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Why Are Book Sales Flat?

October 10, 2008

Nationwide, publishers have been lamenting the lack of growth in book sales. They’ve been flat to up 3% at best for several years now.  Publishers of newspapers and magazines aren’t fairing much better.  The industry has blamed everything under the sun: the economy, the burgeoning digital world, bad books, poor retail, bad ideas, the Cookie Monster.

But let’s look at one, more basic, possibility: growing illiteracy.

Here’s some stats you need to know (from the June 2008 Report of the National Commission on Adult Literacy):

Of the approximately 222 million adults aged 16 or older living in households or prisons in the U.S., “93 million lack literacy at a level needed to enroll in the postsecondary education or job training that current and future jobs require.”

…Among the 30 member countries of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)…the United States ranks 11th in the percentage of adults with a high school diploma and is the only country where younger adults are less educated than the previous generation.

…Currently, one-third of foreign born adults, and 44 percent of Hispanic Americans, do not have a high school diploma (from their country of origin or in the U.S.). And almost 80 percent of immigrants who have not earned a diploma report not speaking English well. Net international migration between 2000 and 2015 will account for more than half of our nation’s population growth.

30 million American adults cannot read above the 4th grade level.  Another 63 million can’t read above the 8th grade level.

Mainstream publishers print books that 42% of American adults could not read even if they wanted to.  Probably unconsciously, publishers have relied on educators and “society” to create their core customer base: people who read. Their primary customer is a middle class or higher person with at least an associate’s degree. Publishers have benefited from an America that has one of the world’s largest, high-level reading populations. But America also has one of the world’s largest, low-level reading populations.

At America’s current trajectory, vast numbers of the current and coming generations of readers can’t read the kinds of books currently being published and can’t afford them either.

The assumption (or should we say, presumption) that our educational system will “fill in” our base of reading customers is no longer valid. The upshot: publish easier, more accessible, more affordable books, magazines, and newspapers–and become engaged in literacy advocacy-or expect serious declines in the coming years.

If Johnny can’t read, he can’t get a good enough job to earn “family-sustaining wages,” and he sure as heck is not going to buy a book.

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