Are you optimistic about the future of books?

by | Jun 25, 2014 | Business of Publishing | 45 comments

Something strange has been happening lately: not many of my friends are reading books.

It has happened gradually, almost imperceptibly, but the number of my friends who are reading is on the decline.

Some of this may be my age. Now that I’m approaching my mid thirties, a lot of my friends are in baby zone and are using their rare spare time to sleep.

But a lot of people I know have switched to reading more articles, they binge watch Netflix in their free time, and even smart thinking people don’t feel the need to be catching up with the latest hot novel.

I have been optimistic about books for a long time. And I don’t see reason to change my tune.

But sometimes… I wonder. With tablets and electronics everywhere, with the Internet evermore at our fingertips… will people still read books like they used to? Will our attention spans survive?

I hope they will. I love movies, I love video games, I love television, but nothing can compare to the emotional depth of reading a book.

No movie can give us the last page of The Great Gatsby. No actual video game is as fun as
reading Ready Player One. The TV version of Game of Thrones is a lot of fun, but the longer it goes on the larger the books loom.

You know this. I know this. But are people going to keep reading?

What say you?

Art: A Favourite Author by Poul Friis Nybo


  1. Carmen Webster Buxton

    My favorite movie is the one that plays in my head when I read a book. At the same time, I am aware that not that many people feel that way. I am optimistic that books will survive, but I think that the number of people who make a living only writing books will go down considerably over the next 20 years.

  2. Sean Cummings

    Reading a book at bedtime is where I get my reading in.

  3. Ted A

    I think it is really two separate questions. If you are asking if I am optimistic about dead tree books, then I have to say the answer is no. I know the Big 5 are confident that eBooks share of the market will somehow stabilize between 25-35%. I can't see how they reached that conclusion.

    When a new technology comes along, the old doesn't stabilize. Did tapes stabilize after CDs? Did 35mm film stabilize after digital cameras? How are Encyclopedia salesmen doing today?

    But if you ask me if I am optimistic about long form stories (the content of those dead tree books), then I absolutely am optimistic.

    As you alluded to, novel length stories give time to develop characters and threads that other forms of storytelling simple can’t match.

    They can also be produced cheaply enough that the supply should stay plentiful. All the other story telling delivery devices (movies, TV, etc.) require a far larger budget to produce.

    We have always had stories. It is part of the human experience. We went from passing them orally around the campfire to writing them on media (papyrus, and eventually modern paper). Now we pass them around as 0s and 1s in our Kindles.

  4. L.G. Smith

    There seems to be some evidence that digital media is actually changing our brains. Attention spans are definitely getting shorter, in my opinion. I have found it more difficult to stay focused on reading lots of pages of a novel after being on the internet all day.

  5. Kentish Janner

    I can honestly say that, since getting my Kindle, I've been reading MORE books than I used to, not less. And that's WITH a school-age kid and writing a novel of my own.

    And I don't even know why that is. I have no explanation for why it's easier to read a couple of chapters on a Kindle than to pick up a dead-tree book and do the same thing. I can bookmark both a Kindle novel and a paper one. Both items are about the same size and weight. Sure, I can carry hundreds of books in a single Kindle device… but I can't read more than once book at once anyway, so that point is moot when it comes to the actual opening up the pages and READING part. I don't know what the reason could be – but it's getting me reading tons of new works by loads of different authors (your latest included, Nathan 😉 ) so I'm not complaining.

    I think the future of books is going to be just fine. It might not be "books as we know them (Jim)" but it's alive and well.

  6. Terri Patrick

    You are right about the age thing. the 30's are not the decade for savoring the prose of past. And more people avoid the lastest hot novel as those tend to be more hype than stories that have stood the test of time.
    I see more people reading now because of their tablets and phone apps. In my life good reading time has been cyclical but stories feed the soul no matter their presentation. Some of those video games are interactive stories and those are still created by authors.
    What you are really noticing is a lack of innovative depth in the stories with the best marketing, like movies. And the bombardment of choices.

