if not impossible to loan a book to a friend.
    • When someone really loves a book, they will tell five friends, of which only one (at most) will be another eBook reader; the other four will try to get the book in print. But to love the book they have value it and finish reading it.
  • The side effect of cheap eBooks and the introduction of the Amazon discounting paradigm created a perfect storm, wherein print books were more widely discounted, which cheapened the value of printed books and also resulted in a climate where people were not finishing reading what they had started.

Finally, as noted above the technology afforded the possibility of online sales which bypass the traditional brick-and-mortar store.

  • The Amazon paradigm — the company itself and various copycats — created a situation whereby books were shipped directly to a customer’s door, thereby creating a situation where people were less likely to interact with physical books in a retail store environment. Choices are made from a store which really has no filters and where obscure publishers can buy placement in ways unknown before the Amazon revolution.
  • Sometimes customers got burned. The book didn’t materialize as what was suggested in online.
  • Other customers took to using the traditional bookstore as a showroom for the online seller. They would check it out in a local store, but purchase it cheaper from the online vendor. This was (and still is) a source of great frustration for bookstore owners, many of whom didn’t need another reason to throw in the towel.

…Well, that about covers it, right? Not quite. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the particular issues which face bookstores more familiar to some readers here, Christian bookstores; the topic we originally set out to answer.

Feel free to engage the comments section to suggest things I may have missed. These notes are from many years of doing this extemporaneously and I may have omitted some things. If the omission is serious, I may update the text.

Borders - The End is Near

 

July 29, 2013

Where are the Book Reviews? Where are the Books?

The scene a year ago as Borders bookstore locations closed.

The scene a year ago as Borders bookstore locations closed

Sunday night, and I’m looking around for a new book to start. Normally there is a stack from publishers and authors. Not so anymore.

I’m also realizing that around this time last year I wrapped up a two-year flirtation with Christian fiction. My reading of doctrinal and Christian living books still had a four-to-one lead, but I got quite taken with the writing of James Rubart, Andy Andrews, David Gregory, Paul Young and one-time authors William Sirls and Michael Neale. My bookshelf actually needed some space devoted to fiction.

But while the second book in the James Rubart series is due out any day now, I haven’t signed up to review it. I think you get on a roll with certain types of books or certain subjects and then when you fall out of where that current had been taking you, it’s hard to jump back into the stream.

However, that doesn’t explain the lack of non-fiction reviews here over the past few weeks. I’ve finally reached the point where the blog has enough clout that I can bypass those blogger sign-up things where they offer you free books simply because you have a blog, even if you only have a handful of readers. Plus I have publishing connections.  “Ask me if there’s anything you want to review;” I was told last week. I said what I really, really wanted was the full text of The Voice Bible. Maybe that wasn’t what they had in mind.

There is a shortage of books.

On June 19th, Evan Hughes wrote an article for Salon titled Here’s How Amazon Self Destructs.  Yeah, they had me with that headline. You can read the whole article here.

Basically, Hughes is noting that while Amazon is category killing its way to a 60% market share of books sold, it only accounts for 6% of the “discovery process;” the way we find out about books and choose to want to acquire them. In fact, online “discovery” generally is only 17%. Hughes writes:

…The brick and mortar outlets that Amazon is imperiling play a huge role in driving book sales and fostering literary culture. Although beaten by the Internet in unit sales, physical stores outpace virtual ones by 3-to-1 in introducing books to buyers. Bookshelves sell books. In a trend that is driving the owner of your neighborhood independent to drink, customers are engaging in “showrooming,” browsing in shops and then buying from Amazon to get a discount. This phenomenon is gradually suffocating stores to death. If you like having a bookseller nearby, think carefully before doing this. Never mind the ethics of showrooming — it’s self-defeating. You’re killing off a local business you like…

The occasion of his article is growing concern about the long-term stability of Barnes and Noble. Yes, you read that right. First Borders, now Barnes and Noble? There have been layoffs, and store closings. Hughes notes:

By defeating its competitors, Amazon is choking off some of its own air supply. Barnes & Noble and independents are in one sense competitors for Amazon, but in another sense they are functioning as unwilling showrooms and sales agents for the online giant. As David Carr has suggested, Amazon should want them to survive, if only out of self-interest.

Amazon has made attempts in recent years to get better at “discoverability” — with  the “Look Inside” virtual browsing feature and with recommendation algorithms (“New for You”), and through highlighting bestseller lists and editors’ picks. In a bold step in March, Amazon acquired Goodreads, the leading “social reading” website, where readers recommend and review books for one another. Many observers saw this move as a grab for more customer data. The stronger motivation may have been the desire to secure a discovery engine that would funnel customers to Amazon.com, thus protecting against the loss of stores. But so far Amazon has not cracked the discovery problem. Sometimes the site makes a recommendation that no sentient human being would make, which is telling. Even if Amazon gets better at this, it may run up against a wall: Some people want to literally get a feel for the book before they buy.

Barnes and Noble dates back to 1886. Their retail stores are visible, but they operate almost as many textbook stores on college and university campuses. [see Wikipedia article for a complete history]  Hughes writes:

Already in a distant second place [to Amazon], Barnes & Noble has recently seen its woes deepen significantly. The company has been closing stores and announced in June that it would close still more and stop making Nook color tablets. It reported net losses of more than $1 million per day.

