Where have all the books gone?

Pile of BooksBefore Christmas, a publishing industry insider shared with me a statistic that has had me shaking my head in disbelief ever since. She said that, as compared to five years ago when a new or emerging Australian author of fiction might expect to sell about 2000 copies of their book, that figure had now dropped to about 500 copies.

500 copies? Are you kidding me? Why would anyone work away on a book for two years, pouring everything they have into it, to sell only 500 copies? It doesn’t really make sense, does it? Except that if you’re a writer like me, there is nothing else you’d rather do. But it would obviously be very difficult to support yourself on the proceeds of 500 books.

And this figure certainly isn’t based on a thorough analysis of sales statistics, but it’s based on all the feedback this person had been getting from talking to people in the industry. And as she’s a pretty well respected and knowledgeable lady, I expect that, no matter how depressing it might be, she’s probably right.

Did 1500 books simply vanish?

But that leads me to ask the inevitable question – what has happened to those 1500 extra copies that a new or emerging author might have sold just four or five years ago? Have they just vanished? I’d like to say that they are all being made up in ebook sales but no one seems to believe that this is the case. Some of them are, but not even half. Readers have simply stopped reading novels, it seems. But what are they doing instead?

What are we doing instead of reading?

Are we reading less books? Are we reading something else instead of books? What’s wrong with books? I’ve asked a few people these questions. One answer that seems to pop up is that, whereas once upon a time people might sit down on the sofa with a good book after finishing dinner and putting the kids to bed, these same people now curl up with an iPad and spend an hour or so on Facebook, Twitter, online shopping etc.

Yes, this does sound a little like me. I use my evenings to do ‘admin’, rather than writing – admin being a kind of euphemism for writing blog posts, updating websites, posting Facebook statuses etc. But then I go to bed and read a book for a while. Do other people still do this?

Maybe not. The common answer to that question is that people are too tired when they get into bed and that books make them fall asleep. This is not good news for a writer.

The reason I most often get from the students I teach at university when I ask them why they want to do a writing course even though they are especially proud of the fact that they don’t read is that books just take too long. Watching movies is better. Because then you don’t have to think too much. More bad news for a writer, especially one who likes to write books that make people think.

Apart from those reasons, I’m stuck. I don’t know why people are buying so many less novels than they used to buy. Are they buying more novels from international authors and less from Australian authors? Are they buying different kinds of books – Jamie Oliver’s 15 Minute Meals perhaps?

What do you think? Do you buy as many novels as you used to? If you don’t, what do you do with the time you used to spend on reading?

26 comments

  1. I try to read as much as possible, and I probably own a lot more books than I have time to read actually, but I figure eventually I’ll get around to reading all of them.
    I definitely have a strange feeling about students who study writing and don’t read though. There was one student in a class in my second year of university who said she didn’t read and found no interest in it. The class had a little laugh about it and I think she felt unintentionally victimised, but I don’t think it was intentional bully, I just think for most writers or those interested in writing, we wonder how anyone could even sit in a class like that without a great passion for the written word.
    Although maybe that’s a new breed of writers that are coming forward, which is sad for all writers, if we expect others to buy and read our works, but refuse to invest in others like ourselves.

    • Hi Anthony, I’m glad you said that because sometimes as a teacher you can feel a little like the students don’t necessarily care too much about reading, but more about wanting to be a writer. So it’s good to know that at least some of you believe in the link between reading and producing great writing. And you make a good point about expecting others to buy our books but not investing in other writers. A good book is always a great investment.

  2. That is a truly depressing statistic! 500!!!!

    I guess your suggestions on why this is happening are probably about right though, although dropping 1500 in five years is a massive shift.

    If it helps I am buying more books these days, virtually all Aussie female authors! Mostly because I am connecting more with them on Twitter or Facebook and then instead of just borrowing their book from the library (my usual method) I feel more obliged to actually buy a copy (obliged in a good way, not bad!). So we need to somehow just create more people like me? (eek scary thought. Let me rephrase that – we need more people who will feel connected to authors via social media and buy their books.)

    • Okay, I’ve been contemplating Twitter all week and trying to find both the courage and time to give it a go. You might have just pushed me over the edge and into the Twitterverse!

      • Faz

        I’m an e-book reader fan. I can’t imagine going a day without reading, but all of my reading is done on the Ipad. I find it’s easier to carry, to lie down in bed and have it propped up. I catch the train everyday, where I do most of my reading, all you need to do is look around you, one out of 30 people have a book in their hand while the others are thumbing through their Smart Phones feverishly. Most probably writing banal Facebook status updates. I can’t understand people who don’t read.

      • Ha ha … just saw this reply! I’m pretty sure I’ll have you fully adoring Twitter by the end of the week 😉

  3. Christy Hatcher

    Hi Natasha, I’m still a little stuck on the idea that your uni writing students don’t read… Almost as ridiculous as a pilot who’s never flown wouldn’t you think! Why would they pick a writing course then?!

    As for your question; I read as much as ever, and more Australian authors than ever before – but I buy fewer books and use the library more. As for the general sense is it possible that books are going the same way as tv – people are fascinated by reality tv these days so are they reading more non fiction than fiction??? Although it is more than likely I have no idea what I’m talking about!!!

    • Hi Christy, the first time I encountered a student who told me they didn’t read, I was a little gobsmacked. But it’s not the majority, luckily, but enough that it worries me. I don’t really know why they pick writing courses – sometimes because they want to write film scripts, although they don’t read those either, they just love to watch!

      Non-fiction definitely seems to be popular, especially memoir etc. Judging by the number of people who attend the Life-writing course I run at UWA Extension, writing memoir is just as popular too. Shame my life is too dull to write about – who would be interested in bandaging grazed knees, saving siblings from having their hair pulled out by their brother and tapping out words on a keyboard!

