As I confront what to blog and when, I figured I’d start with a basic question: does anyone really read anymore? Well, if they don’t, I’m fucked. I have all these wonderful, interesting stories in my head, and I need desperately to get them out of there before they drive me mad. I really think I’ll wind up in a straightjacket if I don’t keep writing.
Anyway, back to the point. Do people read these days? Well, yes and no. They read blogs. They read stupid social media posts about nonsense or politics or about what someone ate for dinner. (Spoiler alert: I couldn’t give a shit what someone ate for dinner unless they’re buying it for me.) They read road signs, although they probably just look at the shape.
Obviously, I mean do they read books, either non-fiction or fiction, digital or paper. You know, those things with a lot of words in them that require someone to sit down for awhile and enter someone else’s imagination for a time (although you could be driving, since audio books still count, I believe.) The answer is complicated, so let’s turn to a few statistics. More than 700,000 books were self-published in 2015, while over 300,000 books were published in 2013 through traditional means. Those numbers come courtesy of Bowker, who tracks these things. That means over 1,000,000 books are being put out there per annum, based on these numbers from past years. Meanwhile, the people are given a greater and greater choice of where to spend their entertainment dollar. As a published author, I’m competing with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, and Showtime, just to name a few, all of which have great, well-written shows that I watch myself. Shameless and House of Cards are awesome, though you should check out the original BBC House of Cards on Netflix. I really liked that one as well.
[my blog stalker:] So what you’re saying is we’re all fucked.
Maybe. Here’s some more bad news to throw on the growing fire. Industry sales peaked in 2007 and have fallen ever since. E-book sales spiked from 2007-2012 (I mean, they couldn’t go anywhere but up, since they didn’t exist in any widely available form before then) and now have plateaued. Yes, small bookstores are holding their own, thankfully, yet print books haven’t picked back up as e-books fell. The pie is NOT getting bigger. It’s shrinking. Fiction has suffered more than non-fiction in this decline, though experts will tell you not to draw too many conclusions over such a short time frame as even a decade. This things go up and down and may go trend up again. Let’s hope so.
[my blog stalker:] Okay, so I should slit my wrists already, right?
Not quite yet. There is some hope. But let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. I know people who brag they don’t read. They’ll wait for the movie, they say. (If they only knew what I was thinking when they say this, I might get punched in the face or at least be defriended.) I know other people who read the same genre over and over and over again and never challenge themselves with something new. At least they’re reading. I know one person who says she only reads black erotica. Okaaay. Whatever floats your boat. (I had to look up what black erotica was and found a bunch of images that were pretty descriptive. Let’s just say I stayed on that website for longer than the usual 7 seconds.)
[my blog stalker:] I am starting my game of Russian roulette as I read this.
That’s your call, but you might want to read on. Here’s the answer as to whether anyone reads anymore. (Finally! Just answer the damn question!) I’ll answer that question with even more statistics (oh, God no!) to go with our understanding of the modern reader. As of 2014, as many as 16% of adult Americans state they did not read a single book in the past year, up from 9% in 2010, but that still leaves 84% who read at least one book. And a whopping 49% say they read 6 or more with 21% in the 21+ category. These numbers come from a survey, by the way, to be found on www.statista.com and so are self-reported and estimates. Men read more non-fiction than women, according to the latest polls, while women read more fiction. Young people read more fiction as well, but the older we get, the more we turn to non-fiction. I guess considering that time crunch, we’d rather stuff our brains with as much information as we can before our cognitive abilities start to fall apart and we can’t read at all.
[my blog stalker:] Okay, now your statistics are starting to piss me the fuck off. I think I’ll shoot you instead and end this blog post.
Wow. Don’t do anything drastic. The good stuff is just around the corner, I promise. In addition, the pie, though shrinking, is still HUGE or UGE, depending on your dialect. Total revenue for U.S. book publishing industry stands at $27.78 billion, a figure which fluctuates from year to year, but is up from $26.5 billion in 2008. In 2015 there were about 652 million units (books in any form) sold. When you break down this pie by genre or by fiction vs. non-fiction, you’ll find that the sales fluctuate for identifiable reasons. In 2014 no fiction book sold more than a million copies, but in 2015 four did: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman at 1.6 million, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Grey by E.L.James and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Hence, fiction jumped in sales that year.
[my blog stalker:] Well, now, I’m just exhausted. Numbers give me a headache. Good night.
Good night. So what you write matters. Those who do read, those of us who still fight the good fight, who still require our fix of storytelling, won’t just buy any old piece of crap. Statistics, as always, tend to assume everything is equal. Even when you separate fiction from non-fiction, statistics don’t say a damn thing about whether the book is any good or not. Most of them aren’t. Probably 99% of them aren’t a good story or they’re poorly edited or not edited at all. They’re boring, or the characters are dull. I mean, give me something to chew on, dammit! I don’t have all the time in the world for this story to get going.
The decline of fiction reading overall may partly be due to a lack of creativity on the part of the publishing industry, some experts would say. So what if they are publishing more? More crap isn’t going to equate to more sales. I mean, to paraphrase a movie I love, Tommy Boy with Chris Farley, I can shit in a shoebox and sell it to you. I have time on my hands to do that if you want. It’s still just shit in a shoebox, no matter how I dress it up, and you’ll be pretty pissed when you open it and smell it. (Farley’s character was selling brake pads, but the concept’s the same.) We have to remember we’re competing with the writers of Shameless, House of Cards and all those other wonderfully written shows that are far more entertaining than most of the crap in print. Yes, I think some people would read books, which are far more immersive than TV shows, about the characters in Shameless if someone were to write one. The beauty of books is that they can go back and forth through time within the breadth of a single sentence. That’s power that no TV show or movie can muster. They allow us to enter someone else’s imagination, if only for a time, and actively engage with ideas. That may also be what holds books back. They require effort. Why read, when you can let Kevin Spacey do all the work for you? He can tell AND show you what you should be feeling. All of which leads to the conclusion that the modern entertainment consumer is mentally lazy.
In the end, the name of the game is still the same. As an author, you have to separate yourself from the pack. I read Margaret Atwood, and she writes such wonderful sentences. Her stories are imaginative, though they can be a bit bizarre for some. I’m not a huge Stephen King fan, of his books anyway, but he’s extremely smart and knows his craft well. You don’t have to be a horror fan to admire him. I can see why his fans love his books. There’s just something different about him. Same with Clancy, Crichton, and so forth. They stand out.
That changes the game somewhat. Just looking at statistics misses the point that you–if you want to make it in this business–have to be different. And you have to keep at it. Find material that sets you apart–not an easy task, I know–and then write it to within an inch of your life. To paraphrase Hemingway (from the quote on my site), just sit down at your computer and bleed. Then rinse and repeat.
People want interesting ideas. That’s what sets Clancy, Crichton, and King apart from the rest. They just do it better. They feed the needs of their readers over and over again. As I’ve said before, the high from a well-crafted story beats the hell out of heroine any day. And without the negatives. But it’s hard to compete with a handsome actor with star power.I mean, have you seen most of us? We look bizarrely normal.
I believe it’s called having a face for radio. Or a podcast.