But is Hughes being sensationalistic?  In the current issue of New Yorker magazine, James Surowiecki writes:

But the hastily written obituaries left out some important facts. To begin with, B. & N.’s retail business still makes good money, and, though its sales fell last year, its profits actually rose. Its operations, thanks to better inventory management, are more efficient: it can make more money while selling fewer books. The Nook is the only part of the business that’s losing money. Being a book retailer isn’t easy—thanks, above all, to Amazon—but Borders’ bankruptcy, in 2011, left B. & N. without a major national competitor. “In this market, you could actually pick up market share simply because you’re the only major bookseller left,” John Tinker, a media analyst at the Maxim Group, told me. And B. & N. has generally avoided the expensive, long leases that can drain a retailer’s cash flow; many of its leases are short—which gives it flexibility in terms of moving or downsizing—and, since its stores generate foot traffic (which is good for surrounding stores), it has considerable leverage with landlords…

So maybe the sky isn’t falling. Not yet. Surowiecki continues:

For many people, as a number of studies show, reading is a genuinely tactile experience—how a book feels and looks has a material impact on how we feel about reading. This isn’t necessarily Luddism or nostalgia. The truth is that the book is an exceptionally good piece of technology—easy to read, portable, durable, and inexpensive. Unlike the phase-change move toward digital that we saw in music, the transition to e-books is going to be slow; coexistence is more likely than conquest. The book isn’t obsolete. Barnes & Noble just needs to make sure it isn’t, either.

So we see that while some people have speculated how the Amazon empire could possibly implode, others are dismissive of the idea. A few months ago I wrote here about how the values of Amazon’s founder might be quite opposite those of many people who read blogs like this one, and yet despite this, many conservative Evangelical churches are happy to cede all their book purchasing to Amazon because of better pricing. In the average church office, when values are in collision, stewardship trumps principles.

The publishing industry has been hit hard by various factors, and while the long-term good might be better served if everyone didn’t have all their eggs in one basket, a collapse of Amazon isn’t necessarily good news. If the company did go down, some publishers’ entire fortunes are hitched to the Amazon star, and there would no doubt be ripple bankruptcies across the publishing spectrum.

But if Amazon is choking off its air supply, it explains partly why it seems to me there are so few books to review right now. Maybe I need to be more aggressive about asking music companies to service social media with review copies to fill the gap.

July 2, 2012

What’s a 250-Page Book Worth?

This week I got an email notification that a local author’s three books — two fiction and one non-fiction — are being offered as free downloads on different days this week. Having known writers who were a little distressed that their books were remaindered, and musicians who were little disappointed that their albums were deleted, I can’t imagine the motivation for broadcasting the fact that the product you labored so hard to create is being valued in economic terms at nil.

I can see how this author might believe that this is going to help him get his message out to a wider audience, or that it might raise his profile on the world stage, or that it might result in other books selling at closer tho his normal price. But on a transaction-by-transaction basis, it means his works are now owned by people who have no particular investment in them.

My thesis is that people are not reading. All our leisure time is now consumed by supporting our screen habits: The pocket screen, the Mac/PC/laptop screen, and the 42-inch plasma screen.

Furthermore all our leisure time money (dollars, pounds, etc.) are tied up in supporting all those same screen habits.

You may wish to argue that “sales” of eBooks are brisk; that this is why the brick-and-mortar bookstores are dying off, because people are downloading books electronically and watching/reading them on a variety of devices.

Let’s consider that possibility.

The greatest promotional vehicle for a book is word of mouth. When enough people have read a particular new release, they start talking about it and they tell their friends.  So all of this downloading ought to result in a groundswell of book interest, which might explain my author-friend’s excitement about the free download offer.

If in the highest categories, electronic book sales only represent 22% of the total number of copies sold — let’s be generous and say 1/4 — then those people are going to spread their passion to their friends:

  • one friend will buy the book electronically
  • three friends will buy the book in print

So you have a few books that go out at ridiculously low prices — in North America let’s say $5.99 or $2.99 or $0.00 — that spark the sale of many more both in Nook/Kindle editions and in print.

But it’s not happening. 

I think the reason is that people are downloading books but not finishing them. They’re using the low-priced and free titles to practice seeing what their electronic toys can do. Perhaps they are reading the introduction and the first chapter, and then, having spent nothing on them, they spend no time finishing them.

Now, let me be clear. I think some print prices are too high. I have continually challenged how the U.S. publishing industry, caught in several years of bad economic times — insisted on keeping the practice where first editions were published in hardcover.

Driven by greed, many author’s works which were pending were deleted and the authors released from their contracts in the years from 2008-2010, because the industry decided they would rather get nothing than sacrifice a publishing paradigm that keeps the books priced high.

The print equivalent of a $3.99 or $5.99 download is a $5.99 or $8.99 value edition; and the industry has no reserves about using this format for older titles, but isn’t interested in using similar tactics to introduce new authors and secure a future for their brand.

But in electronic reading, all bets are off. It’s like a new wave of marketers rushed to the head offices of the various publishers and presented an idea that would see people “adding to cart” all manner of titles and create the illusion of a vibrant and active electronic publishing sector.

Just two problems.

The books aren’t getting read.

The books are being devalued in the process.

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