The Fate of Reading in a Multimedia Age

By Sabrina RicciNovember 13, 2016

The Fate of Reading in a Multimedia Age
IN MID-OCTOBER, the Nobel Committee for Literature awarded the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The announcement came shortly after the most recent Annual Arts Basic Survey (AABS) by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released data that found adults in the United States read less literature for pleasure. The survey said that adult Americans who report reading literature has fallen to 43.1 percent in 2015. The NEA defines literature as poetry, plays, short stories, and novels. Reading can be text or graphics (graphic novels), online or in print.

The results vary by state. According to the survey, Mississippi had the lowest percentage of adults who reported reading literature, at 21.7 percent, and Vermont had the highest percentage, at 62.8 percent. Tennessee had the lowest percentage of adults who reported consuming art via electronic media at 44.8 percent, which includes watching, listening to, and/or downloading programs or information about books or writers, short stories, or poetry read out loud, and Washington had the highest percentage, at 80.4 percent.

The NEA conducts several surveys in this area, including the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). According to Sunil Iyengar, research and analysis director at the NEA, the first AABS survey was in 2013, with about 23,000 responses from American adults. The survey found that book reading has remained relatively stable, though with a steep decline in poetry reading. Iyengar also said that forms of poetry, such as spoken word performances, may not be captured by the reading question, “Did you read a poem in the last year or did you read a work of poetry in the last year?” He explained that the survey questions had to be kept short and simple in order to encourage people to finish answering.

The NEA isn’t the only organization to find a relative decline in reading. Publishers Weekly recently reported on a Pew Research Center Report that found “that 73 percent of Americans have read a book in the last year, largely unchanged from 2012 levels (although lower than the 79 percent recorded in 2011, when Pew began tracking reading habits).” That data came from 1,520 U.S. adults who responded between March and April 2016. To account for this decline, Iyengar cited the “many competing options for people’s leisure time,” but added, “We can’t say definitively what the reason is.”

Though there is no reliable data on why a decline in reading literature is taking place, Tom Jacobs from Pacific Standard offers one theory: “the rise of movies and other visual content on demand  —  which started in the 1980s with the VCR  —  is one likely culprit. After all, why read a novel when you have Netflix?” It’s true that books increasingly have to compete for people’s attention with other forms of entertainment, whether that be movies, videos, games, or something else. According to one recent assessment, Netflix users watched 42.5 billion hours of streaming content last year. Meanwhile, YouTube has more than one billion users, and according to the site, “the average viewing session is now more than 40 minutes.” There are also platforms like Steam, which offers a catalog of games to play on your computer. Steam shares consistently updated information about its users and games, as well as download stats. On October 30 alone, the site reached a peak of 13,081,501 users.

It’s easy to assume that people are reading less because of the myriad options they have to choose from. But is that really the case? What if we redefined what it means to read, as well as what constitutes literature?

Storytelling originated orally, of course, and today audiobooks are rising in popularity. The Audio Publishers Association (APA), a not-for-profit group that works to promote the audiobook industry, found in their latest annual sales survey “that audiobook sales in 2015 totaled more than $1.77 billion, up 20.7 percent over 2014.” Michele Cobb, executive director of the APA, said that 35,574 audio titles were produced in 2015. “Our 2015 consumer survey showed that 55 million people 18 and older had listened to an audiobook in the previous year,” Cobb said. “Listeners tend to be readers. Frequent listeners listen to four or more audiobooks per year.”

Audible, the largest producer and distributor of audiobooks in the world, is projecting two billion hours of listening for 2016, which is double the one billion hours in 2014. According to a company spokesperson, Audible members on average listen to books about two hours a day, averaging 17 books a year. A variety of genres are popular, including memoirs voiced by celebrities, such as Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, multi-cast productions such as The Starling Project by Jeffery Deaver, and audio dramatizations of graphic novels, such as Locke & Key by Joe Hill. Audible also publishes audio exclusives, such as John Scalzi’s novella The Dispatcher.

