Why Americans Can't, Don't and Won't Read
I was suckered into opening Jay Malik’s e-mail. His subject line was “Back From the Dead.” I did not recognize the name Jay Malik, but that subject line indicated that he was someone coming back into my life after many years. I took the bait.
What I got was a dense, boring 400-word lecture on the history of the death tax with a salutation, “Hi!” and one benefit: “We save you more in taxes than you invest in our fees.”
I am illustrating the complete Jay Malik e-mail (visible in the mediaplayer to the right) as a textbook example of why most businesspeople should hire professional writers when they feel they have something to say.
At the same time, here is a textbook example of the arrant idiocy of using the Internet as a marketing medium to strangers. Quite simply, it is so cheap to send outgoing messages that if you get two orders per million, it is considered a success. Meanwhile the sender has wasted the time of—and pissed off—the 9,999,998 other recipients and cost $20,000 in lost productivity.
Why is it that Americans can’t, don’t and won’t read?
Our brains are rewired.
Our time and productivity are being hijacked by amateurs.
Four Roadblocks Every Author Must Overcome
Roadblock #1: Time Crunch
One of the greatest practitioners of advertising was Claude Hopkins (1866-1932), author of “My Life in Advertising.” Among his clients: Schlitz beer, Quaker Oats, Pepsodent toothpaste, Studebaker Automobiles Co. and Goodyear tires. In his “Scientific Advertising,” Hopkins' analysis of people and their reading habits in 1923 is all the more relevant in today's dizzying multi-media world:
Always bear these facts in mind. People are hurried. The average person worth cultivating has too much to read. They skip three-fourths of the reading matter, which they pay to get. They are not going to read your business talk unless you make it worth their while and let the headline show it.
People will not be bored in print. They may listen politely at a dinner table to boasts and personalities, life history etc. But in print they choose their own companions, their own subjects. They want to be amused or benefited. They want economy, beauty, labor savings, good things to eat and wear.
• Disheartening numbers all authors face
How average people spend their days/hours per day
Personal Care/Sleeping: 9.39
Eating & Drinking: 1.28
Household Activities (Housework, Cooking, etc.): 2.34
Work/Work Related Activities: 7.99
Socializing, Communicating: 1.83
Watching TV: 3.43
Total: 26.26 hours
[Obviously these are stats for the 5-day workweek. Weekends are extra. However it’s clear that no recreational reading time is available during the week, unless a person is goofing off on the job.]
—Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008
• “The average American is a ravenous media junkie, consuming up to 9 hours a day of television, w/ Web time or cellphone minutes, according to new research.”
• The e-mail overload
Average number of corporate emails sent and received per person, per day
Percent of workday spent managing email for the average corporate email user
—The Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2007
• Do you want to reach teens? Half of teens send 50 or more text messages a day, or 1,500 texts a month. One in three send more than 100 texts a day (or more than 3,000 texts a month.) 15% of teen texters send more than 200 texts a day, or more than 6,000 texts a month.
• The Bizarre World of Web Gamers. In August 2007, The Wall Street Journal reported that SecondLife.com, a multi-player Web game had 10 million registered users, and that “a typical Internet 'gamer' spends 20 to 40 hours a week in a virtual world.”
• Twitter Lunacy. In 2009, I was persuaded to “tweet” on Twitter.com to increase my online presence. Within a year, I had 417 followers, some of whom report they are following hundreds—and in some cases thousands—of tweeters. Example, Tony Martini in Utah is following 1,744 tweeters. How in the world does Tony have time to do much else?
Roadblock #2: The Literacy Problem
• “Research tells us that to communicate effectively with a general audience in the U.S., we need to write at a 6th-8th grade reading level.”
“Nearly 50% of the Americans surveyed cannot read well enough to find a single piece of information in a short publication, nor can they make low level inferences based on what they read.”
“41.6% of American patients could not comprehend directions for taking medication on an empty stomach.”
“26% were unable to understand information regarding when their next appointment was scheduled.
“50.5% could not understand a standard informed consent form.”
—The Informatics Review
• “44 million adults are now unable to read a simple story to their child.
“50 percent of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth grade level.
“20 percent of Americans are functionally illiterate and read below a 5th grade level.”
Roadblock #3: Poor Attention Span
• “Neil Postman writes in his book, 'Amusing ourselves to Death,' that the attention span of humans was considerably longer years ago. The specific example he uses in his book is that of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the 1800's, which were literally read from paper and lasted for hours. Postman notes that amazingly, the people stayed, listened and paid attention. Today, I doubt we could expect to read any statement for 8-10 hours and have an audience of people stay in the room, let alone stay focused.”
