Did Steve Jobs Just Say This?

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Consider my mind boggled. Here's a quote, published in the Bits Blog (Business, Information, Technology, Science) at the New York Times, referring to Amazon's Kindle e-book device:

"It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore," he said. "Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don't read anymore."

Wow. I am generally fond of Steve Jobs and his skinny laptops and ever-morphing iPods, but he is way off here. I am confused how Steve must spend his time and I guess he must live a sheltered life, because I see people around me reading all the time. All you have to do is sit on a subway or train and observe the numerous book-absorbed minds around you to know that Steve Jobs is wrong. Oh, there's also the fact that publishers rack up about 35 billion dollars in book sales each year, roughly as much as the music business or the film business.

I think Steve Jobs is a smart guy, but he sure missed this call.
15 Responses to "Did Steve Jobs Just Say This?"

by Mikey Covey on

Clearly you can't say people read, based on viewing them in the subway. 99% of America aint got a subway. 90% of America don't live in New York. As for book sales, most readers don't read literary fiction. This is our shame, and we must change that if we want a saner planet. Perhaps that should be job one for all folk interested in lit.

"People read as much as they ever did. It's just what they're reading is the literary equivalent of MacDonald's hamburgers."--Norman Mailer, one on one with Bill Maher, Politically Incorrect, 1997

by Cal Godot on

Steve Jobs is a walking proof that hyperbole is seldom accurate or useful.

Plus: Apple is probably building their own ebook reader, one that turns every etext into an audio book by using speech synthesis to read the text to the listener. Well-known voices will be licensed to replace the classic computer voice. When the product is launched and this old quote resurfaces, Jobs will claim he is a visionary revolutionary capitalist messiah, and that he was talking about the past, not the future, and that people need to be more flexibly organic in their thinking. Jobs will say he was referring to the old way of ebook readers, like Kindle and Librie. He'll say, "I said people don't read books anymore; I didn't say they don't listen to books." He'll get Tom Cruise to use one, and that will be the end of it. They will cap it all by an exciting landslide bide for the Presidency of the nation. Americans, having become accustomed to four years of President Romney and his Magic Mormon Underwear, will welcome the relative rationality of Scie*tology Tom and Vaguely Vedic Jobs.

Cruise-Jobs 2012
Now More Than Ever

by Shane on

I must point out that NY is one of the only places in the country that has a decent mass transit system that people actually use. In the rest of the country where people have to commute by car, there is less time to sit around and read. Also, its my understanding that people read on the subways to avoid eye contact with the other riders. It is completely plausible that 40% of people read less than one book a year. Of those that read more, they probably get enough enjoyment out of the activity that they read 5 or more books a year, which can easily explain the size of the publishing industry.

Besides, if reading was a popular activity, Steve Jobs would probably make it the screens on the iPhone more reader friendly. Jobs probably knows the statistics on reading better than any of us, because all of apples products cater to those who would rather watch a movie on a tiny screen than sit down and use their brain by reading a book.

by Milton on

Cal Godot:

Don't you think the ticket might be reveresed? Granted, Cruise-Jobs could work on the Bush-Cheney model, with the electable idiot fronting for the evil genius, but I just can't imagine Steve Jobs keeping his megalomania in check enough to ride shotgun.

Other than that, your vision of the future is chillingly lucid.

by Bill Ectric on

I think Shane is right.

Fortunately for writers, there are so many people in the country that even a small percentage of book buyers is enough to earn a living.

If the low percentage of readers is interpreted to mean Americans are getting "dumber" - I don't really think that's happening. People simply get more information from sources other than books.

Back before the radio, people read dime novels and newspapers and American women were 60% of the readers of the heavy stuff in the USA.
I used to read books when I was a teenager because the book was better than the movie. Norman Mailer was fast with the sarcasm but there are good books out there. Sacco's graphic novel Palestine won the National Book award in '96. Russo's Empire Falls came out after Mailer's comment and DeLillo's Falling Man, maybe his best hit a vibe with this reader.

All that said, I, personally, know no one who reads. The ship's library is full of page turners but I believe the crew prefers video games.

Jobs' comment should get some attention. He most likely has grossly overestimated the number of readers in the USA. I seem to remember some factoid that claimed 80% of the books that get read in the USA are done on the eastern seaboard between Washington, DC and Boston.

I saw no one, except for me, reading on the buses when I was in Honolulu recently.

by BookCrazy on

I agree with Steve on the point that 'no one reads today', but I don't agree with his dismissal of the product in so cool a fashion. I guess if there are enough readers (though negligible if counted in percentage of population) to sustain a multi billion dollar book industry and if there is ever-growing market for e-stuff and if there is growing concern for the environment, Amazon Kindle is definitely a bold and innovative product. As much as I hate it myself, I agree that in the future paper book market will very slowly but gradually give way to e-books. However, e-books in its present shape cannot grow beyond a point. A book without any thought given to typography, book designing etc. is unreadable. Therefore, Kindle is exactly what the e-book industry needed. A book that can carry many books. Though, I personally will stick to the 'real' ones till I run out of space to store them.

by Levi Asher on

Very interesting comments (thanks, people), and I see there are a variety of opinions both agreeing and disagreeing with Jobs' statement.

