This year, Apple’s iPhone will turn 10. The first-generation iPhone was released on June 29, 2007, and the iPad followed in 2010. Many of us can barely remember the time before we had them, so profoundly have they transformed our lives—including our relationship to reading. If you started in publishing back in the B.A.—before Apple—era, you probably remember living through the intense existential crisis that overcame the industry when the digital future of 2007 met the financial crisis of 2008. No one was sure that there would be much reading and buying ever again, and there were dark predictions about “screen addiction.”
By 2010, there were essays about the shallowness of angry flying animals. There were also blindingly bright predictions about a future in which no paper would be required. The Amazon Kindle was also born 10 years ago, and, without the chains of the printed books, many consumers opined that the price of books should drop because, after all, there were no longer any costs to making them. Everyone was going to be reading more, more, more. In truth, we really had no idea what was happening—we only knew that it seemed transformative. Flash-forward 10 years, and we now have some perspective on these prophecies. And not everything has turned out as we predicted.
The one thing we do know: there is no going back. People now integrate technology seamlessly into their lives, and they do whatever makes the most sense to them as they pursue their goals in a particular moment. I believe that presents exciting opportunities to innovate in ways we’ve barely started to think about. As the 2017 London Book Fair gets underway, here are some of the biggest trends I’m watching.
It’s Not Print or Digital
First and foremost, people still love print books. This is especially true of children, parents, teenagers, and millennials overall. Millennials are also much more likely than baby boomers to favor print magazines and subscribe to newspapers. Sales of print children’s books are up consistently for the last five years. If you just want to make great print books, there is a healthy market for that.
At the same time, digital has made respectable inroads, especially in fiction, where it represents more than 50% of purchases in categories such as romance. Still, e-books are down roughly 27% from their 2013 peak, and there is heated debate over whether this is the result of people going back to print or reading less overall as they are drawn into the spiderweb of short-form content streaming on their handy smartphones. E-books have a very hard time competing with other screen media in this context.
Frankly, I’m not sure it matters how people are consuming content. I would argue that focusing on the question of reading vs. watching or print vs. digital is missing both the point and the promise of where we find ourselves today.
An Omnivorous Story World
Technology is now so seamless and so powerful that if a child is into fairies, or a reader is passionate about English mysteries, or a home chef is into a particular style of cooking, they can chase that passion across a multitude of platforms, including books, TV, consumer goods, social media interactions, music platforms, apps, fan-created content, online education, live events, and much more. Not just by buying but by learning and exploring.
The passion of the individual organizes this pattern of investigation, not necessarily the content creator. In fact, the most exciting examples of this type of consumption are not usually the product of a single creator or company, and seem to take on a life of their own. (For instance, are you aware of the current slime frenzy? Google it.)
Comics & Graphic Novels
It also makes sense that in today’s highly visual environment, comics and graphic novels would be embraced by new readers who increasingly prefer to take in their stories with a multisensory approach. We’re seeing sharp growth in this genre for both kids and adults, and many innovative artists and writers are finding new readers as they push the limits of this type of storytelling.
At the same time, we’re seeing energetic adaptations of classics where the visual storytelling adds whole new layers of meaning. Gareth Hinds’s adaptations of Homer and Shakespeare for Candlewick, and Raina Telgemeir’s Baby-Sitters Club adaptations are both excellent, divergent examples.
Ever since I started studying children’s book consumers in 2010, I have watched the reported influence of children on their parent’s consumer decision-making steadily rise. This was not kids demanding what they wanted in a spoiled way—this was parents communicating with their kids and including them in decision-making as part of a new generation of family togetherness.
Now, as kids of all ages have instant access to the world’s most powerful reference tools—including the content multiverse of YouTube—it is only natural that their sense of curiosity would start to drive some very powerful patterns of discovery, inspiring kids to become subject experts, content creators, community educators, and do-it-yourselfers. In an era when your 10-year-old can fix the DVD player by watching YouTube and another child can start a 501(c)(3) to raise and release endangered butterflies, what kinds of content can we create to spark new areas of engagement and learning?
Maybe Audio Is the Future?
Finally, a quick word about the rebirth of one of our oldest forms of storytelling. Audio is on the rise, and not just because it is easier to download. New formats and platforms like podcasting and access to affordable production and editing tools are making audio one of the most interesting areas of story innovation.
From serializations to modern radio dramas to nonfiction podcasts for any interest, audio is finding lots of new audiences, and, unlike e-books, these audio forms can hold their own on smartphones. It’s not just about an audiobook adaptation any more
It’s All On Display in London
It seems to me that the key to being a successful content company today is to do the one thing publishers have always been good at: telling amazing stories. So, as you wander the halls at the 2017 London Book Fair and think about what’s next, take a moment to also think back about the last 10 years.
What has surprised you the most? Can you name any predictions you made that have come true, and any that haven’t? But, also take a moment to marvel at the fact that you are still here, making good content, and that your readers are still here, enjoying it. We really are living in a most amazing age.