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Reader Creation & Development: More of What it Will Take

December 22, 2008

2. Book creation and marketing must reflect an intimate understanding of American reading habits.

My boss Mike Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishing, is beginning a new blog series entitled, “Book Marketing 101.”  I have no idea where his posts are going, but at the outset he’s absolutely correct that great marketing begins with great books, great content.  

But here’s the question authors, agents and publishers must face:  great content for whom?   reading pie chart

The American adult population are all either NON-READERS or READERS.  

  • NON-READERS are either Can’t-readers or Won’t-readers.  
  • READERS are either Will-readers (because they have to) or Want-to-readers.  

To which group is the content of each book targeted?  

We know, for instance that 42% of American adults can’t read above an 8th grade level–Can’t-readers.  So, just for giggles, let’s take the rest of America’s 222 million adults and divide them evenly among the other three categories.  Ninety-eight percent of America’s adult (non-textbook) books hope to be sold to only19% of  the adult public (and I suspect that’s being very generous).  Once the American mainstream, Want-to readers are now a niche within a niche within a niche.    As their traditional customer base shrinks, the book industry must start making, marketing, and creatively distributing great books for a much less interested, much less educated reader who may not be sure what all the fuss is about.  

3. The publishing industry must work together to create and develop readers.

scholastic reading counts

No single publisher can make reading cool again, convince Hollywood to care, or radically alter distribution methods.  It will require the publishers of the world to talk with each other to identify their common issues, then WORK together to implement them.

And right now, publishers have no centralized initiatives or organizations to address reader creation and development.  

  • Publishers Weekly and BookPage serve a vital function in providing insight into book contents, corporate news, genre development, and consumer trends.  But for the most part, even these venerable magazines haven’t stepped up to address the larger issue of readership.   
  • The book industry’s largest event, Book Expo America, typically has no space or lectures devoted to reader development or literacy issues.  
  • The American Booksellers Association is all about free speech and public policy development for retailers, but seems completely oblivious to the reality that their customers’ customers are evacuating in droves.
  • The most important commission on literacy in the last decade–the National Commission on Adult Literacy was not funded by a single publisher except McGraw-Hill who provided office services as an in-kind contribution.
  • Scholastic may be the only major publisher in America that makes reading a major priority–and for them it’s huge.

Every publishing executive in America should be able to sit down with a cocktail napkin and draw out a pie chart, like the one above, that accurately pictures the landscape of American readers.  But they can’t.  And until they get together and fund the studies, they won’t.

serena williams milk mustache

The book industry needs to take a page from the Milk people and duplicate it.  In 1993, when milk sales were declining in favor of the onslaught of sugar and sports drinks flooding the markets, California milk producers created a council (CMPB), hired an executive director and an advertising agency.  Then they all contributed 3-cents of every gallon to the promotion of milk.  Today milk producers all over America chip into and benefit from Got Milk?, contributing together to make Milk Brand one of the most identifiable and successful in recent American business history.

Publishers of all stripe could experience a similar resurgence if they all anted up to create and develop readers.

 

© David P. Leach and Consequential Value, 2008

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