September 3, 2009

The Rise of the Internet and the Death of Gardening


An alpine meadow of Soldanella, at 13,000 Ft. in Switzerland. From the book, I'll never write.

The Cruel Irony of Garden Blogging

If you write gardening books, you already know this.

If you buy gardening books, you are starting to see it.

Have you visited a big bookstore lately? How many gardening books are there?

How about television? What is your fav show on gardening?

What’s happening?

I’ll tell you what I believe is happening, and it’s not that gardening is declining as a pastime. for if anything, it's never been so popular, with the recent trends of 'Green Thinking' and Organic Gardening" combined with the recession and recession gardening. In fact, according to the National Gardening Association (NGA), an estimated record 91 million households participated in one or more types garden activity in 2008, and homeowners spent a record $44.7 billion to hire professional landscape services. So taken together, these figures represent a dramatic increase in gardening interest and expenditures. So where is this growth coming from, and who's expanding the gardening market—a market which has previously been viewed as dying on the vine?

The answer, according to many experts ( publishers, researchers, trend analysts) are young people.

Yeah, young people.

>>Insert Crickets, here>>

OK. So I can hear it now. easy fix, right? Plant Society meetings will start focusing on how to recruit younger members, since most members are retirement age or higher. No wait, they’ve tried that, and it’s not working.

What’s up, then?

What’s ‘up’ is use of the Internet.

But I wouldn’t look at what’s ‘up’ I would focus on what’s down, for a more realistic view of what’s happening.


Look. Whether you like it or not, most, if not all young people ( those under 25) are getting their information from alternate sources. Websites, Twitter, blogs, but they are getting it on-line, not from books. I believe that this is not going to change.

Need proof? Just look at the recent failures and closures of big city Newspapers. And dare I look at magazines? This fact is not rocket science. In the past two years, even the shelter mag’s, and good ones at that, like Conde Nast’s Domino, Martha Stewart Living’s Blueprint, even Home and Garden, - poof. Gone.

And we all thought the nesting thing was a positive movement in our post 9/11 world? What’s up with that?

What’s up with nesting, is that is has increased also. Younger people are indeed, nesting, and desire shelter content more than ever, the only difference is how they get this information too. The answer here, is blogs. Those Beautifully designed wedding blogs like Green Wedding Shoes, or interior design and craft blogs like Design Sponge are loaded with stunning content, edited, specific, instant. And the same thing might be happening with gardening, and with food. I know actually, since at last count, I have bookmarked over 150 of these. Cupcakes, weddings, floral arranging, party planning, plus a bevvy of more horticulturally smart blogs ranging from growing and mastering collecting crocus species, to alpine plants. There is far more than any book or journal can cover, out there.

Yet plant societies still argue amongst themsleves about how many pages of color they should print, on traditional printing machines, simply because they've been doing it for 80 years, and are fearful about stopping, or shifting to a new media. And rightly so, for most folks over 70 are not using the web, yet they want to attract younger people to keep the groups vibrant, hence, the conundrum. They worry about the color of the type on a page, since they want to print it out, and younger gardeners are searching Twitter looking for a page on growing alpines because saving the alpine plants, seems, cool. There is a huge disconnect.

Books and information is still needed, but people just want to access it digitally now. And they expect it to be free. Which really sucks for many of us, but not for those who are the customers. Because they will find it somewhere else, online.

And that is most likely not going to change either, like it, or not. Your granddaughter who is IM’ing her BFF will be an adult before long, the new generation is rising fast, and, they are used to this. Say Bye bye newspapers.

But at the same time, it’s not all doom and gloom.

This is not a rant, after all, but it is sounding like one. It’s just an affirmation.

Things are changing,and we’ll all be OK. Really. Here’s why:

We continue to cherish our leisure time more than any other generation before us. It’s true.

I was having a discussion today, even ( on line) about this very thing. Time is worth money, lot’s of it. I would much rather pay someone to weed, than to weed myself, but I will still dig and plant bulbs because that is the task I enjoy. After all, I only have a couple hours a week to actually garden, and I am certainly not going to spend it weeding my front hedges. The vegetable garden, sure, but not the hedges. It’s not worth the time.

