Although the decline in reading by adult Americans documented in the National Endowment for the Arts' "Reading at Risk" study came as no surprise to the book community, the report provides clear evidence that action is needed to ensure that the book-reading habit is not, as NEA chairman Dana Gioia suggested, an activity headed toward extinction. By quantifying the degree by which reading is fading in America, the study gives parties interested in restoring reading's place in America motive—and ammunition—to develop initiatives to reverse the troublesome trend. PW invited several industry professionals to give their observations about the study and what steps could be taken to encourage the public to return to books. The first of these appear below. We welcome commentary from others.

A Need for Industry Will

Dana Gioia seems to be a very decent guy, who obviously is deeply shaken by the data his organization gathered. But to issue this report without attempting to correlate the decline to policy decisions made during the past 20 years seems a waste. Perhaps he had no choice. After all, he works for a president who has publicly boasted that he doesn't read the newspaper, who has done nothing to help alleviate the funding crisis plaguing American libraries, and whose conception of government includes little in the way of outreach to those who need help most. Indeed, one conclusion easily drawn from the NEA report is that if our political elites wanted to do something about the situation they could—but they don't. Which further suggests that our political elites much prefer a passive citizenry that prefers arguments about program schedules to a reading public that engages in policy debates.

Publishers are to blame, too. We've done very little to encourage reading, outside of showing up at big, urban book festivals, cameo appearances in communities usually already home to a great deal of book-related events throughout the year. Taking off from a suggestion bookseller and ABA president Mitch Kaplan has made: How many author tours include a visit by an author to a school? How many literary agencies have asked their clients to do some sort of educational outreach? We should be trying to think beyond the short-term profit-and-loss statements, and recognize that events in schools and underserved communities—just like cheap, used books and the free books provided by libraries—build a long-term marketplace. Exactly how we can do this without overworking our publicists, exhausting our writers and (most challenging of all) satisfying our corporate masters, I'm not sure.

The NEA report is, despite its lack of context, still useful, and I want to thank the chairman for it. It scared me, and inspired me to try harder to give back; after all, it was in a public library that I truly fell in love with books, in a small city not often on author tour itineraries. But I do believe that major results can come only with major effort. I wonder what we—the NEA, ABA, ALA, publishers, writers, agents—could do if granted the amount of money the administration spent last week in Iraq. How many years of outreach programs and book giveaways and literacy efforts might that fund? I bet Dana Gioia wonders that, too, even if he can't say it. —Geoff Shandler

Shandler is editor-in-chief at Little, Brown.

The Benefits Of Branding

With more entertainment options available than ever, the American public's attention span is at its breaking point. If the reading of books has decreased, one way to create more awareness of the books that are published would be to increase the branding of books and develop relationship branding with all of the other sources that may currently be taking consumers away from reading books.

Reading needs to be considered a fun activity, rather than a chore or effort. We can't tell someone to pick up a book—they have to want to do so. As advertisers and marketers have proven over the years, consumers can be influenced to buy or use a product, especially if the product is branded correctly. Certain writers have succeeded in establishing their own brands—Stephen King: horror; John Grisham: legal thrillers; Jackie Collins: romance. And some authors have not just branded themselves, but their characters—Tom Clancy: Jack Ryan; Robert Ludlum: Jason Bourne; Clive Cussler: Dirk Pitt. Then there are the brand tie-ins to movies, television, video games and even comic books, when the book comes first, but the movie creates new awareness and buying of the book, as in the case of Lord of the Rings, The Princess Diaries and The Notebook.

These books continue to succeed because they reach out to the fans of an already established brand. Libraries and bookstores should expand their customer-service reach, guiding readers and potential readers toward appropriate brands. Address the fact that Americans are reading... make the connections between video games, magazines and the Internet, and readers can be redirected toward books of similar genres.

Young Americans want to be ahead of the curve and not just follow along, and they also create trends as well. The comic book underground has just in the last few years been discovered by the mainstream. Moving beyond Superman, Batman and SpiderMan, graphic comics and novels are spawning an entirely new readership, now moving from the underground to the mainstream and developing into lucrative brands.

So how do we get more Americans to read? Maybe we let them look at the pictures first. —David Thalberg

Thalberg is senior v-p at the public relations firm Planned Television Arts.

A Call for Collective Action

Book publishing is a combination of four things: words, paper, ink and readers. Lord knows, there's no shortage of words, ink or paper. Unfortunately, as the NEA concludes, there is a downward trend in book consumption by Americans.

It's time to admit that the industry has failed to assure itself of a goodly supply of this crucial "resource"—readers. The Get Caught Reading Campaign has been a well-intentioned but largely ineffective exercise in (let's admit it) vanity. Okay, publishers know cool people. But who cares if Whoopi Goldberg reads, she's an actor; or Mrs. Laura Bush, who reads anyway.

Right or wrong, the real focus of the industry's collective efforts has been on protecting copyright. And much of that is posturing and overkill on the part of lawyers and lawmakers. But even if every copyright protection effort were justified, and successful to boot, so what? What's the use of a pickproof door if no one cares what's in the store?

I am speaking here of the failure of the industry's "collective" efforts, not the enduring (and these days, heroic) genius of individual publishers. In this era of infinite electronic distraction, it's miraculous that book publishing exists at all. Added to the problem of alternatives to reading is the collapse of governmental protection—through antitrust or from the FTC—which has allowed media giants to swallow book publishing whole. As a result, we are left with dueling godzillas: a giant retailer, Barnes & Noble, facing a giant publisher, Random House, with everyone else ranged behind them.

Notwithstanding various problems, we as an industry have failed to put our collective energies toward what really makes a difference in promoting reading: a long-term, well-funded reading campaign with partners from education, industry and government... not a cavalcade of stars at the mercy of free magazine space.

Additionally, the industry needs to support new technologies and creative business models that encourage the consumer to acquire reading materials in new and old ways.

Failing collective action and new business models, the industry runs the real danger of running out of its most important resource, readers. —James Lichtenberg

Lichtenberg has been an industry consultant for 15 years.