Is it Reading? Is it Tech?

Two months into my first job in the magazine distribution business, I went down to my mailbox one Friday morning after a long week on the road. Just like today, twenty nine years later, most of what was waiting for me was bills, flyers and some magazines I didn’t recall subscribing to.

Newsflash kids: Nobody wrote letters back then either.

Sitting under my mailbox was something I was very excited about: A huge box from my employer chock full sample magazines. Many of them were new launches. A big part of my job was to solicit orders from our wholesalers. One of those magazines was Computer Shopper. Back then the title wasn’t owned by Ziff Davis. It wasn’t slick, it wasn’t perfect bound, and it wasn’t more than the +800 pages it contained back when it was at it’s peak.

In those early days, it was a yellow colored, easily tattered tabloid magazine. And in those early days of the 1980’s, personal computing was still something of a luxury and not something that was easily accomplished.

An early copy of Computer Shopper a few years before my introduction to it.

True story: A few weeks later, I met with one of my larger wholesalers and presented the magazine to the manager. He rather calmly informed me that the only way he’d take that “piece of crap” from me was if I got down on my hands and knees behind his desk and made him “very, very happy.”

I didn’t. But apparently the look on my face convinced him that I didn’t get the joke either. Yeah, you do want to play poker with me.

“That was a joke,” he flatly informed me. “Relax. I’ll try 50 copies.”

Ten years later while I was consulting for Ziff-Davis, that wholesaler would take 3,000 copies and sell well more than half of them. In the early 1990’s, ­Computer Shopper was selling well over 325,000 copies. The title enjoyed high efficiencies and had no problem getting into any of the major chain retailers in the country. The trend continued through the middle of the decade  and sales did not really begin to slip until the middle of the latter part of the 1990’s. By the dawn of the last decade, the title was selling well under 150,000 copies. These days, the computer category in most stores is very thin and often dominated by one shots and specials.

What made me think about all of this was my recent experiences with the iPad, and a test drive I did with some tablets while visiting with my local cell provider and the nearby Best Buy.

It’s all about the tech.

Not the reading.

The iPad is great. I like it very much. The learning curve is not hugely steep, but it’s a curve and even if you’re a dedicated Mac user like I have become over the past year, it’s a different sort of computing experience. I found the Android powered tabs interesting. The experience was akin to the iPhone only maybe not so elegant. Like, but unlike their smartphone cousins.

But the experience was all about the tech.

I’ve bookmarked and subscribed to a slew of sites that review tablets. Many have interesting and steadily more professional looking video reviews of all of the new tablets that are coming out. The usual tech sites also give great reviews of these devices that are going to replace print magazines and books and newspapers. Some day. Maybe soon.

And it’s all about the tech.

Reading is secondary.

Will we ever get past that? I‘m inclined to think not.

It seems as though most of the articles I read about the publishing business tend to take a few core statistics and then make conclusions based on the opinions and prejudices of the person who wrote the article. If they’re published on-line, they are often nothing but opinion and treated like a news article. They make remarkably grand assumptions and, at least when it comes to talking about the print business,  really off the wall assumptions about how we work, make money, what we’re concerned about, and how “green” we aren’t.

Oh, and kids, here’s another newsflash for you: Paper is a renewable resource. You know, trees grow, scrub carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The coal fired power plant that charges the batteries on your iPad or Android tablet? Not so much. A truck delivered your tablet to your house. All those radishes you didn’t buy at Whole Foods? They get tossed. Just like last week’s People. Although last week’s People get’s shredded and recycled.

I expect that print will become secondary to digital in terms of reading. But reading will become a secondary activity, if it isn’t already. The constant erosion of personal time and the increase in consumption of web related video will reduce reading and push it down the list of things people want to do. If new generations are not raised on print then they won’t read it or miss it unless they happen to discover it and take to it (It’s all about the marketing sometimes).

But after more than twenty years of personal and professional computing, including the past year in the much more stable and elegant world of Mac based OS, I have reached the conclusion that:

It’s all about the tech.

And when it comes to reading, it should be all about the written word. Not the tech.

FWIW

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4 Replies to “Is it Reading? Is it Tech?”

  1. Great post; nicely thought out. I never thought about the renewable resource/coal plant. But it does take electricty, etc to make the print plant run. And I wonder what Whole Foods does with all the produce? Do they have huge compost bins behind their stores? 😉 Maybe I’ll ask. I have a friend who works for them. And the Computer Shopper..I remember when I worked at Borders in Novi, that thing was gigantic and had it’s own rack. And I recall when we’d sell just as much of Mary Beth’s Bean Bag Bag World!

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