Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Grub Street Blues - Cathy Butler

A financial post seems in order, in honour of the Budget – always a nervous time for authors, as for other small businesses.

Apparently, the Chancellor is planning to start issuing us all with personal Tax Statements, showing how the money we pay in tax is divided between the various departments of Government. Serendipitously, I’d been thinking about such matters in any case, ever since an American colleague (in a children’s literature discussion group in a far distant corner of the internet) directed my attention to this sobering diagram showing the spending patterns of the average American family. (If you want to see the thing full size, click here.)

It’s an interesting chart in several ways, but the part that captured my colleague’s attention – and mine – was the pitiful proportion of the average family budget that was spent on ‘Reading’ - just $118, or 0.2%. To put this in perspective, this is 22 times less than is spent on eating outside the home ($2,668, or 5.4%), or on ‘Entertainment’ ($2,698, also 5.4%).

Now, it’s not clear that the figures would be exactly the same for the UK, though I suspect they wouldn’t be very different. It may also be that some book purchases are hidden away under ‘Education’. Just possibly people are reading a lot, but doing it at the library (I wish!). But even making reasonable allowances for all these, it seems clear that literature looms small indeed in the average household budget – somewhere between Tissue Paper and Loo Roll.

Of course, that’s a depressing meditation for authors. In addition, the royalties from that $118 are distributed far from evenly: I suspect that a good 80% go to the top 20% of authors, leaving the rest cadaverously thin pickings. Equally, I suspect that they come from an equally small proportion of readers – the readers of this blog, for example – who splash out far more than 0.2% of their income on books, but are dragged down by the majority who spend little or nothing at all. For this reason, there’s little point in my exhorting you all to go out and Buy Books, because you’re probably doing it anyway.

However, feel free to harangue your neighbours about it. And tell them I sent you.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that dividing ‘Reading’ from ‘Entertainment’, as this chart does, makes total sense these days. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, contributing to the same discussion, pointed out that from the point of view of many younger readers literature is now just part of a wider social experience:

It’s not enough for me to read a novel anymore. I have to run straight to the ‘Net to find out what people are saying about it. That’s changed since my childhood. I also have to post my opinion on the book on Facebook. But as a child who treasured my books more than anything else in the world, I learned to let it sit in my head like a great secret between me, the page, and the misty author “somewhere out there.” It was like I had this private world that was a protective force field against the woes and mundanity of everyday life... a place just for me.

We may – and I do – regret that vision of the book that sits privately in one’s head ‘like a great secret’, but if Ebony’s right the Tweeting Generation is still enjoying literature in its own hyper-social way, and doing so enthusiastically. I don’t claim that this shift in the way books are enjoyed explains the small amount actually spent on them, but if people are busy discussing the last book they read on their blogs, posting reviews on Goodreads, Librarything and Amazon, talking about it on Facebook and Twitter, responding to it via Youtube videos, composing fan fiction, and so on, when will they have time to buy anything new?

On the whole, I’m not sure whether that’s an encouraging reflection or a depressing one, but at least it suggests that the appetite for stories is alive and well, even if it’s not being transmuted into gold in the pockets of their authors.


Stroppy Author said...

That is a depressingly low proportion, Cathy! I feel I need to go away and analyse my own spending now, though, as in years when I'm poor my spending on books is low and in years when it's good, I buy more books. But certainly more on books than meals out! I wonder, though, whether the percentage is very different in good and bad years? It might be the same proportion of the disposable bit, but the disposable bit is a lower proportion of the whole...

Susan Price said...

I'm off to harangue my Sun reading neighbour, Cathy - and I will tell him you sent me.
I've never stopped to wonder what proportion of my income I spend on books, and I'm too mathematically challenged to work it out (thought Davy might do it for me) - but it's A LOT.
And if people are enjoying books socially, then they will read more, because people have a strong motivation to repeat that which they enjoy - which explains for a lot.

Susan Roebuck said...

That's really interesting. I'm not surprised about housing and transport, nor food. But reading is HALF the amount of tobacco?? Amazing. In my household I think the amount spent on books is more than food!!! (Mind you, I suppose we're forgetting borrowing from libraries which isn't reflected in the chart, of course).

catdownunder said...

We spend far more on books than we do on "entertainment" of other sorts. This may have something to do with the fact that, being on a limited income, we prefer to actually have something to show for the money we spend and then spread the pleasure out by savouring a book rather than seeing a film which is over and done with in a couple of hours!