  7. Gibson

    Leisure reading has asymptotically declined over the last 50 years. It continues to decline now and (barring some strange new societal changes like the Singularity or Global Climate Change mass extinction) probably by 2050 making a living as a writer will be like making a living as a poet or wood carver. It's sad, but true. Watching a youtube video/listening to music is far easier than cracking open that tome. Reading actually requires people to use their minds and I don't think it's going to last in the long run (We seem headed towards an Idiocracy future anyhow). That said, I'm an aspiring author and I hope I'm wrong. Or that I can at least make my mark before it all goes to bunk. But yeah no one really reads anymore. People BUY books, but rarely read them. James Patterson and Stephen King novels make great Christmas gifts though and they'll continue to sell as such.

  8. Erik

    The idea that books are in decline is a myth.

    In 1900, almost 11% of the population was illiterate, and a huge percentage of people couldn't afford books, which were still incredibly expensive. Today less than 1% of the (much larger) population is illiterate and the cost of books is cheaper than ever.

    In almost every way, books are more consumed now than they have ever been. That is especially true after the rise of ebooks. More people both know how to read and can afford it. There are also, simply, a lot more people. Even if the total % of people who read is down, the population gains make up for it.

    I'm very bullish on the future of books.

  9. Chris Barnes

    Reading helped me find who I was, then slowly intertwined itself into my very substance. To stop reading would be like trying to breath without lungs. Narratives in games are getting better and I've always loved movies, but the sweetest oxygen still comes from stuffed paper.

  10. Mieke Zamora-Mackay

    I think it's the stage you and your friends are in. Having children in the baby to toddler stage drains a lot out of you, physically and mentally. It's to the point that all your brain can really accommodate for entertainment are short articles and possibly binge watching. Once you guys move to the after 35-ish range, or where the children are in the 7 to 8 year old range, I believe you'll find more people reading books again.

  11. Torre Deroche

    Like other commenters, I read / buy more books than ever now too. I have hope. Write on, writers.

  12. Gehayi

    Everyone I know is reading more, not less. They're reading books on e-readers, library books, books online, books in the public domain, tie-ins to movies (and books that inspired movies). People may be reading in different ways, but they're definitely still reading.

  13. Maya Prasad

    Hard to say, really. My friends in the software industry don't read, never really have. Now I have more friends outside of that industry, and I know people who will at least read the latest hot novel even if they're not always reading. I think it depends on your circle, which is why overall stats are more helpful than anecdotes. In general, this industry needs to rely more on stats and less on out-of-date wisdom.

  14. Stephsco

    While I differ on your opinion about reading Ready Player One vs. playing a video game, I'm not seeing The End of Reading just yet. Like others have said, I see more people reading differently, on tablets and phones, for example. I know people who weren't readers before but when they bought their ipads they downloaded Kindle or Nook apps and bought books. I have friends who are moms who find reading on an ereader much easier while nursing (hold baby in one arm, ereader in another, or lies flat on a surface). I actually think it's enabling more people to read, though the QUANTITY of books read may not be the same as it used to now that we have movie-quality TV accessible at a button click.

    I actually overheard a coworker say, jokingly, sort of, "who needs books when you've got Netflix?!"

  15. Elissa M

    I think there's a natural decline in reading for many folks in the 30-40 year range. Later in life they tend to pick it up again. Personally I'm as optimistic about the future of books as I am about the future of anything.

    I disagree that new technology always replaces old. There are more artists making a living from their paintings than there were before photography was invented. Movies were not the death of live theater. And our village still has a blacksmith (really!).

    Story will always be important–at least as long as humans exist. How the stories are delivered will change (as it always has). But I'm not worried about books vanishing in my lifetime.

  16. Becky Nguyen

    I believe people will keep reading – tablets and computers provide books/articles too. Now, I guess the question is whether physical books will survive, the way cassette and VHS faded. Books are being replaced by ebooks.

