The Work

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:

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.

10 thoughts on “If You Want People To Read More, Teach More People To Read

  1. If you want people to read, teach more PARENTS to read to their kids. With 5 kids, the wife and I *nightly* gather up them all (except the most disagreeable teenager), and we read out loud. We make the character voices, include noises, and might even act out. The result: our kids are keeping Amazon in business! And we have to turn out their lights at night to make them go to bed and put the books down. They love reading because WE love reading with them.

    1. That’s a great point – I think my concerns are those parents in poverty, who either are working too hard for too little to have the time to read to their kids, or who literally can’t read themselves. (Or are strung out.) It takes a village, in other words…;) But you don’t have it easy with five kids (and I know ALL ABOUT disagreeable teenagers) and my hat is off to you.

  2. While I agree that the goal should not be making reading more like Angry Birds, I think that credit should be given to high quality computer-based emerging literacy programs & websites, like starfall.com, which is both free and extremely well designed. Starfall.com helping teach early readers in an engaging and sustainable way. My 3-year-old can sound out words because of it.

  3. No easy way around it, these things take time. Sometimes you have to start by teaching parents and teachers. And sometimes, by the time you see things going wrong, the people who took the decisions are long since retired.

    I still really don’t want to read Dickens for fun, and my time at school was a long time ago.

    1. I’m not even remotely interested in reading Dickens for fun. But I do read a lot of other things for fun. That’s the thing — someone who can read has *choices* that a functional illiterate doesn’t.

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