Let’s Stop Making Books Like it’s 1915: Part 3 of The Business of Books

Right now, approximately 70 million people in North America (US, Canada, Mexico) regularly buy and read books. “Regularly” is defined as buying and reading at least one book a month.

This is frequently described in popular media as “nobody reads any longer.” In terms of media attention, books are considered a poor relation compared to high-interest sectors like film, TV, games and online/mobile “content.” If you count “seeing stuff” on your smartphone like news, weather reports or e-mail, nearly 100 percent of North Americans do see popular media; only 20 percent regularly buy and read books. TRUE.

Authors are on the front lines, and their responses to our writer market survey (yes, it’s still open) matched the popular media message. Writers overwhelmingly responded that the two main reasons more people did not buy and read books were 1) a general dislike of reading (lack of interest); and 2) competition from other media: film, TV, games, and social media.

But here’s the thing: more than three-quarters (76 percent) of American adults read at least one book last year (according to the Pew Research Center). Now, this isn’t the same group as the 20 percent, or 70 million, who are known to be regular book-buyers and readers. We may count nearly all of our young residents ages 5–18 as readers as well, since kids still read books in school.

That’s an awful lot of people, some 184 million. It’s more people than go to the movies at least once a year. It’s more people than watched the Seahawks vs. the Patriots in the Super Bowl this year (168 million). An industry-specific, pro-film survey conducted by GFK found that 62 percent of American adults go to the movies . . . at least once a year. The movie-going experience is instructive: higher prices for tickets are leading to fewer tickets sold and lower rates of movie-going, according to the Wall Street Journal. A total of 1.34 billion movie tickets were sold in 2014, according to the MPAA. For books, the nearest one can find in equivalent numbers is that 1.58 billion books were sold during the same year (using U.S. Census Bureau reporting for book retailers, which does not include many e-books and also does not include educational publishers). So, these types of surveys are instructive. About 50% of American adults own one of these three devices (hint: the Amazon Kindle share of the tablet market is much smaller than the other devices).

Because tablets are big-ticket, big tech items that drive advertising and customer relations for just about every industry, there’s a lot more information easily accessible about them than there is about books (or other products delivered via the devices).

To put this into perspective, according to librarian and researcher Nancy Herther, “In 2014, two library systems — Toronto Public Library and King County Library System in Washington — experienced more than 2 million checkouts from OverDrive. Additionally, eight library systems had circulations of more than 1 million.” These e-books and audiobooks aren’t being delivered just via Amazon Kindles … they are delivered through any/all tablets, phones and desktop computers.

This is just a personal survey, but I’ve been asking students for years whether or not they own an e-reader. About a third to half of every class owns an Apple iPad or Microsoft Surface, and 100 percent have smartphones, either Apple or Android. To this date, over the past five years, exactly ZERO students have had an Amazon Kindle, much less another type of dedicated e-reader. At the same time, 100 percent of students read: they’re in college. They buy many books, the majority of which are assigned, of course. They are also eager to get textbooks (or others) in e-book editions. When they read a book they enjoy, they ask for more . . . sometimes that’s a difficult proposition.

The number of regular, ongoing book buyers and readers is probably greater than the official 20 percent — this number could be fairly said to represent people covered in some way by Nielsen BookScan and regular online book purchases through major retailers. A 2013 Huffington Post/YouGov survey of 1,000 U.S. adults found that 35 percent read between 6 and 50 books during 2012 (this does not equate to “buy and read” — some respondents doubtless read library books or assigned textbooks). However, 50 percent of those responding to the survey said they’d spent some time during the prior week reading a physical book. Only 19 percent of those who responded said they’d read an e-book during the prior week. This survey is over a year old, yet its results broadly fit other market statistics: people still read, and they haven’t quit reading physical books in favor of e-books.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) predicts steady, slow growth in book publishing worldwide over the next three years, and a maturing e-book market.

People don’t read any more: not like they used to!

The popular media narrative goes like this: “people used to read all the time — now they don’t any longer.” So let’s look at 100 years ago vs. today. There are a lot of superficial overviews and comparisons of 1915 and 2015 out there. An overview of the American Library Annual for 1915 and 1916 points out some of the bestsellers of the day. Bestsellers were identified by “points” (mentions in review publications or magazine/newspaper lists). The top seller was Michael O’Halloran by Gene Stratton-Porter (a woman), followed by K, by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Winston Churchill’s A Far Country was also in the top-selling list. All three are available in Project Gutenberg and other free e-book editions today, by the way.

Reading in some ways still suffers from the poor social reputation a lot of us remember from our school days.

We really didn’t get a lot of optimism in the writer survey about people’s desire or interest in reading books. Only 13 percent said they thought every person who could read was willing to buy and read books.