    Another question is if people will continue indulging in novels and deep reading, while now our attention span is alarmingly short, limited at a paragraph-long article or 140 letters of Twitter. That says a lot about our intellectual ability. And no, I'm not optimistic, but I believe a segment of population will keep reading deep.

  17. daniel t. radke

    I'm too lazy to look, but I swear in the past 6 years you've made fun of people, on this very blog, for saying what you just said.

    Unless our society goes Idiocracy on us, books will always be there. The way our minds react to the written word cannot be duplicated by any current technology.

    So until my consciousness can be uploaded to a Holodeck where I can grab a sword and start cutting people down, I'll take A Song of Ice and Fire.

  18. Rusty Biesele

    I think the biggest, most alarming trend, is that the value of a book is declining. Everything else follows from that. Many of the best selling books recently have been "Television on paper". The number of people looking for this kind of writing versus in depth writing has risen. The market tends to focus trends that direction since many people can't afford the gizmos and read the Television on Paper as an alternative. When they can afford them, they drop books and watch movies or repackaged TV shows. Sometimes, people on the intellectual side of the spectrum are too tired to read because the current economic environment forces them to work very hard. So for them to read something, there has to be a compelling motif, one that is unlikely to be seen in the near future in video media. As publishers push "Television on Paper", the other kind of writing becomes more illusive, drowned in the mass publishing of large numbers books.

  19. ScifiWriterMom

    I've been thinking about this exact topic recently. Mainly because I find myself binge watching and enjoying Netflix. Where once I would hit the bed ready to read for an hour or so, I now start my wind down time watching an episode of my favorite comedy…and then I read. Unfortunately, I'm sure I'm not reading as much. All that said, the sad thing is that I am a writer. Not a TV or a movie writer, but a novel writer. Am I putting myself right out of a job?

  20. Marion

    Not optimistic about my WIP right now. Critique group for first chapters. Consensus: "Nothing happens."
    Building character and relationships, laying the groundwork. Is that nothing?
    Does every chapter have to have a gunshot or an explosion; or heavy breathing & other nonverbal vocalizations?
    I know this can't be answered. Just venting.

  21. G. B. Miller

    Very optimistic about the future of books.

    If the younger generation is anything like my 13 year old daughter books will be around for a long time.

    Strange though, she prefers reading books the old fashioned way as opposed to using her tablet or Kindle.

    Father Nature's Corner

  22. Bamboo Grovers

    I am optimistic about the future of books. Personally, I am reading more than ever. The baby years are hard going. When my first child was born, I don't think I picked up a book for a year, and reading has always been my greatest pleasure. The process of becoming a parent is so mentally and emotionally exhausting. Now with my subsequent children, I am relaxed enough to take time to myself to read. Also, in the most convenient parental advice article ever, I read that in order to encourage your children to read, you should model the behaviour. Pinned that one on the fridge. I will always want to read books, and some of my children are the same. The future is bright.

  23. D.T. Krippene

    Those who read yesterday, continue to read today and will read tomorrow, whether it be hard pages or digital. I think as boomers solidify as a major age group (getting larger everyday), reading will still be important, and may actually increase as they retire and have more time.
    Reading isn't everyone's thing. I have one grown daughter who devours books, another who doesn't have time for it. The younger generation is more prone to digital media distraction. We may very well see a modest decline in years ahead, as folks opt for the easy out of visual versus verbal.

  24. Kevin Brennan

    Holy crap, you mean you were in your late 20s when you were rejecting my novels for Curtis Brown! When the gatekeepers are 20 years younger than the writers, I don't wonder why books are in trouble…

  25. Jaimie Teekell

    I'm not worried. Nothing has replicated the experience, unlike every other kind of media that has gone out of popularity. Maybe one day when we can download stuff into our brain, then we should be worried. (But they'll need writers for that too.)

  26. Mark Jones

    Absolutely positive. Reading provides an experience unmatched by any other medium. People will always want to disappear into a fantasy and live out someone else's life. Wish fulfilment if nothing else. Adults do tend to read less than youth, but I believe books are a stronger force than ever.

