Wednesday, May 30, 2007

I was reading Harper's Magazine (June 2007) in the airport on my way back from Pittsburgh. As I write, it is only available online to their subscribers and our subscription at Rollins only makes the May 2007 issue available. If you have read the magazine then I am sure you know about Harper's Index, a mind bending list of weird stats, ratios, and numbers about life that generally amaze and appal. (e.g. "Number of the sixteen states of the South where more than 25 percent of adults are clinically obese: 12. Number of all other states where this is true: 5." Yikes!)

The ones that caught my librarian's eye this month were the following:

  • Minimum number of different books sold in the U.S. last year, as tracked by Nielsen BookScan: 1,446,000
  • Number of these that sold fewer than 99 copies: 1,123,000
  • Number that sold more than 100,000: 483.

I am not sure you can define 99, as published,as in "make generally known" and over 100,000 is a definite bestseller; that leaves 322,517 in the middle. Olin library buys about 1.25% of those. It is a tough task the librarians and faculty have to do: which one book out of eighty belongs in the collection now and for decades to come?

More importantly, about 1,000,000 books get written, but hardly read. Yet another factoid that lead me to the conclusion that we are writing more books, but reading fewer, which is another way of saying we are more interested in talking than listening. (Kinda like the bloggers amongst us.) A liberal education should attempt to rectify this situation.


Anonymous said...

The suggestion that around 80% of books that are published sell fewer than 99 copies is indeed disturbing! The good news is that if you pull these statistics apart, there is more to the story. Roughly 1.4 million unique titles were sold last year, but this does not mean PUBLISHED last year. If an obscure academic title from 1995 book sells only 5 copies in 2006, but sold 2,000 copies the year of its release, that is a respectable showing for the book. The obscure academic title may continue to sell 5-10 copies annually for the next 20 years.... falsely exacerbating the bleak image of a decline in reading.

Just a thought!

Kim Griffis said...

I think that people are still reading, just in different formats. I read a lot of online fiction that cannot be published for copyright reasons. I have read fewer books since I started reading fanfiction online but the amount of reading I do has increased. That maybe the case with the declining traditional reader statistics.

Bryan's workshop blog said...

I agree with Dorothy and Kim.

Did you see this recent poll about American book-reading?