Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Decline of the Long Form

Spot the trend: in 1990, the average American read six books a year. In 2004, the NEA found that only 57% of Americans had read a book in 2002. And today the AP released results that found 27% didn't read a book last year. (Polling of this kind should be regarded with some suspicion--there's bias in the question that directs respondents toward more socially-acceptable responses. The 27% has got to be a substantial under-report.)

Worse than the falling rates of reading is the loss of fiber in the reading diet.
The Bible and religious works were read by two-thirds in the survey, more than all other categories. Popular fiction, histories, biographies and mysteries were all cited by about half, while one in five read romance novels. Every other genre — including politics, poetry and classical literature — were named by fewer than five percent of readers. (itals mine)
Here's another statistic that boggles the mind (which I don't have a link to at the moment): 80% of all books published in America sell fewer than 100 copies.* People are reading less, and publishers--an industry dominated by a few giants--are more skittish and therefore less daring in their selections, hastening the problem.

I am sympathetic with the situation. I read far fewer books now than I used to. Until about five years ago, I was reading on the order of 25-30 books a year. This year I'll be very lucky to hit ten. The interesting thing is, I actually read far more than I used to--almost all of it online. I suspect that among literary-inclined readers, this is a common story. The internet has given me access to a huge amount of interesting (and free) material, so I consume a lot more via blogs, online newspapers, and online mags. In the evening, when I would typically have picked up a book in the past, I pick up a copy of the New Yorker or Harper's--about all I have energy for.

I am also a victim of the very decline in which I participate. A few months ago, I received the final rejection on my own novel; Milkweed Editions, one of the best independent publishers in the US, had taken a serious look at it, but declined. It's impossible to know what would happen if I had submitted the book 50 years ago (it may still have found no publisher), but what I learned in this process is that there are scads of fantastic novels available to independent publishers by writers who can't find an outlet. There's an oversupply thanks to the declining demand.

Books won't die out completely. Literature and serious nonfiction will find publication, but it will become an even more marginalized niche market. We're in one of those weird times when it's unclear what exactly will replace them. But it may not be the grim thing we all imagine. When novels replaced verse and movies replaced theater, the reaction was uniformly panicked. The death of art! But smart people aren't going away. Their consumption patterns have changed, but they will continue to pursue high-fiber meals.

Maybe blogs are the new novels.

*After a lazy Google search, I located this blog post that contains the stat and a few other jaw-droppers: Of the 1.2 million books in print in 2004, 80% sold fewer than 100 copies, 98% sold fewer than 5000 copies, Only a few hundred sold more than 100,000 copies, and about 10 books sold over a million copies. It came from a blog, so it must be true.

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