Long-form is Dead… Long Live Long-Form

With recent news about declining print newspaper sales and major newspapers switching to online only services, it is unsurprising that there are many cries of “print is dead” in the media. We are also hearing a great deal about the importance of writing in short-form for on-the-go content consumption. But what of the future of traditional long-form media such as books and magazines?

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eReaders have disrupted the printed book industry

The increasing adoption of the internet and web 2.0 technologies has had a rapid and significant impact on society and consumer behaviour, whilst the digitisation of many forms of media has changed the landscape for traditional media organisations. As the music industry was disrupted by the shift from physical media such as CDs and DVDs to the intangible MP3 format and more recently streaming services, the book industry has similarly been disrupted by the introduction of digital books, eReaders and mobile devices. Some industry writers have reported declining print books sales and in their books, Jeff Gomez and Nicholas Carr argue that the printed book is not only in decline, but is approaching obsolescence.

Not only has the book market been affected by a format change, Carr believes that behaviours learned from extensive use of the internet have impacted consumer’s interest in and ability to concentrate on books in general.

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Interacting with a device activates different brain function than traditional reading

The experience of digital reading differs significantly from that of a traditional print book. Evidence suggests that social notifications from ‘interruption technologies’, media multi-tasking, the need to interact with device interfaces and frequent decision-making, such as whether to click on a hyperlink or advertisement triggers a different part of the brain than that used when deeply concentrating on a text as with traditional reading. The human brain is efficient and neuroscientists such as Daphne Bavelier and Susan Greenfield write at length about how we quickly build new neural pathways in response to new stimuli and activities, in this case internet browsing, but also to increase efficiency we lose pathways which are no longer needed or used.

This has led writers such as Carr to express concern that individuals’ attention both on and offline is being permanently affected by habitual internet usage and Carr believes that traditional linear reading skills and behaviours have been forgotten in favour of reading shortened ‘snippits’ of information, graphically presented information such as infographics) and interactivity with information. We also need to consider that consumers can now get information and entertainment from podcasts, video and other audio-visual methods whilst on-the-go and we’re seeing a huge increase in the use of these as a way to present content.

These factors, combined with the self-curating nature of the postmodern digital consumer has led to many reaching the conclusion that interest in the traditional book format is reducing and therefore the market for books overall is in decline.

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Is there still a market for long-form media such as books?

However there is significant contradictory evidence that not only does literature still have a market, but that printed books remain popular. A recent UK-wide survey showed that 76% of children under eight preferred reading print books over digital versions and Waterstones reported a rise in sales of printed books at the end of 2014 and into 2015. In his book, The Late Age of Print, Ted Striphas responds to claims that ‘print is dead’, arguing that printed works remain important and in demand in society. There is also much discussion regarding the declining sales of eReaders, which have been framed alongside statistics implying an increased popularity in print books and decrease in digital books. However there appears to be little consideration of the reading of books on other mobile devices and it is likely that this trend can be accredited to increased consumer adoption of smartphones and tablets with eReader apps, rather than a decline in the popularity of digital books.

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Many like the cultural associations of printed books

The world seems divided on the future of long form content and traditional format. At a recent conference I attended, one speaker confessed to owning many print books, but mostly to set a good example to his children. Another liked the cultural associations with owning print books. However the majority of people I spoke with professed to only reading books in digital format or listening to podcasts due to convenience.

So my challenge, and I choose to accept it; for the next six months I will be undertaking a research project to explore contemporary reading trends, behaviours, attitudes and preferences in the UK. Whilst my research will be neutral and unbiased, I hope to be able to return to you and say, “Books are dead…. myth… busted“.

Thanks to Pexels.com for the great photographs

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