In a world of peak attention, how can books survive?

In a world of peak attention, how can books survive?

What happens when we run out of time?

This might sound like a philosophical question, but with the explosion in content and entertainment offerings such as social media and freemium games, we are rapidly approaching a state of peak attention. I define peak attention as the moment where the competition for our attention reaches a saturated point - when there is no more time to spare and something else must miss out.  

As the old saying goes; time is the ultimate finite resource. Increasingly, ours is being spent online.

Herbert Simon first coined the term 'attention economy' way back in 1971. His simple conclusion was that an explosion of information must lead to a scarcity of what it consumes, our attention. From his office, it’s like he foresaw the entire rise of social media with its endless content feeds. We now collectively spend more than 10bn hours a week on the main social platforms, and it is rising fast. The total attention equation is different still. Between online and offline media platforms, the average American spends one more hour per day than they did just two years ago – almost 11 hours a day in total.

Simultaneously, from 2005 to 2015, the average amount of time Americans spent reading for personal interest on weekend days and holidays fell by six minutes to 21 minutes per day and 17 minutes on normal work days - a 22% decrease in a decade.

We’re essentially facing a crisis of attention.

Feedback data and machine learning are changing the game.

I believe the advent of the data feedback loop from users, now a reality with all digital media, will prove the game changer. Software can now learn on its own, powered by unprecedented computational power and vast data sets of real human behaviour. Imagine a book that gets better and better suited to its audience every time it is read, gradually personalising to fit each person’s preferred narrative direction.

These new self-learning systems will inevitably get very good at hooking us in – and keeping us there.

Facebook’s newsfeed has rightly been called the most disruptive invention in media in the last 50 years, and one simple reason is the data feedback loop from its users. This allows Facebook to get ever better at locating our emotional triggers - and serve content or notifications we find it difficult to resist engaging with. It puts me in mind of Neil Postman's introduction to his excellent book Amusing Ourselves to Death:

 “We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would ultimately be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one [...]

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny 'failed to consider man's almost infinite appetite for distractions'."

What’s the risk for the book industry?

Rather than simply living side by side in harmony, there is a compounding effect on the competition for attention across all the media we consume. Every new entertainment offering and attention-consuming activity essentially raises the bar for all the incumbent things people used to spend time on. We have entered a state of hyper-competition. If everyone increasingly fights for the same attention pool, something must inevitably lose out. And that's going to be books, if Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Netflix keep winning.

The true structural issue here is that all services and products compete for the same 24 hours. This creates a very real pressure that drives product decisions in social media, gaming and digital platforms towards addiction patterns and sugary content. Addiction translates to money on the web, so the tech industry finds ever more appealing tricks to keep you hooked. Have you ever wondered why the next episode of your TV show now automatically starts playing? Our term for what happens next - “binge watching” - is telling.

The real question is how reading will compete in a world where other services and offerings are getting increasingly aggressive in hijacking and keeping people’s attention. Even - especially - if it means presenting audiences with only simple, trivial or attention-grabbing content.

Maybe the effects are already beginning to show? 50 Shades of Grey, anyone?

What’s the way forward for the industry?

There is no easy or simple answer to this question. But there are things we can do to set the right course.

First, as an industry, we need to consider and engage deeply in broader popular culture. When young people increasingly dream of being Instagram celebrities or YouTube stars rather than authors, the result is that visual culture is effectively winning the cultural war for aspiration. That will translate directly to attention and revenues. We need to make it “cool” to read, write, and opt out of the constant social pressure to participate on social media. We need to preach the virtues and impact of long-form over shallow content.

We also need to consider the overall funnel and ecosystem. Traditionally publishers made money by selling books, just like record companies once sold recorded music. One product, one transaction. Now YouTube and Spotify act as giant marketing platforms for the music industry. The future of commerce is based on continued engagement and attention. The music labels long ago realised that their remit in this new world is much wider than simply printing and distribution. The book industry should take notice and prepare for the attention economy. We must build more creative and flexible business models; run workshops with famous authors, focus on merchandising and wider cultural adaptation. The book of the future is what the feature film has been to Disney for 60 years – the centre of a whole entertainment and cultural universe.

Finally, publishers need to join the data feedback game like their life depends on it. The alternative is fighting blind against competitors with advanced radar and night vision. All companies in the attention economy are ultimately data companies, no exception. Buzzfeed only invest in activities or channels where they can get quality data feedback. 

It's not going to be an easy transition for the book trade, but it needs to start happening now.