Repairing the foundation

"If you want people to read more ..."

In a post I wrote yesterday, I spent some time dissecting the idea that "people not reading" is a recent phenomenon. I don't think it is a new development. In practice, continuing to ignore the roots of the problem costs us in a variety of ways.

One of them is our position in the world order. As big as the U.S. book market is, it shrinks a lot when measured on a per-capita basis. In fact, per-capita book sales in the U.S. are only 82% of what they are in France and 59% of what they are in Germany.

Why is this the case? In her post "If you want people to read more, teach more people to read", my colleague and friend Laura Dawson put a personal face on the answer:

"If publishers are marketing to people who know how to read and choose not to, they are talking to brick walls. They might as well be selling vitamins, or broccoli. But if publishers focused some of their efforts on people who don’t know how to read (even in the U.S., these numbers are larger than you might think – in prisons, in rural areas, in inner cities) – well, that market is fairly well untapped. Particularly overseas."

As Dawson points out in terms more accessible than I usually offer, we need to learn how to serve the under-served market.

Literacy is a social good, one that for-profit companies can (and do) argue is not their responsibility. But it is their concern. We can wait for the house divided to fall, or we can go to work repairing the foundation.


Posted by Matthew Diener
May 18, 2012  at  12:50 PM

Illiteracy in the United States is a serious concern, especially when looked at in relation to population living in poverty and incarcerated. This infographic tells some of the tale:
Improving literacy rates should be of concern for any publisher and any person working in publishing.

Posted by Brian O'Leary
May 18, 2012  at  01:36 PM

Thanks; the CIA World Factbook claims that the U.S., Germany and France all have a literacy rate of 99%, but your chart shows how weak that estimate is for the United States.

I don’t think that the differences in books sales per capita are entirely attributable to literacy rates (Germany is a fixed-book-price market), but the comparison with Germany is striking.

Veronis Suhler estimates that consumer spending on (printed) trade books was about $18.7 billion in 2011. If per-capita sales in the U.S. were the same as in Germany,sales of printed books would be something like $31.7 billion, an increase of $13 billion a year.

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