Many other factors are affecting leisure time activities today, and since to most people, gardening is indeed,” a leisure time activity", this should resonate. We would rather can our own tomatoes, or make a Daub, or carve a pumpkin, where our parents were fine with a plastic one, but at the same time, we have no problem with buying a pre-trained topiary for the Holidays or in maintaining a compost pile. The experience is as important as the meaning, but rarely is the process. In-the-moment gardening, I call it. Who cares who started it, I'm harvesting it.

But why aren’t people buying gardening books or supporting gardening programming on TV?
The answers are different, to each of these questions.

First, TV. Particularly, the impact we imagine that the Food Channel has.

I thought of this, this week, while driving to work and listening to a report on NPR about the popularity of the film Julie and Julia, and the effect this has had on Julia Child's book sales for The Joy Of Cooking, and with the death of Sheila Lukins author of the highly influential cook book, The Silver Palate, based on her Silver Palate Food Shop in New York City. Widely touted as changing the 'tastes' of Americans, for ever. I started thinking about the rise in popularity of the Food Network, it's chefs, cooking shows in general that even I loved to watch, like Ina Garten's The Barefoot Contessa, and even those I dare say I've watched, like Iron Chef and Hells Kitchen. ( Yes Chef, I KNOW I'm a fat cow. I'm sorry chef, I won't do it again, chef". Ugh.

Has the emergence and popularity of the Food Network increased the dollars people spend on food, kitchens and cook books? Not really, or at least, not in the way you may think. Yeah, we are all designing and building dream kitchens with stainless steel deep fryers and wine coolers, but we aren't using them. But we love watching them on TV.
But here is a horrifying trend. It isn’t/ According to blogger Eric Gower, aka The Breakaway Cook, as he paraphrases Michale Pollan’s POV:
““For anyone perplexed at the massive rise of viewers of the Food Network, and how it can be that jillions of people are more interested in watching cooking than actually doing it? Then, how can it be that this rise has paradoxically coincided with the rise of fast food and the ‘home-meal replacements’ sold at supermarkets?", it’s a must read.

Then, another blogger, Sam Fromartz, has this revelation: “Food has become largely about entertainment, rather than engagement. We watch, rather than participate. This doesn’t apply to everyone, but it is the story for many. More and more people are buying prepared foods, eating sandwiches, not cooking.”

The same thing could be happening to gardening. Not you, of course, you're reading this blog, probably on your sofa while watching TV at the same time, right? Or, you are at work....( recent study....52% of Americans multitask with a laptop on their lap, while 'watching' television". Hmmm... why then is it so hard to convince some plant society board members that improving their group's web experience is so critical? People. Like it or not, say good by to your societies journals. Things are going to change, fast.

Just remember this fact. Young people prefer to use the Internet to get their info. They are used to getting info from the web. This issue was raised at a garden publishers forum last month in Publishers Weekly last month then is this: Garden writers and plant book publishers' most important question should be “What can you get from a garden book or plant society that you can't get from the Internet ?”

Your answer may be bad coffee in a Styrofoam cup, but really, this is the issue. Go ahead, moan and grown, about how young people are missing out on social relationships, etc, but in they end, is this really true? And if it is, will this change anything?

I say this. If you are a plant society, garden club, garden writer, and you are not looking at alternative methods of connecting, it may already be too late.

Look at this post on the Publishers Weekly site that interviewed a number of the leading publishers of garden books.

Young gardeners consider their hobby differently than their predecessors, says Storey's Pam Art—“they approach it almost as a craft.” Magazines like Domino and ReadyMade, she says, feature gardening as “a way to create something eye-catching, unique, artistic and self-expressive.” A May release, Deborah Peterson's Don't Throw It, Grow It!, says Art, instructs readers on turning kitchen scraps into windowsill plants that “will appeal to crafter-gardeners with an eye for the unusual.”

"Young people just don't have the time to dedicate to gardening that older generations have. Which is why he poses the genre's most important question: “What can you get from a garden book that you can't get from the Internet or magazines?”

