If You Want People To Read More, Teach More People To Read
A Twitter conversation with Nick Ruffilo led to a discussion on a listserv I belong to, which has led to this post.
Yesterday at Making Information Pay, there was a reference to wooing potential readers away from Angry Birds, to books. While I wasn’t there (I had a long-fought-for doctor’s appointment), I was following the tweetstream – and at the invocation of Angry Birds, my head hit my desk. Repeatedly.
Angry Birds is not the problem.
If publishers are marketing to people who know how to read and choose not to, they are talking to brick walls. They might as well be selling vitamins, or broccoli. But if publishers focused some of their efforts on people who don’t know how to read (even in the US, these numbers are larger than you might think – in prisons, in rural areas, in inner cities) – well, that market is fairly well untapped. Particularly overseas.
A first-world example: Bernardo teaches Jonathan Kozol to his students at BMCC. Many of these kids are from distinctly un-trendy parts of Brooklyn, from the Bronx, from areas of Queens that have been blighted. Kozol talks about the amount of money that gets spent on education for these kids versus what gets spent in suburbs – and the difference is obscene. Bernardo’s students begin to see how the decks have been stacked against them since before they (or their parents) were born.
And they begin to read. They read Huckleberry Finn, The Awakening, Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. In the context of where they are from, these are radical books. (One might argue that these are public domain titles and therefore the revenue they generate isn’t so great. But they are Norton Critical Editions, and Kozol’s work itself is not yet out of copyright. There’s plenty of revenue happening.)
Part of growing your market is creating demand. And creating demand by making books “more like Angry Birds” is superficial. It’s the easy way out, and it doesn’t really benefit very many people. Publishers who are focused on that sort of superficial change are just biding time from financial quarter to financial quarter.
Some have (on the listserv I belong to) argued that increasing literacy is social policy and not the province of business. I would argue (and I did) that in publishing in particular, you don’t have to separate the two. Our business is predicated on education – if fewer people are educated, then the market shrinks by definition. The more people who can read, the more books will be sold. Ignoring that, or saying that it’s not a concern of the business, is short-sighted. And we’re in this for the long game.
Some folks on the listserv have kindly provided me with organizations that are addressing literacy:
- Bob Bolick suggests the American Academy of Pediatrics Literacy Toolkit.
- Peter Brantley offers Room to Read.
- Of course, there is Worldreader! And Pablo Arrieta suggests reading this post, from a publishing standpoint.
- Ashley Gorden and Kassia Kroszer remind us of ProLiteracy. Ashley also recommends First Book, and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Ashley has some great ideas about literacy kits – email me (ljndawson at gmail) and I will put you in touch.
- David Rothman suggests Library City.
Here’s what’s critical: many, many of these organizations work through public libraries. Publishers have been edgy around libraries for a good long while. It’s yet another reason why it’s time to get over that – for the good of the business.