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Steve Jobs, Kindle, and People Who Don't Read

November 18, 2008

steve-jobs1Steve Jobs, King of Apple, caused a ruckus when he poo-pooed the Amazon Kindle to the New York Times this past January:

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.  Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

The blogosphere went wild.  Some thought Jobs delusional; others thought him un-American; and still others thought plenty of people still buy books–digital or otherwise.  Most speculated about Jobs’ real intent:  to announce that Apple was staying out of the digital reader market or to deliberately misdirect the public because he plans to get in.  

Interestingly, no one actually challenged Jobs’ statistic, including the NYTimes,  or even wondered aloud about his source.  Jobs’ deity status: if Jobs said it, it must be (at least be somewhat) true.   

So let me be the first to say I’ve done the research and…


The actual percentage is 32.  The Associated Press/Ipsos published the most recent survey on this subject in August, 2007.  In their survey,

  • 27 % said they hadn’t read a book in the last year,
  • 5% said they had read only one.  

But the survey had its flaws.  For one, the polled were richer, whiter, and better educated than the general population–and by extension, considerably more literate.  

For two, “read any books” leaves the the surveyees in charge of definition:  is that …finish a book?  skim a book?  look at a book?  do excerpts or reviews count?  How much of the Bible counts?  Also, AP/Ipsos didn’t ask for empirical information, thus easily allowing self-flattery.  My guess? people fudged to improve their looks (wouldn’t you?).  And let’s not forget that 42% of the American adult population is under-literate, meaning they can’t read at 8th grade level.  So…amazon-kindle


Actually, he probably under-estimated.  He’s also dead-on about the “whole conception [being] flawed at the top”–especially considering his point of view.  Jobs spends his efforts on products desired almost universally.  If it can’t be ubiquitous, why bother?

  • Everybody likes music, it’s just a question of type.  
  • Everybody needs a mobile phone, it’s just a question of how much and how well it can operate.  
  • Everybody wants a computer, it’s just a question of context (work, business, use).  

Oh yeah…and sexiness.

Will everyone want a digital reader?  Not a chance.  Jobs is right: the cart is before the horse.    You can’t sell a hi-tech reading gadget to low-skill/ low-interest readers.  “Everybody” isn’t reading.  


The three core issues of book selling are these



…and only this exact order, because each issue is irrelevant without the one before it.

Book marketing focuses on C–matching the right book to the right reader–not cultivating a future customer base from among the teeming, growing millions who currently can’t or won’t read.  Such strategies won’t cut it in the 21st Century…sooner or later you run out of enough readers to keep you in business.  The current strategy of letting the government (schools) create publishing’s next customer base is cheap but not particularly forward thinking (and, by the way, not working).

For me, I hope Jobs drags Apple into the digital reader game exactly because he understands that “people don’t read anymore.”  His cynicism just might inspire features in his machines that don’t simply sell books, but also motivate millions of people to learn and love to read.  Now that would add value to the world and Jobs could again experience the nirvana of ubiquity.  More power to him.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jerry permalink
    November 19, 2008 7:53 pm

    This is very helpful and challenging at the same time… thanks David

  2. December 11, 2008 9:51 am

    Hey! Whoever you are, Stranger, David, you just became one of my all-time favorite people!!!!! I don’t mean to offend with my informal voice. Not at all. Instead, I’m goofy with happiness. As an ENGLISH TEACHER at Failing Industry Community College, I’m delighted to finally find somebody interested in talking about boosting reading rates. Unfortuantely, my teacher peers appear to be thoroughly disintered in the topic, and in deep denial, which disgusts me to the core. I’ve written a rather subservise essay on the topic, essentially blaming traditional english instruction for part of the literacy problem in this country. If you’re interested, drop me a line. Next semester, to kick off my pro-reading comp I and comp II courses, I plan on sharing your website with my students. In fact, one of my students turned me onto to your blog. Keep up the excellent work! Peace!!!

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