The latest sales statistics are out for the U.S. book industry, and they aren’t pretty—with sales for the first quarter coming in at $2.22 billion, a 6.6 percent drop from the $2.38 billion of the same period for 2014.
You can complain all you want about the reliance of the Association of American Publishers on data from the specific 1,200+ publishers it included. Yes, yes, yes, plenty of small publishing and self-publishing has happened under the AAP’s radar.
But the biggest issue isn’t small vs. large. It’s that all of publishing is so tiny. Bill Gates alone is worth close to $80 billion.
If you doubt we’re talking Lilliputian here, just consider the latest figures I could find over at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. American households are spending only around $102 a year on “subscriptions for newspapers and magazines; books through book clubs; e-books and digital reading material; and the purchase of single-copy newspapers, magazines, newsletters, books, and encyclopedias and other reference books,” if you go by the 2013 numbers from BLS. What’s more, expenditures fell 6.4 percent from 2012.
Even if the BLS stats are far from comprehensive—they probably exclude textbooks, for example—this is a pretty dismal showing. “Entertainment, “ the agency’s separate category including everything from movies to spectator sports and video games, came in at $2,482. Yes, some would note that the entertainment stats encompassed expensive purchases such as TV sets. But even with the cost of text-capable devices counted, with allowances made for the time actually reading off them, the stats for books and other reading would be pathetic. I wouldn’t be surprised if BLS updated its figures soon, but I doubt that books, newspapers and the like are about to elbow aside Netflix and friends.
How to get books to claim a higher percentage of consumer expenditures? That’s a topic for another post. But I will say that the book business would do well to pay attention to family literacy issues and such possibilities such as a national digital library endowment. All the corporate marketing in the world by itself cannot expand the universe of readers. “I do not believe the novel is dying,” the novelist Philip Roth told the New York Times a few years ago. “I said the readership is dying out. That’s a fact, and I’ve been saying it for 15 years. I said the screen will kill the reader, and it has. The movie screen in the beginning, the television screen and now the coup de grâce, the computer screen.” But need the computer screen really be lethal to literature? Whether through cell phone book clubs or systematic distribution of paper books in pediatricians’ offices, we can still save the book if we look beyond the latest quarterly numbers and think more about the “Why?” and about solutions. Perhaps industry lobbyists should spend less time fighting the copyright wars and more time pressing for expanded literacy campaigns.