by Erin Mitchell
On April 4, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released their latest survey, which focuses on e-reading habits, but also contains this little nugget (as reported in the Huffington Post, emphasis added):
19% of respondents aged 16 and over said that they hadn't read a single book in any format, over the previous 12 months - the highest since such surveys on American reading habits began in 1978. If this figure is accurate, that means more than 50 million Americans don't read books at all.
Just let that sink in for a moment. 50. Million. Americans. Don’t. Read. Books. Not on paper or screen or stone tablet. Not anywhere.
Now, applying American literacy rates to this, we have to assume that some of these 50 million can’t read. Which is horrifying and shameful for the world’s most powerful country, but true nonetheless. Even so, this means that there is an enormous population within the great United States who have yet to find a story they’re interested in. Which means the market for your book—any book—is enormous.
Then on April 12, Publisher’s Weekly reported details of Book Expo America’s Consumer Day, aka, the effort on the part of organizers Reed Business Exhibitions to make more moolah. A cynical view? Perhaps, but here’s my issue (again, the emphasis is mine):
A maximum of one thousand consumers, wearing Power Readers badges, will be able to attend. They will be able to purchase tickets at local booksellers, the New York Public Library, and publishers.
Ok, so, first of all, these badges are available only to those who can afford them, which, by definition, gives them an air of elitism. Which runs contrary to the ethos of reading. I, as a reader, can access the exact same stories as any of the country’s bazillionaires. I pay the same price for a book as they do. Books aren’t gadgets, where the privileged have access to better ones than us regular folk.
And then…Power Readers? So, if I can’t afford a BEA badge, I’m less of a reader than someone who can?
But really, the point here is that shouldn’t BEA, as a publishing industry event, be as concerned with at least a few of those 50 million folks who don’t read as those who do? Wouldn’t it make more sense to create a part of a day where people who don’t read are specifically invited, with the goal of helping them discover a story they’ll love?
I get the idea of talking to the top of the pyramid in the hopes of influencing the masses at the foundation. But if I’m a publisher and I’m promoting my titles at BEA, and I’m wanting to tell Power Readers about them in the hopes those Powerful Ones will help me spread the word, surely it’s insulting and exclusive to ask them to pay for the privilege?
Publishers have shown some balls this week by standing up to the venerable Department of Justice. I respect them for it. I would respect them even more were they to say to Reed Business Exhibitions, “Hey, we understand that this is a business for you. But we want to reach readers—both those who are already avid and those who haven’t picked up a book for a year. So we’ll spring for the badges if you remove the word ‘Power’ from them.”
Just a thought.