On the Undeath of Reading

[November 6, 2009]

Over the course of a career, the average writer probably hears “People don’t read anymore” at least a couple million times. Like “White Men Can’t Jump” it’s the kind of statement that sounds axiomatic simply because it’s terse.

It’s no surprise, really, that this phrase is so popular. Saying something is “over” is the easiest way to set yourself up as an arbitor of taste. Here’s what Steve Jobs said just over a year ago, regarding the Amazon Kindle:

It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore…Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.

Now, I can’t help thinking this statement was less about the absense of readers and more about the absense of a valid business model for entering the e-reader market. But by May of this year the rumor mill suggested Apple had found the solution. Perhaps in the meantime Reading went from dead to “undead.” Otherwise, who exactly is the current iPhone Kindle app intended for?

Regardless, let’s look at the 40% figure cited by Jobs. Taken at face value, it leaves 60% of Americans, or about 183 million people, who read one book or more last year. Maybe some of these people also read a newspaper, magazine or blog post. Or are these being read by homunculi?

That’s a lot of reading…
But let’s stick with books, like those on The New York Times paperback, non-fiction bestseller list for October 30, 2009. At Number 2 is a book about economics. Number 3 is about Afghanistan. Number 6 and 8 are by Malcolm Gladwell and Number 16 and 20 are philosophical rambles about the Deity. That’s brainy stuff for people who “don’t read anymore.” So it seems no one has driven a stake into the heart of Reading just yet.

Of course, once a statistic is involved, peer pressure makes pop axioms catch on like wildfire. Today’s hipster would rather die than admit to reading a book. Makes you wonder how Stephanie Meyer pays her mortgage—yet, strangely, she sells 500-page books faster than you can spell “transmogrification.” I wonder how many of her readers belong to Oprah’s Book Club.

…by people who appreciate real writing.
In fact, it’s never been a question of whether people will read, but what they’ll read. If market research suggests “nobody” reads online, it can only mean “nobody” wants to read the clipped Marketingese demanded by many a Marketing Manager or the kind of Art Director who cares more about pixel widths than motivating consumers.

Simply let Copy creatives write the way their craft, talent and experience tell them to and people will gladly read online—with or without a rollover coupon offer, expert video or a bloodless virtual sales force to sweeten the pot.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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