Monday, May 7, 2007

American Readership is Way Down

Here I go being Cassandra again but I need to say this. It has past emergency levels and is now a catastrophe: Americans are not reading. It's a serious and definite threat to our democracy. We will lose everything that this country stands for and holds dear if we don't start reading.

John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle, thinks that losing Book Reviews is a serious problem (listen to him on NPR). Although I sympathize with his point, I think he is looking at a symptom and thinking that it is the problem. The industry is cutting back on advertisement of books in literary supplements because they are loosing money. They are losing money because adults are not reading. And, thus, the book industry as a whole is falling apart because the audience of readers is shrinking. Book sales are way down. (Trust me, I know this is a fact!) I think that as an industry our time would be better spent encouraging a reading campaign for the whole country — challenging everyone in the country to start reading again.

As our population stops reading, we lose a lot of cognitive thinking ability — the critical thinking that we need to make decisions that affect our future. It's that simple. We would not have been so fooled by the current regime in the White House if we were reading. We would not been tricked into a war if we were reading. We would not be losing our middle class if we were reading. We would not be losing our white color jobs to overseas workers if we were reading. We would not be having contenders for the Presidency of the United States raising their hands saying that they don't believe in evolution if we were reading.

Things were going wrong before Bush got into office. Our schools were physically falling apart and our test scores were going down. Remember, Bush went into office as the "Education President." It's laughable now (it was laughable then). He was supposed be working on reversing this trend. Obviously this has not been happening, it is getting much, much worse. To fix this we need take charge of our own education. We need to get literate so we can be competitive as a country and also enable us to make better choices for our political leaders. Reading can fix a lot of holes in a person's education.

So get to reading. We need to encourage our children to read. Start getting on the schools to make sure your children are reading, too. Read to your children while they are young. Make sure that they have summer reading lists of a minimum of 10 books. Have them deliver a report to you at the end of summer about what they've read.

This is an emergency.

Update: The May 9, 2007 article Last exit to book land from supports what I'm saying here.


Georganna Hancock said...

Could it be that people are not reading printed pages, but are reading more online? Are the sales of books down overall? I had the impression that just as people are moving to the web to get their news (and reviews), sales from digital storefronts are overtaking the bricks. We live in troubling times!

jenn said...

I think that you may be right about a segment of the population moving to the internet to get their news. The amount of bookstore going out of business really does reflect the lowered book sales. On average Americans are buying 1, that's only 1 hardcover book a year.

"Why does our bizarre national fear of reading have anything to do with this? We read stuff all the time (email, stop signs, the comics) but for some reason, people think it's fine to draw the line at books. (Typical annual per capita purchase rate for hardcover books in the US: one)." --- seth godin

Andy Laties said...

I attended a session about the elimination of book reviews -- held at the NY Small Press Center. I arrived late and so didn't raise my hand to make my point, figuring someone else had probably already made it. I asked one of the panelists afterward and found that I was wrong: no one on the panel had explained why it is that big newspapers are closing down their book review sections. They had indeed (as I'd been hearing) been moaning about litblogging and readership and blah blah blah.

This is wrong. The reason newspapers are closing down their book review sections is because publishers are no longer spending much money buying ads in those sections. Why this huge dropoff in publisher spending on newspaper ads? Because the ad budgets for books are now being spent on buying placement in book superstores. This isn't me saying this: It's common knowledge. But no-one's focusing on it. They're so used to their old broken-record thinking that they've failed to notice that the entire book distribution system has been totally corrupted by the Barens-&-Noble controlled choke-off in retail distribution. 25% of the retail market is enough to be the tail wagging the whole publishing dog.

Publishers should stop being blackmailed into buying front-of-store display for one month at Barnes & Noble. It doesn't work. They return the books anyway. Sure, you get to say that you shipped a million books. Sure, this puts you on the NYT bestseller list because NYT doesn't care if 900,000 get returned. Sure you can then produce a paperback with a NYT Bestseller blurb printed on the cover (although you saw 90% returns on your so-called bestseller hardcover). But the industry is so fixated on selling a huge quantity of a tiny number of titles that the 300 million highly diverse people in this country aren't, most of them, being appealed to with the oddball titles they individually will want to read!

Ug. Goodbye book presence in the newspapers?? We'll have to launch our own. (See the New York Megaphone, published by Vox Pop.)

jenn said...

Hallelujah and let the church say amen! Thank for saying what I've been thinking for a long time now. Those sales at B&N are not real and the book industry is sitting on very weak ground.

I remember when Harry Potter 4 came out, I couldn't get a copy to save my life. Then I went into the B&N in Park Slope and they were literally making forts out of them for a store display. A few months later, like magic, I could get as many as I wanted (conveniently after the rush was over.) Copies of Harry Potter were everywhere piled high on the bargain tables because B&N just shipped them all back.

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