Are books – electronic or not – becoming “fringe media”?

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in February 2010

400 words / 2 min.
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Kevin Kelleher of GigaOM believes that “books are becoming a fringe media.” I say: true for non-fiction, not so much for fiction.

Please note that this post is from 2010. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

Kevin Kelleher of GigaOM believes that “books are becoming a fringe media.” He writes:

Like other media, books will change to adapt to the new readers, and I think this means less non-fiction. Even before the web, all business books — and the majority of non-fiction books — struck me as 1,000-word pamphlets puffed out to book length with heroic amounts of filler. So if some books are forced to condense to keep our attention, so much the better.

via Books Are Becoming Fringe Media – GigaOM.

Although I disagree with the implication that all book-length works are dying, I do think he has an excellent point: most non-fiction could stand some good editing, and could just as easily be condensed to article length (or, at least, a series of articles). I made a similar point previously, when I suggested that historians need to stop obsessing over writing books.

But if he’s suggesting that book-length fiction is dying, he’s wrong, I think. I just don’t see short stories winning out over novels — and his data doesn’t support this either, even as he draws the conclusion that novels, like non-fiction books, are now fringe media:

As for fiction, there will always be an audience for people who know how to tell good stories. According to Nielsen BookScan, sales of non-fiction books fell 7 percent in 2009, while adult fiction rose 3 percent. There may well be a home for fiction in a world where the web takes up an ever larger portion of our mind share, but novels — like books and e-readers in general — will have to fight their way back from the fringe.

Online reading cuts into TV time, not time that would otherwise be spent reading novels for pleasure. On the other hand, non-fiction reading (perhaps excepting autobiographies and similar pleasure reading?) is a business-like activity, and competes with research, business meetings, email, newspaper articles, and other, shorter and more focused writing. In today’s marketplace of ideas, shorter wins.