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Rumors of books' demise has been...

Newspapers across the country are cutting their book review sections.  It's only a matter of time before they disappear entirely.  That, combined with the closing of long-established, respected independent bookstores points to a sea change in the reading habits of America today.  The average American (for that is whom I am the most familiar with) simply cannot be bothered to read a book.  There are simply too many other sources of education and enlightenment competing for our time, and only the people truly passionate about the printed word will stick with it. 

This is the reality.  Complaining about it is about as useful as complaining about the tide coming in.  Some people feel that all we need is a new way of reading books; some miraculous e-reader with a paper-like complexion will suddenly reverse the trend, and hordes of teenagers will rest their sore thumbs by instead reading books again on an e-reader.  This is a pipe dream of the first magnitude. 

 As is often the only useful method of predicting trends, we must look to historical analogues.  The rise of cinema in the early twentieth century resulted in many premature eulogies for classical staged theatrical productions.  Such a prediction was reasonable on the face of it; the cinema was more accessible, more economical, and more easily distributed than plays.  Theater attendance did most certainly drop to a fraction of what had been seen a generation previous; but, once a new level had been set, it leveled out at rates that remained reasonably stable for many decades.  Cinema also underwent a great shrinkage when television emerged; witness the plethora of abandoned or repurposed movie houses in every major city.  Both, however, are still around.  Consolidated, to be sure; not offering quite the same opportunities each had in their "golden ages," truly; but to describe them as no longer viable would be far-fetched. 

This is where I trot out the savagely Darwinian metaphors that all aspiring writers hate to hear.  When the pie is shrinking, and fewer books are published every year, simple adaptation is not sufficient.  While there will be both books and readers in the future, connecting one to the other is going to require more effort.  The most precious commodity in today's world (at least, until the oil runs out) is people's attention.  The best way to get that is not to tell people what they should be looking at, or suppose what people might like to look at if the interface was improved; rather, the best way to get peoples' attention is to create an experience that fulfills some un-met need, and present that experience to people in a way they can relate to with a minimum of effort.  Expectation-setting is the beginning, but the fulfillment of the promise comes through content delivered in a way that moves the reader on some level, be it base or lofty.