Tyson Adams

Putting the 'ill' back in thriller

Down with Reading?

An interesting table of statistics – yes I am assuming statistics are interesting, why yes, I am a huge nerd – crossed my feed today. The table, presented below, shows the household expenditure breakdowns over time (1990-2009). The highlighted lines show the amounts spent on entertainment and reading.

US Bureau of Labor Statistics (with labour spelt incorrectly)

US Bureau of Labor Statistics (with labour spelt incorrectly)

For those of you who are blind or prefer reading my words rather than a table of numbers, the statistics show that since 1990 there has been a pretty steady increase in household expenditure on entertainment, but the amount spent on reading has been in steady decline. Clearly it is time to panic. Movies, TV and gaming have won. Time to give up reading and writing. No future in it.

Well, that would be the conclusion if you don’t go and look for the source data.

Now I am rather lazy, so I haven’t bothered to look up every year of data and tried to recreate the table. But what I have done is looked up the figures from a few of the years not included in the table: 2010, 20112012 and 2013. The spend on reading from those years is $100, $115, $109 (no 2013 data as yet) and entertainment spend of $2,504, $2,572, $2,605 and $2,482. Seems like that trend stopped, or something.

Actually, the trend has more to do with the household demographics and income than any change in book buying. Whilst in the early 2000’s there was a drop in reading for entertainment from ~0.4% of household expenditure to ~0.2%, this has been consistent since. So readers are still buying and reading books at roughly the same proportion as always.

And who are the readers? Well, from the demographics breakdown the readers tend to be middle-aged or older, higher income, educated households, or households without kids. Apparently having kids stops you reading, can’t think why. And clearly older and more affluent people are the ones who can afford the hardcover prices, or see the value in them, or just like having something on the bookshelf surrounding their money pile – rich people have money piles in their houses, right?

To me this doesn’t say reading is a dying industry, rather that there are groups being missed by the current industry. Of course I’m biased and probably daydreaming about a magical place where books hunt down DVDs for sport. The younger people tend to have less entertainment expenditure, with the average consumer spending 5% of their income on entertainment, whilst under 25s spend between 4 and 5%. Their book buying appears to have declined and is lower than the average consumer, at 0.14% (2012). This makes them a missed market (or possibly buying cheaper e-books). The other groups spending less on books are the less educated and lower income people, and again, not just in total expenditure but in the proportion of household expenditure.

Clearly these three groups could be reading just as much but instead of buying books they are borrowing them from friends or libraries, or they might be buying cheaper books. But something tells me this isn’t the case, what with the kids these days with their hippity hop music and haircuts. To my mind the fear that the market for books is shrinking, as suggested by the above table, is not borne out by the more recent data. We see more competition for entertainment dollars yet books don’t change that much ($150 to $110 over 22 years is 3 paperbacks in the US) suggesting that the problem is in who is reading. If reading is going to be only for richer, older and more educated people then we have a problem, especially if we aren’t creating the next generation of readers.

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