Bookseller Briefing 18/19 – week ending 3 May

Young people who engage less with reading prefer screens, says NLT report

Print is still the preferred medium for young people but digital formats are growing in popularity amongst those who engage less with reading, according to a new report.

According to ‘Children, Young People and Digital Reading’, compiled by the National Literacy Trust (NLT) for the Publishers Association (PA), children and teenagers aged 9-18 predominantly read print but those who have a low reading engagement are more likely to read on a screen than their more confident peers.

Report author Irene Picton said: “Our findings suggest that offering children and young people the opportunity to read not just a wide range of materials, but the chance to access these through different formats, may hold benefits not just for those children less engaged by print reading but potentially for all readers.”

Boys with the lowest levels of reading engagement are more likely to read a range of materials on screen compared with boys who are more engaged readers. For example, 25.4% of disengaged boy readers read fiction on screens compared to 9.8% of their more engaged peers.

In addition, pupils that receive free school meals are also more likely to read on a screen. One in four said they read fiction on screen compared to 16.3% of those who don’t receive free school meals.

Confidence also comes into play with 23% of those with a low reading confidence reading materials on screen compared to 15% of those with a high reading confidence.

More of the young people surveyed read fiction (54.6%), non-fiction (45%), comics (27.3%), magazines (31.3%) and poems (21.5%) on paper rather than on screen. However, song lyrics were more likely to be read on a screen (chosen by 56.1%) of respondents, as was news (32.1%).

Older readers (aged 14-18) are more likely to use screens than those aged 8-14, regardless of the material.

Similar percentages of boys and girls say they read either on paper only or on a screen only but many young people who read above the level expected for their age read fiction both in print and on screen compared with those who read below the expected level (23.8% vs 12.9%).

The PA said the report, which was compiled using data from the NLT’s Annual Literacy Survey of 56,905 children and young people (aged 9-18), conducted between January and March 2019, supports the Axe the Reading Tax campaign to remove VAT on digital publications.

PA c.e.o. Stephen Lotinga said: “This new research demonstrates the importance of digital reading as a vital part of developing reading attainment and enthusiasm in young people. It makes no sense that while print books are rightly VAT zero-rated, their digital equivalents are not. Digital VAT is blocking literacy at a time we should be doing everything possible to encourage reading and learning across all formats. That is why we are asking MPs to back the Axe the Reading Tax campaign and call on the Chancellor to act in the Autumn Budget.”

Stop millennials using phones at work, IPG told

Publishers looking to keep millennial workers engaged should have set times when no-one looks at their smartphones or laptops, leadership coach Mark Leruste told the Independent Publishers Guild Conference.

The event’s first day took in subjects including using AI, strategies by children’s publisher Nosy Crow to grow the business and tips on using metadata to boost sales from Toni Allum, inventory controller at Pavilion Books, and Blackwell’s digital director Kieron Smith.

In an energetic, colourful address that closed the Heythrop Park conference’s first day, Leruste, a millennial himself, gave attendees a series of tips on how to keep their younger workers happy.

The speaker, whose organisation The Unconventionalists tries to “eradicate career misery in the workplace”, told the audience one of the main things the millennial generation looked for was a company with a strong cause at its heart where they could make a difference.

He told the doubters: “Change is coming, it’s happening, whether you want it or not, it’s here. Darwin’s theory of evolution wasn’t about the strongest or fastest species, it was the species that was able to adapt to their environments.

“The world has changed and this generation has changed. It’s an unprecedented generation with access to technology. It’s not that we’re difficult to manage. It’s that we need a little bit more direction in why what we do matters and how can we contribute towards something bigger.”

He suggested saving younger workers from their social media and messaging addictions by stopping them constantly checking their phones for the constant “ping” of updates and breaking their concentration. It would also allow them to learn about “in person” relationships rather than virtual ones.

“Be radical,” he said. “Have moments and pockets in the week when you’re absolutely without digital devices. Leave your phone and laptops outside the room. See what happens. You’ll be forced to learn how to have conversations again.”

He went on: “This sounds extreme, I know it does. But every time that I’ve done this, people resist at first and every single time they’ll come to me and say ‘that was the best three hours we’ve ever had’.”

Leruste also insisted workers should be given “spaces to open up” and told how their role affects their company’s “mission”.  “This idea that you cannot be purpose driven and profitable is simply completely outdated. Show these people how they stand and where they stand in your mission,” he said.

The conference continues today with a string of sessions including keynote speeches by Gabe Weisert, managing editor of Zuora, and BBC media editor Amol Rajan.

Publishers need to shift to subscription service ‘mindset’, says Zuora boss

Publishers need to start setting up their own subscription services and understand that revenues will come further down the line, managing editor of software firm Zuora Gabe Weisert has said.

In a speech to the Independent Publishers Guild conference, he said a lot of subscription services started off in the red before their users became profitable but this should not put publishers off.

