Would you like a gift receipt with that?

The other night, a friend in publishing mentioned in conversation that December sales had been disappointing throughout the industry this past year. The 2006 holidays had brought an upward bump, as people bought books as gifts for family and friends, but the bump was smaller than expected.

His comment intrigued me, because I wondered if it might be another sign of the qualitative change in the culture caused by the decline in literary reading. Buying a book for oneself is a relatively straightforward thing to do; all that’s required is that you like to read, are in the mood to, and have enough money or credit to effect a purchase. But it’s a bit more complicated to buy a book as a gift. The person you’re buying for has to be a reader, and you have to be one, too, because you have to feel confident that you can choose a book worth reading. Moreover, you have to know enough about the recipient’s reading habits to choose one she would probably like but hasn’t read already. In other words, the two of you have to have been having a fairly sophisticated, ongoing conversation about what you read and what you like to read.

Thus the purchase of books as gifts is probably a more fragile statistic than the purchase of them for oneself, and if literary reading is on the decline, one would expect books to be bought less frequently as gifts. One might even expect that the proportion of books bought as gifts would decline more steeply than book-buying generally. And that does seem to be what’s happening, to judge by retail bookstore sales reported to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Bookstore_sales
Here’s a graph of annual bookstore sales (in light green) and December bookstore sales (in dark green). Before anyone gets too optimistic, yes, it’s true that aggregate bookstore sales have grown at what looks like a healthy rate. But so has the U.S. population, and so has consumer spending overall during this period, and book sales have not kept pace. In 1985, the average U.S. household spent $141 on reading, out of a total entertainment budget of $1,311 and a total consumer expenditure of $23,490. In 2004, the average household spent $130 on reading, out of a total entertainment budget of $2,348 and a total consumer expenditure of $43,395. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2007 Statistical Abstract.) The upward trend you’re seeing here is the result of more people and more money in America, not of an intensification of reading.

December_as_percentage
If you divide the December sales by the annual sales, you get the yearly percentage of book sales that occur during the holidays. As you can see, if December sales are a reasonable proxy for gift sales, then people have been buying fewer books as gifts, comparatively speaking, over the last decade and a half—another sign, I think, that the place of literary reading in American culture is shifting.

(A side note: Though I didn’t chart them, the largest spikes in book sales every year aren’t in December at all; they’re in August and January, as students buy books for courses. I haven’t checked yet to see whether these are becoming a higher proportion of reading expenditures, but if they are, that would be another dark sign, in my opinion…)

POSTSCRIPT (1 September 2007): I think this post is safely too outdated for anyone to be in danger of referring to it any more, but in case anyone does, there’s a major flaw in my data above. The Census department’s numbers only include brick-and-mortar book sales, not online book sales. Now, since Amazon automatically does packaging and mailing, it’s super convenient for book giving. It’s possible, therefore, that the decline in month-of-December sales noted above is *not* a decline in giving books as gifts, but rather a shift toward buying gift books online.

9 thoughts on “Would you like a gift receipt with that?”

  1. "The person you're buying for has to be a reader, and you have to be one, too, because you have to feel confident that you can choose a book worth reading."

    Optimistic…it's also equally likely that people give books as gifts as a way of assuaging the guilt associated with the giving season, with little consideration of the burden of expectation it imposes on the donee to actually read it, which, in all likelihood, they don't.

  2. Dear Caleb Crain
    Re: Ellen Dissanayake
    some time back you had posted two articles on Dissanayake,
    and yesterday i went to forward them to someone, and can't
    seem to find them.

    would you please send me a link
    or directions to where i could find them again?
    i remember them being quite inspiring and exciting to read.

    please help me out with this.
    thanks!
    pat

  3. Dear Caleb:

    There is an entire category of books that are manufactured entirely for seasonal gift giving.
    Sometimes called "coffee-table book." You've seen them. Movie star photo collections or illustrated biographies, fashion and interior design books, etc. There's a local publisher, Angel City Press, that publishes nothing but. So do Abrams and others.

    Yours,
    Peter Winkler

  4. Caleb — Fascinatin', tks. Love that Dissanayake profile too!

    I think, though, you may be overestimating the significance of literary reading in the bookbiz. It was never a huge part of the bookbiz (just guessing, but if it was ever over 10% I'd be amazed), so its declining status probably hasn't had much impact on the business overall.

    My own guess is that the decline in book sales is due to … well, an overall decline of interest in books, and a slow disintegration in book culture. The whole reading-and-yakking-and-hanging-out-at-bookstores, etc, thang just doesn't count for much with kids these days. They're playing games, putting up vids at YouTube, and rushing around on the web. Books? Well, they can be nice toys too. But they aren't central to the lives of many people under 30.

    Literary fiction is, IMHO, a kind of self-deluding bit of mass self-hypnosis on the part of a very tiny part of the population. It seems to matter hugely to five people in Manhattan, two in Chicago, and three in San Francisco. But no one else pays much attention.

  5. Hi, Michael,

    Thanks for the link on your blog a little while ago to my Dissanayake article, and for the kind words.

    I do know (to my sorrow) how small a portion of publishing is devoted to what's now called literary fiction. All the numbers above are for books generally, and I agree with you that the decline is probably attributable to "a slow disintegration in book culture," as you say. It's the change (or just plain loss) of that culture that fascinates me, in a rabbit-staring-into-the-cobra's-eyes kind of way.

    –C.

  6. "Literary fiction is, IMHO, a kind of self-deluding bit of mass self-hypnosis on the part of a very tiny part of the population. It seems to matter hugely to five people in Manhattan, two in Chicago, and three in San Francisco. But no one else pays much attention."

    Hi Michael,

    What about book clubs? My wife and her friends read fairly highbrow novels – you know the sort: CBC- (read NPR-) approved authors, plus the occasional classic like Madam Bovery. They're smart, but they're not extraordinary. And the book-club phenomenon is still a happenin' thing, isn't it?

  7. On the other hand, my wife did work for a major publisher back in the nineties and left deeply disillusioned. A lot of changes in publishing since then too. I remember her describing how a elderly "name" author burst into tears when they told him his next book was going to have a print run of 500. (This is Canada, mind.)

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