“In the past there has been a perception that listening to an audiobook is ‘cheating,’ or not really reading the book,” Amanda D’Acierno, publisher at Penguin Random House (PRH) Audio, said. “That perception has really receded in recent years, and in fact, there’s new research from a professor at University of Virginia that your brain is just as active while listening to an audiobook as it is while reading.”

Not everyone feels that listening to audiobooks is the same thing as reading, however. Daniel Berkowitz, a blogger for Digital Book World, considers audiobooks cheating, because he says he’s always walking, commuting, or doing something else while listening, so it becomes a passive act. Other bloggers, such as Patti Carlyle and Melissa Dahl, strongly disagree. Carlyle cites UV psychologist Daniel Willingham’s argument that there is no meaningful difference between reading and listening to a book. According to Willingham, “Comparing audio books to cheating is like meeting a friend at Disneyland and saying ‘you took a bus here? I drove myself, you big cheater.’ The point is not how you traveled. The point is getting to and enjoying the destination.”

Listening to stories increases reading capacity, Cobb said, because you can do it while driving, exercising, or doing chores. “Reading, to me, is taking in the contents of a book, article, play, poem, or other written material,” she said. “Whether you do that with your eyes or ears doesn’t matter.”

Because of the popularity of audiobooks, publishers are producing more of them. PRH Audio has over 10,000 titles in their catalog, D’Acierno said, and in 2016 they will release 800 titles, with another 1,100 on tap for 2017. One of those titles is Holiday Reinhorn’s audiobook version of her story collection, Big Cats, which was released on October 4. Each story is read by a different celebrity, including Holiday’s husband Rainn Wilson, Lili Taylor, Alia Shawkat, Virginia Madsen, Justine Bateman, Garrett Dillahunt, Amy Brenneman, Jenna Fischer, Helen Hunt, Patricia Arquette, and Peter Krause.

Big Cats was originally published 11 years ago. Reinhorn said that, when she sold the book, she retained the audio rights. “I was excited about that as I imagined I would one day produce the book myself with actors, a microphone, and a cassette player.” When her husband started working on the TV show The Office, Reinhorn had the opportunity to meet actors she had admired as a kid. In the meantime, Free Press, the imprint that published the print version of Big Cats, folded, and PRH offered to produce the audiobook. Reinhorn was able to cast the roles with her dream actors, who were now friends or people she’d met via mutual friends. In her words,

I did not re-read the stories before the actors went into the studio and breathed new life into the work for me in an incredible way. It was moving to hear and re-remember them this way and I often got very emotional. The actors found new colors and nuances that I had missed. I do believe there is something special about being “read to,” about hearing stories told in addition to reading them yourself. Whether you are reading a story or listening to a story being read, you are participating in the beauty of storytelling, which is essential to being alive!

Audiobooks are also giving people a new way to experience the classics. LibriVox, for example, is a site where volunteers can record their readings of public-domain books, and anyone can listen to these books for free. Content in general is moving to audio. According to Nieman Lab, a recently launched startup called 60dB will provide high-quality short stories that are curated for their listeners. Apple’s iTunes recently launched “Spoken Editions,” which turns news into audio content, according to TechCrunch.

And then, of course, there are podcasts. Edison Research did a national telephone survey of 2,001 people aged 12 and up and found that about 36 percent have listened to a podcast at some time, and 40 percent listen to between one and three hours of podcasts per week. A number of podcasts specialize in fiction, such as Welcome to Night Vale, The Black Tapes, Tanis, The Bright Sessions, and Hello from the Magic Tavern. But though some people would consider these types of podcasts literary, not everyone agrees.

Jonathan Mitchell, writer, director, and producer of The Truth podcast, believes that literature is something you read. “I think of what I’m doing personally as music, even though most people wouldn’t describe it that way,” he said. “Because it’s a recording, I think of it fundamentally as an aural medium.” Mitchell said he originally planned for The Truth to be a public radio program, but it ended up being a podcast after he had the opportunity to plug the show on a story he produced for Chicago Public Media’s This American Life. “As soon as the This American Life piece aired, we had 30,000 listeners overnight,” he said.