“Back in the Day . . . “

Author responses reflect historical thought. A hundred years ago, no less a leader than President Woodrow Wilson noted in the Harper Encyclopedia of U.S. History that few people read books and “unhappily, literature is whatever large bodies of people read.” Newspapers, the “internet” of the day, had been according to Wilson, “for the last half-century, exerting more influence on the popular mind and popular morals than either the pulpit or the book has exerted in 500 years.” It’s difficult to believe that Pres. Wilson wrote that, but apparently — he did.

Here is the difference between 1915 and 2015: in 1915, only about half of American school-aged students (5–17) were enrolled in school, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Approximate 8 percent of American adults were illiterate in 1915, with up to 30 percent of African-American adults being unable to read, according to the NAAL statistics. These adults not only lacked free time to read, they couldn’t read even if they had the time and money. Flash forward 100 years: nearly 100 percent of American adults can read (this is true throughout the developed world, according to UNESCO).

Eloquent responses from writers

Why don’t more people buy and read books? Why do we seem stuck at the 20 percent mark for the percentage of regular book buyers and readers? Here is what our respondents thought, in writing.

“Laziness. Reading requires effort. You can’t just stare at the page like you can a TV or computer screen or phone.”

“Our culture does not admire people who read for pleasure. We are not sexy. We are pegged as poorly socialized, which has some truth to it. American culture makes stupid people famous. The average IQ really is 100.”

“Most people read something, i.e. trade journals, newspapers, magazines, and some read just one author, James Paterson, Clive Cussler, Marry Higgins Clark, etc. and that newspaper, magazine, journal, etc. but the voracious reader who inhales all SF/F, all mysteries, all romance, etc. has always been a minority.”

“They were scared off it in school by being forced to read things they didn’t like. If they’d been encouraged to read what appealed to THEM–even if it was comic books & cereal boxes–they would be reading books. BUYING is a whole different question. Some people are cheap.”

“There are some people who do not like to read. Period.”

“I have an extremely literate niece I have never been able to interest in books — she likes movies, and sports. But she has a doctorate, so I suspect she just hasn’t found what she likes to read.”

“Reading was once the only real pastime. It has since been replaced by radio, and then movies, games, etc. Everyone has different interests, not everyone enjoys reading as a hobby/pastime.”

I KNOW — and so do you

Here is the answer. I know, because I’ve been fortunate enough to be a classroom teacher since 1998. I know what happened when I assigned students to read Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” based on another teacher’s syllabus: classroom disaster. I know what happens when I ask students to read An Anthropologist on Mars by Dr. Oliver Sacks: classroom success. I have had the personal privilege of writing to Sylvan Barnet to let him know that students said just one of his many textbooks, Current Issues & Enduring Questions, was a book that, at the end of the semester, was one that they had not only read thoroughly — was also one they would keep and not sell back for a few dollars’ credit.

Other texts I have used, with success, but not as notable as these two, include Freakonomics by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt, and Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser.

I’ve had students who have both written and published books. A significant number more than own an Amazon Kindle, it now occurs to me. I have had the privilege of teaching both the newsmagazine and literary magazine classes at Saddleback College. In every single regular English class I teach, at least one, but usually two or three, students tells me that they want to “be writers.” There are many others who are gifted writers, too … they’re more shy about their interests, but they, also care. As many as a third fit in this category: they enjoy writing and also enjoy reading. Another third, when engaged, discovers an interest and facility in reading and writing.

So, really, all we need to do is move the dial a little bit forward to open up the current, under-served market for books. Currently, about 70 million North American adults regularly buy and read books. A 1 percent increase in readership would be 700,000 new regular bookbuyers and readers.

There’s clear evidence that younger readers prefer paper books and when they use e-books, they prefer the tablet-type of e-book (with pages that turn and an attractive appearance) to the “flowable” format common on the single-purpose e-readers. They do appreciate the functions of e-books such as the ability to look up unfamiliar words as they are reading: an automatic boon to literacy, but most aren’t aware of them until or unless they are shown them.

So, at the same time as many self-published authors are seeking to serve a pretty small market (dedicated e-reader owners and frequent users), and at the same time as large publishers are taking their cues for what to publish, how to publish, and how to sell their offerings out of the self-published pool …

This guy has this hugely successful Udemy course and half a dozen imitators on his heels.

There’s not an entrepreneur website or publication out there that doesn’t have at least a dozen articles which mention “highly-successful people read.” Reading books is up there on just about every advice list from business gurus. The only person in that category who went against this advice is Steve Jobs, who famously announced, “People don’t read any longer.” He added that “40 percent of American adults didn’t read a book at all last year.” (2007 … false — and even if true, 40 percent isn’t “everybody”). Yes, Jobs was speaking against the Amazon Kindle, stating that the product would fail.

So we have a new motto: “All people will be readers . . . and sometimes writers.” And not for free. Our goal is to develop economically feasable models which will enable books to be written and published reaching all potential audiences, not just a selected few that have been served in the past.

Originally published at www.amysterlingcasil.com on June 25, 2015.

According to Harlan Ellison and my grandmother, “You’ll go far Amy, because you have heart.” Author of 40 books, former exec., Nebula Award nominee, Poor.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store