Expenditure on reading has again declined. Does this matter?

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that for 2019 the average expenditure per household for all forms of entertainment reading (i.e. not textbooks, but including newspapers and magazines) was $92. Might we think that half of that $92 was spent on books? If so, I’d have thought that was a pretty decent sum all things being considered. There appear to have been 132,242 consumer units (what we’d call households) in America in 2019, so half of $92 multiplied by households would come to over $6 million.* Don’t know about you, but I’ll settle for that.

Many see the news as a cause for concern and believe that the publishing industry should do something about it. In a piece by David Rothman at TeleRead Thad McIlroy scolds, “The book publishing industry largely sells to the same well-heeled audience, year after year. The audience increases slightly as additional literate graduates enter the reading world — then declines with the deaths of the heavy-reading seniors.” Yes, yes, traditional book publishing is a mature industry. Might be nice if we could look for mass increases in our customer base, but there are certain barriers to entry — you have to want to read a book, and be able to do so ( — which doesn’t just mean being capable of reading. You’ve got to have a bit of peace and quiet and quite a fair serving of spare time, as well as the wish and ability to concentrate on the task at hand. Plus of course it calls for a bit of surplus income. Would that all these things were more widely distributed in our population.) The overall market for books isn’t infinitely expandable — in fact I suspect we’ve gone about as far as we can go. As (and if) education rates increase, new recruits will be constantly available, but don’t look for leaps and bounds. Obviously we always have to be ready for “the deaths of the heavy-reading seniors”.

What isn’t at all clear is whether the $92 cited by the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes sales of self-published and indie-published books — I bet it doesn’t, as I don’t think there’s any real way to discover these numbers. Also the figures have, obviously, got to leave out of account reading of library books, borrowed books, found books, second-hand books, books you’ve owned for years and so on. They are reporting expenditures after all.

It’s always fun to have a go at publishing. It’s something you care about and it looks so inviting. But what is your target? What is publishing? When you address it there’s nobody there to hear. Publishing is made up of lots of individual companies, and each of these companies is made up of lots of different individual people. There’s no collective entity which can agree or disagree with your wish that publishing should do more market outreach, and thus no entity that can do anything about it. Does Mr McIlroy really think that Random House, The University of Chicago Press, The New Press, The American Chemical Society ,and so on should be spending money on outreach to non-readers? Why would they not focus their marketing expenditures on people who they think might e likely to buy their product. Industry associations do do a little outreach: Get Caught Reading still exists, though such initiatives really just end up preaching to the choir.

We’ll have to wait a year or so to get the 2020 numbers, but we all anticipate, don’t we, that expenditure on entertainment reading will have increased during our year of coronavirus?


* Oops. As all too frequently my grasp of large numbers manifests itself as a problem. As David Rothman gently points out in a comment “You need to add some zeros to when you talk about “132,242 consumer units” in the US. The correct number would be 132,242,000. Times $46, that would be $6.07 billion.” A somewhat bigger number! I once had a boss who used to tell me ” Don’t tell me it’s a large number of dollars — give me the number”.