Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On Buying Books

According to a survey commissioned last spring by Random House Inc., 28 percent of Americans purchase between 11 and 20 books every year. The figure is slightly higher for Canadians: roughly one-third (34%) report buying themselves at least one book per month. 36% of non-reading Canadians said they had bought a book as a gift during the previous year.

Not bad for an industry rocked by declining sales, massive layoffs, acquisitions freezes, and severe reorganizations.

But included in the Canadian report is this curious statistic: Proportionately, heavy readers purchase the lowest amount of books.

Let me say that again: The most enthusiastic readers buy the fewest number of books.

With all the talk about the overall decline in reading, one would think voracious readers would be the backbone of the publishing industry. Instead, the relatively small group of dedicated book buyers cited above represent 76% of the total number of books sold; a whopping 70% of the monetary value of all industry sales.

I didn't used to buy books. While we always had great stacks in the house, the books we owned tended to be given to us, or books we picked up at yard sales. Occasionally, we bought one new from a bookstore, but for the most part, if we wanted a book, we went to the library. At one point, I carried six different library cards in my wallet.

Recently one librarian gave me a retired "Date Due" card as a memento: heavy lined stock with two columns -- one to sign your name and the other where the librarian stamped the date the book was due before inserting the card in its pocket in the back of the book. The card shows that between June 1989 and July 1994, my son checked out The Big Beast Book by Jerry Booth 13 times. I remember the librarian telling him that if he borrowed the book 20 times, he could keep it. Apparently, he took her at her word.

The card is a charming reminder of a little boy who loved dinosaurs so much that he repeatedly trekked to the library to check out this and other favorites. But looking at the card now, I have to wonder: Why didn't we just buy the book for him?

It's a good question. Why don't more book-lovers buy books? It may be because buying something that's only going to be used once feels excessive, indulgent. Or possibly the resistance stems from the days when a personal library was the province of a privileged few: when books were rare and expensive, their ownership was treasured. Now that books are available and affordable, their preciousness is diminished.

I started buying books after I began writing them. When my debut thriller sold to Berkley, a number of authors agreed to read my novel with a view to a possible endorsement. In appreciation, I bought their books. I began with paperbacks, then graduated to hardcovers. I quickly discovered I liked owning books. The books I bought felt different, smelled different, than the books I was used to. They were mine. No one had handled my books but me. Reading them, I felt a stronger connection with the author. I wasn't just enjoying their stories; I'd invested in them when I bought their books.

In a few short years, my book-buying habit has become so entrenched that even though I moved to a new city four years ago, I still haven't taken out a library card.

New York Times bestselling thriller author Lee Child says he writes his popular Jack Reacher series to a 4th-grade reading level in order to reach the people who are on the fringes of reading. It pleases him when they say, "Great book! I finished it."

Similarly, the 87 million Americans who bought less than 10 books last year could be said to be on the fringes of book buying. Since my novel published, I've met some of them. I know they're of this group because they begin the conversation by saying, "I bought your book!" as if their purchase was a big deal. And it was remarkable. Not because they can't afford it -- my novel published in paperback, and these are people who commonly spend the equivalent amount on a morning muffin and latte -- but because they're not in the habit.

As an author, I'm grateful for their support. And while I don't say it, as one of the converted, secretly, I hope their purchase marks the beginning of a long and satisfying addiction. If more book-lovers become book-buyers, perhaps the publishing industry's woes will ease, and the 14% who purchase more than 20 books per year -- my category -- will explode the next time Random House takes a survey.


Karen Dionne is the author of Freezing Point, a thriller Douglas Preston called "a ripper of a story," with other rave endorsements from David Morrell, John Lescroart, and many others. Her novel published October 2008 from Berkley Books. For more information about her, go to www.karendionne.net.

2 comments:

Joshua Corin said...

This is a fascinating article, Karen. Mind if I viral it to my blog (with the appropriate approbation, of course)?

Karen Dionne said...

Sure thing, Josh. This piece first published over at The Huffington Post, where it generated a nice bit of discussion. I'm glad you enjoyed it!