I love the smell of a new book—the sandpapery feel of the paper between my fingers, the gentle rustle of the pages turning. I take pride in the number of spines of various heights, colors, and thicknesses littering my bookshelves. However, I have a confession. Despite twelve years working in print publishing as a writer and editor, I have not read a print book for pleasure in the past year. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a voracious consumer of content. I read online articles daily. I listen to podcast episodes and new music on Spotify. I watch whatever new shows the algorithms of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime tell me I will like. I read my two small kids their favorite picture books at bedtime. But I can’t remember the last time I cozied up with a good paper book and a cup of tea to read for fun.
I’m in good company. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, 27 percent of adult Americans have not read a book in the past year.1 The data for kids is not much more encouraging. According to the 2019 Scholastic Reading Report, 20 percent of kids aged 6 to 17 reported reading a whopping zero books over the summer. The breakdown takes place along distressingly predictable demographics. If you are from a lower-income family, are educated with a high school diploma or lower, or are BIPOC, you’re less likely to read for pleasure.2 For kids, a major sticking point seems to be access to books. If you are fortunate enough to be from a family that makes more than $100,0003 per year, you will have twice as many books in the home as your classmate from a family who makes less than $35,0004 per year.
Enough stats. What does this mean for publishers?
It’s tempting to blame this decline (and it is a decline, according to previous studies on both child and adult reading) on smartphones, Fortnite, TikTok, kids today, millennials, etc. But I think it’s worth asking ourselves, as publishers, if our nostalgia for print books is alienating potential readers. Print is not as accessible as online content. It’s expensive to produce. It’s risky. If your print books don’t sell, they are often destroyed at a loss. The world changes quickly, and print doesn’t always age well. Moreover, getting a book in print typically involves a litany of gatekeepers (agents, editors, marketing, sales, etc.) whose job it is to mitigate as much risk as possible to ensure books DO sell, and do so without drawing the ire of a reviewer or the internet in general. These gatekeepers tend to have a similar profile. You know who I mean. A straight white woman with an English degree and quirky glasses who lives and breathes CMS and worked various unpaid internships before finally breaking into the industry.5 We mean well—I know, I’m one of them! But our relative homogeneity makes it difficult if not impossible for new voices and diverse experiences to be authentically shared, no matter how “woke” we may think we are. Content creation is in the hands of a privileged few with the education, time, and means to generate the kinds of content that resonate with these gatekeepers and their vision for the world.
Things are changing, albeit slowly. Self-publishing has finally lost some of its stigma and is at an all-time high.6 Print-on-demand has made it possible to print just a few copies of a book at a time. And the rise of audiobooks and ebooks has made once print-exclusive content more accessible than ever before. But we can go further. We can do more.
Publishing is not about print, nor should it be. It’s about storytelling, generating and sharing ideas and experiences with one another. It’s more than a sound bite or a snappy headline. Publishing is a long conversation. I would encourage anyone who reads this to imagine a future where there are no more print books, not with denial or fear, but with excitement. What does that look like? What opportunities does it afford? What new format could take publishing into the future in a way that’s inclusive, imaginative, and accessible? Publishing has never exactly been a driver of change. But maybe now is the time to take risks, make mistakes, learn from them, and make sure we don’t get left behind in the content wars in progress and to come.
Here are two final, encouraging stats: when asked what they wanted from books, 40 percent of kids wanted books that let them explore new places and worlds, and 25 percent wanted books that allowed them to imagine and understand other people’s lives.7 That’s what books have always done, better than video games, television, movies, music, and magazines. I think this can be chalked up to the fact that publishers care. We are passionate about producing quality content that changes the world for the better. We’re in it for the long haul, not to get rich quick or seek our 15 seconds of fame. So, we must adapt to the times. We must make more voices heard. We can’t afford not to—our livelihoods depend on it.
Lauren Kukla is the former president of MBPR and a current board member at large. She is the publishing director of Mighty Media, Inc. The views expressed in this post are her opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of MBPR or Mighty Media, Inc.