Can Books Survive The Battle For Our Attention?

Technology is only becoming a bigger and bigger part of our lives. Magazines are struggling to survive. Could books be next?

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In 2017, there are few things more valuable than our attention. Our attention is what makes businesses money; it’s what people, corporations, and everything in between vie for. Things from television shows to entire social media networks have died because they failed to capture our attention for a long enough time, and the things that haven’t died, we now consume differently. Could books be next?

The way we read books has already changed. Reading for pleasure is in decline across almost all demographics, and while physical books are still more popular than E-books, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, it’s not unreasonable to expect physical books to continue losing readers to e-books and audiobooks as technology becomes more and more pervasive.

The above-mentioned study also concludes that more people are reading on tablets and smartphones than dedicated e-book readers. This distinction between devices is subtle, but tremendously significant. Reading on a dedicated e-book reader entails a certain amount of focused attention, whereas reading on a tablet or smartphone is a constant battle against messages in your group chat, the latest Trump tweet, or the reaction to the latest Trump tweet, some of which may occur at the same time, all of which divide our attention.

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Technology is becoming a bigger and bigger part of our lives. As the decades go by, our attention spans will become shorter and shorter. Even those in Silicon Valley, the people who make a lot of that technology, are concerned. Technology is part of the reason why magazines are struggling to survive. Then again, they’re surviving. The book industry would benefit from mimicking the magazine industry.

Magazines are increasingly not just a magazine. Instead, they are multimedia publications. The book industry may not be able to replicate that, but it can certainly adopt the ideology behind it: to create more accompanying content on alternative channels.

Take George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four as an example. New editions of the book can be released in conjunction with other multimedia content: a pamphlet guide to Oceania, a virtual reality experience of the antique shop Winston and Julia find refuge in, video content shot from the perspective of the all-seeing telescreens, podcast episodes consisting of The Party’s propaganda.

All of these things not only extend the book’s brand (and have the potential to become new streams of revenue), but also give publishers more avenues to try to reclaim readers’ attention. There’s a certain bittersweet feeling that comes with finishing a good book, or television show. You just want to spend one more chapter in that world, or one more episode with those characters. That can be accomplished. Make it so that a book is no longer just a book. Make it so that readers aren’t done with a book the minute they finish the last page.

The comparison of television shows also provide publishers with other ways to extend the lifespan of books. While binge-watching TV shows is in vogue, most of the shows that truly break through are shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad that air on a week-to-week basis. Books are already divided into chapters, so why not adopt a similar model? The time in between doses of content also generates water-cooler talk, an intangible factor of successful content.

The book industry could replicate some of this by releasing books in increments, a few chapters at a time. Doing this can generate water-cooler talk and create “buzz” around a book, and while production costs could increase, extending the book across other mediums create multiple new streams of revenue and can be made up for by the free publicity and marketing that is word of mouth. Part of the fun of watching TV shows is talking about them with friends. Publishers can create this for books by giving readers a Reddit-style hub for discussion.

None of this is an attempt to reinvent the book, but more so to make the most of their contents and expand the experience. In a time when attention is currency, the book industry could be rejuvenated with a little creativity. Books may never die, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find a second wind.

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I strive towards a career that ends up leaving me somewhere between Howard Beck and Howard Beale.

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