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?

Notebook: “There She Blew”

Harry V. Givens, photographer, 'Whale Skeleton, Point Lobos, California,' American Environmental Photographs Collection (1891-1936), AEP-CAS206, Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library

“There She Blew,” my review of Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, is in the 23 July 2007 issue of The New Yorker. Herewith a few web extras and informal footnotes.

As ever, my first thanks go to the book under review. I also consulted the conservationist and historian Richard Ellis’s Men and Whales (Knopf, 1991), which takes the story of whaling beyond America, and the economists Lance E. Davis, Robert E. Gallman, and Karin Gleiter’s In Pursuit of Leviathan: Technology, Institutions, Productivity, and Profits in American Whaling, 1816-1906 (University of Chicago, 1997), which contains empirical data and insights that will interest Ph.D.’s as well as M.B.A.’s. The best documentation of Melville’s life as a whaler is in Herman Melville’s Whaling Years (Vanderbilt, 2004), a 1952 dissertation revised by its author, Wilson Heflin, until his death in 1985, and astutely edited for publication by Mary K. Bercaw Edwards and Thomas Farel Heffernan. (It’s from a note in Heflin’s book that I found the description of sperm-squeezing in William M. Davis’s 1874 memoir.) Two nineteenth-century memoirs of whaling that I refer to—J. Ross Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise and Francis Allyn Olmsted’s Incidents of a Whaling Voyage—are available online thanks to Tom Tyler of Denver, Colorado, as part of his edition of journals kept aboard the Nantucket whaler Plough Boy between 1827 and 1834. William Scoresby Jr.’s Account of the Arctic Regions, with a History and Description of the Northern Whale-Fishery is available in Google Books. (For the record, though, I read on paper, not online. I’m not really capable of reading books online.)

Also very useful was Briton Cooper Busch’s “Whaling Will Never Do for Me”: The American Whaleman in the Nineteenth Century (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), which told me about bored shipboard wives and the whaler who read Moby-Dick while at sea, and Pamela A. Miller’s And the Whale Is Ours: Creative Writing of American Whalemen (Godine, 1971), my source for the quatrain about sperm whales vanishing from “Japan Ground.”

Now for the wildly miscellaneous. While I was researching the review, some Eskimos killed a bowhead whale off the shores of Alaska and found in its blubber the unexploded explosive tip of a bomb lance manufactured in the 1880s; the discovery got a short paragraph in the New York Times (“This Whale’s Life . . . It Was a Long One”), and a longer explanation on the website of the New Bedford Whaling Museum (“125-year-old New Bedford Bomb Fragment Found Embedded in Alaskan Bowhead Whale”). The NBWM has some great photographs of whaling in its online archives, from an inadvertently campy tableau of a librarian showing a young sailor how to handle his harpoon in the 1950s, to a sublime and otherworldly image of a backlit “blanket piece” of blubber being hauled on board a whaler in 1904. The blanket piece was photographed by the whaling artist Clifford W. Ashley, as part of his research for his paintings; he also took pictures of a lookout high in a mast, a sperm whale lying fin out beside a whaler, the “cutting in” of a whale beside a ship, and whalers giving each other haircuts. Though taken in 1904, they’re the best photos of nineteenth-century-style whaling I’ve seen, and they’re also available in a book, Elton W. Hall’s Sperm Whaling from New Bedford, through the museum’s store.

The best moving images of whaling are in Elmer Clifton’s 1922 silent movie “Down to the Sea in Ships,” which features Clara Bow as a stowaway in drag and has an absurd plot, complete with a villain who is secretly Asian. It stars Marguerite Courtot and Raymond McKee (who was said to have thrown the harpoon himself during the filming), as well as real New Bedfordites and their ships, as Dolin explains, and even has a scene of Quakers sitting wordlessly in meeting, the purity of which tickled me. It has been released by Kino Video on DVD and is available via Netflix as part of a double feature with Parisian Love. The NBWM has a great many stills; try searching for “Clifton” as a keyword.

If photographs strike you as too anachronistic, you can find the occasional watercolor whaling scene in the nineteenth-century logbooks digitized by the G. W. Blunt White Library of the Mystic Seaport Museum, such as these images from the 1841-42 logbook of the Charles W. Morgan. There is more scrimshaw than you will know what to do with at the Nantucket Historical Association. If you want to hear whales, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has at least two websites with samples, and there are more here, courtesy of the University of Rhode Island.

The conceptual, book-based artist Alex Itin has an intriguing video collage of Moby-Dick the text and Orson Welles the actor; Welles tried a number of times to stage a version of the novel. And much further down the brow of culture, the Disney corporation did an animated book review of Moby-Dick a few years ago. (I can’t promise it won’t work your last nerve.) Last but not least, here are NOAA’s estimates of current whale populations, by species, and the homepage of the International Whaling Commission, responsible for the animals’ welfare.

