Friday, August 24, 2007

Link-Mad Response: American Reading Habits Will Surprise You

Okay, so if you work in books or read a lot you've probably heard about this: the recent AP/Ipsos poll on American reading habits (the whole thing is downloadable from their website - click on the August 21 survey, then the "Topline results" button), commonly reported in the following way: "One in four adults read no books last year."

I met with a potential bookstore investor the other day, someone who loves reading but doesn't work in the industry, and even he had heard about it: "Didn't someone show that fewer people are reading now?" he asked. And that is how most people have interpreted these results.

(Why is the survey NOT described "Seventy-five percent of Americans read a book last year?")

John Freeman of the National Book Critics Circle, blogging at the Guardian, used the poll as a taking-off point (or evidence) for an unhappy piece about reading in America, apparently inspired by a trip to Vegas (which I admit, depresses me too). He, too, described the survey results as part of a trend: "Now a study has put a figure on the decline of reading in the US." I like John Freeman a lot -- I've worked with him on events, and he's an incredibly smart and well-read person and a great advocate for books, criticism and literacy. But this time I have to disagree, and admit his assumptions make me a little mad.

(Why didn't the survey ask how many books Americans read the year before?)

I've been hearing about the Ipsos poll all week, but I came to John Freeman's piece the back way, through this response from crime writer/blogger Meg Gardiner, and some of her objections got me thinking. (For example, there are apparently a number of bookstores in Las Vegas.)

Remember in 2004, when the National Endowment for the Arts led by Dana Gioia released the Reading at Risk survey, and everyone in the book world got really sad and scared? If you don't, you can read about it and download the whole thing here on the NEA site. The flap over that survey, which also made me a little mad, was probably part of why I started blogging. Along with its counterpoint, Kevin Smokler's fantastically smart and optimistic little collection Bookmark Now (brought to you here courtesy of Google Books), I started thinking that there ought to be more voices for the realistically bright side of change in the world of books.

But here's the thing that gets me, the realization that made me laugh out loud while I was cleaning the house this weekend:

The NEA survey states that 56% of Americans read any book in 2002 (that's ANY book, not just "literary works," which the survey focuses on.)

The AP/Ipsos survey say that 73% of Americans read any book last year (i.e. in 2006).

Therefore, if these two respected organizations are to be believed...


I'm going to repeat that, in case you missed it. The NEA declared that half of Americans had NOT read a book in 2002. AP/Ipsos declared that one in four Americans had NOT read a book in 2006. All the while, half of Americans DID read a book in 2002, and three quarters of Americans DID read a book in 2006.

Three-quarters is more than half.

Easy to miss, given the language of the two surveys, isn't it? This is why one gets so perturbed at media coverage of all things related to the book industry, and especially to independent bookstores. Doom and gloom stories are apparently sexier than healthy, prosperous stories.

Or perhaps, as one bookseller I know suggested, it's a combination of snobbery and fear on behalf of book people themselves that leads to such a bias. We want to believe that we're the guardians of culture in a country of hicks and philistines, that what we do by reading and writing and producing and selling and talking about books is special and brave and maybe tragically romantic. So we shake our heads at a culture in decline, rather than looking for something to celebrate in a world full of things to celebrate.

Obviously there's more to it than that. The numbers are still lower than one would like them to be. And there's a lot more depth and richness to the statistics in each poll than the headline-grabbing number of books read (for example, women tend to read more than men; older Americans read more; certain kinds of books are read more than others, etc.) These are numbers we should perhaps be looking at in order to know our best customers, as well as who we can reach out to in order to expand the audience for books. But first we have to look past the knee-jerk hell-in-a-handbasket interpretation of the numbers and see what they're really saying.

I'm glad I got that off my chest. Eager to hear your thoughts.

[Gawker-style update: I've taken another look at those Ipsos numbers; here's another interesting set of facts. Keep in mind that these percentages INCLUDE those who have not read a book in the past year.

Percentage polled who read 1 to 5 books in the last year: 30%
6 to 15 books: 23%
More than 15 books: 20%

So for every American who didn't read any books last year, there's another who read more than 15 books. The average (mean) number of books read in 2006 by all polled: 14.9 books per year.

There's a number worth chewing on.]