He said companies had to shift to a mindset where they shifted from annual reports of what happened last year to a “situation where you potentially have 30, 50, 70% of your annual revenue waiting for you next year”.

“The money doesn’t go away, it’s getting pushed out, three years, four years, five years out,” he said. “That revenue is turning into recurring revenue, deferred revenue. It’s a different kind of mindset. You can start with a really basic recurring plan, as you develop that and as that service gets stronger, adding some kind of usage element to it like your cellphone plan can work really well for you. We’re also finding with this model that you’re getting growth.”

He spoke about the company Scribd, which now has one million e-book readers on subscription although he said licensing agreements were driving up the money they had to pay out, with the romance genre really pushing up the cost. New York’s Serial Box allows people to download 30 to 40-minute bitesize “episodes” to read or listen to.

Explaining the model, Weisert said: “You start with your subscriber, you wrap services and experiences around them across the channels that they’re at.”

He said the subscription idea was spilling out across industries from furniture and clothing to car companies where people paid for “the ride” rather than the vehicle itself. Weisert said books were a perfect product for the model, which, when done well, built up closer relationships with customers.

Asked about the tiny amounts artists earn from music streaming companies such as Spotify, he said that was something that needed fixing and publishers needed to set up their own subscription services.

He said: “This is why I’m leaning on this idea of doing it yourself. These platforms are obviously something you’re going to have to contend with and work with and partner with but the overall goal is to establish direct relationships with your readers, relationships which may have not previously existed, and then you can introduce, hopefully a lot more fairness and quality into the system.”

Creative writing graduates will ‘never make a living as novelists’, says Self

Will Self has declared literature to be “morphing into a giant quilting exercise”, suggesting that no current creative writing graduates will make a living from literary fiction.

The author criticised courses during an interview with Radio 4’s “Today” programme on Thursday (2nd May), in a show recorded at the University of East Anglia, almost 50 years since its prestigious Creative Writing MA launched.

Self said: “If you want to do it and you’re not too concerned about making a living in the future then it’s probably a good idea. The paradox is, in the modern university, everyone is encouraged to tailor their courses towards employability but it’s certainly not clear what the pathway is into literary fiction – possibly into genre fiction, or possibly people can use the writing courses just to develop themselves as writers to write video games or something else, that’s a possibility.”

In regards to the UEA course’s famous alumni, he said “who’s to say they wouldn’t have been great writers anyway?”

“We had a literary culture before creative writing courses and you don’t necessarily want to go back to the 19th century and say ‘you need to go on a creative writing course to reduce the length of your sentences’… ‘Hey Joseph Conrad, stop employing those tedious maritime metaphors in your novels’.”

The show’s host John Humphrys asked if the course was a professionalisation of writing but without the real life experience.

Self replied: “It’s a deprofessionalisation, that’s the problem. The people coming out of these courses are never going to make a living as novelists, certainly not in literary fiction though that’s a somewhat suspect term. Basically writers are chasing too few readers at the moment. I think literature is morphing into something else, it’s morphing into a conservatoire form, into a more privileged form in many ways, morphing into a giant quilting exercise where people read and comment on each other’s writing…. This is predicated on the digital and making things, in a lot of ways, more mutual.”

Apple Tree Yard author Louise Doughty who studied at UEA under Angela Carter and Malcolm Bradbury acknowledged that the issue was “still controversial”. She told the “Today” programme that her tutors believed the students had “raw talent” but that the course enabled them to be “even more writers”. She said “Even just spending nine or 10 months being taken seriously as a writer, giving up your job maybe, ignoring your family, giving it that dedicated time is a wonderful experience. I was very young when I went on the course and benefited from it enormously, I think it was the crucible through which I was formed as a novelist.”

Fellow alumnus Sharlene Teo described as “it was a year-long apprenticeship of taking writing and language seriously and developing a community of fellow writers and learning how to approach a text critically”. She added: “It’s a humbling process.”

Many of the publishing industry complained about Self’s comments.

Elizabeth Morris, events manager at Waterstones in Gower Street, tweeted: “WHY give elitist Will Self the space to talk about the death of his narrow view of the novel when INSTEAD you could speak to 1 of many innovative, newly published writers who are making reading more egalitarian & inclusive.”

Curtis Brown agent Jonny Geller echoed this. “‘Write video games’ is what Will Self on #r4today thinks creative writing courses are useful for,” Geller tweeted. “Tell that to the 65 students from @cbcreative who have publishers and many have won awards and been bestsellers. Any endeavour that encourages creativity should be supported.”

Author and Birkbeck tutor Julia Bell said: “Professional controversialist Will Self having another go at CW courses because no one is reading his kind of late 20thC postmodernism anymore. On my MA in Creative Writing @birkbeck_arts I see students from diverse backgrounds successfully writing and publishing great novels.”