Are Americans spending less on reading?

As I explained in an earlier post, my review-essay “Twilight of the Books” appears in the 24 December 2007 issue of The New Yorker, and as an online supplement, I’m summarizing some of the data that I drew from, organizing the summaries by topic, and including links where I can. These are merely evidence in raw form and are probably a bit indigestible taken en masse. For analysis and discussion and hopefully a more pleasant read, please see the New Yorker article itself.

Yesterday: Are Americans reading less? Today: Are Americans spending less money on reading?

Before I give the summaries, I want to provide little context. As you’ll see, there’s some reason to think that publishing revenues have increased overall in the last five years. If one is trying to determine from this fact whether Americans have grown more or less readerly, however, it’s important to keep in mind several factors. First, the U.S. population has grown. Second, the U.S. economy has grown. And third, the average price of a book has risen (see below for evidence). In other words, it is possible that the publishing industry took in more revenue even as the average citizen read fewer books and the proportion of readers in the population shrank. In fact, that’s what I think happened. That’s why I made a point of looking at units, as well as dollars, and of dividing those units by the Census Bureau’s population estimates. (One last note: To simplify my own life, I’m linking to the data that I collected in late summer, but some government departments have released another year’s data since I did my research.)

  • The Book Industry Study Group has estimated that 3.09 billion books were sold in 2005, and 3.10 billion in 2006, for net dollar sales of $34.63 billion in 2005 and $35.69 billion in 2006. BISG projects that sales will be 3.15 billion in 2007, 3.18 billion in 2008, and 3.24 billion in 2011. Because of a change in methodology, the group’s earlier data aren’t comparable to the numbers it is collecting now. For comparison’s sake, however, they have recalculated what their new numbers would be under their old methodology, arriving at this series for unit sales: 2.36 billion in 2001, 2.37 billion in 2002, 2.34 billion in 2003, 2.296 billion in 2004, 2.36 billion in 2005, and 2.38 billion in 2006; and this series for dollar sales: $24.74 billion in 2001, $25.27 billion in 2002, $26.00 billion in 2003, $26.47 billion in 2004, $27.84 billion in 2005, and $28.60 billion in 2006. When the unit sales numbers are divided by the population estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau, it works out that there has been a decline in sales from 8.27 books per person in 2001 to 7.93 in 2006. When the old-methodology numbers for dollar sales are divided by the old-methodology numbers for unit sales, it transpires that the average price of a new book has risen from $10.49 in 2001 to $12.04 in 2006. Consumer books are a subset of total book sales, comprised of adult trade, juvenile trade, and mass market paperback books. Under the BISG’s old methodology, unit sales of consumer books have also stagnated: 1.54 billion 2001, 1.56 billion in 2002, 1.53 billion in 2003, 1.48 billion in 2004, 1.52 billion in 2005, and 1.53 billion in 2006. [Michael Healy, ed., Book Industry Trends 2007, {for-purchase publication} pages 10, 13, 204, and 207. The Book Industry Study Group is also cited in table 1118, “Quantity of Books Sold: 2004 to 2009,” of the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007.]

  • Slightly higher estimates of consumer book sales are offered by Veronis Suhler Stevenson, who see a very modest increase in net unit sales between 2001 and 2006. VSS estimates that per-person, per-year spending on books has increased somewhat, but notes that “Consumer book spending growth consistently trailed that of GDP from 2001 to 2006.” Like the Book Industry Study Group, they estimate that the average price of a a new book rose between 2001 and 2006. [Veronis Suhler Stevenson, Communications Industry Forecast, 2007 {for-purchase publication}, page 56, table ES.14, page 360, page 368, and page 374, table 13.11.] Note: Veronis Suhler Stevenson provided me with their report as a courtesy and for the purposes of reporting; since they make a living by providing data and since I didn’t end up having room to quote them in the final published article, I’m not publishing their numbers here.

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spent an average of $141 on reading in 1985, $153 in 1990, $163 in 1995, $146 in 2000, and $126 in 2005. The data are reported yearly. Those between the ages of 55 and 64 spent the most yearly on reading, $167. Whites spent more than blacks or Hispanics, and the Northeast and the West outspent other regions. [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, table 1217, “Expenditures per Consumer Unit for Entertainment and Reading: 1985 to 2004,” and U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Consumer Expenditures in 2005,” February 2007, page 3 and page 10.]

  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has released to the National Endowment for the Arts previously unpublished data about consumer spending on books (as opposed to reading generally). As summarized in To Read or Not to Read, the average spending by a consumer unit (household) on books went from $37.74 in 1985 to $57.43 in 2005; when the figures are adjusted for inflation to 1982-84 dollars, the spending dropped from $33.25 in 1985 to $28.59 in 2005. [Sunil Iyengar et al, To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence, National Endowment for the Arts, 2007, p. 49, table 4C]

  • U.S. consumers spent an increasing amount on “Books and maps” between 1990 and 2006, according to the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis: $16.2 billion in 1990, $23.2 billion in 1995, $33.7 billion in 2000, $34.6 billion in 2001, $37.1 billion in 2002, $39.0 billion in 2003, $40.4 billon in 2004, $41.8 billion in 2005, and $43.4 billion in 2006. [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, table 1218, “Personal Consumption Expenditures for Recreation: 1990 to 2004.” Bureau of Economic Analysis, Department of Commerce, National Income and Product Accounts Table, “Table 2.5.5 Personal Consumption Expenditures by Type of Expenditure, 2005-2006.”]

  • The total amount that U.S. consumers paid for books, according to the Book Industry Study Group, was $49.15 billion in 2004, $51.92 billion in 2005, and $53.62 billion in 2006. [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, table 1119, “Books Sold—Value of U.S. Domestic Consumer Expenditures: 2004 to 2009.” Michael Healy, ed., Book Industry Trends 2007 {for-purchase publication}, page 17.]

  • The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the revenues of the book publishing industry have been climbing moderately in the past few years: $24.98 billion in 2000, $25.83 billion in 2001, $26.93 billion in 2002, $26.06 billion in 2003, $27.90 billion in 2004, and $27.73 billion in 2005. [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, tables 1107 and 1120. U.S. Census Bureau, “2005 Service Annual Survey, Information Sector Services,” page 20, table 3.0.1.]

Tomorrow (or thereafter): Is literacy declining?

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here’s a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books”:

Notebook: “Twilight of the Books” (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER’s Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

2 thoughts on “Are Americans spending less on reading?”

  1. Thanks for linking to your paper! I wish I had come across it while doing my research. The trends you describe (in table 4 in your report) seem to match those in the Dutch study I mention—as television is introduced, the hours spent watching television increase by a number much higher than those lost by reading.

    I think I'd demur somewhat when you infer from this in your paper that "Television did not replace reading or other activities; it supplemented them." If you're trying to explain television's growth, your inference is true. Television grew to take up more time than reading ever did, and most of those hours came from additional leisure time, not from time formerly spent reading. But a few of those hours did come from reading, and if you're trying to explain the hours lost to reading, television looks like a culprit. Why else would hours spent reading have declined in the 20th century, even as leisure time grew?

    There seems to be sort of a glass-half-full vs. glass-half-empty issue, on the question of whether 6 hours a week of reading in 1925 was "much." After all, it's twice what the average American reads today!

    Thanks again for the link. I love the part in your essay where you point out that television-watching habits in the mid-1980s in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were almost identical, despite the utter unlikeness of the programming in the two countries.

Comments are closed.