—Dr. Kathie F. Nunley, Help4Teachers.com
• “The average attention span of an adult is 20 minutes. “
—Brad Vander Zanden, University of Tennessee
• “On the Internet, the average attention span is three to five minutes. We have to cater to that.”
—Steven Hirsch, co-chairman, Vivid Entertainment, The New York Times, July 8, 2009
• “The addictive nature of Web browsing can leave you with an attention span of nine seconds—the same as a goldfish.”
• “People now surf the Internet while watching television. Their children instant-message friends while listening to music. They all talk on the phone and check their e-mail while they cook. 'Our research showed that people somehow managed to shoehorn 31 hours of activity into a 24-hour day,' said Colleen Fahey Rush, executive vice president for research at MTV Networks, which worked with an online research company, OTX, last year. 'That's from being able to do two things at once.'”
—Sharon Waxman, The New York Times, May 14, 2006
• “‘The technology is rewiring our brains,’ said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world's leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.
• “Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information. These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement—a dopamine squirt—that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored. The resulting distractions can have deadly consequences, as when cellphone-wielding drivers and train engineers cause wrecks. And for millions of people like Mr. Campbell, these urges can inflict nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought, interrupting work and family life. While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress. And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.”
—Matt Richtel, “Hooked on Gadgets and Paying the Mental Price” The New York Times
• “Read it and gloat. Last week, researchers at Stanford University published a study showing that the most persistent multitaskers perform badly in a variety of tasks. They don't focus as well as non-multitaskers. They're more distractible. They're weaker at shifting from one task to another and at organizing information. They are, as a matter of fact, worse at multitasking than people who don't ordinarily multitask.”
—Ruth Pennebaker, The New York Times, August 30, 2009
Roadblock #4: The Glut of Prose
We are drowning in a tsunami of humanity screaming for our attention:
Ads are everywhere you look—on cars, jet plane fuselages, garbage trucks, golf carts, kids' report cards, over urinals, billboards, gas pumps, cellphones, sports uniforms, skywriting, plus, of course, on radio and TV as well as in newspapers, magazines and the Internet.
“Somewhere between 254 and 5,000 is a number that represents just how many commercial messages an average consumer gets each day.”
—Matthew Creamer, AdAge.com.
Internet (2009 Statistics):
234 million: The number of websites as of December 2009.
47 million: Added websites in 2009.
90 trillion: The number of e-mails sent on the Internet in 2009.
247 billion: Average number of e-mail messages per day.
1.4 billion: The number of e-mail users worldwide.
100 million: New e-mail users since the year before.
81%: The percentage of e-mails that were spam.
24%: Increase in spam since last year.
200 billion: The number of spam e-mails per day.
1.73 billion: Internet users worldwide (September 2009).
18%: Increase in Internet users since the previous year.
126 million: The number of blogs on the Internet
84%: Percent of social network sites with more women than men.
27.3 million: Number of tweets on Twitter per day (November, 2009)
57%: Percentage of Twitter’s user base located in the United States.
4.25 million: People following Twitter’s most followed user.
350 million: People on Facebook.
50%: Percentage of Facebook users that log in every day.
500,000: The number of active Facebook applications.
• When one of the most important e-mail messages of his life landed in his in-box a few years ago, Kord Campbell overlooked it. Not just for a day or two, but 12 days. He finally saw it while sifting through old messages: A big company wanted to buy his Internet start-up. “I stood up from my desk and said, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,’” Mr. Campbell said. “It's kind of hard to miss an e-mail like that, but I did.” The message had slipped by him amid an electronic flood: two computer screens alive with e-mail, instant messages, online chats, a Web browser and the computer code he was writing.
—Matt Richtel, “Hooked on Gadgets and Paying the Mental Price” The New York Times
When my first novel, “Cedarhurst Alley,” was published in 1969, the total number of new titles being brought out by all book publishers was 15,000 that year. As a result, my little marshmallow fluff of comedy received a string of nice reviews including one in Time magazine. It got noticed by movie producers and was optioned multiple times. (Alas, no film was ever made.)
Today, over 400,000 new titles are being published annually—roughly 8,000 a week.
Who has time to know about them, let alone read them?
• One in four adults say they read no books at all in the past year.
—Associated Press-Ipsos poll, 2007
When you see numbers like these, it amazing that anybody reads anything or buys anything.