I love a good statistic. Statistics can clarify the magnitude of a problem, an action, an attitude or an opportunity. But a statistic by itself, without commentary, can be misleading. So in today’s post, I’ve tried to pull together a few of the interesting statistics about book reading, writing and buying that were shared at the Australian Society of Authors National Congress a couple of weeks ago. (You can read my first post about the congress here.)
Paper book sales have declined by 30%
The first statistic that hit me where it hurts was that sales of p-books have declined by 30% since 2010, according to Sandy Grant, founder of publisher Hardie Grant. Sandy then went on to say that e-books are now 20% of their market, thus taking up some of that 30% decline, leaving, he felt, a general decline in book buying across all forms of about 10% in the last 3 years. He quoted one of the major publishers as saying they are rejecting books that they would never have rejected 5 years ago, books that might have sold an adequate 2,000 copies back then, but which would now sell less than 1,000 copies.
Write a book about cats
However, all is not lost. If you are writing a book about a cat or, even better, a book featuring cat photographs you are onto a winner. Sandy Grant said that of his big sellers at the moment, 4 of them are cat books, each selling about 20,000 copies. At this point I was thinking that I should perhaps give up authorship entirely. It’s not that I have anything against cats, it’s just hard to imagine these books being wonderful works of art into which you could lose yourself, like a novel. But of course that isn’t the point of them—they are entertainment.
We want the next book now
Which brings me to the next lot of statistics, from Joel Naoum at Momentum, Pan MacMillan’s digital-only imprint. Joel said that the mainstream e-book market is focussed on entertainment, which is why genre fiction, especially romance, works so well. I liked this perspective, this way of saying that e-books are potentially carving out a particular space in the market, a space that is perhaps different and complementary to the space that p-books might have. Romance fiction works so well, according to Joel Naoum, because once the reader has finished one book in a series, they can immediately purchase, download and read the next book. These readers want their books now, not in one year’s time, which even led one speaker to suggest that the way of the future might be for all three books in a trilogy to be released at once, rather than one book per year for 3 years. Literary fiction and narrative non-fiction are apparently only a small percentage of the e-book market because either the readership is different, or the compulsion is different.
The conversation did make me muse on the pleasures to be had in waiting, in expectation. This is, in essence, the backbone of good fiction—that we both want and don’t want the book we are reading to finish; we really want to find out what happens, but we know that when we do, the experience we are enjoying will have ended. But what of the pleasure and expectation in waiting for a book to be released? The chance to imagine what might happen to the characters in the story, to daydream, to be creative and to envision lots of different scenarios, or just the one scenario in particular that you wish to come to life. Do we lose something in this immediacy, this instant delivery, or is it a positive thing that people want to read a book so much that only instant gratification will do? I’m not sure that there is a right or a wrong answer to this question.
Readers are congregating around breakout books
The other piece of information that Sandy Grant shared and that I was interested to hear because I have mused about this in other blogs is that breakout books, the big sellers in any year, are selling more copies. But Sandy attributed this to there being a narrower range of reading happening—people are spending more on that breakout book, but to the exclusion of buying other books. Which is fabulous if you’re the author of the breakout book, not so fabulous if you’re not.
But I suppose that’s one reason why we keep writing, in the hope that one day, we’ll be the author of the breakout book that appears in everyone’s christmas stocking. Oh, and because we love it.
What do you think? Are you partial to books about cats? What about waiting versus instant gratification? Is there a book you’ve wanted so much that you’ve downloaded it the instant it was released? Is this set of statistics uplifting or sobering? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, or anything else you’d like to remark upon.