Monday, March 24, 2008

What's in Store for Books?

Grab your hankies and prepare to weep. A National Endowment for the Arts report (To Read or Not to Read) warns of a decline in book reading over the past decade. The percentage of adults who have read a book for pleasure (not required for work or school) in the past year fell from 61 percent in 1992 to 57 percent in 2002--a 4 percentage point decline. Is this decline a cause for concern or, rather, a sign of the book's staying power? To get a better perspective, let's look at what has happened to two other traditional media outlets--the daily newspaper and the network evening news.

Between 1991 and 2002 (roughly the same time period is used for comparability; more recent data are available), the percentage of people who read a newspaper every day fell from 52 to 41 percent, according to the General Social Survey--a much larger decline than the one experienced by books. Even more telling, industry statistics show that since 1990 unit sales of trade books have increased, while weekday newspaper circulation has decreased.

Yes, average household spending on books has dropped. It fell by a painful 28 percent between 1991 and 2006 after adjusting for inflation, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey. But much of the decline in spending can be explained by the growing sales of used books and the deep discounts offered by and other Internet retailers. No such benign factors can explain why household spending on newspapers and magazines fell by a heartrending 60 percent during the same years.

Network evening news is also experiencing a precipitous decline. The average number of people who watch network evening news plummeted from 42 million to 30 million between 1992 and 2002 (the same time period is used for comparability; more recent data are available), according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Not only is the network news audience shrinking, it is also aging. The median age of the viewers of evening news is now 60.

The fact is, the percentage of people who read for pleasure has remained remarkably stable over the past decade considering the enormous expansion of television channels and the adoption of computers and the Internet. Even more important, the demographics of book readers are healthy. Young adults are almost as likely as older Americans to be regular book readers, according to a 2004 NEA report (Reading at Risk). Forty-three percent of busy 18-to-24-year-olds have read a work of fiction in the past year, not too far below the peak of 52 percent among 45-to-54-year-olds. Contrast that 9 percentage point gap with this one: only 18 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds regularly watch network evening news compared with the peak of 56 percent among people aged 65 or older--a gap of 38 percentage points. Or this one: only 16 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds read a newspaper every day compared with 66 percent of people aged 65 or older--a gap of 50 percentage points.

Newspapers and network evening news are being supplanted by more efficient ways of getting up-to-the-minute information. Some claim electronic devices such as Kindle will replace books. But hand-held electronic devices are no more likely to replace books read for pleasure than video screens have replaced original art, virtual tours have replaced travel, or pills have replaced food.

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