Does anyone still read books?

Australian writers are being assailed on all fronts at the moment. The government is keen to change the rules about whether bookshops can buy their books from an overseas publisher, rather than having to go to an Australian publisher. This has the Australian Society of Authors and many others super-riled.

Proposed changes to copyright are also freaking out a lot of writers and publishers. And of course there’s the cutback in government money for writers and publishers, with some people saying this is by far the biggest deal for those who create non-mainstream books.

I’m not an expert in the economy of book publishing – I barely understand the economics of my own book-creating situation – but it seems reasonable to think none of this will make it any easier to get a book written, published and sold in Australia. But it also all seems a bit beside the point, because the thing is even if the government was crying out to fully subsidise all our writing and publishing efforts and we could churn out OzLit by the bucketload, no one wants to buy it or read it.

Have you seen Roy Morgan’s latest polling on rates of reading among kids and adults in Australia? Apparently the kid stuff is good news, but I don’t care – I don’t write kids’ books and by the time they’re old enough to read my books I’ll probably be dead. But take a look at those adults figures. In the last three months, nearly 40% of Australian sheilas over 14 years old did not read a novel. They didn’t even have a go. And fewer of them had picked up a book than last time Roy asked ‘hey, what are you reading?’.

Blokes? Nearly 60% of them did not read a novel in the last three months.

This is not a line of people waiting to get my new book (Image by Ricky Brigante)

It’d be interesting to know what the figures were for the last year – I don’t imagine they’d be much more encouraging. If you don’t think ‘I wouldn’t mind reading a novel’ even once in three months, why would you think it ever?

It would also be really interesting, of course, to know what kinds of novels people are reading, and how often those in the ‘reading’ group pick up a new book. Given only 16% of Australian adults had bought a book in the last month, the figures among reading folk probably aren’t that high. And I’m guessing a lot of the novels that do get read are written by a small group of bestselling authors, most of whom are overseas, and that another fair chunk is books that have been out forever that people have finally got around to reading (maybe because someone just made the book into a movie).

As a loose guide, Booktopia’s ten best-selling adult fiction books for last year were (biggest-selling first) Go set a watchman, The girl on the train, Grey, The girl in the spider’s web, The lake house (Australian), Make me, A little life, Island home (Aust), The secret chord (Aust) and either Isobelle Carmody’s Australian The red queen or Michael Connelly’s The crossing, depending on whether you reckon Carmody’s work is for adults.

From which I conclude that the vast majority of Australians could not care less whether I ever finish my work of historical-science-fiction set on a shipwreck because they do not intend ever to read it. What’s more, if they don’t I shouldn’t feel miffed, because they were quite clear up-front that novels just aren’t really a thing they’re into, thanks very much.

So why does anyone bother writing? Pretty much no one wants to read books. There is no demand for books. No one is standing outside the bookshop door going ‘I’ve read all these! When is a new one coming out???’

There certainly isn’t any demand for Australian literary fiction. The Australian government doesn’t care if Australians keep writing and publishing books. And specifically, no one cares if my book ever gets finished or published.

I guess you do it, as David Lynch apocryphally said, for the doing. It’s good to be reminded now and again.


20 thoughts on “Does anyone still read books?

  1. But Jane, how do you think all those indie bookshops that stock literary fiction like Readings and Gleebooks, make a profit if no one is reading those books? And all the small Aussie publishers who publish the majority of litfic in this country? How do they stay in business if no one is reading their books?
    I think you’re being unnecessarily pessimistic… sure there’s probably not a lot of obsessive readers like me but lots of people only read when they’re on holidays, so those figures might be skewed by the timing of the survey. This survey flies in the face of daily evidence: you’re a user of public transport too, well, every time I take a train I see people reading, reading, reading. In the doctor’s waiting room today out of about 15 people, half a dozen were reading books and three of those didn’t have Big Gold Letters on the cover!
    Ok, maybe it’s overseas books that are best sellers, so yes, expecting to be able to make a living as a writer is probably just as difficult a dream as it always has been. After all, for most of publishing history it was people who had an independent income who wrote books. But a book doesn’t have to be a best seller to be a success unless financial success is how you gauge it. Sure, it’s a tough gig, especially if you want to write interesting purposeful books instead of predictable pap. But your book is rated 4 stars at Goodreads and there are 475 reviews, which is surely not all the people who read it, just the ones who could be bothered listing it and rating it at GR.
    I think that in the current political climate you can expect to see a lot of doom and gloom about the industry because people think it bolsters the campaign for government support. I’m not sure that it’s a good strategy, but whatever, don’t succumb to the pessimism. Those terrible average figures about how little authors earn includes authors like me who published their books 20 years ago and the royalties ended about a decade after that. They also include people who self-published terrible books that nobody wants to read or buy. It was a badly designed survey, as most surveys involving self-selection for participation are. It was designed IMO to make things look worse than they are.
    Everyone said the eBook would kill print, and they were wrong. I think they are wrong about the future of Australian publishing too.

