The limits of imagination

Many would think of authors as having limitless imaginations. We can imagine amazing futures, fantastical worlds, utopias, dystopias, magics, stuff that we call science that is actually just more magic, but we can’t imagine a rich person as wealthy as actual rich people.

That’s right when it came to thinking of massive piles of money that a fictional character would go swimming through, it didn’t amount to as much money as our actual wealthiest people.

Fictional 15 richest

  1. Scrooge McDuck – $65.4 billion
  2. Smaug – $54.1 billion
  3. Carlisle Cullen – $46.0 billion
  4. Tony Stark – $12.4 billion
  5. Charles Foster Kane – $11.2 billion
  6. Bruce Wayne – $9.2 billion
  7. Richie Rich – $5.8 billion
  8. Christian Grey – $2.2 billion
  9. Tywin Lannister – $1.8 billion
  10. C. Montgomery Burns – $1.5 billion
  11. Walden Schmidt – $1.3 billion
  12. Lara Croft – $1.3 billion
  13. Mr Monopoly – $1.2 billion
  14. Lady Mary Crawley – $1.1 billion
  15. Jay Gatsby – $1.0 billion (Source: Fictional 15, 2013) Total = $215.5 billion

Let’s compare that to the real-life Richie McRiches.

Real 15 richest

  1. Jeff Bezos – $131 billion
  2. Bill Gates – $96.5 billion
  3. Warren Buffett – $82.5 billion
  4. Bernard Arnault (and family) – $76 billion
  5. Carlos Slim Helu (and family) – $64 billion
  6. Amancio Ortega – $62.7 billion
  7. Larry Ellison – $62.5 billion
  8. Mark Zuckerberg – $62.3 billion
  9. Michael Bloomberg – $55.5 billion
  10. Larry Page – $50.8 billion
  11. Charles ‘f@#k the environment’ Koch – $50.5 billion
  12. David ‘f@#k poor people’ Koch – $50.5 billion
  13. Mukesh Ambani – $50 billion
  14. Sergey Brin – $49.8 billion
  15. Francoise Bettencourt Meyers (and family) – $49.3 billion (Source) Total = $993.9 billion

On the fictional list, we have a literal 350-year-old blood-sucking parasite who had several lifetimes to accumulate his wealth. Another is the image we conjure up when we think of rich people. One character even has rich in his name twice. Yet for all of their billions, they aren’t matching it with the real-life billionaires.

It says something that the richest fictional character has half as much money as the richest man in the real world. And the total worth of the Top 15s couldn’t be more different. All of the world’s authors couldn’t come up with a list of the wealthiest characters with as much money as their real-life counterparts ($215 vs $994 billion!!).

But the worst part is the real-life billionaires. Do we see Jeff Bezos swimming in a giant vault of money? Does he even own a giant vault? What type of pathetic billionaire is he? Too busy stopping his workers unionising to enjoy a swim in his money is what he is. Bill Gates has not once tried to scare dwarves away from his mountain of gold, on the plus side, he isn’t a gold hoarding dragon. And will we ever see the Warren Buffet spanking a college newspaper reporter sex tape, and will that be hotter than the 50 Shades of Grey movies?

What about superheroes? Zuckerberg isn’t donning a cowl and fighting crime, he’s too busy selling elections. Tony Stark was fighting to save the planet, the Koch brothers only seem to have time to see the planet burn. Would it kill them both – or at least one more – to try to build an arc reactor?

Authors may not be able to imagine ridiculous levels of wealth for their characters, but billionaires seem equally unable to imagine doing something worthwhile with their billions.

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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.