Sunday, September 2, 2012

Growing Old Together

Here's a sobering fact.  The Amazon Kindle was the first major piece of technology in history whose early adapters were fifty or older.

The traditional path of leading-edge tech, from the PC to Tumblr to Instagram, is that it's been sold to, and bought by, young people first.  Until the Kindle, the phrase "early adapters" was almost completely synonymous with the demographic group comprising people in their teens and reasonably early twenties.  The general techno-view of people much older than that was of doddering geezers and geezerettes in cardigans and sensible shoes fussing unproductively with the TV remote, trying to find Bob Barker.

But the Kindle sailed off the shelves and into the hands of people too old for new technology -- the people television doesn't even bother with because the TV industry has been persuaded--in what has to be the most flawed piece of research ever to dictate trillions of dollars' worth of commercial buys--that older people never change their favorite brands.

Nope. According to the research, people over 50 (in other words, above the treasured 18-to-49 TV demographic) place brand loyalty on a plane with religion.  If you're in your fifties and you use Bounty towels, the research says, you'll go on using Bounty towels until you depart the census, even if a new towel comes along that does all the scrubbing itself.  Even if all the paper-towel user has to do is say, "Over to the stove now," and "Scrub harder and then wring yourself out and hop into that wastebasket," people fifty and older would still be wondering why the folks at Bounty can't get the towels to tear on the perforation and whether superstring theory will somehow allow the Bounty towel manufacturers to impregnate the towels with even more lint.

(This explains practically everything, by the way, about television programming on the commercial networks.  Shows like "Two and a Half Men" and "Jersey Shore" are designed not only to appeal to the young and poorly educated, but positively to repel those of us who will probably be buried with a wadded-up Bounty paper towel in our hands.  They don't want us.  We won't try anything new.)

Except the Kindle and the Nook.  And, when it became apparent it would make a good e-reader, the iPad.  And therein lies the melancholy aspect of all this.  People over fifty are about the only people who read novels.  And this is especially true of the genre produced by the writers on this site.  No matter how young, hip, vital, and energetic our leading characters are, the people who read mysteries and thrillers are almost uniformly over fifty.

Any dues-dependent organization that suddenly realized that its membership is fifty or older would sit up quite straight and begin to fret.  It doesn't take trigonometry or complex spreadsheets to realize that such an organization faces a rocky, and probably brief, future.  (I'd talk about this in terms of the Republican Party, but I've been asked to keep a lid on American political discussion.)  But the Kindle tells the tale, and recent studies bear it out: the novel-reading public is aging, and that's been the trend for some time.

Those of us in the biz drew hope from the sight of all those toddlers lugging around 700-page Harry Potter books and from the explosion of young adult lit, until recently a genre that existed primarily in the realm of wistful hope.  But it hasn't happened.  The toddlers closed the cover on Hogwarts, read a few more books about wizards, and then turned to creating haiku while texting, and the YA readers -- well, all anyone can say for sure about the YA readers is that they haven't moved on to Lee Child and Sue Grafton, much less Hilary Mantel and Richard Russo.

The thing that's so paradoxical about this to me is that we're in a golden age of crime fiction.  I think there's more good writing being done right now, and over a broader spectrum of genres and sub-genres than at any time in the past.  But somehow, it would seem, the people gathered for nourishment around this phenomenally bright fire are an aging tribe.

Everyone I know in publishing talks about this issue as a marketing problem--what's needed, they seem to feel, is some way of breaking through to this vast younger audience with decades and decades of book-buying in front of them.  The idea ten years ago was that great younger writers would do it; but we have a lot of great younger writers now-- Megan Cabot comes to mind, Lou Berney, Sara Gran, Gregg Hurwitz, Stephen Jay Schwartz, to name just a few--and they're being read mainly by older people.

So it's a conundrum.  I'm not saying the genre is going to vanish from the face of the earth; it's existed at least since "Oedipus Rex."  But it does seem as though we should probably get used to the idea that we'll be sitting here by the fire for a while, sharing books we love, and growing old together.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. Don't worry, Tim. New people are turning fifty every day. And by the way, my 14year old, formerly Harry-Potter-obsessed granddaughter is reading Conan Doyle and Alafair Burke. That's not to say you and I won't continue to age--gracefully of course.

  2. "GROWING old"? As in the PRESENT TENSE? Now THERE'S an eternal Polyanna for you! But I'm right there with you, Tim, "old age" is something still in my distant future (he says, with nicely rounded 60 only a couple of months away...) As for decreasing readership... well, that takes me back to my reply to Jeff yesterday:

    This, too, shall pass.
    The more things change, the more things remain the same.

    Reading, as a widespread phenomena, has really been a VERY short-lived thing, a mere 200-300 years old. Before that, very few people COULD read. Technology (the printing press, the industrial revolution, widespread eduction) brought about the rise of the "reading class." Now technology (TV, movies, computers, the internet) is leaching away the "casual readers." I'm right with you, feeling great sadness and ennui to see it happening. But changes brought about via massive social forces cannot be stopped any more easily than you can stop the waves on the beach with walls of sand.

    Still, there IS hope for the future. A DIFFERENT future (it always is), but hope none the less.

  3. What's interesting is the market for YA books is growing, with a lot of adults reading them.The one big thing about e readers is the the adjustable font which for us older folks is a gift. I also like the books that are e reader only like those of Mr. Hallinan :). Maybe it's the kids I run into, but they are reading, and not as TV obsessed as the precious 20-49 demographic. I still have hope-the library is jammed, author appearances are jammed, and book themed activities are very popular. In my mind, there will always be books in some way or another.

  4. Despite the mountains of mystery/thriller books I have, I have yet to be able to convince any of my kids to read one. None of them watch much network television since "Lost" went off the air. I'm the only member of the family who doesn't watch "Breaking Bad".

    Everyone reads. The kids (35,29, 26) have similar reading tastes and trade books all the time. Until a few years ago, my husband didn't read fiction. I suggested he watch one of the Masterpiece Mystery productions of "Inspector Morse" and then I handed him one of the books. Since then, he has his own pile of books. So far, I haven't been able to convince him to troll for his own books but I do steer him to authors I think he will like even if the author isn't to my taste.

    Getting kids to read is made easier by reading to them. My son did balk when he was about three, telling me he didn't want any more books about bunnies. Books for very young boys weren't easy to find but the Goosebumps series saved the day.

    They enjoyed browsing in bookstores. My oldest read considerably above grade level but she wasn't always emotionally ready for some of them. I had help from a children's librarian when choosing books. My daughter would be furious when I put a book aside for later. When she read one of those books at the appropriate age, she told me she would have cried/been traumatized had she read them when she was younger.

    My library is open on the weekends and they are very busy. Parking is at a premium and the children's section is the busiest. In addition to the main library, we have five branches. I think we have good access for a city of about 80,000.

    All the elementary schools offer DEAR time at random times in each classroom. Drop Everything And Read can happen in match class as well as during reading.

    Of course, the best way to grow readers is for kids to see their parents doing it.

  5. I think the marketers are really missing the point. We old folks forget what we had for lunch let alone remember what brand of toothpaste we used to brush our teeth--or brand of paper towels to dry them with after.

  6. Thanks to all of you for tuning in. I was feeling a little time-deprived when I wrote that. Getting old will do that to you.

    You're all better balanced and saner than I am.