Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Curiouser and Curiouser

Based on yesterday's (entirely unscientific) poll, mes auteurs, it seems that while the majority of you read some combination of the various genres I listed, the most popular categories seem to be fantasy, literary fiction, mystery, and science fiction. I also strongly suspect that YA/children's would have had a strong showing had I set up the poll properly.

Back in the depths of the recession, I theorized that fantasy (read: escapism), YA/children's (read: people will continue to spend money on their kids, even if they don't spend money on themselves), and romance (read: happy endings) would continue to do well, and based on my own research, that seems to have been the case. What I find interesting, however, is that book sales are down year-on-year across the board (with the possible exception of Amazon, who insists on reporting "media sales" without explaining how those data break down among books, movies, music, &c).

There are a lot of theories as to why this is the case, and a correspondingly large number of questions that need to be answered before any of those theories can be backed up (I hesitate to say "confirmed"), altered, or discarded. Among my questions: while dollars are down, are units necessarily also down? (If fewer hardcovers are being sold, it's possible that overall sales dollars can decrease while the number of units sold can stay the same or increase.) Are e-books being taken into account? (I have a feeling they aren't.) Are all retailers being taken into account? (Chains like Wal-Mart and Sam's Club don't report to sales aggregators like Nielsen BookScan.) And so on.

What are your theories, gentle readers? I'm not necessarily calling for hard data, but I'm curious to know what you think is going on. My hunches are as follows:

· A lot of these sales figures are based on reports by BookScan, which (as mentioned above) does not capture the entire market. (Estimates currently range from 70 to 75%.)

· Dollar figures from 10-K reports for individual businesses are helpful, but don't generally (as far as I know) break down sales by product; Amazon (and, to a lesser extent, Borders and Barnes & Noble) sells a huge number of non-book products. To anyone with greater knowledge in this area: definitely post a comment.

· Units and dollars are probably both down, but I think these reports are only for physical books; e-book sales are up year-on-year, and are almost certainly going to continue this upward trend over the next several years. This is why the debate over e-book pricing (and, by extension, e-book profit margin) is so heated.

To the comments!


  1. Your poll results mimic the poll I put up on my blog last month, which wasn't about reading, but about writing. And that makes sense because most writers enjoy reading what they write. Right?

    The top three were SF/F, Romance/WF, and Young Adult.

  2. I've noticed a lot fewer people reading on the subway. Almost everyone is clicking on their iPhones, text messaging, and so on. So my theory is that people aren't reading books, even e-books, as much--maybe these devices reduce attention span or are too distracting...

  3. I have noticed an increase in library use. I personally use the library a lot, and have found that I have to put more books on hold as I compete with other readers. Also I’m seeing friends swap books more often as dollars get tight. I also think the rise of e-books is cutting in on paper book sales. I commute by train, and have noticed a steadily increasing number of kindles on the train with me. Last week I even saw someone with an iPad, I as so jealous.

  4. Romance? I suspect it's underrepresented by your particular readership. I demand more bosoms, preferably heaving, dammit!

  5. My reading is up but my book purchases are way down lately. Part of that is because they built a lovely new branch library two blocks from my house, and free books I can walk to are better than books I have to pay for that I have to get in the car to get.

    But the other issue is that current publishing trends are not really to my taste. Of the fewer than ten books I bought last year, only half of them were recent releases. I've been re-reading old favorites or catching up on older books I hadn't read. I get the e-mailed coupons from Borders and start searching for something to buy, but there just isn't much among the current releases that appeals to me. I'm a fantasy reader who loathes vampires, werewolves and demons, and I prefer light or at least mildly whimsical to dark and gritty (there's a difference between "serious" or "high stakes" and "dark"). That somewhat limits my options at the moment. I guess I'm looking for more escapism than wallowing in darkness, and escapism isn't something publishers are high on right now (or it wasn't in the last conversation I had with editors and agents). If there's very little variety and if you don't like what's available, you aren't going to buy many books.

  6. I have no theory to offer, but I will share how I managed reading during the great recession. First and foremost: Library. Nashua, NH, has an awesome library (better than St. Louis even though StL is almost 4 times the size). I also work across from the Boston Public Library (some place you should visit if you've never been--it'll blow your mind). So plenty of savings there.

    Started buying ebooks. Even though I couldn't afford my nook like I originally planned, I could put B&N's ereader on my Blackberry, so I bought ebook only.

    Third, and really this should be second after the library, I reread books I already owned. (And a few times read books I owned but had never read before.)

  7. i have to say i have no real idea.

    i suspect there is a lot of borrowing/sharing of books (this includes the library) going on.
    also e-books. (& not just Kindle e-books.) (i bought 15 books on my iPhone for 9.99 on some random book app.)
    also Costco, Sam's Club, Walmart -- i've even seen books on random shelves at T.J. Maxx.

    there's no way to account for everything, it seems.

    but people are still reading. in fact, i feel like the explosion of YA has changed.. everything.


  8. People are cutting back on spending in general, so it's hard to say. And in the publishing industry there are so many variables affecting it now, to add to the confusion.

  9. My theory is that the publishers are not putting out the fantasy stories that many of us want. From what I read in the blogosphere there is extreme dislike of anything with a whiff of being cliche, whereas I think there are many readers who grew up loving D&D and Tolkien and want more of the same (as long as it is good, which is the key factor I am not seeing out there). Who is giving us these books? No one. We had Terry Brooks do a couple of decent Shannara books. McKiernan gave us a decent Iron Tower trilogy. Nothing else. If they would publish it, we would come.

  10. How many people are buying books second hand instead of new?