We are approaching the one-year anniversary of the release of Reading at Risk, the NEA's warning that literary reading was "fading as a meaningful activity" and on the verge of extinction within a couple of generations.
Well, guess what? The republic is still standing, literary books have been hitting bestseller lists and we are still reading and talking about books. A lot.
When we lament the demise of books and reading, and obsess about single-digit growth in dollar sales, we're missing the big picture. Book publishing is an industry that has, in many ways, transformed itself and the American cultural landscape in less than a generation, and shouldn't be seen as the ugly step-child of entertainment media.
The industry has its share of problems, but it has come a long way since the so-called Golden Age of the 1920s, when Publishers Weekly estimated that there were only five million people that ever bought a book that wasn't a Bible—or even 20 years ago, when any single Fortune 500 company generated more revenue then the entire book industry. In 2004, the Association of American Publishers conservatively estimated total book publishing revenues at $23.7 billion, which was 152% more than the total box-office gross for all movies in theatrical release, 76% more than all the dollars generated by AM and FM radio stations, 60% more than the net dollar value of all recorded music shipments and North American concert revenues, and 39% more than the entire video and portable gaming industry, according to their respective trade associations..
We are not, in other words, talking about The Little Engine that Could.
What's more, conditions have never been better for expanding the market. Back in 1930, the National Association of Book Publishers, as it was then known, commissioned O.H. Cheney to compile an economic survey of the book publishing industry. Among other things, Cheney found that 51% of rural and 31% of urban counties in the U.S. did not have bookstores, that books of the time were "too complicated" for most Americans, and for those less inclined to read, new forms of entertainment like radio and "automobiling" were becoming a distraction. Today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 90% of Americans 25 years or older have completed four years of high school, and just under 30% have completed four years or more of college. And all, or nearly all, have access to books in bookstores, price clubs, grocery stores and, of course, via the Internet. This is a historic combination.
Since 1990, publishers have released more than a million new books. A typical chain superstore today stocks some 250,000 titles, more than all books published in the U.S. between 1920 and 1950. Internet booksellers offer lists of recommendations that link virtually every book ever published. The publishing industry has brought more books to more people in more places in more ways, then ever before. For the first time, books are widely accessible to a broadly educated population. And nothing is more important to the promotion of reading and book buying than universal access to an infinity of books.
So let us resolve to think big, and ignore the "nattering nabobs of negativity." We have spent so much time deconstructing the average entertainment day, and obsessing over minutes and hours spent reading books, that we have lost sight of how books have blanketed the landscape. It is worth noting that Barnes & Noble alone counted 400 million visits to its stores in 2004.
As we nurse a collective inferiority complex, we are missing a great historical shift: In a little less than a generation, U.S. book publishing has become the most prolific producer of "content" in the world, and, more importantly, history's greatest enabler of reading. And in this new world of wide choice and opportunity, where more than 11,000 new publishers and 195,000 new books made their way to market last year, there appears to be more than enough power for this joy ride to continue.
Andrew Grabois was most recently director of publisher relations at R.R. Bowker. He can be reached at agrabois.com.