Hang on a second, I’m just finishing up with some math. Let’s see, 44,000 people purchased 118,000 books in 2009… that’s an average of… 2.68 books purchased per person per year, right?
Those are the number alluded to in the recent press release about Bowker’s Consumer-Focused Research Report for Book Industry. Actually they call it “groundbreaking” probably for its depth at trying to understand the demographics of the book purchaser and what it means for publishing. Of course you can’t see the entire report for free, Bowker charges $999.00 for that privilege, but what it available is interesting.
If we can go by their numbers, “More than 40% of Americans over the age of 13 purchased a book in 2009.” How many people, exactly is that? Well, the US Census says that the current US population is upwards of 310,000,000, which makes 40% somewhere in the neighborhood of 138,000,000. I’ve always been kind of fuzzy at math, but I’m pretty sure that means their statistical sample is around 4.2% of the population.
But no matter what the numbers, out of that statistical sampling they recorded that sampling as buying just under three books a year per person. It’s a funny thing, because those numbers sound very close to some numbers I heard about a decade ago about the movie industry. Back then I was managing movie theatres and a national study showed Americans went to the movies a little over 3 times a year*; most of those attended on two out of three holidays, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving. We used to call those holidays “amateur days” the same way bartenders call New Years’ Eve amateur night in reference to the unusual expectations people who rarely went out to the movies had about such things as ticket prices, the concession stand, actually having to wait in a ticket holder’s line…
But a lot of us in the industry – actually in both industries, really, movies and publishing – see/read a hell of a lot more than the national average, which means that for every 30 movies or books we purchase someone is averaging only one a decade.
As an author vying for the attention of readers, I don’t find this averaging particularly encouraging.
I’m going to assume these number were for readers over the age of 13 because younger readers would skew the data in a way that makes the average too high: an army of kids reading all 30 Magic Tree House mysteries in a week would totally decimate any useful information this study could present. But age 13 is interesting because it represents what I once read about as “the 8th grade cliff.” In Peg Tyne’s book The Trouble With Boys she discusses the problem of boy readers where they begin to slump in the 4th grade as reading becomes more analytical (i.e. more work/less fun in boy’s minds) and then, if they aren’t reading fluently at grade level, fall off the cliff as readers by 8th grade, roughly when readers turn 13.
It would be interesting to know how this breaks down by gender, whether an all-female survey would yield a higher average number of books read, or what these numbers looked like before computers and video games, or even if there ever was a heyday for publishing. Isn’t it possible that the average number of books read back in the 1930s was also 3 per year?
Okay, I’ve made a mess of this, but in the end, what’s the take-away?
It all comes down to the word “average.” It’s the “average reader” who is only purchasing 3 books a year. But I know hundreds of people on the upper end of the scale, who read dozens of books, children and adults alike. I would not call them average, and in the end these are the people I am trying to reach. They might read what is most popular – the books that make the news or get adapted to movies with huge budgets – but they are also broader readers. They have defined interests that make them want to read as part of a regular habit, which makes them better at recognizing good books from lesser books. They may only read ten books a year, or as many as thirty, but in the end I want what I write to end up in their discerning hands. My audience is the better-than-average reader, as snooty as that may sound, and I still have to catch their attention to be one of the books they choose.
*In searching the internet for this original study I was only able to come up with this list from NationMaster that claims Americans go to the movies 5 times a year on average. Even with that increase from 3 a year I’m still at the high end of the spectrum.