where the writers are
On Buying Books

According to a survey commissioned last spring by Random House Inc., 28 percent of Americans purchase between 11 and 20 books every year. The figure is slightly higher for Canadians: roughly one-third (34%) report buying themselves at least one book per month. 36% of non-reading Canadians said they had bought a book as a gift during the previous year.

Not bad for an industry rocked by declining sales, massive layoffs, acquisitions freezes, and severe reorganizations.

But included in the Canadian report is this curious statistic: Proportionately, heavy readers purchase the lowest amount of books.

Let me say that again: The most enthusiastic readers buy the fewest number of books.

With all the talk about the overall decline in reading, one would think voracious readers would be the backbone of the publishing industry. Instead, the relatively small group of dedicated book buyers cited above represent 76% of the total number of books sold; a whopping 70% of the monetary value of all industry sales.

I didn't used to buy books. While we always had great stacks in the house, the books we owned tended to be given to us, or books we picked up at yard sales. Occasionally, we bought one new from a bookstore, but for the most part, if we wanted a book, we went to the library. At one point, I carried six different library cards in my wallet.

Recently one librarian gave me a retired "Date Due" card as a memento: heavy lined stock with two columns -- one to sign your name and the other where the librarian stamped the date the book was due before inserting the card in its pocket in the back of the book. The card shows that between June 1989 and July 1994, my son checked out The Big Beast Book by Jerry Booth 13 times. I remember the librarian telling him that if he borrowed the book 20 times, he could keep it. Apparently, he took her at her word.

The card is a charming reminder of a little boy who loved dinosaurs so much that he repeatedly trekked to the library to check out this and other favorites. But looking at the card now, I have to wonder: Why didn't we just buy the book for him?

It's a good question. Why don't more book-lovers buy books? It may be because buying something that's only going to be used once feels excessive, indulgent. Or possibly the resistance stems from the days when a personal library was the province of a privileged few: when books were rare and expensive, their ownership was treasured. Now that books are available and affordable, their preciousness is diminished.

I started buying books after I began writing them. When my debut thriller sold to Berkley, a number of authors agreed to read my novel with a view to a possible endorsement. In appreciation, I bought their books. I began with paperbacks, then graduated to hardcovers. I quickly discovered I liked owning books. The books I bought felt different, smelled different, than the books I was used to. They were mine. No one had handled my books but me. Reading them, I felt a stronger connection with the author. I wasn't just enjoying their stories; I'd invested in them when I bought their books.

In a few short years, my book-buying habit has become so entrenched that even though I moved to a new city four years ago, I still haven't taken out a library card.

New York Times bestselling thriller author Lee Child says he writes his popular Jack Reacher series to a 4th-grade reading level in order to reach the people who are on the fringes of reading. It pleases him when they say, "Great book! I finished it."

Similarly, the 87 million Americans who bought less than 10 books last year could be said to be on the fringes of book buying. Since my novel published, I've met some of them. I know they're of this group because they begin the conversation by saying, "I bought your book!" as if their purchase was a big deal. And it was remarkable. Not because they can't afford it -- my novel published in paperback, and these are people who commonly spend the equivalent amount on a morning muffin and latte -- but because they're not in the habit.

As an author, I'm grateful for their support. And while I don't say it, as one of the converted, secretly, I hope their purchase marks the beginning of a long and satisfying addiction. If more book-lovers become book-buyers, perhaps the publishing industry's woes will ease, and the 14% who purchase more than 20 books per year -- my category -- will explode the next time Random House takes a survey.



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so interesting!

Thanks for these thoughts and figures, Karen Dionne! It makes me think. As a kid, I satisfied my voracious reading habit with a library card, because we could not possibly have afforded to buy enough books to keep me happy. My parents did make sure we had in the house a huge set of encyclopedias and one of those "great books" collections (of which I read all -- and only -- the fiction!). And I remember being in those school book buying programs over the years.

But I started buying books in college, and once I started, I never looked back. I don't buy every book I use as a scholar, of course, but I keep the novels and short stories flowing in, and I do more than my fair share to keep the poetry publishing world afloat. : ) I know it is a privilege -- and one I don't take for granted -- to have most of the books I love at my fingertips, and, like you, I'm utterly grateful to those readers out there who make a point of taking my book of poetry home with them to stay.

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"I started buying books

"I started buying books after I began writing them."

Interesting! As both a cheapskate and a book lover, the library has been my savior. But like you, I increased my buying a smidge when 1) I started tracking my own book sales and 2) my husband started working for a publishing company.

"The most enthusiastic readers buy the fewest number of books."

As a creator of books, my way around this is to specialize in consumable books. I write guided, fill-in-the-blank, answer-this, put-your-doodle-here journals. Hopefully you want to own it so you can write in it and make it your own. My biggest competition is not the library, but probably the internet. But I'm sorry, a website or blog just does not have the same tactile satisfaction or make a very good keepsake. At least I hope not...

Thanks for your post! I was so inspired that I wrote a longer response on my own Red Room blog page. www.marshallbooks.net

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I have at times described

I have at times described myself as a certified bookaholic because I tend to acquire books by any and every means necessary. I have quite a stash now because I worked as a bookstore manager for some thirteen years and took full advantage of my discounts. I don't buy quite as many as I once did largely because I like to spend time with certain books and so am not prone to rush off to the next read. Often that time is spent reviewing the title or discussing it with someone. I know of at least a few others who have similar habits when it comes to books.

author of The American Poet Who Went Home Again
and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts on File)

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I love reading books. And being in Thailand and now on a Thai salary buying books is a luxury, even when I buy paperbacks. I constantly raid my father's stack of books when I go home and often pack very light when I go back to Texas knowing I will need as much of my weight limit as possible for my books that I will bring back. I don't think I will ever go to reading on the portable reading devices offered by a few companies because there is something comforting and nice about the an actual book. Recently I sorted my collection to give away to a charity that one of the embassies run. I would love to say it was purely for altruistic reasons, but the truth of the matter is that I just need more room for more books...