The freshest ebook sales stats from major publishers are a big downer. But the real news is exactly what Andrew Richard Albanese has concluded in Publishers Weekly, amid dismal revenue news from 1,200 publishers. Albanese’s headline says it all: Print or Digital, It’s Reading That Matters. He writes:
Overall, Pew found that the share of Americans who have read a book in any format in the last year held steady at 73%, largely unchanged since 2012. But that’s down from 79% in 2011, the first year Pew began researching people’s reading habits. Pew also found that the average number of books read per year has also remained steady since 2012, at 12. But again, that number is also down, from 14 in 2011.”
Keep in mind those are averages skewed by heavy readers of books. The typical readers buys just a fraction of the average. Albanese continues:
Meanwhile, in another survey released last month, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that just 43% of adults read at least one “work of literature” for pleasure in the previous year—the lowest share since the NEA started tracking reading habits in the early 1980s. The recent figure is down from a high of 57% in 1982. Trade publishers will be most concerned by the NEA stat, because the NEA survey specifically covers novels, plays, short stories, and poetry, excluding nonfiction and reading for school or work.
Albanese goes on to write that “it should surprise no one that Pew found that print books are hanging on with readers—after all, just as the e-book market started to boom, the major publishers put a collective thumb on the scales to tip readers back toward print, with efforts that included a scheme with Apple to raise e-book prices, and burdensome restrictions on library e-books.” He then says, among other things, that “despite more than half of the public apparently unaware of the service, e-book lending in public libraries has also expanded significantly since 2013. Leading library e-book vendor OverDrive has reported double-digit increases in library e-book circulation for years now, with 33 library systems each reporting one million e-book circulations or more in 2015, up from 10 in 2014.”
What does all this mean, as I see it? First, Big Five publishers should immediately reverse their outrageous price increases which, in some cases, have led to digital books actually selling for more than paperbacks. Second, as Albanese observes, readers are growing more and more comfortable with multiple formats — which means that publishers will jeopardize their futures if they make digital reading too expensive, particularly in light of all the competition for readers’ finite time from other forms of entertainment, ranging from Netflix to video games. Third, if publishers really want to grow readership, period, not just readership of paper books, they should increasingly embrace the library model. Fourth, we need a national digital library endowment to strengthen the library model in ways that coincidentally could also increase sales to consumers. See Toward a library-publisher complex for the digital era: Where the money is for both sides, on the LibraryCity site.
Granted, the challenge exists of keeping publishers sustainable if members of the public can check out books for free from their local libraries. But as Overdrive has documented, a Survey of 75,000 patrons shows library e-book patrons purchase average of 3.2 books per month. Imagine — 38 books a year, or more than three times the national average.
Beyond that, publishers should care less about business models and more about revenue, whatever form it takes. Right now, U.S. public libraries are able to spend only about $1.2 billion a year on purchase of all content, both paper and electronic, and a national digital library endowment could significantly increase that amount. Also, keep in mind that as it is now, Americans just are not spending that much on books and other items for recreational reading, a mere $100 a year or so per household, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to several thousand dollars on other forms of entertainment.
The bonuses for the industry from the creation of the endowment would not just be in additional library purchases of books from publishers, but also in encouragement of the reading culture – through libraries’ better-financed outreach as well as through other means such as more titles matching readers precise needs and interests. For an example of how resources from the endowment could promote reading, by way of a combined local and national approach, check out How the Hernandez family will benefit from two well-stocked national digital library systems and a digital library endowment. Even paper books could benefit from massive but well-targeted promotional campaigns for libraries’ digital offerings.
Detail: Some readers have reacted to the B5 price increases by simply buying indie ebooks instead or borrowing from libraries. But, yes, as the NEA studies show, it’s safe to say that Americans are spending less time with novels and other lit than in the past. Given the Net’s massive displacement of reference books and many other forms of nonfiction, they almost surely are not spending as much time with nonfiction books, either. Reportedly, nonfiction book sales peaked in 2007.
A reminder: I’m writing about the endowment vision in a U.S. context, but the same concept could work in other countries. For what it’s worth, the Creative Commons-licensed photo above was taken in Mali.