As I wrote earlier, the book world is facing a series of unmatched challenges. Never before did we had to deal with so many changes in such a short time. And never before was the industry as we all knew it for so many decades, forced into a 180 degree turn in no time. To illustrate this, the main issues I use as an example are, besides the transition from paper to digital of course: the globalization (anyone from anywhere has instant knowledge of new products being launched elsewhere, with all its problems, such as piracy), rights (which of course is directly related to the globalization, and which are completely grafted onto the old purely physical world), new publication formats (do or don’t do them?), new business models (should you already take part in them?) and of course the crisis (which forces everyone to think even harder about their added value and priorities). But besides these, there is another phenomenon that, as the digitization progresses, starts to become painfully visible. And that is the consumer’s decline in attention.
Not only has the world become faster and faster in recent years, and do we as consumers get more and more incentives fired at us per day, we also have less and less time to spend. Or, better said: we don’t make as much time for things as we used to do. This means the average attention span has decreased tremendously, and that it is increasingly difficult to catch it and hold it. And thanks to the introduction of tablets like the iPad, this proceeded into an even greater leap forward. The tablet is a versatile device that as a result already replaces many home computers. The downside of this, is that activities that were previously done on different devices (e-mail and internet, watching movies and/or TV, listening to music, reading, gaming), are now all done on one and the same device. And the consequences are entirely for the account of, to say it flatly, the content makers. Suddenly, they have become direct competitors of industries they never had to deal with before. And for the book world, this means that there is now competition from e-mail (a sound or visual notification of a new e-mail makes that many leave the reader for the mail app), games (prefer another play of Angry Birds above the book you had just started reading) and for example YouTube.
And this is where the book seems to be in an even greater disadvantage than other media. The medium which perhaps gives the least nuisance in terms of competition, is music. You can listen to music and still do other things at the same time. Whether that is surfing the web, gaming or reading a book. This already was the case and this has not changed. But if look at movies for example, then it becomes a completely different story. Movies are visual and suck you into the story in no time. And once you are in, you will not be that easily distracted. And if you stretch the term ‘movies’ and also include other forms of moving images, you have competition from BBC’s iPlayer (or Hulu, and all the equivalents) and YouTube as well. And for those who ever spend an evening browsing YouTube, know you can easily fill an entire evening with it. And then there are games, which are becoming increasingly popular amongst adults (especially those on smartphones and tablets) and thus have become a medium which almost every consumer spends time on. Older consumers (which are generally seen as the main target group amongst readers) included.
If you then look at the book, you will have to conclude that it still has the same shape as it had centuries ago. A collection of text in a stack of (digital) pages, packaged between a jacket. It has not (yet) adapted to our changing demand: fast, flashy, visual and entertaining (in a way that you are entertained, instead of actively entertaining yourself). An average book costs you a number of hours to read and generally consists of a story that is only made out of text. Which makes it more and more difficult to compete with other media that do have these qualities we nowadays demand and which seem to respond better to the consumer who is becoming increasingly passive in their consumption.
And so the question arises: what can we do about it? First, leave the situation that I just sketched for what it is, and take one step back. And that is to that of another feature of the book. Which is the power of the written word. Because, what you can see as the weakness (only text and no images, and therefore requiring a more active instead of passive stance), you actually should see as the strength. The power of the written word is one no other medium has, and which, if properly used, is many times stronger than any image. When you read a thrilling book, the characters and events are as scary as your imagination gives shape to it. Or the location is as sinister, or as beautiful, as you can imagine. Or the main character is as pretty as you can imagine. This is also partly the reason why many movies based on books are so greatly disappointing. Not the right (handsome) actors or actresses were cast, poorly acted or scripted, or just not portrayed in a way you had it imagined when you read the book and your own imagination created the image. That is why a book can be scarier, more enchanting or more moving than the movie. Just because your imagination formed an image you needed to create the perfect picture.
That is something we should all realize (again), propagate better and try to exploit more: the power of the story. Furthermore it is very wise to actually do look at these new competitors and the changing needs of consumers, to find out which adjustments are needed to make the written word a future-proof competitor to other media.
Because no matter how you look at it, consumer behaviour has changed and will change even more in the near future. After all, tablets and other devices and their operating systems still have not been fully developed, but we can also state that they certainly will not disappear. Just like apps still have to find their definitive and optimal form, like the old media did many decades ago. This requires entrepreneurial strength, creativity and above all: trial and error. And the first examples are already there. In the book world you have the Vertragings-app (Delay app), which cleverly responds to short (free) moments (waiting when your train is delayed) with specially selected short stories. Or Lees dit boek (Read this book), which capitalizes on the strength and splendour of beautiful stories and tries to make the reader enthusiastic about them in a new way. And newspapers and magazines are currently experimenting with new ways to get their stories sold. In terms of business models (De Nieuwe Pers and eLinea, which lets you subscribe to topics or journalists) and in form (more deepening, shorter or longer form; longreads, as an online article or as an e-book).
The key, however, is realizing what the power is of your story, what your added value is in the entire spectrum called media, that you dare to think out of the box and then face the challenges. Only then you can win the fight for the consumer’s attention.