Comment: Blogging and other investments

There's a very nice piece in Bookselling This Week about booksellers who blog, which features yours truly, among others: namely Chuck Robinson of Village Books in Washington, the staff of River City Books in Minnesota, the folks at Harry W. Schwartz in Wisconsin, Arsen Kashkashian of Boulder Bookstore in Colorado, and Megan Sullivan of Harvard Bookstore in Massachusetts. Megan I knew already, of course, and I'd heard of a couple of the others, but I'm really impressed with what store owners and staff are doing with store blogs. I think the blogging "model" Megan and I follow is a different one from what the others are doing, and I'm intrigued by the difference.

The Written Nerd is less a promotional tool than a means of personal expression and connection-making -- my own personal mutual-interest-based social networking site, in a way, and an outlet for talking about the topics that are spilling out of my own head. Bookstore blogs are that too -- just booklovers talking about stuff that gets them excited -- but as in indie bookstores themselves, that excitement is "value added" and ultimately an asset to the store. As indie booksellers we trade (in the best cases) on our knowledge and passion, our ability to put books in the right hands, craft events and displays that make books irresistible, and our real love for the books dovetails beautifully into our need to sell them.

Though I can imagine how you could think that was a conflict of interest of some kind, I think it's the best-case scenario to have people pay you to do the thing you love: like an actor who loves acting, a hairdresser who loves chatting and beautifying, a chef who gets paid to indulge his joy of cooking. When you'd be doing it anyway, and you find a way to make it pay, it's a beautiful day for economic and psychic well-being. Some bloggers take pride in the fact that they "can't be bought," that they're doing it purely for the love of it. And some booksellers (okay, very few) take pride in the fact that it's "just business," that no personal feelings are going to get in the way of making a profitable enterprise. While sometimes emotion and ethics must take precedence, and sometimes business concerns have to be foremost, it seems to me that in any industry, but especially in the book industry, the best work is done when the investment of passion is remunerated, and love translates into food on the table.

Which is why I think it makes so much sense for bookstores to get their employees involved in a store blog. One of the issues the Emerging Leaders project aims to combat is the sense among a lot of young bookstore employees they're retail workers, not professional booksellers: that their love of books is just personal, and they don't have a lot to offer their store and their industry beyond ringing sales and shelving books. Asking employees to write about the books they love for a blog, as for a staff picks display, is a way of making them invested in the bookstore, so that they make a connection between their passion and their paycheck. And there's a lot more to write about on a blog than just beloved books, and all of that content makes for a store that draws readers.

Two of my favorite examples, aside from the ones mentioned in the article, are the blogs of Powell's Books in Portland, OR, and Atomic Books, in Baltimore, MD. The two couldn't be more different: Powell's is as massive as an independent can get, with several stores in the Portland area and an e-commerce site which actually rivals Amazon's (I'm seeing it linked more and more by those who'd like to support independents but need to make their book available online). Their blog contains not only staff picks, but original essays and interviews, book news, celebrity guest bloggers, podcasts, and lots and lots of other content. Atomic Books is a small store with a comics emphasis, which does e-commerce but not on the scale of Powell's. Their blog has a lot of local Baltimore news and gossip, information about upcoming events in the store and in the neighborhood, and excited announcements about what's just in or on its way. Powell's has a full-time staff devoted to its website content; Atomic is written by its two owners in between running the shop. I love checking into both of them for the richness of the content and the investment of time and energy that they obviously represent. Visiting Powell's in Portland was made more special because I felt like I'd spent time there through the voices on the blog. And I cannot wait to visit Atomic when I'm in Baltimore for NAIBA-Con, and see the people and the place in real life.

And I can't wait until I have a bookstore, and employees, and I can bring their unique voices into the project by having a blog that everyone can post to. There will be no stigma against being on the internet during work hours (unless there's a customer needing immediate help, or you're sending your one millionth personal email, or the shelving is out of control), because good booksellers need to use the tools of the internet to stay informed, and to keep their customers informed, just as they need to read the books they're selling. A blog is a way not only to get employees invested in the store, but a way to get customers invested as well. As Toby at Three Lives describes, people who walk in to a beautiful bookstore, who take in the atmosphere of stories and ideas and curiosity and freedom, want to belong to it somehow, want it to be theirs. They want to get invested. And the way they do that is to buy a book. Blogs can be another tool for creating that atmosphere, and that desire for investment. And investment is what keeps our projects going.

What do you think? What are other ways that booksellers can feel invested in the store where they work, and in the book industry as a whole? What are ways that customers can be made to feel like a bookstore has something worth investing in? What's the relationship between emotional and economic investment? I'd love to hear your thoughts.