  4. Wow, 500 copies? That’s scary. I read as much as ever, even though I’m time poor, but obviously most people aren’t. Or are they just not reading new authors and sticking to the big name writers?
    And please do join Twitter – it does eat up more time, but I too have made great connections through it, and it’s like reading a little literary newspaper every day when i find out what the book world is up to!
    Dawn

    • Hi Dawn – yes I wonder if it is that the big name authors are being read even more than they used to be because people want to stick to something safe. It would be interesting to find out if big name authors’ sales have dropped as well – I’ll have to ask my agent! And okay, I will have to get myself onto Twitter – perhaps after school holidays when at least a couple of the kids will be at school for some of the time! It looks as if there’s a whole new language I have to learn on Twitter which is the thing that scares me.

  5. You make some excellent, if depressing points. When I first got into pro writing, these are the statistics that were presented to me. That year (it was in the late 90’s), less than half of American households would buy a book. I believe it was 47%. Of that 47% (brace yourself) 80% of the books purchased would be romance novels. The remaining 20% of the 47% would be split between Stephen King, bibles, and the rest of us.

    That I decided to go into writing anyway proves I’m certifiable. And you’re absolutely right – it’s worse now. I just read a neat article about why people become writers. I’ll include a link below. In essence, for damn near every reason except the love of writing. For the most part I’d agree with that. However, that coupled with statistics like this has prompted a thought. Do you think that leaves more room for those of us who are still here? The market may have shrunk, but I’m thinking so has the competition. The casual “I’m thinking about being an author” type has probably headed for greener pastures. At least, I hope so. There will always be a need for good writers, because even in the sound-bite world there will always be those who long for a good story.

    http://kayemunroewritestoo.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/why-people-become-writers/

    • I don’t know whether the competition has shrunk or not. I still meet many people, both at university courses I teach and through adult extension courses that I teach, who want to be writers. A few years ago, there was the Harry Potter effect and lots more students seemed to enrol to be like JK Rowling and then the Twilight effect and I hope there’s not going to be a 50 Shades of Grey effect because then I might have to give up teaching!

      • *G* Completely understood. My partner is a college professor. If there’s a “50 Shades” effect I think we’ll be standing in unemployment with you! However, for every student you’ve got rebound enrolling, I’ll bet I could tell you a counter-story about one who thought it was a grand idea to turn in their essay in “text-speech”. She teaches online, and many of her students think it’s just a-ok to enroll even though they don’t own a computer. Hey, what’s a smart phone for, right? You haven’t lived until you’ve read an essay with phrases like “Imigrants r people 2!!!” *shudder*

  6. Glen Hunting

    I don’t want to sound either defeatist or elitist (nice rhyme, huh?) but I think I would be thrilled to sell even 500 copies of a first book of mine. I’ve never reckoned on being able to support myself by writing alone. It’s hard enough just to get a by-line and a cheque! And advance royalties would never cover my book addiction, let alone all my other living expenses…

    I do understand the commercial imperative (I think), and the general dismay many of us feel about what looks like (at least on the surface) a shrinking appreciation of good literature. But I also believe that, when it comes to art, it’s not so much about how many people see or read your work, but how deeply you affect those that do.

  7. I think the attraction to the banal that inspires the online usage trends (social networking and shopping) is a reflection of a greater trend in society…the decrease of introspection. Books force people to think about themselves and the world, and attempt to make sense of it. It’s a painful process that increasingly more people would rather avoid. I’m reminded of Farenheit 451. Oddly enough though, my writing blog attracts a lot more attention than my food blog. Tags like draw them in droves. NaNoWriMo, BookCountry, ABC Tales are also very popular. What this suggests to me is that more people than ever want to be writers. It’s becoming a reading+writing bubble.

    • That’s very interesting that your Writing blog attracts more attention than your Food blog – I do think there are still a lot of people out there who want to be writers, regardless of the depressing statistics. I meet many of them at writing courses that I run, which are still as popular as ever, perhaps even more than they ever were. Maybe I need to start a reading course!

      • Do you find your writing students are genuinely driven by a desire to communicate their own ideas? I sometimes wonder what is behind it…whether it’s the idea of author as celebrity. It’s a kind of celebrity that people think of as possible for the average person. You don’t have to be pretty. Doesn’t matter if you can’t sing or dance. Cynical of me? I remember a guy who came to a group with a slender manuscript he was “about to send to New York to be published and made into a movie.” Any case, whatever the reason people start writing, some stick with it because they want to express. Which is good. Because publishing is not an option for most.

  8. How amusing…the inequality symbols ate part of my message! I meant to say: Tags like “creative writing”.

  9. Glen Hunting

    Here’s another recent viewpoint on the writer/reader disparity:

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/read-it-and-weep-for-the-extinction-of-literatures-audience/story-fn9n8gph-1226551128997

    As I think I’ve alluded elsewhere, the key sentence in this article is the last one. Those of us who want to write, and those of us who’ve been in on this conversation, just have to make sure we KEEP ON READING and keep on supporting good writing. The rest of the world can keep their xboxes!

  10. Glen Hunting

    “As I think I’ve alluded TO elsewhere”…oh, the shame, the shame….

  11. Hi Natasha, I love your books and was thrilled when you visited our bookclub a while ago. I’m amazed to hear the the sales of books have dropped so low, I have come full circle recently listening to audio books, reading on an Ipad, and now have come back to reading the real thing again. It’s just not the same experience is it? I also want my kids to know what books are, and for me to set an example by reading lots…

  12. Pingback: On Contemplating My Future As a Writer As I Prepare to Pitch My Next Book | While the kids are sleeping

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