    1. >But Jane, how do you think all those indie bookshops that stock literary fiction like Readings and Gleebooks, make a profit…
      Graeme Simsion!
      I’m actually not that gloomy – I think it’s a good thing to remember: the deck is utterly stacked against you, no one said you had to live life this way, and even if you get ‘success’ you probably won’t enjoy it, so write because you love to write. Just for itself. Try not to get caught up in all the other stuff (it’s almost impossible not to). I’m really loving writing at the moment.
      The system does seem a bit broken though. It will be interesting to see how the sharing of bookish content develops over the next decades.
      I think your train line is more bookish than mine. We usually get about three paper books per carriage, and about the same number of kindles, maybe a few more. Then phones, phones, phones, some of which are probably being used to read books.

      1. LOL inner city short trips v outer suburban long ones! A peak hour train is standing room only by the time it comes from Frankston in to where I live in the middle suburbs. People coming from Frankston have an hour to kill, I have 30 minutes. Of course we read!

  2. Jane, I love your books, don’t stop writing! And everything Lisa said! Plus, I’m not on goodreads so there’s one more reader and one more review (of each book). You’ve got me all excited now so at least don’t stop until I’ve found out what happens on the SF shipwreck

    1. Oh I’m not going to stop writing: I love writing! The challenge is separating myself from the idea of publishing and selling books as vital parts of the package. And to stop feeling overlooked. Of course I’m overlooked: look at the state of Australian book publishing!

      1. Hopefully my regular ‘Fitzroy black’ jeans & t shirt will get me thru the clothes side of things. As for writers and readers of Literary fiction, I think that has always been a minority pursuit. It seems to me writers have always had a second gig – writing for the Women’s Weekly, lecturing or whatever, and I guess that is doubly so now that Libs are using arts grants for their own peculiar patronage.

      2. See, I am hopeless at clothes. I did not know that there’s such a thing as ‘Fitzroy black’. Southern suburbs black is almost certainly a silent giveaway to those in the know that I am not doing it right. Oh dear…

  3. I am hanging out to read your new book, so get on with it. And I don’t overlook you, partly because you are taller than me.

  4. I think … no, I know, how easy it is to get *concerned* about the lack of book-buying etc that goes on and how effectively publication and its aftermath can corrode self-esteem. Until fairly recently, I was in a “fuck writing” mindset, as if self-sabotage was the best way forward: Hey, look at me, I’m not even writing, so you couldn’t read me even if you wanted to. But, Jesus, what’s the point of that? Writing, the actual clakalakalaka of the keyboard, the soft glare of the screen, the ideas, the problem-solving, the sudden, elusive bursts of fluency, and the ongoing/boring/obsessive/thinking-in-the-shower aspect of getting a project right, *your* specific project, and your specific right – that’s the only part you have any control over which, in my case, is a blessing because it’s the only part I actually enjoy. Creating because you want to, because you have to, is its own reward.

  5. It’s so funny Jane, I see the number that 60% of women over 14 have read a book in the last few months and think, wow! That’s excellent! More women read a book than didn’t! Maybe my bar for optimism is too low.

  6. Darling Jane, have you taken your happy pills? I think you ought to. Just one? No? Ah well. Look, it IS all doom and gloom if you look at the numbers. More people probably enjoy a spot of sex with stuffed animals than a good book now and then.

    But, do you know what? I think we’re not writing for hoi polloi. We’re not writing for readers who don’t care about ideas, or stories, or sentences or words. There ARE people who don’t read hardly at all. And those who read only occasionally, and then only books that are pappish and faddish and shittish. But I’m not writing for them.

