How much do we spend on reading?

A few years ago I published a table from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wow, you sure know how to party!

Thanks.

Anyway, that table highlighted how much Americans spent on reading per year. Because I’m a Nerdus scientificus, for fun I decided to collate the stats in a spreadsheet and create some graphs.

You are just one big party animal, aren’t you!

I certainly am.

So the first chart is a summary of inflation-adjusted US income, expenditure, entertainment spend, and reading spend by the average “consumer unit”. A consumer unit is obviously the economists’ way of referring to a living, breathing, thinking, cog in the economic machine. Apply the appropriate conversion factors for your country.*

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As you can see, US income and spending haven’t really changed in two decades in real terms. That’s right, despite more wealth having been created in the economy since 2000, the average cog in the machine hasn’t seen a change to their take-home pay. Sidenote: I noticed union membership is rather low in the US as well. Might be related.

Over that same time period, the spending on reading has declined. The line for entertainment wasn’t particularly clear in the above chart, so I made this second one.

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It could be argued that entertainment spend is roughly static over time, while reading spend is clearly declining in real terms. But the question is, what does this mean?

The obvious conclusion that Guardian columnists and other industry wonks will make is that (choose one or all to write your opinion column today!):

  • Kids these days are playing Facepage and Tweeters rather than reading books.
  • People have short attention spans and can’t handle reading decent books.
  • Too many people are Netflixing and Chilling.
  • Something derisive about gaming.
  • Blame falling education standards or immigrants or something.

Yes, the media landscape is more diverse now. This is a true fact, not an alternative one. But that doesn’t really explain the decline. Because reading also became cheaper over that time period. Amazon entered the market, heavily discounting paper books and shipped directly from the warehouse. E-books became a thing, which again changed the cost of buying books.

So you have to question how good a metric spending is to reading. Unless you are writing an industry opinion piece.

I also mentioned the lack of change in household income in real terms. It would be interesting to dig up some figures on financial stress for the average household over this same time period. And I’d posit that entertainment is more likely to involve passive forms, like television, than active forms like reading when stress is higher.

Another metric I’ve discussed before is the reported reading figures. Some of those figures suggest people are actually reading more now, while other figures of how much that is are less encouraging.

Ideally, the industry figures would be more transparent. That way someone could actually crunch the data and to track average individual book consumption and reading totals over time. Then we could put some opinion columnists out of work.

* By this I mean look at the currency conversions and think about whether you reckon your country-people would spend more or less of their household earnings on reading than an average American. More. The answer is going to be more. We’ve seen their leaders.

We’ve stopped reading… Apparently.

Have you ever run across one of those opinion pieces where you understand exactly where the author is coming from but realise they are shaking the wrong end of the stick?

Well, I found one of those pieces on how people have stopped reading novels. Apparently.

The article starts strongly, outlining the evidence for the argument. We get to hear about the “many” conversations that the author has had that confirm their belief.

I’ve gone from writing a regular column on scifi books for The Guardian, to a year without reading novels. What happened?

I keep having the same conversation about novels. I tell people that I don’t think anybody is reading novels any more. Usually, the response is outraged. I have a lot of writer friends. Clearly, none of us like the idea that the readers are drying up. Then I dig a bit and it becomes clear – they haven’t actually read a novel themselves in years.

I’m obviously overwhelmed with this high-quality anecdata. The $122 billion publishing industry, which is expected to grow by 6% by 2023, is bound to just give up now and stop releasing books.

But don’t worry, the author has more evidence…

My primary evidence for the death of the reader is the death of my own reading. It’s been a year since I’ve read a novel. “Well you must just be one of those dumbasses who doesn’t read!” I hear some folks thinking. That would be less worrying, wouldn’t it? But the truth is that, until quite recently, I was a professional reader.

While I was writing my regular column on sci-fi books for The Guardian I was getting through five or six full books a month, and looking at maybe two dozen in part. Plus reading for reviews with SFX magazine and elsewhere. I would trawl through the new releases looking for anything promising. And while doing that, something happened.

I was finding less and less I wanted to read.

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So obviously, the author of this piece is clearly and utterly wrong. They do, however, touch on something important I’d like to discuss. But before I do… I need to say something.

