Diagnosis—Big Trouble: The Case for a Reader Creation and Development Board
by David P. Leach
Imagine that the world’s auto manufacturers learned that significantly fewer American teenagers were taking driver’s exams, putting the number of drivers on the road in rapid decline and jeopardizing the future of car sales.
How would the industry react? Pretend it’s not happening? Make more cars? Hope the government and schools would promote drivership?
I may be giving the industry way too much credit, but we know the car companies can get together to ask for a bailout, and I’d bet on their getting together to create a task force that would determine ways to create and develop more drivers.
More specifically, I’d bet on them taking three steps toward this goal:
1. The manufacturers would set aside their competitiveness and declare a crisis. Why? Because a drop in people applying for driving licenses suggests a far larger problem than any one manufacturer can address alone. If the next generation will have fewer drivers, that will hit all manufacturers.
2. As a group, the manufacturers would do whatever was necessary to research and identify both the presenting issues and the underlying societal reasons for the crisis. They would marshal their collective resources to discover what was fueling the decline. A generation of fossil-fuel boycotters? The impact of bicycles and mass transit in urban areas? Lack of access to driver’s education? Increased inability to actually take a test? A rise in general lethargy about getting out of the house? Maybe all that, and more. Whatever the causes were, rest assured, they would find out.
3. Again as a group, they would create and execute an attack plan for addressing problems. They would drill to the root and begin work there. If the problem isn’t the cars, then you concentrate on the drivers. Whatever strategies and assumptions you’ve been employing, consciously or unconsciously, you scrap. Whatever competitive ill will you’ve accumulated over the years, you reverse. You educate; you market; you influence public policy; you do whatever it takes.
Why? Because you have the most at stake. Period. And you wouldn’t complain that you couldn’t afford it, because ignoring the crisis means going out of business.
Books Running on Fumes
For the publishing industry—publishers, authors, booksellers, printers, and purveyors of various kinds—a scenario featuring a decline is not hypothetical. It’s not on the horizon. It’s not even about the next generation. It’s here. Now.
Today, 42 percent of American adults can’t read above an eighth-grade level. (That’s 90 million adults who don’t buy books.) About half of these can’t read English above third-grade level. Generally speaking, people in this demographic group cannot get the education they need to get the jobs they need to afford to buy books.
Currently, one-third of foreign-born adults in the United States, and 44 percent of Hispanic Americans, do not have high school diplomas, either from schools in their home countries or from schools in the United States. And almost 80 percent of immigrants who have not earned a diploma report not speaking English well. Net international immigration between 2000 and 2015 will account for more than half our nation’s population growth.
Today, one out of three young adults drops out of a U.S. high school every year.
A 2007 Associated Press/Ipsos Public Affairs study found that 42 percent of Americans said they read five books a year or fewer than that, and more than half of them read zero books a year.
For the first time in history, America is graduating high school students less educated than their parents. And our world literacy ranking is dropping year by year.
In other words, the real problem of poor book sales is not the absence of great books, the displacement of bookstores, the digital invasion, or the dreaded economy. It’s the decline in readers. If America were creating readers, sales would be following.
We don’t notice the impact of these statistics because America—at one end of the spectrum—enjoys some of the highest literacy rates in the world. The readers at this end of the spectrum fuel our industry. However, the massive population at the other end can’t or doesn’t read.
In our hypothetical scenario, the auto industry’s crisis isn’t car-selling or the demographics of car buyers; it’s drivership. Without drivers, increases in car-selling are moot.
For publishing, the crisis isn’t about reaching the 35- to 50-year-old women who live in homes with combined incomes of over $50,000, watch the Today show, and belong to a particular affinity group. It’s about readership. Without readers, books won’t sell.
Who’s Driving Book Publishing?
All of America falls into one of two categories: Nonreaders and Readers.
Nonreaders fall into two groups:
Can’t-Readers, who have never learned to read, have learning disabilities, or don’t operate in English. Many in this group may want to read but simply can’t without starting over.
Won’t-Readers, who choose not to read. They have the skills, but they don’t share our love of thumbing through a book. Reading bores or scares them, or they prefer other recreations.
Readers also fall into two groups.
Will-Readers, who tolerate books. They read because work or school requires reading. If they choose to read recreationally, they need a killer subject and a quick read. Or they need to read about fixing something—a pipe, a yard, a personal crisis. Format may also affect their choice to read (think lots of pictures). Certainly, they read fewer than five books a year.
Want-to-Readers, who like books. To them, books are necessary for reference, recreation, inspiration, self-improvement, entertainment, gifts, collecting, and more. To these readers, a world without books is like a world without, uh, cell phones.
You don’t need to be smart enough to bust an atom to realize that Want-to-Readers drive the book industry, and that this group constitutes a niche within a niche within a niche. But since no available research can quantify America’s reading habits, we’re left to guess at the ratios. My amateur analysis of the census data and research by literacy advocates suggests that—without including sales to institutions–the book industry sells 90 percent of its books to about 15 percent of the American adult population.
Increasing Readership to Rev Up Sales
The publishing industry must take responsibility for America’s ability and desire to read. Why? Because the publishing industry has the most to lose if it doesn’t, and the most to gain if it does. Waiting for the government or schools to create readers and develop them so they become Want-to-Readers is folly. It will not happen.
Here’s what I think book publishers should do:
Organize and mobilize. No single publisher has the power or resources necessary to deal with changing readership levels in America. Publishers can and should work in their own regions, but because the issue is national and international, we need to form a Reader Creation and Development Board comprised of as many businesses involved in the book industry as it possibly can be. This board should include not only publishers and booksellers but also printers, agents, authors, editors, critics, journalists, and others. It should research America’s reading habits and attack low readership levels. Every publisher should have its own RC&D Department and czar.
The IPBA may be well positioned to lead the charge, working with other industry groups.
Enlarge the customer base. Let’s not keep fishing from the pond of book people. Our sights should be trained on every student in a school, every immigrant crossing our border, every adult who missed educational opportunities the first time around, and every man, woman, and child who thinks what glows in the TV is the eternal fount of entertainment.
The book industry must start making, marketing, and creatively distributing great books to a much-less-interested, much-less-educated reader who may not be sure what all the fuss is about. No publisher can reach them all, but together we at least have a shot at it.
Focus on both key issues of readership—literacy, and reviving reading as an important and entertaining activity. Book publishers should get involved in literacy advocacy, literacy volunteerism, changing the way reading is taught in schools (especially middle schools), and public policy.
And book publishers must penetrate the culture to convey the importance of our products. Reading must have sex appeal, and books must be ubiquitous.
Publishing’s new metrics must tell us, among other things:
Are books gaining market share against movies, TV, and video games?
Are more kids graduating from high school?
Are more books being checked out of middle-school libraries?
Are retail environments that traditionally don’t carry books now carrying them?
Are more kids admiring authors, and not just Hollywood celebrities?
Are Can’t-Readers becoming Will-Readers, and Will-Readers becoming Want-to-Readers?
We won’t know if increased readership is on the horizon until we can track answers to these kinds of questions.
Increasingly, the road to improved book sales is dependent on putting more people behind the wheel of good books. To make that happen, book people like us must work together to rebuild the engine of our industry. For us, for sure, there won’t be a bailout.
David P. Leach is an 11-year veteran of special-market sales at Thomas Nelson Publishing, the seventh-largest trade publisher in the United States. He blogs at consequentialvalue.com; his “somewhat counterintuitive suggestions” for publishers interested in reader creation and development will appear in an upcoming issue of the Independent.