A Nation of Hoarders, not Readers. On the question of the twin heads of codex consumption...

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Summary: Eric Forbes has a blog post [by Ng Je Enn?] about the benefits of reading versus the general trend of aliteracy in Malaysia. In it, the phrases hoarders not readers crops up. But with bookstores closing while libraries reach something like record circulation, what really *is* going on with literacy in this country (and others).

BLOT: (20 Feb 2011 - 03:40:49 PM)

A Nation of Hoarders, not Readers. On the question of the twin heads of codex consumption...

Here's a stat for you, in 2007 a poll found that one in four American adults had read no books the year before. At that time, about a book a season was considered "typical", and with results limited to just readers: seven books was an average yearly take (nine for women, five for men). Finding other statistics is not altogether easy. Most will assert that something like 9.8 books, or something-point-whichever, are read yearly but then will not list who was polled, how old the poll was, or any such information. Let's assume that the numbers have not gotten significantly better,though, until someone can correct me [and if you you can, please send the info on and I'll update this and credit you].

In the past week, Borders declared bankruptcy, and if you believe the comments (I barely touched them, I am abstaining from Internet commentary linked to news articles for my sanity) then more than one person has railed against the high prices of books. High = the MSRP, I assume. Meaning about twenty-five dollars for a hardcover, or about fifteen for a paperback, or about eight for a mass-market paperback. Give or take. Backing up the bankruptcy's ties to the lack of giving people what they want at the lowest possible price, NPR reports massive lines of people shopping. Including quotes from people saying its not the same to shop online, and then talking about the "wagon" they need to take their liquidation-discounted books home. The sales? 20% to 40% off, based on slightly conflicting reports from workers (who back up the description of massive lines). I'll say 30% and split the difference, and we all know that the way liquidation works, it will eventually be down to something like 75%. The lines won't be so long then, because the matrix between discounts and discount-seekers will solve itself as the stock in store ceases to include the sort of big name items for cheap that the casual reader might pick up as an impulse buy.

This leads us to the obvious statement, that where were these huge lines a few months ago when the store could have profited from it and stay open? The answer? I don't know. On Amazon, getting cheaper prices? Browsing used bookstores? On Paperback Swap? The library? The ALA reports that circulation continues to rise every year. While children's books make up part of that (up to 35% as of the link right there), and no doubt DVDs and such are another part, we are still looking at a 7.4 items per library user as a national average (including children's and other inactive library card accounts that are barely used). I'm going to do a dangerous thing and *assume* that 2/3s of those check outs were books, but that leaves us with about 5 books checked out per year per person, which is 5/7 of the average reading. Except, wait, book sales were something on the order of 5 billion dollars a couple of years ago. At 300 million people in this country, that puts us at about 1700usd per year spent on books, per person. Ok, sure, some of that is corporate style sales or educational style sales, but even if half was consumer book buying, that's a lot of James Pattersons. In fact, assuming [again, dangerous] that people spent 850usd on average, then that would come out to to be 34 $25 hardcovers. As an ex-bookseller, I can assure you that people don't buy that many hardcovers.

Which statistics are right? Which are wrong? Does the average American acquire five times the number of books (through check-out and purchase) than they actually read. Is it, to quote a phrase from recent blog post on Eric Forbes's "book addicts" blog, that we—like Malasyia in the entry—are "becoming a nation of hoarders rather than readers". Are those people in long lines at price-dropped Borders merely bottom feeders looking for the best deals and not caring where they got it, or scammers hoping to pick up cheap books that they can then resell at higher prices; or are they people who are just picking up baskets of books because we treat books as a commodity, now, and not so much a hobby (as a man with 3000 books in his personal collection, I can understand this)? The consumption of codexes (I am trying to focus on physical books, because electronic reading material makes everything weird at this point in time) has become twin-headed: the act of buying and the act of reading are twain.

If it has, why are bookstores closing? Why are independent booksellers closing shop (even though the used and discount ones seem to be doing ok on a relative scale...)? They are points where we obtain books, not read them. Why aren't they immune to our lack of reading if our tendency to hoard is still pretty high? Is there an issue in the book-industry itself? Even last year, reports indicated that book sales were increasing. Are we making assumptions that aren't there? Do we think that bookstores are in trouble because those who really like to read have had it smashed into our head? Or is it simply that our few percentages here or there in book sale increasement is not enough to offset rising costs and such? Is the fact that we see nearly 300,000 new titles published yearly part of the problem, rather than solution? Book sales are only half the picture. How many books are returned to publishers for credit? How much do magazines pull down profits? Shrinkage (i.e. shoplifting)? Returns? Damaged goods left in coffee shops? Keeping coffee shops open? Is overhead and shelf space simply untenable?

Now we get to toss ebooks into the mix. It should be fun to see what happens next. The ability to share [legally] will be down: no more paperback swaps, no more lending to a friend (with small exceptions). The ability to share illegally will be way up. Lending rights through institutions will have to be hammered out, but overhead will be down and things like damaged copies or paying for book returns will be a thing gone. There is no solid boon nor bane. For all the complaints of ebooks not being books, the technology is improving every year and potential print-on-demand modules are not that far out from reaching efficacy. Back to the readers v. hoarders complex, though: will we just develop ereaders with gigs of unread book on our harddrive? If anything, it seems like it can make that aspect worse.

PS: as a postscript, I want to send you back towards looking at that Eric Forbes blog entry, which was by, I think, Ng Ju Enn. It goes on talking about developing the habit of reading, and it fairly interesting.

LABEL(s): Book Industry, Statistics


Written by Doug Bolden

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