After all, why would an inexperienced gardener spend money on a book catering to an experienced gardener's needs when there is an abundance of information online about how to get started? Discussing blogs and online magazines, Gillman at the University of Minnesota says, “As new gardeners appear, they have an easier time finding how-to information through these routes.”

Rodale's Karen Bolesta thinks publishers need to rely on “notable authors with voices of experience, wonderful visuals and great packaging” to compete with the Internet. The combination of these three things, she says, can “convince a reader that a garden book is as worthwhile as a keyboard.”

Timber Press' Neil Maillet agrees. He believes that there is a certain kind of learning that balances the visual, technical and inspirational that only a book can provide. The industry is adapting to provide a better reading experience for the generation coming up, he claims. “We still put our focus on finding the credible author who can give the reader the reassurance that their money is well spent by buying a book rather than just Googling for free.”

Need more proof? Go to the Timber Press website, and look for the specialty books. I got their catalog last week, and this proved my theory. But it really wasn't a theory, I was well aware of this trend back in March when I met with Neil to pitch some rather gorgeous "coffee table' books on specialty plants that I had comped up. He loved them, but shared with me his vision, They we're not going to sell. Business is business. I get it, it's not their fault not their owners ( Storey Publishing and Workman Publishing). The fault, lies with me. I blog, and in a way, I am contributing to the demise of the lovely gardening books that I enjoy and cherish so much.

If a gardening book becomes a best seller today, it has to deliver a clear message, either in a focused way, such as with a monograph on a single species, but don't expect to make any money, or, it must be accessible with real, simple, information, since the young gardener rarely can look to their boomer parents for advice. So plan on seeing many more "The Top 50 Perennials that are easy to grow" sort of books. The last type of books that will survive, are novelty books. Small price points, that focus on novel ideas like black flowers or, dangerous plants, etc. Amy Stewart must know this, for her fabulously fun book Wicked Plants, has made it onto the New York Times Best Sellers list. An accomplishment, and a statement of confirmations at the same time. Be commercially viable, and interesting at the same time, must be the goal. Coffee table books, not so much.

Amy Stewart and Michael Pollan get it, be entertaining and interesting. It's more about the meaning, than the content and the subject. The scientific or cultural facts can be had, elsewhere. I would imagine that late at night, they dream about the perfect gardening book never written, but then again, what garden writer, doesn't. These types of books are perfect for light reading, and, well, entertaining ( a theme, here). They are enough for an overseas flight bag, a bedside table, but not for reference, for you can get that, on line, remember? Books as reference might even be going away, since last night, on NPR, there was a report about Google documenting every book in the world, to be scanned and entered into their system.

As convergence continues at a stealth rate, the information we want, may be a industry changing as iTunes was to the world of music.Things changes tremendously, but we never really stopped buying music, only now, the musicians are starving.

Bye bye Libraries. ( oh, and bookstores).

As for gardening and young people, a few last thoughts, especially to those of you who are planning to print this out in an effort to convince the Luddites amongst your plant groups, to try and consider a web site with a link to your journal, and a list of plant sources. It's gonna take more than that.

Considering the real problem/opportunity here, young people, and how to attract them to gardening....we need to think about what is different, today.

Gardening may never have been as popular, but the depth people want to dive in, has changed. In a way, it's more Pop gardening, then anything else.

Young home owners are desperate for information, but are also keenly aware that they will most likely move in 5 years. No visions of high maintenance, or in planting a tree that will require pruning annually, into a massive specimen that their grandchildren will attach a tire swing on. Nope. It's more like " I just want a a pretty shrub that makes my house look cool, and is different than the neighbors. Or a vintage Iris, or a lilac. Simple, right? "I want charm, and a message, with little work or maintenance, since I have little time".

So with all of this depressing news, what can we do?