Photo credit: Harry V. Givens, photographer, “Whale Skeleton, Point Lobos, California,” American Environmental Photographs Collection (1891-1936), AEP-CAS206, Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library (accessed through the Library of Congress’s American Memory website).

Step into my landau, baby

There’s a consensus that sometime this century, the flow of oil out of the ground will peak. Some think it has already peaked; others that the peak is yet to come. What will happen when supplies of oil start to dwindle? People have started to wonder, including a writer named James Howard Kunstler in a book titled The Long Emergency. I haven’t read it, but his prognosis appears to be dire and includes something called a “die-off,” which doesn’t sound pleasant. Yesterday, in a bid for reassurance, I read a dismissive review of Kunstler’s book that I found through Arts and Letters Daily. I wasn’t reassured, however. The reviewer claimed that Kunstler’s “concern with oil depletion is overblown” because

the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) recent assessment in the World Energy Outlook 2005 finds that the world has sufficient oil to carry on at its present rate of growth at least out until 2030 (although the agency believes that this would be unsustainable on other environmental grounds).

I don’t feel altogether certain that I’ll be dead by 2030, so this wasn’t quite the warm blanket of denial that I was craving. Also, I wasn’t confident that the reviewer understood thermodynamics any better than I did, which is not very well, especially when he insisted that “total entropy on the Earth is not increasing . . . [b]ecause excess entropy is carried off by radiation into outer space.” Outer space? What about the greenhouse effect—does it trap entropy as well as heat? Don’t systems gain in entropy as heat is added to them, and isn’t that the net effect of the greenhouse gases, in preventing the release from Earth of heat?

Best to march quickly past the real physics, and get to the heart of the matter: dollars per gallon. Naturally, as my anxious mind contemplated the fate of a world in which fuel increased indefinitely in price, I wondered: How expensive would gas have to be for people to decide they’d rather take a horse-and-buggy than an automobile?

At first I thought that I would do this by adding up all the costs associated with keeping a horse—hay, blacksmithing, saddles, stableboys, much higher frequency of street cleaning—and compare them to those of keeping a car. In the former Soviet Union, there used to be whole academic departments devoted to making an inventory of all the society-wide costs and benefits of an item, in order to set, by fiat, its price. We are all Hayekians now, though, and believe that the best way to process all the raw data of abundance, scarcity, damage, benefit, consumer whim, and real convenience is by seeing what people actually pay.

As it happens, in New York today, it is possible to hire for a brief trip either a horse and buggy or an automobile. They aren’t exactly comparable; the buggy is a luxury item, and I suspect that it dawdles to seem more leisurely. Nonetheless both the buggy-owners and the cabbies must take the measure of a much wider range of expenses than I ever could, even with the assistance of the internet. I thought I’d start with their numbers, making a few adjustments along the way.

If you want to take a horse and buggy ride in Central Park today, it costs $34, and in twenty minutes you go one mile. Three miles an hour seems awfully slow—improbably slow. The websites of various companies that cart brides and grooms to and from church promise speeds no higher than four to seven miles per hour, and they seem to be offering their slowness as a selling point. In today’s world, the hirer of a buggy is probably paying mostly for the twenty minutes—for a share of the horse and buggy’s day—rather than the one mile. In a post-gasoline world, buggies would presumably go as fast as was financially and legally prudent. I’m guessing that I can safely double the speed advertised and say that a horse and buggy in Central Park could go six miles an hour without increasing its underlying costs. So I’m jiggering with the data, and guessing that for the same $34, you could get a horse and buggy to go two miles in twenty minutes.

To go two miles in Manhattan by taxi costs you $2.50 plus 40 cents for every one-fifth of a mile—in total, $6.50. (For ease of math, I’m leaving tips out of both sides of the equation.) Let’s estimate that cabbies get about 24 miles per gallon, and that they go about 20 miles an hour in the city. That means the trip consumes about one-twelfth of a gallon of gasoline and takes about six minutes.

Horse & buggy Car
$34 $6.50
20 min. 6 min.
Hay 0.0833 gal. gasoline

There’s one more arbitrary number to come up with. How valuable are the fourteen minutes you’d lose by taking the buggy? That’s hard to figure; it probably depends on how valuable your time is. People with a low hourly wage will probably walk rather than hire either vehicle, so let’s say $20/hour. The value of those 14 minutes will therefore be 14 min./60 min. times $20/hour, or $4.66.

Let x equal an increase in price per gallon of gasoline. Then as gas becomes more expensive, the price of the automobile taxi will be $6.50 + 0.0833 x. The price of the buggy will be $34 plus the loss of time, valued at $4.66. A person would just as soon hire a hire a cab powered by a horse as one powered by an internal combustion engine when the total prices are equal, i.e.,

$6.50 + x/12 = $34 + $4.66

x = (34 + 4.66 – 6.5) 12

x = 385.92

When gas costs $385.93 more per gallon than it does today, then, you’ll probably start taking the curricle.