January 12, 2009

Americans Are Reading More

After the American Century

A new Census study revealed that more Americans are reading fiction and poetry than they were in 2002, the first time that number has gone up in decades. Slightly more than half of all adults read a literary work last year, though unfortunately the study did not differentiate between those who read just a single short story and those who read for several hours every day.

Men still read considerably less than women, but even they were reading a bit more. Given the competition with TV, film, computing, and the vast leisure industry, any gain is worth celebrating. As an author, I have worried that this might be the last generation that really reads books.

But the celebrating should be muted. The Association of American Publishers reported sales down more than 3% for 2008, wiping out a corresponding gain from 2007. If people are reading more, they may be borrowing books from libraries or friends rather than buying them. Compared to the huge losses in many industries, the bankruptcies, the foreclosures, and the rising unemployment rate, however, a 3% fall seems like nothing at all.

E-books still are a tiny segment of the market, less than 1%, though Amazon has made an effort to develop this area, selling its own special reader, The Kindle. Waiting lists are long for that device, however Meanwhile, many classic texts are available on-line for free, and to the extent that people go to sites like Bartleby and get their literature there, they will not be counted.

Overall, publishing is doing better than the music industry, which has seen sales of CDs decline drastically, by 45% since 2000. On-line sales have increased, but not as rapidly, so there is shortfall that is hurting the big music companies. Overall, the book publishers seem to be in a more stable situation. Thus it turns out my decision not to seek stardom in rock star back in the 1960s has finally been vindicated.