  27. treeoflife

    If we're talking anecdotal evidence, I'm in my early 30's, have 2 young kids and many of friends have 2 or 3 kids. Yeah the reading slows down when the kids are newborn, but after that stage I and all my friends that I talk to about this stuff are reading as much as ever. Plus I read to my kids and buy them books… Lots of reading going on and lots of future readers.

  28. Jennifer Mattern

    I'm optimistic about people reading books in general. I'm also in my 30s now, so I know what you mean about friends entering the "baby zone." And I hope to be there soon myself. But it hasn't stopped my family and friends from reading, and it won't stop me or my husband.

    I'm a full-time writer. I couldn't make a living from my writing if I didn't keep reading. I'm a total book worm. So is my husband. We read all the time, collect books, and my office is actually in our former library (so I get to be surrounded by books every day). We do watch Netflix and Hulu. We play games. We lead ridiculously busy lives. But we'll never stop reading.

    As for the age issue, I think it's more an issue of who is reading and what they choose to read.

    For example, family members with young children might not have as much time for their favorite novels right now, but they read a lot to their kids.

    My nephew just turned two. At his birthday party he opened a gift from me with two books and a toy. He took one of the books and motioned to his mom that he wanted to sit in her lap to read it. Yes. He stopped opening presents to sit and read a book, in front of everyone. I was so proud when I heard that (I couldn't make it to the party, but regret not seeing it for myself).

    That alone gives me immense optimism about the future of books.

    It's not necessarily that fewer people are reading. It's just that as some generations have less time for it (at least until the kids are a little older), the newer generation is stepping in. And in time, I'm sure those parents will find better balance in their schedules and get back to the books they love.

  29. Gabriella

    I think of paper-based books and novel-length books as similar to vinyl concept albums (remember those?) from the 70s. They were so popular at one point that they had album-oriented radio stations (remember radio?) Then video killed the radio star and the deep concept album, meant to be listened to with grave reverence on your stereo headphones…well it died. But music continued living. The delivery method changed, the way of buying it changed, and the music changed too. But the music evolved and continued living.

    I think books will change in ways that we can't even imagine. But story will still live. Story will grow, and evolve, and stretch and will always exist. So I'm very optimistic about the future of story.

  30. K. L. Romo

    I still look forward to daily reading with giddy excitement. I've always been that way. Don't think it will ever change (at least, not if I can help it!). But it is true – the stage of life you're in can make quite a difference as to what amount of time and energy you have to read.

  31. Julia Munroe Martin

    I'm afraid you might be right… I just read that, according to a new study by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, people spend only 19 minutes a day reading. (Young people less, older people more, although the stat didn't breakdown books vs. shorter media.) As for TV, yes, it's MUCH higher: 3 hours a day average. So, I'm not feeling terribly optimistic, either…

  32. Anonymous

    I'm reading more than I ever have, and all on my Kindle and Kobo.

    I go through phases, sometimes I read voraciously (like now) and sometimes not so much.

    Books, in whatever form, will always be with us. I'm optimistic.


  33. Anonymous

    I think more people read books now because they can come through electronic delivery systems, so they're considered "media" — instead of an alternative to it. And as I think about it, it seems there's more awareness and appreciation of books than there seemed to be a decade ago.

    What worries me is more the decline of writing quality due to the net and other factors, along with the competition of so much verbiage that can be easily accessed on the net.

    In spite of myself, I still can get sucked into spending hours reading blogs, news, and other posts on the internet and then realize that I just spent hours reading some really low-quality writing (the nadir is when I start reading "comments" to news posts, hoping to find someone "out there" who agrees with me!).

    I'm also sometimes shocked at how poorly written (to my taste) some very popular books are, both fiction and nonfiction.

  34. lora96

    Yes. I'm optimistic, too. I base that on the fact that I read. I have a two year old child who is trying to give up napping, and still, I read. When she's asleep, when she's playing with her dad, when she's looking at a book. I still find new titles I'm excited about and older ones I'm ready to revisit.

