Celebrate the Facts!
Oddly there is very little raw data on book sales and reading in the United States. Books provide a massive bang for the buck for entertainment, educate, instruct, mentor, and provide means of escape from the drudge of working life. However, the sparsity of data and the self-reporting bias inherent in asking people if they engage in virtuous activities make the picture murky. Recent trends are unsurprising, but the data provokes intriguing questions.
Book sales and other raw data showed that both sales and reading climbed during 2020, not a surprise as homebound people were looking for new sources of entertainment. Combined print book and e-book sales hit 942 million units in 2020, a 9% increase over 2019 and the most unit sales recorded since data collecting commenced in 2004.
Snapshots of the most recent revenue (not unit sales) data, from August 2021, the most recent examined data, but not inflation-adjusted, in the year-over-year format:
Buying a book is not the equivalent of reading a book, and the data, while slender, supports the idea that most people do not finish the books they buy.
The United States Bureau for Labor statistics published 2020 data on reading:
Who doesn’t read? Roughly a quarter of American adults (23%) say they had not read a book in the past year, including print, electronic or audio form:
For those who do read, the numbers tell the tale:
Splitters, who like to make divisions, divide the fiction world into literary fiction and mass-market fiction. Literary fiction works focus on features of the human state, and award winners typify this category. Mass-market fiction includes romance, young adult, mystery, science fiction, horror, and children’s books. One group tends to hold the other group in utter disdain, also a function of the hierarchal nature of our primate species. Raw data on book sales by genre is difficult to find and may not exist. Published articles about this are noisy with not much signal, so this platform will not cite or republish tertiary data.
Add to this opaque picture the terms ‘bestseller’ and ‘bestselling.’ Bestsellers are books that have made a list on a central publishing platform. The sources of the data also complicate the interpretation of the rankings. The New York Times derives its lists from a secret group of retailers while Amazon, reporting its print sales, muddies data on sales of e-books. The lists that are the rational rely on BookScan’s sales data, which tracks about 85% of sales in the United States but excludes data on e-book sales. As a result, bestseller has become an almost defunct tool, at least from the data standpoint.
What role do public libraries play? There are about 9,000 public libraries with around 17,000 individual public library outlets (main libraries, branches, and bookmobiles) in the United States. By contrast, there were about 12,900 Starbucks stores in the United States in September 2020. Unfortunately, no authoritative raw data exist for how many Americans borrow books, how many, or the statistical distribution of such use. However, some surveys provide data about who uses these services, when, and why. For example, Hispanic adults, older adults, those living in households earning less than $30,000, and those who have a high school diploma or did not graduate from high school were the most likely to report in that survey that they had never visited a public library.
Drawing meaning from the data is complex and requires logical conjecture. Consumption likely follows the 80/20 principle, where 20% of the population consumes 80% of the resources. A low number of consumers likely purchases and reads most of the volume. Unfortunately, data on sales by genre is also blurry. A budding writer with an aim to make big money might be best off to write what stories they love rather than playing to a fictional market, no pun intended.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.