These kinds of unresearched posts written by influential opinion havers annoy me. How hard is it to fact check your uninformed pubinion (get it, pub + opinion) before letting it out into the world? Couldn’t you just keep this sort of uninformed blathering confined to a drunken evening with your mates who won’t remember it in the morning? I mean, check any data on reading, any data on books sales, any data from readers, and you’ll see there are plenty of people reading novels.

But sure, one writer for The Guardian (and elsewhere) and a few their mates haven’t read a book lately, so its all over. Sound The Last Post and bring in the flags, we’re done here.

Really makes you want to start hunting people for sport… I kid, I kid.*

I think a big part of the problem with this argument is that the author doesn’t recognise the actual issue. They burnt out on reading a very specific type of sci-fi/fantasy novel. Yes, they might complain about the bad self-published novels ruining the industry – did I mention they used to write for The Guardian? – but it is clear they don’t read very widely. If I was reading half-a-dozen literary sci-fi/fantasy novels a month, I’d probably be removing any sharp objects from my house to alleviate any spur of the moment desires.

Would it have hurt them to branch out and read some non-literary sci-fi/fantasy? Maybe mix in some romance, crime, western, graphic novels, something, anything, just to have a change of pace. For myself, as much as I love sci-fi, I read just as many fantasies, crime, thriller, horror, philosophy, and non-fiction titles.

This is part of why I dislike the book warden and worthy approach to reading. Those “great books” cause burnout. People stop enjoying reading and engage in other forms of entertainment. The article author mentions several of these, such as the competition from digital and social media, and the rise of prestige television. And to some extent this is happening already, people aren’t reading books because the novels they are told are the important or best ones to read aren’t as interesting as gaming, or TV, or movies.

By not identifying the actual problem it becomes very easy to lay the blame in exactly the wrong place. Let’s blame Dan Brown. How dare he entertain people with his terrible books. Let’s blame self-publishing. How dare authors release the equivalent of pulp novels onto the market. Let’s blame all those books I refuse to read as the reason I’m not reading. But the problem is the “great books” mentality and sticking to only one type of “worthy” novel.

The author wants a revolution in the industry to bring about the novel equivalent that “Mad Men or Breaking Bad” were to TV. But I’d suggest they would miss the revolution. They’ve walled themselves off in one specific sub-genre, complaining about how there aren’t enough shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, that they missed Deadwood, The Wire, and literally every other show.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to acknowledge that there is more to novels than the ones marked “Literary Snob Approved”.**

* Although, you might want to start running, and don’t forget your haversack and hunting knife.

** Also known as Award Winning.

The top 10 books people claim to read but haven’t

There’s a famous quote from one of my favourite thinkers, Bertrand Russell, on reading. He posits that the two reasons for reading are for enjoyment and that you can boast about having read something.

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Let’s face it, he was correct.

I’ve previously discussed the reading statistics that show we primarily read for enjoyment but also seem to feel obliged to read other books (particularly literary titles). Actually, I’ve discussed this issue a lot. The anecdata back this up, with early e-reader adopters being the romance and erotica fans who could now read on the bus to work. We just don’t like to be seen enjoying the books we enjoy.

So it should come as no surprise that people like to pretend they’ve read certain books. The Guardian posted this survey of readers (although I can’t find the source) listing off everyone’s favourite reading cred books, you know, the ones you claim to have read but fell asleep at page 2.

A recent survey of 2,000 people suggests that the majority of people pretend to have read classic books in order to appear more intelligent, with more than half of those polled displaying unread books on their shelves and 3% slipping a highbrow cover on books they’d rather not be seen reading in public.

The books most likely to be lied about are, naturally, the books most often filmed, talked about and studied in school (some of the respondents must have been lying since GCSE onwards). Are any of them in your pretend-I’ve-read/never-finished pile, or do you save your literary fibbing for Finnegans Wake and Infinite Jest? Share your guilty secrets below.

1) 1984 by George Orwell (26%)

I have actually read 1984. Some people like to announce that 1984 is our current reality, which shows they haven’t read it or are fond of hyperbole. I enjoyed it, but I can see how people would battle to read this one. Worth a read if only to see how people seem to mash 1984 and Brave New World together.

2) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (19%)

I got to about page 8 of War and Peace. I have no intention of revisiting it. People always talk about battling through it in small chunks because it is such an important and blah blah blah book. If it was really important it wouldn’t have been so boring as to necessitate reading it in small chunks.

3) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (18%)

I watched the old black and white film, does that count? No? Oh well, I don’t care.