    I’m writing for the girl I was, and the woman I’ve become, and the sister I love, and the friends I adore. For smart, difficult, insightful, rigorously intelligent, humble, witty, passionate, intelligent folk who love books, and for whom anything I write is just one more sentence in the great conversation we’re having with each other. And that has to be enough. That, and what Paul said: the delicious, luscious, surprising RUSH of writing. When words and stories come charging through you like bliss. When the tea goes cold cos you’re inside the words. When hours pass and your arse is numb and your clothes need washing and you stink like the washing that should have been hung out yesterday because the writing has you wrapped in its arms. Yes that.

    The rest is business. I’m not in business.

    (Which is why I have a day job, and pay myself to write. Cos nobody else will.)

    1. ‘The rest is business. I’m not in business.’ Yes, exactly. But y’know, there are times you can slog away trying to find the quick win, the right connection, a panel you should be on, a blog-hop you should join, whatever…. Looking at figures like this kind of make me feel better, like there’s no point worrying about all that because your chances are next to nil. Just do the writing. Which, yes, is also why I have a day job and pay myself to write. It’s the best way for me too xxx

      1. I was thinking overnight about this, and just wanted to say my own ‘yes, but’. Of course as writers we’re engaged in some kind of business. And if we didn’t think about that end of thing at least occasionally, we’d be doing a disservice to our publishers, and booksellers, and all the other people involved in the business end of the book culture.

        I do constantly want to argue that book culture is not just, or not only, a business. And that people within, and critics of it, need to be mindful that we are not producing and selling something of purely or even of mostly economic value. This is why it’s easy for a capitalist culture to cut funding to the arts: because it costs money, and that’s easy to calculate, but despite the ways in which we can demonstrate that the creative arts sector generates income, it’s difficult if not impossible to put a financial value on, say, the production of a single novel or anthology, that doesn’t show that actually a lot more capital goes into producing a book (labour, especially) than it might usually be expected to generate in the economy. BUT that’s the problem. We don’t, either individually or collectively, make art in order to prop up the economy. Any more than we play sport in order to prop up the economy. And we don’t fund sport because it’s good for the economy; we fund it because as a culture we largely recognise that sport is a good thing. Weirdly, we don’t (‘we’ as in Australia as a political nation-state) don’t largely recognise that art is a good thing. The the practice and production of art can be both amateur and professional, hobbyist and excellent, and that fostering both can be part of fostering a robust, healthy, happy population of individuals.

        I mean, we often hear arts folk (well, I often hear) complaining about the fact that sport gains an enormous amount of government support, at national and state levels, as if they’re getting the support we should be getting. But I suspect there’s a different argument to make here: that sport and art are very similar in some ways. They aren’t economically necessary to the economy. And they aren’t necessary in the way that health or education or infrastructure spending are necessary. But they are necessary to the wellbeing of people in other ways. To community building and experiences of pleasure and belonging and admiration and celebration. And if we valued art in the same ways that we valued sport in Australia — if we funded, promoted and supported it via funding, for example, and by the way we teach our children about it in schools/make it part of our curriculum, then we would grow a nation of people with a more balanced idea of why arts funding is necessary and important.

        And … shit. Rant over. Sorry! I need coffee and clearly needed to get this off my chest after seeing all the funding cuts this morning.

  7. After fifteen years of selling books to those who do read I have a couple of things to say. Australian readers chase the international bestsellers as much as US or UK readers. We are all part of that herd of bison looking for the next bit of tasty cultural grass (Annie Dillard’s image not mine). There have always been loyal readers of Australian fiction, and all the booksellers I know have (independently of one another) made it their mission to turn their customers into readers of Australian fiction. But Australian readers judge Australian books very harshly – give them one they don’t like and that’s it for the whole lot of us. See, they would say to me, local writing is so a)provincial b) amateur c) not set in New York or London so why should I care? Over the last 10 years I watched novels get lighter and flakier, as if they were all just screenplay treatments wanting for a film to be made – and some of them were. Add to that the rise of the book club and all of a sudden publishing became about book club books and screenplay novels. Literary fiction, where prose stylists hang out and non-realist novels get drunk with one another, is not the maker of a good book anymore – sales are, everyone wants what “everyone is reading” – but as long as bestsellers underwrite literary fiction, and publishers keep championing their literary writers, none of us will be rich, but we will exist. And I’m grateful for that. And I will read anything that Jane Rawson cares enough to write about. So there.

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