Bookscan – Week Ending 9/18/05
Mini-Microsoft: Anonymous Blogging Is Lame

This Aging Business

I spent the better part of this past week attending a series of meetings in Redmond, WA. The sessions were great and the weather was beautiful, but what really caught my eye was the average age of the attendees and speakers. Keep in mind this was a mix of authors and members of various publishing houses, primarily editorial and marketing types. Other than the occasional Microsoft employee, I don’t think anyone in the room was less than 30 years old. In fact, I’d estimate the average age at about 35, maybe closer to 40.

What’s wrong with that? For starters, I think it’s both an accurate snapshot of the aging population of authors and publishers, and I would bet that it also mirrors the ever-increasing average age of our customer base. OK, it’s only one conference and maybe it’s not a good representation of the overall business. Or is it?

As I think back about the last several tech conferences I’ve attended over the past few years (e.g., TechEd, LinuxWorld, etc.), the theme is very similar. Although there are plenty of 20-somethings at these shows, they don’t seem to be the ones stopping by the publisher booths. That average age of 35 noted above is pretty consistent with the average age of publisher booth browsers. I tend to visit and hang around all the publisher booths at these events, by the way, so my observations aren’t limited to just one or two.

I’m not trying to be dramatic, but if this trend doesn’t change we’ll simply continue to chase after an older and older (and shrinking) customer base. I see this with my own kids (ages 18, 16 and 11). When it comes to issues on the computer, they don’t look for a book, they turn to Google for the answer.

At its core, this business isn’t so much about making books as it is about providing information. We’ve got to do a better job of providing that information in a manner that’s relevant to the next generation of customers. What’s your opinion?


Declan Elliott

The majority of those over 35 grew up in a world where books were something you read and films were something you watched. For those under 35 an increasing number are growing up in a world where books and films are something you personally create. Every week new tools are being launched which are making this easier to do. All of which is to celebrated and welcome. The question for you and your industry is how will you evolve to remain relevant in the digital age. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on this.

Alfred Thompson

I talk to students a lot and they actually do like books. Sure they get quick starts from the Internet and they go there for specific problems but they also look to books. When I give out books at confereces the students are just as likely, perhaps more likely, to want free books as faculty. I wonder if the lack of young authors is more a function of them not feeling comfortable with the writting process than not valuing books. Young people do blog though. That is a shorter less formal process so is less intimidating. I wonder if young bloggers are the people to look at to become young authors.

Andy Rathbone

> When it comes to issues on the computer, don’t look for a book,
> they turn to Google for the answer.

And eventually, Google will be good enough to extract relevant pieces of Web sites and present them in a way that presents a "mini-book" of information relevant to the searcher's particular query, no matter how esoteric. That's hard for publishers and book writers to compete against.

Even if publishers *finally* stumble upon a working ebook business model, digital information's too easy to copy. O'Reilly's going the right way by selling subscription-based access to its entire publishing catalog. But even that type of info turns up on newsgroups much too quickly.

The solution? I'm hanging up my keyboard and heading to plumber's school. After my next book, of course.

Michael Miller

Excellent topic, Joe, but I think it's a topic issue rather than a delivery medium issue. Anyone under 30 or 35 has grown up around computers and videogames their entire lives. Us older farts remember a pre-PC era, which means we actually had to learn what these things were and how to use them. To the youngsters, computers are as ubiquitous as TV was to us oldsters -- not something new or unusual or interesting or difficult. I gotta say, the vast majority of people buying my books are my age or older, which means they're definitely not Generation X or Y or Z or whatever comes after that.

It's not that younger people don't read books -- they do -- it's that they don't want to or need to learn about technology topics from books. I remember this as a "future issue" we pointed out back when we put together Macmillan's long-term business plan in the early 1990s; the fear then was of the technology becoming so ubiquitous and easy to use that nobody would need our help. This has happened. Computer technology is seemingly bred into younger users, hence they don't buy as many books. The lack of interest in technology book-buying easily translates into the lack of interest in technology book-writing.

Let's face it, folks. Our little industry was born in the mid-1980s, and still consists of many of the same players who were around then, at all levels of the machine. There's a lack of interest among youngsters in joining the party, but I'd also say the party isn't the hippest and coolest one on the block.

Does this mean that our little party will soon peter out as our customers (and our co-workers) die off? Not necessarily. It's not that no younger people buy our books, it's just that fewer of them do. Maybe we need to revisit the kind of information this new generation needs, and how they need it presented. Maybe what we're doing is just fine for them. I don't know. But it's worth looking at. (And it's also worth considering the issue of how we bring new blood into the industry -- I'm tired of seeing the same old farts everywhere I go!)


Sure, creating books that appeal to the under 30 set and acquiring young employees is important to the vitality of the industry, but in terms of sales and profits, baby boomers still represent your most important audience. It's also predicted that the group currently aged 40-55 will remain one of the largest populations in the US through the next few decades, so don't necessarily hang up your keyboards yet.

Joe Wikert

Alfred, we actually use quite a few younger authors on many of our books. It's not so much the authoring community I'm wondering about as it is the book buying community. After all, there are always plenty of 20-somethings at conferences like TechEd...they just don't seem to be the ones coming up to the publisher booths looking for books. I see them wandering around the rest of the exhibit hall, of course, but not in the publisher areas.

Andy, I agree with you that products such as O'Reilly's Safari and Books24x7 aren't the solution either, at least not in their current forms. Btw, I've often thought that these services also need to figure out how to better insert themselves in their customer's everyday activities. Today, you have to actually go to their website to search for an answer. Why not have the equivalent of the Google toolbar for this sort of service, so that the search can be conducted from anywhere? I use the Google toolbar at least 20 times a day, every day. I'll bet Safari/Books24x7 customers would love to have the same type of direct access option for their e-books.

Mike, while I agree that there's not as much demand today for an entry-level PC book, I think there are plenty of other new and interesting topics and technologies helping to fill the void. They're not replacing 100% of those sales, of course, but they're helping plug some of the holes. For example, look at digital photography. That's a topic which really didn't exist 10 years ago, or it was such an expensive hobby that most people couldn't afford to try it. Today, digital photography and related topics are arguably the #1 segment of our industry. There are plenty of smaller new areas as well, but as I said, they're not completely filling the larger hole.

JC, you're right that baby boomers probably represent the largest chunk of our current audience. I just hate to think that there's no way to better address the needs of the younger crowd. Google and other tools might be meeting their needs today, but I've got to believe there are other ways to provide even better solutions and make a buck or two along the way.

I’m not trying to be dramatic, but if this trend doesn’t change we’ll simply continue to chase after an older and older (and shrinking) customer base."

"We’ve got to do a better job of providing that information in a manner that’s relevant to the next generation of customers."

I could not possibly agree more. I think this is crucial, and I don't want to be working to support an audience that is NOT growing. The market consisting of the "video game generation" is larger than the baby boomer generation, but they have differently-wired brains, in a way that has never existed before (brains wired through new media, ultra-fast cuts, etc.).

I'm not sure how to reach them either, but it's what I'm spending most of my time thinking about. I'm really glad you brought this up, and I think it's VERY important for those of us trying to survive in a shrinking tech book world, where "flat is the new up."
Thanks Joe.

I see this is old info, but I've just started a blog to share my perspectives as an over 50 person - which is much older than your sample.

I'm a fan of google. I rarely read hard copy. These days, if it's not on audio, I generally pass.

The comments to this entry are closed.