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Stats on literacy & the literary: Books aren’t that important

42% of university graduates never read another book after they graduate.

Whoa! Wh-wh-what now?!

Yes, you read that correctly. When it comes down to it, books aren’t all that important to a staggering number of people. 

I’ve found several scary statistics for this post, but that 42% bugs me most. Those are people who can read, but choose not to.

I used to think that once you made someone a reader, you had them for life. Not so!

Like you, I’m a big fan of books, of course. But this post is about perspective and where we stand in the flood of things to do.

1. Market fragmentation: There’s a lot going on. Literally. I don’t watch TV much anymore. I used to schedule my life around television programming. I could read more books in a week, but I don’t because I also make time to listen to a lot of podcasts. So many websites call my name. Plus, I have a lot to do. With so many demands on my time, a lot gets curated. I use the word curation here as a synonym for “flushed.” I filter out a lot of things I don’t have time to read, watch and listen to. (Also, I’m on Team Coco, so Leno’s banished and cursed.) There are only so many waking hours in a day, and, frankly? I’ve got more free time than most people do.

2. Market skew: You only think you love all books. But you really love a small fraction of books, no matter how much you read. How many readers do you meet who say, “I read everything”? (Sarah Palin who was lying and has officially “authored” more books than she’s read.) My point is, niches are narrow. For instance, I love Chuck Palahniuk’s work and have read all of his books. I wouldn’t have to look very far to find someone who has read Fight Club. But I’d have to travel far to find someone else who has read them all. Chuck’s very successful, but he’ll just never have the market penetration of Hemingway because Hemingway is taught in schools. (In other words, a lot of high school and college kids are forced to read Hemingway. Snuff, a book about a porn shoot,  won’t make it into many curricula.)

As an author, you’re going to meet a lot of readers, but sadly, they won’t be your market because you’re into A, B, and C and they’re into X, Y, Z.

Worse? They’ll sneer at you for it because people don’t make any distinction between what’s to their taste and what’s good.

3. We say we’re a society that values reading and education. But we don’t. Here’s a few illiteracy statistics to blow your brain around: About three in five of America’s prison inmates are illiterate. The cost of illiteracy to business and the US taxpayer is $20 billion per year. More than 20 percent of adults read at or below a fifth-grade level – far below the level needed to earn a living wage. 44 million adults in the U.S. can’t read well enough to read a simple story to a child. Nearly half of America’s adults are poor readers, or “functionally illiterate.” They can’t carry out simple tasks like balancing check books, reading drug labels or writing essays for a job. 21 million Americans can’t read at all. 45 million are marginally illiterate and one-fifth of high school graduates can’t read their diplomas.

4. Number 3? That’s about people who can’t read. But many people just don’t: The average reader spends about 1/6th of the time they spend reading actually rereading words.* One-third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year. 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years. 57 percent of new books are not read to completion. 70 percent of books published do not earn back their advance. 70 percent of the books published do not make a profit. (Source: http://www.JenkinsGroupInc.com)

5. If you’re self-published, a lot of people won’t read your stuff, perhaps because of prejudice fueled by bad experiences with the previous generation of self-publishing. Traditional publishers aren’t generally that much further ahead anymore, either. (See #3 and #4.) Bookstores (remember them?) are reluctant to stock the self-published. They don’t even have space for traditionally published midlist authors anymore, let alone the indie unwashed masses. And newspapers? (They used to be on paper and very profitable. Ask your parents.) Newspapers still don’t review the self-published. We’re also shut out of many literary awards so there’s not much notoriety gained there. That situation will change, but not soon. We may have to wait for a bunch of old school book critics to die.

Great, now your depressed. So what do we do about it? Well, first, think about these stats and honestly evaluate your chances as an author. This post is essentially a test. If you think about your chances (for realsies!) and are still undeterred, congratulations! There is no hope for you. You’re doomed to take your shot at a life in letters. This choice is, for most writers, really no choice at all. Many of us will fail. A few of us would have been great at something else. Some are a great loss to the fields of animal husbandry and the manufacture of novelty chattering teeth toys.

We choose to write books despite the scary stats. Somewhat perversely, we may choose to write books because of those scary stats! If we can write books people want to read, maybe we can save humanity and turn things around. (I think JK Rowling got not a few kids reading who otherwise might not have.)

Kurt Vonnegut wrote in A Man Without a Country:

“If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts.

I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way to make life more bearable.”

(Kurt was the kind of wise-ass I love.)


I’ll leave you with something else positive to think about. I heard Red State director Kevin Smith say this on a podcast recently:

“Surround yourself with Why Not? people.”

Too often you try to do your art and people say why? Forget them and go do your thing. 

I mean…why not? 

*All the stats above the asterisk can be found at readfaster.com.

Filed under: Books, publishing, self-publishing, , , , , , , ,

2 Responses

  1. scribbla says:

    Scary stats. But they only get in the way if you want them to. Writers have to write, whether they are read or not.
    Thanks for a great post.

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