4) The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (15%)

I’ve read this novel many times and hated it every single time.

Why reread a novel you hate?

Well, reader surrogate, The Catcher in the Rye is one of those “classics”. You’re meant to love it, or feel moved, or something. Smart people like it, so I must, ipso facto, be a dummy for not enjoying the brilliance of this book. So every 5 or so years I feel the urge to see if I missed something the other times I read it.

I don’t think I missed anything.

Although, John Green did manage to convince me of its literary merits via Crash Course Literature, not that I’ll bother revisiting this novel.

5) A Passage to India by EM Forster (12%)

I can honestly say I’ve never heard of this book.

6) Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (11%)

Okay, okay, I’ll come clean. I only read this book after seeing the first movie in the theatre. In my defence, I tried reading the Hobbit when I was younger and then realised I had so much more to live for and stopped reading.

I really enjoyed the book, but it was long and waffly and I can see why others wouldn’t actually finish it. The narrative structure in parts is also poorly done. In a modern book, those separate threads would be told concurrently rather than one thread at a time with big jumps backward for the next thread. Unlike some 1,000 page novels, this one is worth a look.

7) To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (10%)

I don’t claim to have read this one, but I haven’t actually gotten around to reading it yet either. I’ve even got two copies, a DTB and an ebook.

8) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (8%)

[Insert joke about book title being equivalent to reading said book]

9) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (8%)

I’m going to read the zombie version. I know, I know. Sacrilege.

10) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (5%)

I’m not really interested in reading this. My wife isn’t a fan, but my sister is. No offence to my sister, but I’m taking my wife’s recommendation not to bother.

Bonus: Infinite Jest.

I recently started reading Infinite Jest and gave up. I mean, a book weighing in at one thousand pages had better have a gripping/engaging first chapter to encourage me. Wallace was lauded for this novel, but I think it needed to get to the damned point.*

tldr

The point I’d like to make is that there is no reason to read any of these books. Sure, some of them are great. You might enjoy some or all of them. You might hate some or all of them. But you don’t need to pretend to have read them.

And it is worth noting that many literary influences transcend their medium. You don’t necessarily have to read a book to have a working knowledge of the plot or themes. I’m reminded of a scene from Star Trek where one character criticises Picard for chasing his white whale. Picard acknowledges the point by quoting a relevant line from the book, a book that character hadn’t read. In that moment, despite Picard’s encyclopedic knowledge of the book, he needed someone else to point out the moral of the story.

Enjoy reading. Don’t feel as though you have to read.

* I’m not the only one who thought this:

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was a definitely finite jest: I think there might have been a good novel encased somewhere in all that dross of self-indulgence, like a Michaelangelo statue trapped in a slab of marble, but Wallace’s editor evidently couldn’t be bothered to chisel the thing out.

Are e-readers filled with garbage?

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Every now and then I like to look back through older posts on my blog. It’s a form of masochism built upon equal parts fascination with forgotten ideas and revulsion at missed typos and awkwardly phrased run on sentences that really don’t know when to end, that should have ended sooner, and aren’t something I do anymore. One snarky post caught my eye and I thought I should retread that ground.

The post was based upon an article in The Guardian, one of the last bastions of book snobbery that manages to not trip over its own superiority complex – sometimes. The article had decided that all of these new-fangled e-readers weren’t filled with the right kinds of books.

Kindle-owning bibliophiles are furtive beasts. Their shelves still boast classics and Booker winners. But inside that plastic case, other things lurk. Sci-fi and self-help. Even paranormal romance, where vampires seduce virgins and elves bonk trolls.

Ahh, good, they’ve figured out what people actually enjoy reading. Do go on.

The ebook world is driven by so-called genre fiction, categories such as horror or romance. It’s not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare. No cliche is left unturned, no adjective underplayed.

“So-called” genre fiction categories of horror and romance… This article was published by a so-called newspaper.

At this point, you can see why I originally wrote about this article. Like many of these worthiness arguments, the article is quick to deride any genre book, particularly e-books in this case, as not having “classic” potential. You know, classics like The Godfather (crime), Lord of the Rings (fantasy), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (science fiction), Frankenstein (horror), or Pride and Prejudice (romance). Why would anyone ever read dreck like genre fiction?

