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Endangered: the American reader
The ranks of American readers may be thinning, but is the publishing industry a culprit or victim?
July 12, 2004: 4:35 PM EDT
By Les Christie, CNN/Money contributing writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Americans do not read like they used to. On Thursday, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that book reading has dropped sharply in the United States during the past 10 years.

"This is no longer as case of 'Johnny can't read,'" NEA chairman Dana Gioia told the Associated Press. "It's Johnny won't read.'"

Book sales bear out the trend. Unit sales declined 1 percent from 2002 to 2003 after rising just 1.1 percent the year before, according to the Association of American Publishers (AAP).

Revenues were up 3.9 percent in 2003 and 3.2 percent in 2002. But after taking into account population growth, per capita sales have fallen in both unit and dollar terms, notes Jeff Abraham of the Book Industry Study Group, which tracks the industry.

As sales have lagged, book prices have forged ahead. A copy of Bill Clinton's memoirs lists for $35. Paperback novels, once cheap entertainment that could be bought for less than 50 cents, are now routinely priced at $7 or more.

Have higher cover prices contributed to the reading drop?

"They're certainly a factor," says Steve Zeitchik, news editor for Publisher's Weekly. "It's a vicious cycle. Book sales have been bad for years and publishers have raised prices to make up for it."

Serious reading

Former Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder, who now heads the AAP, says book price increases didn't cause the reading decline. A book "is very high value," she argues. "It gives hours of pleasure and can be passed on to others."

What has contributed to the drop-off, then? "All the other alternatives that compete for your time," says Schroeder.

"The Internet, cable TV, and computer games, account for much more of the trend away from books," agrees Abraham. Total U.S. videogame sales, for example, exceeded $10 billion in 2003. That's up more than 50 percent since 2000, according to David Reilly of the market research firm NYP Group -- and it's about four times greater than total U.S. hardcover book sales.

Carol Brey-Casiano, president of the American Library Association, points out that in 1990, hardcover fiction books cost an average of $19.83, and in 2000, $25.33. That's a 28 percent increase, but slightly less than the cost of living rose during that period.

The NEA study, which used data gleaned by the Census Bureau, may have been a bit alarmist. It stressed reading of "literature" -- novels, poetry, and plays -- sales of which have suffered disproportionately. Fewer than half (47 percent) of U.S. adults now read fiction, down seven percentage points from 10 years ago.

"That's especially sad," says Schoeder. "Literature is a culture's DNA. But the good news is that non-fiction has held up better. Serious books, especially political works, have been moving off the shelves."

Still, the percentage of adults reading any book at all has fallen from 61 percent to 57 percent, according to the NEA report.

What's more, the decline was especially pronounced in the youngest group surveyed,18-to-24 year olds. Only 43 percent had read any literature in 2002, down from 53 percent in 1992.

Market making

The book industry has to modernize, according to Paco Underhill, a retail consultant with New York-based Envirosell. The industry, he says, "sells product, rather than selling the concept of reading as recreation."

And booksellers have to overcome what Underhill calls the Baskin-Robbins problem: They have 31 flavors, but only sell three of them. Bestsellers comprise far too high a percentage of sales.

The problem is that profits from those blockbusters is what funds the publishing of other books, according Zeitchik of Publisher's Weekly. Despite languishing sales, the industry has been able to maintain and even increase the number of titles it prints annually.

To market the activity of reading itself, Schroeder's organization launched a 'Get Caught Reading,' ad campaign. It features celebrities -- from Derek Jeter to Hillary Clinton to Donald Duck -- posed with books. And, according to Schroeder, publishers are attempting to lure more young readers into reading with a series of books targeted to teens priced below $5.

It's a beginning, but the industry has to do more. "I was on a plane recently and the number of passengers watching videos on their lap tops amazed me," says Underhill. "Once, they would have all been reading magazines or books."

He says the industry must become more "evangelical" in marketing its product. "What Oprah has done for literature is marvelous," he says, citing the TV personality's well known "book club." "I wish there were 15 more like her."

Publishing also suffers from some anachronistic practices. "It's the last big business on earth based on consignment," says Schroeder. Retailers order more books than they can sell because they know they can return them for credit. That raises publishers' expenses.

Schroeder does point out that bookstores have changed for the better over the past 20 years. With cafes, seating and policies that encourage shoppers to sample, they're centers of community.

"When I was a girl, you'd never linger in a bookstore reading," she says. "It would be like wearing a bathing suit to church."

Changing national demographics are both a problem and an opportunity for the industry. Increased diversity means a more fractured customer base, but also led to a "steady increase in titles," says Brey-Casiano. Unfortunately, the fastest growing ethnic group in America, Latinos, have a low incidence of reading literature, only 26.5 percent.

Publishing Industry

Helping address that, however, are graphic novels, says Brey-Casiano, short books with pictures, usually printed in Spanish, which are "enormously popular, especially with teens." She hopes Hispanic readers will start with these and move onto other fare. The point is to make reading a life-long habit.

It shouldn't be as hard as it seems. Americans, after all, are still interested in books.

The Boston Globe reported last year that 82 percent of Americans would like to write a book. "We'd be happy if we could get that many to read one," says Schroeder.  Top of page

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