The Truth currently publishes twice per month. Earlier this year, Mitchell said he put out a call for writers to produce more episodes. Now The Truth has two teams of people, consisting of five writers each, who are working on separate story tracks: an ongoing series called Songonauts, interspersed with anthology stories. Mitchell and his team meet regularly with their writers, reading through each other’s stories. They also have an associate producer who works with actors to produce the stories.

Jeffrey Cranor, co-creater and co-writer of the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, said that he considers his and co-creator Joseph Fink’s podcast to be literary. The show’s episodes are about 2,500 words long. Cranor and Fink have also co-written a stand-alone novel, Welcome to Night Vale, and are working on a sequel. “There’s something really enjoyable about single-person storytelling,” he said. “So the Welcome to Night Vale podcast follows that as well in a lot of ways, where you just take an episode script and put it on paper. It reads a lot like a short story.”

Listeners have a different connection with characters when they hear them versus reading about them, Cranor said. “There’s a real intimacy, especially in the age of earbuds as opposed to just a radio in the room, but actually carrying the broadcast with you,” Cranor said. “It’s literally inside your ears; there’s a real intimacy to that.” According to Cranor, the show has hundreds of thousands of downloads. Since Welcome to Night Vale is an ongoing serial, stories are not always resolved right away, but are often are planned out two to six months in advance.

Cranor and Fink have also started Night Vale Presents, a podcast network through which they publish additional shows, similar to a book imprint. Shows include Alice Isn’t Dead, The Orbiting Human Circus, and Within the Wires. Cranor said they’ve worked with other writers to create outlines for season arcs, taking turns writing each episode and giving each other feedback.

There are many other platforms for these new forms of “reading.” The website Wattpad, for example, allows users to share stories of any length online. The head of partnerships at Wattpad Studios, Ashleigh Gardner, said that Wattpad’s audience consists of 45 million people per month and that about 90 percent of users access the site via mobile devices, mostly smartphones. The average reading time is 30 minutes per day, and the most popular genres are romance, teen fiction, and fan fiction. “The social and mobile technology behind Wattpad updated storytelling for a new generation,” Gardner said. “Instead of a campfire, an entire community of millions can congregate around an online work.” Interactive multimedia is also an important part of storytelling on Wattpad. Every day users add over 100,000 videos, images, and GIFs to their Wattpad stories. Wattpad also has comics.

According to Megan Marz, even advice columns can be considered a literary form. Advice writers create “reciprocal, participatory literature,” she claims. “Just as they use reader questions as prompts for their writing, readers are explicitly invited to use the answers as prompts for living, ways to get unstuck from old, unhelpful truths and latch on to the truths we need.”

With so many options to consume and share stories, the traditional ways of reading literature may be in decline, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people are reading less. Iyengar said that the 2017 NEA SPPA survey will ask about audiobooks, podcasts, and other media, in order to give a fuller picture of how people participate in literary reading. “We’ve seen some studies indicate that reading literature is highly correlated with other kinds of behaviors,” Iyengar said. “Whether it’s civic engagement, volunteering, or even the fact that reading itself is associated with empathy and people’s ability to inhabit another personality or point of view for a brief period of time.” How people read isn’t the most important thing; rather, encouraging people to consume more literature, in whatever form, is what’s critical.


Sabrina Ricci is the co-creator and co-producer of the dinosaur podcast, I Know Dino. She also writes books, blogs about the publishing industry at Digital Pubbing, and is a content designer at Autodesk.

LARB Contributor

Sabrina Ricci is the co-creator and co-producer of the dinosaur podcast, I Know Dino. She also writes books, blogs about the publishing industry at Digital Pubbing, and is a content designer at Autodesk.


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