Musings on Writing & Publishing
Why Are Avid Book Readers Reading Less?
Americans reported to Gallup they read on average 12.6 books during 2021. This is the smallest number since Gallup began measuring in 1990.
The most concerning drop came from college graduates, who comprise the avid-reader cluster for books. When avid customers in any product category start consuming less, that is worrisome.
Per Gallup: “The decline is greater among subgroups that tended to be more avid readers, particularly college graduates but also women and older Americans. College graduates read an average of about six fewer books in 2021 than they did between 2002 and 2016, 14.6 versus 21.1.”
Is it Wordle’s Fault?
Let me offer some possible reasons why, other than the rise of Wordle and the stresses of the pandemic. There is no doubt we are all glued to our phones, and that is consuming much available reading time. There is also an explosion of terrific streaming content ranging from The Gilded Age to Ozark.
These forms of entertainment are passive by nature, or if you prefer, less work than reading a book. As an avid reader myself, I have to purposefully pull myself away from “easy entertainment” and make the effort to read a novel or non-fiction book. And I estimate that 75% of the books waiting to be read on my bedside table were not purchased by me, but are pass-arounds from friends. Or found at Goodwill and the local dump.
Print books sell once and are then read many times, so the actual per-reader royalty rate is in the cents, not dollars. And the costs to produce print books continue to rise, pushing retail prices higher and higher.
Meanwhile, as reading for pleasure continues to decline, the publishing industry is hellbent on protecting ebooks from piracy. Even the book reviewers who do their best to promote new books and reading, must read watermarked PDFs, battle publishing lawyers, and agree to only use NetGalley for retrieving digital copies.
The conversations I have with the shrinking ecosystem within the traditional book industry is that the focus is exclusively on themselves and the resellers of their product, not on readers. This seems like a dangerous bubble to live within. One can consider a pirated debut novel as “free advertising” to expand the reader base. Is it better to exist in obscurity or risk some occasional theft?
Where’s the Consumer Research?
I see no consumer research measuring price elasticity for books, something every major industry does. Would you pay $21 for a cantaloupe when right next to it is a $7 watermelon? Maybe. But there are certain price points where customers issue a quick “No.”
I continue to believe that expensive hardcover books and ebooks have priced out many forms of excellent reading entertainment. Even the most avid readers are now saying enough is enough. And the scale the large publishers need to publish anything, means access for authors is shrinking. The fixed cost to turn on an offset press to print books is very high.
Of course, there are “must-reads” where people will pay $30. But those are mostly political books, and how much of that inside (treasonous?) knowledge could have appeared in magazines and newspapers? Avid book readers have been well-trained to know if they wait a year from the hardcover pub date, they can buy the paperback for less. Or find a copy at the library or dump.
The problem is the content is not important enough to an increasing number of consumers. There are much less expensive and easier entertainment choices. And, for most of the population, buying a book is not a necessity purchase. It’s discretionary spending, which always takes a big hit in tough times as budgets tighten.
Backlist Sells Itself
The other worrisome trend is the rise of backlist book sales as a percentage of all books sold. Backlist books “sell themselves,” as publishing insiders will say in private. No advertising needed. No sales expertise. Their highest margin products. Just make sure it’s in stock for the resellers when they come looking to replenish inventory. Bots can do this. As those who work in Big Publishing heave a sigh of relief to have such a bounteous backlist, they need to pay attention to how much they are actually needed by the company going forward.
Retreat or Advance?
This trend in reading decline among the avid readers is reason for real concern, and my guess is the publishing conglomerates will continue locking down their new content, making access for all involved ever more difficult. And continue consolidating until the government will not allow them to do so anymore, as they can survive on those easy backlist sales. But this is in no way what anyone with the slightest amount of objectivity would describe as a healthy place to be. – Caleb Mason, Publerati