As I’ve said before, I could easily write a post-a-week pulling apart one of these articles. They are very common and rely on the same handful of bad arguments. In my original response to the article, I wrote that literary fiction – the preferred genre of the authors of these sorts of articles – and biography markets have been kept afloat by this sort of snobbery. People like to be seen reading high-brow stuff, and people like to give worthy books to friends and family. Not one person has ever bought a political memoir to read, they are always a Father’s Day gift. And as the article states, e-book readers don’t have to let people see what they are reading, so they don’t have to pretend any longer.

The reading public in private is lazy and smuttyE-readers hide the material. Erotica sells well. My own downmarket literary fetish is male-oriented historical fiction (histfic). Swords and sails stuff. I’m happier reading it on an e-reader, and keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.

Well, maybe people will pretend just a bit longer…

Since this was an article from 2012, the talk of e-books was as they were ascending in popularity. Growth in the e-book market has since slowed, with the market being 20% of the total sales for the major publishers, down from a high of 28% five years ago. Of course, in the fiction market e-books are more like 50% of sales for the Big 5 publishers. And those publishers are having trouble with new fiction titles, as they haven’t had any “big titles” selling well, instead relying on genre fiction backlists and the sudden interest in political books… Wait, what?

It puzzles me why the author of this article insisted that e-readers are filled with garbage, particularly since the arguments supporting the claim lack evidence. A large chunk of book sales from major publishers are e-books, so it can’t all be the dreck titles, can it? What proof do we have that e-readers only contain Twilight fan-fiction and Dan Brown* novels? The proof we are offered is that anything genre is garbage: checkmate person who reads books! So maybe these article writers at The Guardian are onto something, maybe e-readers like the Kindle are filled with garbage.

Guardian on Amazon

 

*Sorry Dan**, you and James Paterson are my go-to punching bags here. If I’ve offended you or James by suggesting your books aren’t high-quality writing, then I’m quite happy to edit out those comments from my blog for a small six or seven figure fee. Just post me one of the bags of money you use as a pillow, that should cover it.

**Language expert take on Dan Brown novels: “A renowned male expert at something dies a hideous death and straight away a renowned expert at something quite different gets a surprise call and has to take an unexpected plane flight and then face some 36 hours of astoundingly dangerous and exhausting adventures involving a good-looking (and of course expert) member of the opposite sex and when the two of them finally get access to a double bed she disrobes and tells him mischievously (almost minatorily) to prepare himself for strenuous sex. Where are we?” And another.

 

 

Literary Fiction in Crisis

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Literary Fiction in Crisis was the headline lede for a series of articles in The Guardian last month. Long known as a balanced and inclusive arts publication (/sarcasm) they sought to highlight a serious problem and a solution for literary fiction.

In case you haven’t heard, people aren’t reading literary fiction. Book sales are dropping. I covered this in my post on Australian Fiction, and US Fiction, and the Guardian article covered the UK figures in its first piece in the series.

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Let’s try not to think too hard about sales being in value terms and not volume. I mean, ebooks aren’t usually priced cheaper or anything and would hardly contribute to this revenue figure whilst being more profitable. Clearly, we need to get onto blaming the real culprits. Stupid kids these days are playing Tweeters and Facepage instead of buying books.

One reason suggested by the report for the decline in literary fiction sales is the recession, happening at the same time as the rise of cheap and easy entertainment. “In comparison with our smartphones, literary fiction is often ‘difficult’ and expensive: it isn’t free, and it requires more concentration than Facebook or Candy Crush,” the report’s authors write.

Won’t someone thinking of the starving artists!!

The researchers looked at the 10,000 bestselling fiction titles over the last five years and found: “Outside of the top 1,000 authors (at most), printed book sales alone simply cannot provide a decent income. While this has long been suspected, the data shows unambiguously that it is the case. … What’s more, this is a generous assessment. After the retailer, distributor, publisher and agent have taken their cut, there won’t be a lot of money left from 3,000 sales of the 1,000th bestselling title. That we are returning to a position where only the best-off writers can support themselves should be a source of deep concern.”

OMG, you’re telling me that artists have to have day jobs?* Oh the humanity! Surely this must be a new thing… Unless it has literally always been a thing. If only there was a graphic somewhere that could highlight the proportion of authors who make a living writing…

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Source: A 3.5 year old Guardian article…

The second article covers some of the same ground before highlighting a couple of important points.

This continuity imperative has long been built into the foundations of commercial publishers, who expect many of their most successful writers to cough up a book a year. And as publishing has become more centralised, with much of its power now concentrated in three giant conglomerates, it has become more ruthless.