Me, I'm sticking to my guns. As a few others have said here, if 40% of people aren't interested in something, that leaves a pretty healthy 60% who are. And the $35 billion/year figure I cited speaks louder than any survey statistic. People aren't reading anymore? Has Steve Jobs not heard of the Harry Potter phenomenon? The Da Vinci Code phenomenon? The Kite Runner phenomenon? It doesn't matter whether you like any of these books or not -- they are books, and people are reading them.

And, as a person who considers the New York subways a second home, I would like to clarify that people do not read books on the subways because they are afraid of making eye contact. The subways in New York are very relaxed and crime-free places (again, please look at the statistics) and I don't think many people are afraid of making eye contact. They are reading books because they like books.

Here is a strange phenomenon that may or may not be related to this discussion. There are several people in the office where I work who read books during breaks and lunch. Mostly women, but a couple of men. They read just what you would expect - the popular paperbacks. Thrillers, romance, crime, adventure, and so on.

I have one of my short stories printed out as a little 20 page booklet, a free sample to promote my books. I can barely get anyone to read it.

A typical scenario: While pouring a cup of coffee in the break area, I see Gladys (not her real name) intently reading a thick Danielle Steele novel. Two days later, she's glued to Stephen King's latest. We've worked together for years so there is nothing unusual about us speaking to one another. The offer of my short story pamphlet elicits much enthusiasm at first. "How cool! You've written a book, you say? That's just great. Sure, I'll read your story."

Not wanting to be pushy, I wait a few days before finally asking, "So, did you get a chance to read my story?"

"Oh," she says apologetically. "I've been so busy, I'm sorry, but I will read it as soon as I can."

People of Litkicks, you could read this story during one 15 minute break and get it over with. Maybe she read it, didn't like it, and doesn't want to tell me. But this has happened with several different people, and the odds are that one of them will have either liked it, or at least not hated it, so as to comment on some aspect of the story.

I suspect they are losing the damn things, so I sometimes give them another copy.
"Here, in case you left the other one at home and the dog ate it, hahaha."
Maybe if I sold the booklets for a dollar each, people would value them more. Or pictures of half-naked people on the front, embracing one another, super-imposed over an aircraft carrier ramming into the head of the Statue of Liberty.

by stevadore on

Bill - I had to laugh when I read your post! The same exact thing happens to me when I tell family and friends and acquaintances about my book. Initial enthusiam followed by... crickets! I've found that the hardest thing to do is place your book in the hands of people you are closest to. So it's not such a strange phenomenon at all.

Of course, it did cross my mind that maybe my writing sucks so much that they don't know what to say back to me... Naw! Can't be. Perish the thought!

Stevadore, too bad we can't do this experiment:
Have one of our books printed with a fake cover, using the name of a popular writer. Then see if our friends like it.

by Cal Godot on

Regarding statistics of American readers:

It strikes me that a study of reading habits must be based on a sample group. If the study is done properly, the sample group represents a good slice of the American public.

It also strikes me that the population of the country has grown considerably over the years. I wonder if the population of readers has grown in proportion to the overall population growth. I doubt it; I suspect it remains about the same, or grows very slowly.

Either way, if the overall population growth exceeds the growth in the population of readers, then one would see what would appear to be an overall decline in readers over the years. As we are seeing.

But if there actually were a decline in the population of readers, this would likely be reflected in the publishing industry (sales and whatnot). We are not seeing this quite as clearly, which suggests to me that the population of readers is remaining numerically about the same, or experiencing slow growth. That population of readers consumes (buys and/or reads) books at a rate which increases disproportionately to the growth of the population. (Older readers tend to buy more books than younger readers due to income differences.)

I'm certainly no guru of statistics, but I've read enough debunking of bad surveys and studies that I'm beginning to see some major holes in this idea that the population of readers is in decline. As a ratio to non-readers, it may be appearing to decline. But as a viable population of consumers, the population of readers seems as strong as ever.

Certainly Sony and Amazon et al, in their heavy pursuit of the advantage with an e-reader, are not thinking (or even trying) to convert non-readers. No, they are going after readers, book-buyers, and if they are willing to sink BILLIONS into pursuing that technology, then the population of readers must be very powerful indeed.

by Zeigen on

Levi, I understand your point now. When I first read your article, I thought you disagreed with Jobs over the statistics and you couldn't believe 40% of the population hadn't read a book last year. After your comment this morning, I see what you're really saying is, "Who cares if 40% didn't read books, 60% do read books and that market is as big as the movie/music market that you are going after with your iPods."

Yeah, you're absolutely right.

Probably what Jobs means when he says "no one reads books" is that HE doesn't read books. If he's not interested in the market, he's not going to pursue it.