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Reading Stats and Paradigm Shifts

Numbers_2Book readership rates are down.  Nobody reads books anymore.  Even Steve Jobs has commented about the trends.  The February issue of Harper's magazine has an article that offers perspective on this; unfortunately, the vast majority of the population doesn't subscribe to Harper's so we're left to read an abstract and thoughts on the article from other bloggers.

I doubt anyone would expect to hear that 100% of the population has read a book in the past year.  So while it's not surprising that the rate isn't 100%, it's alarming that the rate is so far from 100% (it's 55% to 75%, depending on what statistics you're looking at).

Just for fun, let's compare this to a rough approximation of dog owners in the U.S. (stay with me...there's a point to this!).  Based on a completely unscientific Google search, it looks like the number of dog owners in the U.S. is around 60 million to 80 million.  Additional rough estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the approximately 300 million Americans represent about 110 million households.  So there are about 70 million dogs in approximately 110 million households, or roughly a 64% penetration rate, right in the middle of that book readership rate range cited in the previous paragraph).

Even though the percentages are about the same, nobody is running around saying the dog food/toy/care industry is in trouble.  And while literacy rates are obviously more important to an economy than dog ownership rates, I think it's interesting to study the similarities.  The most important aspect of all this isn't so much the number of readers or dog owners as it is the number of truly passionate readers and owners.  Quite a few dog owners spend enough on their pets to more than make up for all of those families who don't have a dog.  The same is true for books.  If you were to plot it out you wouldn't wind up with a bell curve, you'd have a double-hump curve where the left side represents all those people who don't read any books and the right side with all those who read lots and lots of books.

The second most important takeaway from this is that it's critical to think about information consumption, not just the number of books read.  I know I consume a lot more information every day/week today than I did 10 years ago and I suspect that's true for a lot of people.  That's also why Amazon's Kindle is such an intriguing product.  While the Kindle is mostly oriented towards books today, Amazon was smart enough to design it with wireless access to newspapers, magazines and even blogs.  (Try that with your Sony Reader!)  The Audible acquisition makes things even more interesting and shows that Amazon is serious about becoming the leading content provider, regardless of what form it's offered in.

I'm not suggesting Kindle sales will cause book reading rates to increase.  I seriously doubt that will happen.  Rather, I think the Kindle will act as a powerful enabler to help owners increase the amount of content they can access and consume.  Some of that will be in book format, but quite a bit of it will be in other formats.

Also for the record, brick-and-mortar bookstores and print books aren't going away either.  The book's form factor was built with brick-and-mortar stores in mind though and I think there's an important paradigm shift publishers (and other industry stakeholders) need to analyze.  Again, the book's current format will live on well beyond my lifetime but here are a few points that should be considered for Kindle and other e-content distribution and consumption:

  1. Spine widths become meaningless (why do books have to be 300-400 pages long?!)
  2. Content access, sharing and mashups becomes critical (think social networks)
  3. Promotions and platforms matter even more (rising above the noise)
  4. Simple print-to-ebook ports won't cut it (that's so 1990's-ish; leverage the platform!)

This post is already pretty long so I'm going to spell out the details behind these 4 items in additional posts throughout the week.

Update: I went back and added links to each of the follow-up posts in the list above.



Very interesting post, Joe! It's sad how reading rates have decreased so much over the years. I like your point about information consumption in general. Thanks to the internet, I too am consuming gobs of information nowadays (blogs, news feeds, etc), and it's not just books I'm reading.

Like you, I doubt the Kindle will give reading books a kick-start. People who buy the Kindle are probably already avid readers and have a deep interest in combining literature with no forms of digital technology.


There must also be a direct link between dog ownership and readers. I love reading with my dogs surrounding me. Nothing better.

Jeff Nordstedt

This is so true! About 2 years ago I left my position running an independent publishing house largely because I had grown tired of all of the "sky is falling" bluster about the shrinking reading population.

My argument has always been that publishers really need to rethink their role in the world. Many get confused about what they really do. They are not manufacturers, they are not retailers. They neither make nor sell books really. What they do is develop content.

If you buy this line of thinking, then you can actually take an optimistic view of publishing. With people devouring so much content these days, and with publishers having the best access to writers who develop content, it is easy to see that a smart publisher should be able to leverage their real skill into something that revolutionizes the industry and makes a pretty penny too!

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