The brutal truth is that through the 1980s and 90s it was possible for the literary novelist to make a living on advances that didn’t “earn out”. They were supported by an old-fashioned value system that sanctioned the write-off of losses for the kudos of association with an “important” writer and a belief that literary value could be offset against the profits of more pragmatic publishing.

These points are ones which are not made often enough. In an industry that runs on the work of part-timers (88.5%), the proceeds to these employees are decreasing, the time commitments are increasing, and the investment in their careers is decreasing. Where are the three articles criticising this problem?

Of course, we need to steer the ship away from that iceberg of issues. The second article instead makes the argument that the UK Arts Council should fund more authors (and let’s assume the implication is that other governments around the world should do the same).

Unlike the performing arts, publishing has always been a largely commercial sector that has had to square its own circles. This is reflected in the fact that it gets only 7% of the funding cake handed out by the Arts Council, compared with 23% to theatre and 11% to dance.

Personally, I want to see Arts Council funding to be decided in a Thunderdome. It would be great to see starving artists facing off against one another for grants. The fit and agile dancers doing battle against the people who spend all day sitting and typing. They could stream it on Pay Per View and raise some extra arts funds.

There will be those who argue that this just shows that literary fiction is a hangover from the past, and the poor dears should knuckle down and resign themselves to writing what people actually want to read. But few would dare to make the same argument about experimental theatre or dance.

Yes, I’d argue this. And I would dare to make the same argument for theatre and dance. Thun-der-dome, Thun-dur-dome, Thun-der-dome!

The third article in this series makes just this argument – just to be clear, for writing what people want to read, not fighting in the Thunderdome. It doesn’t mince words and goes straight for the jugular.

Following the announcement from Arts Council England that sales of literary fiction are plummeting, it is suggested that arts subsidies be deployed to help writers survive. I have another idea. They should write better books.

This article goes on to imply that literary authors could put some effort into writing stuff people want to read, mainly via utilising compelling plots, which the author feels is a major flaw in literary works. I think he misses an important point. Authors can write whatever they want. But I do agree that authors can’t expect to earn a living from this unpopular writing, nor have people like it, nor have it be accepted as appropriate (e.g. racism). Pleasing a small club of literary snobs with worthy books doesn’t entitle authors to a full-time career.

Of course, nobody is proposing supporting genre authors. They aren’t writing important fiction and are thus not real authors. They deserve to starve! This is the main issue I have with the argument to fund literary fiction. Somehow we’ve glossed over all the authors who aren’t making a living writing genre, as though they have nothing to contribute to society, and are thus unworthy of arts funding. Admittedly, a very good study, mentioned in the second article, does show there are clear empathy differences between readers of genre and literary novels** – although why is still a question to be answered. So there is an argument to be made for literature support.

As I see it, there are a few paths we could tread. The reading industry could acknowledge that most authors are part-timers and do more to support this reality while they balance a day job with their art. Or we can acknowledge that arts are an important aspect of our culture and support ALL artists with grants – not just the “important” literary ones. This latter option could be easily and justifiably funded by taking government funding out of popular high-level sports – i.e. no more free stadiums for you football! Let’s just hope that sports don’t go up against arts in the Thunderdome.

*Side note: we could probably even refer to the artistic projects as the Side Hustle. This piece by Zen Pencils is quite good and captures the idea behind the author dream.

**Worth reading this paper, which I’ve linked directly. I expected this to be a small sample, poorly analysed, poorly reasoned, paper that was written to elevate snobbery with pseudoscience. It was actually a very solid study. Although, it is worth noting that literary merit was on a spectrum, so literary could be found in many titles. This included Raymond Chandler in the top third of literary titles, which surprised me (last spot was James Patterson, which should surprise no one).

Edit: A recent article touched on a point about art vs sport and the taxation of people in those fields in Australia. Interesting what we promote as important.

Edit: A Twitter thread about the origins of what we call literature versus genre caught my eye. The basic summary is that after the industrial revolution you had class divides between readers. Workers got to read one type of magazine, whilst richer managers (but not the capitalists) got a fancier magazine. The stories that were published in the fancier magazines became literary, whilst the rest was genre. So when I say that literature is based on snobbery, it is quite literally the snobbery of class divides in “Western culture”.

See also: Author Earnings