Books: The final chapter?

If the book business is dying, how come everyone seems to have written or is writing one?

John Irving lamented the state of the book business during an appearance on MPR’s Midmorning with Kerri Miller today.

A few days ago he put it in more stark terms. “If I were 27 and trying to publish my first novel today, I might be tempted to shoot myself,” he said.

Jean-Louis Gassée and Frederic Filloux write today about the downward spiral of the media, and how it should pull itself out by stop giving their products away with — in the case of the book industry — price wars.

The book industry’s health and vigor seem quite related to the degree of regulation. In Germany, where discounts are verboten, there are 2.25 times more bookstores and 31% more new titles per 1,000 inhabitants than in the U.S. Comparing the revenue generated by each new title in each country, we find that the German book market brings slightly more money (+12%) in absolute terms, but four times more when you factor in respective population sizes.

But maybe — as I learned in the post-Midmorning conversation near my cubicle today, people just don’t read books anymore.

You couldn’t tell that by the stack of books from authors waiting to be interviewed in the cubicle of one unnamed MPR colleague:


Thus, the domino effect of the issue. If the book industry dies, radio talk shows will soon follow.

How often do you read a book?

  • I read at least one book a week, if not more. I’m up to 62 for the year!

  • Elizabeth T

    How often do I read? Absolutely every day.

    for pleasure? 5-6-7 days per week.

    How often do I finish a book? Depends on how big they are. If they’re fiction & not too big (~150 pages), I might even read it in two days if I really enjoy it.

    I usually have 2-3 books going at a time.

    One professionally related;

    one just for fun, and

    one for the “I feel like reading, but don’t have the energy left to really concentrate”, which translates to reading something I’ve already read before.


    Infections & Inequalities, Paul Farmer

    December 6, Martin Cruz Smith

    Sharpe’s Sword, Bernard Cornwall

    Mind you – this means 10-12 pages a day on one of them not all of them. 🙂 .. I like reading in bed before going to sleep. Usually the “not much brain power” book. Unfortunately at the moment, I really ought to be reading a bunch of scientific journal articles for my thesis. Not procrastinating by reading New Cut.

  • Al

    I am always reading a book to my daughters. We probably average 30 minutes 3 to 5 times a week. They are 6 and 8, so the books are not usually the most challenging to me, though the language in our current selection, Swiss Family Robinson, is quite a chore. I try to read books to them that I loved or always wanted to read but didn’t, with diversions into the great new authors, like Kate DiCamillo and Jeanne Birdsall. Of course the girls read by themselves now, but for our family reading time I try to stay a level or two more advanced than they can read on their own. I have found that they sometimes go back later and reread our familiy books by themselves.

    Reading to the kids doesn’t leave a lot of time for my own reading, but I read 3 or 4 books a year. I know the day will come when family reading time will come to its natural end. I will then have time to read books more suited to my tastes. That is a day I look to with a mixture or eagerness and sadness.

  • Alison

    //Thus, the domino effect of the issue.

    Was that choice of words inspired by the picture above it?

  • Joanna

    I’m a literature professor, so my answer is not typical. But from my observations (and decades of hearing laments about “the death of the novel/book/reading” etc), I will say that my 15-year old daughter’s friends all read, and read a lot. They read fiction, graphic novels, stuff online, stuff at the library. They exchange books, talk about books, act out stories, dress up as their favorite book characters on Halloween; they love words and stories. They write. Does she have a special group of friends? maybe, but I don’t think they are alone. I think that the book industry is going through an upheaval, but the love of books and reading is, if not universal, as healthy as it ever was. The independent book store is going to be threatened by the big chain discounters, but the turn toward spending locally may help them out; more people are trying to be conscious of where there money goes. And writers may be able to do what muscians have done: market more directly to readers.

  • Jim!!!

    I’m not great at starting and finishing books. If audio books count, I do better. It’s a great way to make use of commuting time.

  • bsimon

    I go through fits and starts. Sometimes I read a book a week, or more. Lately I haven’t been reading books much at all, though with winter coming on that may change. I’m not counting the 4 or so books I read to the 2 yr old every day…

    Al- I hope I can emulate your example as my kids grow into bigger books. That sounds like a great way to spend family time.

  • > If the book business is dying, how come everyone seems to have written or is writing one?

    Too many unemployed writers with nothing better to do?


    Lots of promos from the burgeoning self-publishing biz?

    (all of the above?)

    I’ll just leave you with that, rather than my usual routine. But this has been a big topic for me, having written 1.8 novels now. The first one was good for a few mortgage payments, not any more, and the net hourly wage was well below minimum. The second? Eh, we’ll see what I do differently. There are a LOT of people reading, but there are even more writing right now – it’s a matter of hooking people up with something that really hits them. For most writers, it’s a strange kind of lottery that costs far more than a buck on the SuperAmerica counter.

  • Alison

    Yeah, the self publishing thing can make anyone a writer but not necessarily a good one. The few things I have read from Lulu, a self publishing site, had interesting plots but were clearly lacking a editors. They contained everything from numerous grammatical and spelling errors to main characters being strangely absent in large parts of the book. These would not have made it to press before. In this new age it is harder to tell the good from the bad before you pay for it.

  • Mary

    I read more and more on my e-reader, because it’s so darn convenient to get them and saves me from accumulating ever more stacks of paperbacks. I still buy books on paper if I can’t get them on the Kindle or if it’s by an author I know I want to own everything by.

    Every now and then I dip my toes into the huge and somewhat terrifying world of “fanfic” on the internet. Amateur authors posting stories about TV characters etc that sometimes go places that TV can’t. It makes me appreciate the value of a good editor… But I think it’s the way fiction, at least, is going. I think there are enough people who want to write fiction for fun, and enough ways now for people to get access to that fiction, that it’s going to eventually become almost impossible to make a living as a writer. That’s sad to me (I once dreamed of that life too) but at the same time — it’s already pretty much impossible to make a living as a poet or a painter, hard to break into the rock star business. Still the world is full of poetry and painting and music.

  • Noelle

    I usually have one or two books going at a time, but I’m more inclined to check out a book from the library than actually purchase it. If I do really want to purchase a book, a lot of times I will check since many used ones are listed for dirt cheap and are still in good condition.

    Like one caller mentioned during the program, there’s no reason to pay $15-20 for a book in a bookstore when you can check it out of the library for free.

  • Maureen

    I work in a suburban county library system so I understand I have a biased view on this question, but the fact is that our circulation figures keep rising. I don’t see the end to books and reading (no matter how they are consumed – electronically, audio, print, etc.) coming very soon from where I sit.

  • I read – from a book – almost every day and am not quite as cynical about the book industry as some others who lament the decline of page and ink (although I do make great use of my e-reader).

    Of course, he way we read is certainly changing, but the music industry found a way to survive with the advent of mp3, and the movie industry has managed to survive even though people said no one would go to the theater anymore when VCRs came on the scene.

    Publishers ought to consider that most industries are suffering right now because of the economy; it’s not just them.

    It might seem more difficult to find excellent contemporary literature with major publishers pushing what will sell as opposed to what is good. However, if you know where to look, you’ll never be lacking for something to read, and with collecting becoming ever more popular, “old-fashioned” books will never disappear.