Readership Isn’t As Bad As You Think


I found this New Yorker article through SF Signal and I find that I have no choice but to make corrections on the article’s argument about the decline of readership in America. The article is trying to make it seem as though millions upon millions of people are just up and giving up on reading. The truth is, this is not really true. If anything, they’ve given you statistics that suggest that reading is simply at a standstill in this country rather than declining rapidly. The article is an example of why mathematics is so insanely important in the world. Take a statistics class, just an intro course, and you’ll immediately understand why all statistics such as the ones given in this article should be taken with a grain of salt and met with skepticism.
First is this argument:

In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002.

The interesting thing about these statistics is that they don’t mention that there are significant changes in population between each of those years. So, I’ve gone and done the research they should have done and brought you the reality of these statistics:
231,664,458 People x 56.9% (New Yorker) = 131,817,076 Readers
254,994,517 People x 54% (New Yorker) = 137,697,039 (+6 million readers)
290,000,000 People x 46.7% (New Yorker) = 135,430,000 (-2 million readers, + 4 million)

What have we learned here? Well, those percentages suggest a big drop in readership, but really when you look at it, the drop is relatively insignificant. When you throw percentages out there people are inclined to look at them at face value, but when you actually do the research you learn the following: readership isn’t declining rapidly, but rather it is staying relatively stable, suggestive of a point in time in which the publishing industry and readers have hit a stalemate in production. You also learn here that the problem isn’t that readership is going away, it’s that it isn’t increasing likely due to a lack of new readers (children or perhaps adults who have come back to a time when they feel they could read). Fix those problems and you’ll see reading increase. You also have to take into account that these polls don’t reflect online reading. Newspapers aren’t dying. They are replacing themselves with online versions. It’s more convenient to read the paper online than to wait for the paperboy to deliver it. Books, I’m afraid, will eventually reach this point too. This saddens me because I happen to love books and think they are mankind’s greatest achievement (in conjunction with the written word). Sales also suggest that people are still buying a lot of books, which puts more reading material into homes (though they may not ever read it, but that’s besides the point).

The next argument actually rings “bullhonky” to me. It says this:

The Book Industry Study Group estimates that sales fell from 8.27 books per person in 2001 to 7.93 in 2006. According to the Department of Labor, American households spent an average of a hundred and sixty-three dollars on reading in 1995 and a hundred and twenty-six dollars in 2005.

I looked up some figures to combat the first sentence (all my sources will be linked at the bottom of this). According to Bowker, 135,000 books were published in 2001, pulling in a whopping 24.564 billion dollars. Bowker also reports that 291,920 books were published in 2006 for a total of 35.7 billion. Now, if we do the math it doesn’t make any sense that people would be buying a smaller portion of books (not even a full point mind you) and sales would still be going up by 11 billion dollars. The only way this would make sense is if the cost of books were to go up astronomically. Since books haven’t increased more than a few dollars in the last 10 years, on average, and more books are being produced each year, it doesn’t make sense that people are buying fewer books. The statistics and sales refute this notion, unless I’m missing something. What would make this argument make sense is the following: what percentage of people actual buy books? Not read, buy. I buy a lot more books than I read simply because I don’t read 24/7 and there are plenty of people who buy little coffee table books and never pick them up. So, who actually buys them? From that I could actually see the correlation between average books per person and sales. If a whole lot of people are buying books, more so than in 2001, then it would make sense that sales might go up some. But that information is never given, so we’re left with a terribly skewed number.
The next sentence says that American households spend a good portion less on books than they did before. What they’re suggesting is that we’re not buying more books. But that statistic doesn’t take into account the previous statistic or the rise in chain book stores and those infamous 3 for 2, buy one get one 50% off, etc. deals. If more people are buying books on a deal, well, then you’ll see a change in the amount of money spent.
Now to where it contradicts itself. Okay, so from this bit we know that less books are being bought (not much less, but less), and we know that people are spending less money. None of this makes sense when you look at the sales. If sales have increased, and people are spending less, then that must mean that a lot more people are buying books. But if they’re spending less because they are buying through deals, then they also must be buying more books than the statistic is suggesting to make up for the reduction in price. The point is that this is mind boggling because the statistic answers no questions whatsoever. It just leaves you wondering how they came to this far out conclusion.

Hopefully you all can see what I’m driving at here. There are too many questions left unanswered and information that is horrible skewed. Where exactly is the truth in it all? It’s not with the New Yorker today, that’s for sure.

Bloomberg on 2006 Sales
The Book Publishing Industry (Sales for 2001)
Bowker on 2001 Book Production
Bowker on 2006 Book Production
(You can find population statistics relatively easy on Google).

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

2 thoughts on “Readership Isn’t As Bad As You Think

  1. I was actually worried about that, but I knew better than to take the statistics at face value. In my government/politics class we learned that statistics can be skewed to serve a certain agenda. Glad to see some mathematical proof though.

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