Well, I have always felt that the problem is much larger than how one accesses information, but with these recent stats, I may change this theory. But originally, I felt that the problem may stem from allowing children to discover interests early in life. I am reminded of a trip I took to our local Science Museum last year while researching a toy property based on science. I was amazed at the lack of interest kids had with most everything. And if one did show any interest, they we're prompted by their escorts to keep moving on. " Oh look, electric eels!" the boys would scream, and then the chaperon would say, : "come on boys, keep it moving.". But most of the time, the young students just passed from display to display, never really being able ti engage in one thing, as if, overwhelmed, and at the same time, disinterested.

I've seen this pattern repeat itself in different venues, such as the Museum for Modern Art, in NYC. At a recent MoMa exhibit, I did however see two different responses, which leads me to believe that some young people do show interest, but that is probably depends on how young they are introduced to new things, and to, and it's sad to say this, how affluent they are. Not that affluence allows for instant success, but I think it is safe to assume that there are more youngsters exposed to new foods, new interests, and encouraged to deep dive at an early age with affluent families, than it is with more normal, working families strapped with time and resources to support more meaningful exploration.

Educate, inspire, influence.

Meaningful, early exploration may be the key, at least it was, I think. Not sure anymore. Since children are natural explorers and they are naturally curious. When many of us we're children, we were allowed to roam free, running through the woods, discovering bird eggs, snakes, mud, butterflies, whatever. We came home when the street lights came on, but today, it's a much different world. There is structured play, structured discovery and structured schedules that allow little time for discovery. Soccer on Saturdays, shopping, daycare, etc, keeps parents busy beside their full plate with full time jobs. It's rare for one parent to stay home and watch the kids.

In schools, the arts are fist cut, then the sciences. Science kits are no longer available ( thankfully, no more mercury and Asbestos in a jar!), but a career in science in generated where, then? On top of all this, their parents are most likely not interested not have time to dedicate supporting an interest in science, or horticulture for that matter. Most kids graduate high school with no clue as to what they want to be when they grow up, except perhaps a sports star or a musician ( not classical). The ones that break this mold, are those who are either gifted, who more importantly, those who have been exposed to an interested adult, a role model or mentor, that helped them become interested at a young age. In a sense, it's all about appreciation.If you are an obsessive gardener, or plant collector, you may have cultivated the interest by yourself, but someone most likely helped, or allowed you to cultivate it more.

The only way I can see these trends changing, is by fostering interests with young people, early and often, and then, get over the fact the they will be sitting at a computer most of the time.

After all, we are doing it too.

This kind of was a rant, wasn't it! Oh well, off to weed. Ugh.

6 comments :

  1. Wow Matt, I'm sad to say I agree with you 100%, but maybe the outcome will have effects that we aren't aware of right now...and opportunities for engaging people, and specifically young people that we can't fathom...there is nothing I would rather have than a fabulous gardening book...but as you said, our local book sellers just made the gardening section SMALLER, last week. I was so disappointed,and what was left, was drivel...almost no monographs, or anything I wanted to take home-guess I'll go to the used book store and find a treasure that will be a novelty in our life time,it makes me want to hoard! It's a kind of dark ages...there was once a thing called a book, long long ago..you held it in your hand, and it opened. Brian Morley

    ReplyDelete
  2. Excellent points.

    But rather than bemoan the transit of our cherished books, we need to appreciate the vast resources that are transitioning to the web. Yes, you could buy a book about Salvias that had pictures of most of the species and many important cultivars. But far more are pictured on the web. Curation of that data, assembling it so that people can use it and appreciate it, bringing ease of use to the information: that's what we need.

    I have hundreds of pounds (if not thousands) of books in my home. Soon, all I'll need is a little Kindle-like tablet. Will it be as glorious as a coffee table book? Yes, on my 24 inch computer screen, or on a larger HD television screen. I won't need my reading glasses for the TV, and if I had other vision problems, the electronics can make it more easily readable or even read it aloud for me. If I want to refer to the books in the field, I won't need bulky handbooks: tablets will do. I will be able to annotate, bookmark, take notes, and link without defacing or laborious writing.

    I'm going to try to persuade some daylily society dinosaurs of your observations: maybe they'll prove to be the adaptable, surviving, feathered dinosaurs we call birds.

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