    Reading refreshes me and nourishes me. No matter which physical form it is in, I think the book is here for the long haul.

  35. Laura Martone

    I can't speak for everyone, but as an only child and now a published travel author (and yes, an as-yet-unpublished novelist), I've always been an avid reader. Currently, I'm reading four books – a Dumas classic, Lovecraft's complete works, a Burke crime novel, and a self-published novel about a fat vampire – and I certainly can't fathom a day when I (and a lot of my friends) will stop buying and reading books of any form. Of course, it helps that, though in my 30s, I work from home and have no kids!

  36. Anonymous

    Since I got my ereader I watch almost no TV any more. In the first year or two I found so many stories and authors I head never heard of before. Feedbooks was is awesome and BookBub is also great!!

  37. Matthew Eaton

    My reading has changed more to non-fiction simply because I can't stand reading fiction any longer. While reading is great, fiction writing is truly horrid.

    Books are the next industry bubble to burst. ebooks and physical form will suffer on Web3.0

  38. abc

    I am optimistic. I read as much (if not more) as I ever have. My daughter is a book worm. She talks about and trades books with her friends. The schools strongly encourage and support reading. John Green is a superstar (on Colbert–lucky)! My parents still read 3 books a week. Their friends all read. People who are readers will always read, I think. Of course when you have a baby/toddler/little you won't have as much time and you'll be happy to watch Orange is the New Black when he/she finally-FINALLY-goes to bed but I'm betting your friends will find their way back to books.

  39. Terrence OBrien

    Congratulations. You have now officially entered middle age. Welcome.

    The symptoms are worry over a decline in reading, this generation of kids, the effect of TV on people, declining attention spans, teen sex, video game rapture, plastic packaging, and being seen in the minivan.

    Now, get the hell off my lawn!

  40. Nicole

    Most of my friends are still reading a lot, maybe even more. But I've noticed for myself that it IS more challenging to carve out the time to simply sit back and enjoy a good book. Still optimistic though. The love of reading never really goes away. It might get buried by life sometimes, but it always comes back!

  41. Melissa

    Going to BookCon in NYC last month renewed my optimism on the future of books. Seeing the huge lines of people was encouraging. In particular, YA books and panels were very popular.

  42. Jennifer Malise

    I've been seeing a lot of adults–men and women–reading books on the subway and the PATH. Physical books, and some of them are massive, which people are pulling out of their bags and purses. I see e-readers too, but I've been surprised by the number of physical books that I've seen people carrying. Also, I've been seeing lots of adult women reading YA novels out in the open, and it makes me happy. Hopefully this trend will continue, and more people will read books of all forms–despite their target audience or genre.

  43. Anonymous

    I think people will always read, but in digital format as time moves forward.

    I do think there's a misconception these days where so many thing digital books should be shorter. Readers seem to want longer e-books, but no one is listening to them. The average word count for most e-publishers is 50,000 words. I've seen indie pubbed books that are far less in word count. And I think this is a mistake. People like longer books for a variety of reasons that range from getting their money's worth to really getting into a long book. And there's no reason why e-books can't be just as long as print.

  44. Wendy

    I am very optimistic about people continuing to read books. However, I don't know if we will continue to read paper books.

    The seniors I know continue to read books. In retirement, they have more time to read. They all seem to prefer paper bound novels.

    What heartens me is that the young college kids are also reading books, the classics are available for free download and most of the kids I talk to have read Fitzgerald, Austen, Hugo, Dickens and more and enjoy them. They love the new books too. Most of them read electronically via a kindle or their tablets and take their entire library with them on the go. Granted, I'm a writer and I hang out with college students that also write, but there are a large number of young people that still enjoy a good book out there.

  45. rebeccam

    I continue to read books, both kinds. I'm not in a book group, but many of my friends are, and two of them are in three book groups! I'm in my sixties, but my son in his thirties also still reads books, although more and more only Kindle books.I also work for a bookstore that is thriving. So I'm not discouraged about this.


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