As a father, I regularly look to my toddler son and ponder how will I share with him some of the experiences I so fondly remember from my own childhood: rainy days building forts out of TV tables and blankets, snowy nights building model planes and tanks, and Saturday afternoons watching the Creature Double Feature. And, of course, reading books. Lots and lots of books.
As a boy and a teenager, I read voraciously, knocking off a book a day or at least two or three a week. But those days are long gone. If there’s one casualty of a career in publishing, it’s reading for fun. Reading manuscripts and sample chapters and proposals, not to mention several hundred emails a week, puts enough wear and tear on the average agent’s eyeballs that a monthly eye exam could easily be justified as a business expense.
Kids today, though, have a lot more competition for their attention. I had five TV stations growing up, not five hundred. And if I wanted to change the channel, or my dad wanted the channel changed, I had to get up and change it (yes, I was the original “remote” in our home). I had a manual typewriter, not three computers. And I lived in New England, where it actually snowed and rained, unlike where my son is growing up in San Diego, the land that precipitation forgot. Other than the occasional day well into the nineties, the weather is rarely conducive to a day spent inside reading.
All of which is a long way of introducing the subject that book publishing as we know it is in deep poop, because kids today have far many more options for their “reading time” than I ever had and their parents are just as, if not more, distracted. My son will grow up like most kids in America today, with hundreds of TV stations to choose from, millions of websites to waste time exploring, an iPod full of media (likely video as well as audio), and video-gaming consoles and handhelds, plus a beach full of surfers just a few miles away. How on earth will I get him to read a book? And how will the publishing industry get today’s kids--and their parents--to read books?
No, I don’t actually have the answer to that last question, but if there was a question publishers should be pouring money into answering, that would be the one.
Harry Potter was a godsend to the publishing industry. Not just for the millions (billions?) of dollars in book sales it helped generate, but because it got an entire generation of children to read. And not just to read, but also to look forward to reading and look forward to that next book in the series. Dan Brown did something similar with adults. Adults who hadn’t read a book in years felt they had to read The Da Vinci Code. Surely a few went on to read Brown’s other books and maybe after that even read some other authors’ books. But Brown took six years to write another book and Rowling is “done” with Harry Potter. Thankfully Oprah still picks a book now and then.
Once upon a time, US presidents would be seen reading books and those books would leap to the best-seller lists. But when did you last hear anything about what the president was reading? What the publishing industry needs today is not just best-selling authors like Rowling or Brown, but also reading role models that will inspire children and their parents to pick up more books. Forget “game night.” We need “reading night” in America’s homes. We need a president who tells us what he’s reading that week, not to mention talk-show hosts, ballplayers, and supermodels. Because, like it or not, those are the individuals to whom Americans seem to pay the most attention. Oprah already tells us who she’s reading, but what about Katie or Matt or Jay or Dave? What about Tom and Gisele? Angelina and Brad? Or how about the Jonas brothers or Miley? Somewhere on all of those concert tours, they must pick up a book, right? Maybe publishers should add some more celebrities to the galley mailing lists. Certainly if Angelina is seen carrying the latest children’s book release around the sales would skyrocket. If tween girls want so badly to be like Miley, maybe she could pick up a copy of Pride and Prejudice, or even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and inspire those tweens to do the same.
So let this be a call to action, Washington. Listen up, Hollywood. Our children need you to read and we need to know what you are reading, so don’t be shy about actually being seen carrying a book. And, please, let your choices not just be from the best-seller list, because those authors are already doing just fine.