A Rising Tide of Books - or of Readers?

It’s hard to dispute that book reading is not the most popular entertainment activity for the majority of Americans.  When has it ever been?  How many serious readers remember being laughed at by their friends?  Bookworm.  Nerd.  Egghead.

On the other side of that coin: well read, intellectual, knowledgeable. 

Still it’s also pretty commonly accepted wisdom that the minority of the population that does buy the majority of books we publish is reading less and headed toward buying fewer books as well. 

Of course books compete with movies, television, radio, video games and now more than ever the internet, for the attention of all readers.  The internet is especially seductive to a large group of the most dedicated readers – literate book buyers who consume information in printed forms.

Most of us have no more than 40 hours a week available for leisure activities.  If the average book takes 10 hours to read, and we did nothing else with our available leisure time than read, for a total of four books a week (the more quickly read romance and science fiction books aside).

How many people in America read four books a week?  Four a month even seems like a huge amount of reading nowadays.  When I tell people how many books I read every week, they mostly look at me like I’m crazy, or at least trying to show off. 

So how many serious readers are there?  How many unread books do they already own?  How long will it be before readers decide there is enough free reading material stored in their houses, in libraries, and especially, online, so they only buy books when they feel they must, as opposed to being stimulated to buy a book by marketing events? 

The greatest fear for publishers and writers is that people realize that we have enough books-as-commodities to last multiple lifetimes, and we all just stop buying printed books altogether.

Aside from the world of academic, scientific, technical and professional publishing, which works on a different model than “trade” books (“trade” being defined as books meant for general readers), we can readily assume that there are only a few million serious readers available to buy the 200,000 or more new trade titles published every year now.

In a world where reading time is precious, where more books are published every week than it is possible for most people to read in a year, publishers and authors should be thinking about one thing and one thing only: how can we increase the number of readers who will buy our content?   How can we engage readers in ways that provide real value to them?

If potential book readers are mostly on the web every day and night, then that’s where book publishers ought to be.  If people are consuming their information and ideas through electronic reading, then that’s where book publishers need to be.  If people are rewarding authors who give their work away for free, then that’s where authors and publishers will need to be, and if they have to re-create their business models in order to accomplish that, then so be it.

Every decision publishers (and writers too) make about their businesses should be made within the context of change.  Most publishers know full well their world has changed.  Rising tides raise all boats.  What we need now is a tide of readers.   They are out there.  Which publishers and writers are ready to take this on?

Posted by David Wilk on 10/06 at 04:58 AM
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