It’s not hard to figure out what books people are buying—just look at the weekly bestseller lists, Bookscan data, or Amazon rankings. But focusing on sales ignores a key part of the reading ecosystem, says veteran bookseller and former Waterstones managing director Tim Coates—most prominently, libraries. So in April, Coates took it upon himself to try to broaden the conversation around how we read, commissioning a survey on how and where readers are getting their books.
“I’d wanted to do this survey for a long, long time, because I’ve long felt that for all the data we have about book sales, there's another key piece of information to the jigsaw that we really don't have,” Coates told PW in a recent interview. “I wanted to find out how libraries fit in the world of people who want to get hold of something to read.”
The good news from the survey—people are reading. Nearly 81% of respondents said they’d “read or made use of” a book in the last 12 months, with 65% of those respondents saying they read for pleasure.
“This is a really encouraging number,” Coates says, noting that it’s slightly higher than other recent surveys, including a recent Pew survey (which found 74% had read a book in the last year). It also pushes back against a narrative that emerged from U.S. Bureau of Labor’s 2018 American Time Use Survey, which found the amount of time Americans spent on leisure reading was at an all-time low—and was trending downward.
Perhaps the most tantalizing number from the survey, however, is that nearly half of the survey’s respondents—some 46%—said they’d paid zero for their last book.
The idea of free reading sets off alarm bells for many publishers and authors groups—but Coates stresses that figure doesn’t imply rampant piracy, or displaced sales—rather, he suggests, it’s reflective of how the reading ecosystem works. “There are libraries, and gifting, and lots of ways for people to read books without having to buy them,” Coates explained, touching on one of main motivations behind the survey: that publishers and authors would benefit from a fuller picture of how people are reading, not just what they are buying.
Conducted in April, by consumer researcher InterQ, the survey polled 1,200 respondents, some of which responded on behalf of a further 500 family members too young to be included directly, for a total of 1,700 responses. Respondents were from six states, in equal numbers: (California, Florida, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Texas).
Coates says he developed the survey, and paid for it himself to inform his own advocacy work. “It has always seemed to me that the starting point for effective library advocacy was to find out what the reputation of libraries is with the wider public, not just library users,” he said. “I was seriously curious to find out the answers, so I did the survey myself. I think library provision is terribly important. But as a management endeavor, I'm not sure the strategies and objectives are correct and clear enough. And I think that, for the sake of the public who pay for and use the service, they should be. I would like to work with libraries to improve them, and this is a first step.”
Indeed, the survey report offers a reminder for both publishers and libraries alike—that for all the pressures and tension of the digital age (especially surrounding library e-books), publishers and libraries share a common, and crucial mission. “The relationship between public libraries and publishers should be renewed with a greater recognition of their joint endeavor to satisfy and please readers,” the survey report concludes.
For that to happen, however, Coates says both sides need a fuller, data-driven picture of not only of what’s selling, but of what readers are actually reading. “There needs to be a to be a flow of detailed information directly between [publishers and libraries] about reading and about catalogs and titles,” the report concludes, acknowledging “a significant gap in the industry knowledge of what people read and what is available for them.”
Coates believes his survey is unique in the questions it asks. But he's not alone in his realization the better data is needed to assess how best to serve the reading public. Last year, e-book provider OverDrive launched the Panorama Project, billed as "the first large scale, data-driven research project focused on understanding the impact of library holdings on book discovery, author brand development, and sales." The project shares Coates's desire to better assess the role of libraries in the reading ecosystem and views better data beyond the bestseller lists as key.
“Reading and book sales are not the same thing at all,” Coates explains in the survey’s conclusion, referencing the high number of readers who get books and other reading material for free, whether from a library, or by borrowing it from a friend of family member. “If that discrepancy were 10% it might not matter," the report states. " But it is 100%, which means that there is missing revenue and missing understanding of the performance of titles and authors’ work. That is a revelation that should concern publishers and will concern authors. The reading industry might be twice as big as the book publishing industry realizes. They should find out.”
The Digital Public Library of America this week announced a partnership with BiblioBoard’s Indie Author Project, which will make available a collection of over 30 independently-published books available free for anyone to download and read now in the SimplyE app. The Summer Reading collection will be available until Labor Day (September 2), and features a diverse set of works from authors across the country, including Daykeeper by Ran Walker, which was chosen as the 2019 Indie Author of the Year out of the 14 winners of last year’s regional Indie Author Project contests (you can hear from Walker in this interview with Jane Friedman). Walker will be at the upcoming ALA Annual Conference, appearing at the IngramSpark booth on Saturday, June 22 at 2:00pm.
School's out! (Or, for some of us up north, almost out). Slate has a piece rounding up ways to stop the summer slide and and to get your kids to dive into books this summer.
From the Baltimore Sun, a piece on a joint project between the Enoch Pratt Free Library and Libraries without Borders to "install computers and tablets in four large laundromats around Baltimore to bring technology tools to city communities where many residents lack internet access."
Hat tip to Gary Price at InfoDocket for pointing out this fascinating survey of internet users around the globe, which reveals a high level of distrust of information on the Internet, including this nugget: "75% of those surveyed who distrust the internet [cited] Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms as contributing to their lack of trust."
And also from Gary Price, via the Federal News Network, how one of our institutions is looking to wrestling with the rise of unreliable internet information: the National Archives and Records Administration is considering the use of blockchain to blunt the rise of deepfakes.
The momentum for antitrust action against the tech industry is growing, but how that will unfold is far from clear, and there is a lot at stake. A Bloomberg report this week notes that DOJ Antitrust chief Makan Delrahim compared today's digital giants to previous companies that the U.S. government broke up, including Standard Oil. "The current landscape suggests there are only one or two significant players in important digital spaces, including internet search, social networks, mobile and desktop operating systems, and electronic book sales,” Delrahim said in a Tuesday speech.
Meanwhile, a report in CNET suggest that Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has no faith in Delrahim. She wants the DOJ Antitrust chief to recuse himself from the investigations.
From Yahoo! News, one of the actions being considered is to let media groups band together. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would lift state and federal antitrust laws for publishers, for up to 48 months.
Roll Call this week looked at how the various 2020 presidential candidates books have sold. "Six Democratic senators running for president earned upward of $7.1 million from 2014 to 2018, a review of financial disclosures filed with the Senate Ethics Committee and the Office of Government Ethics found."
From the Washington Post, a look at the ongoing drama over Drag Queen Storytimes, including an event in Leander, Texas in which city officials "first canceled the story hour, which was to be hosted by the library, in late May before a progressive and LGBT-friendly church in the area, Open Cathedral, stepped in to host it."
And it looked like James Holzhauer was unbeatable on Jeopardy!, until he ran into librarian Emma Boettcher. American Libraries has a fun interview with her.