Suspend Your Disbelief

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Do Americans Spend More on Books or Movies? Conventional Wisdom Is Often Wrong.

Closed Borders

Image credit: Flickr - The Ewan

Borders filed for bankruptcy on February 16, and the bookselling behemoth will be pulled from the New York Stock Exchange today, March 21. This collapse of the second-largest bookseller in the U.S. hangs like a pall over the entire book industry. Just as the growing interest in digital reading devices has led some pundits to cry that the “death of books” is nigh, some would have us believe that the Borders book bungling is representative of the entire book industry.

So how healthy is the bookselling industry really?

On the day Borders filed for bankruptcy protection, Publishers Weekly put numbers to how much Borders owes just some of its top debtors:

Publishers are now on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, led by Penguin Group (USA) which is owed $41.1 million, followed by Hachette at $36.9 million, Simon & Schuster at $33.8 million, Random House at $33.5 million, and HarperCollins at $25.8 million.

But while that news demoralized many, on February 15—just one day before Borders declared bankruptcy—Publishers Weekly ran a very brief and very different news clip: “Bookstore Sales Fell 1.4% in 2010.” Citing preliminary estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, the article reported that the total bookstore sales for 2010 equaled $16.50 billion. Yes, that’s billion. So while the headline seemed ominous, it could well have read: “Bookstore Sales Hold Steady, Slip Just 1.4% in 2010.”

For the record, the “total bookstore sales” included anything and everything that might go past the register at a book store, including calendars, greeting cards, notebooks, magazines, digital reading devices, and more. But to put all this in perspective, according to several sources, the movie industry pulled in $10.65 billion in ticket sales last year. That’s just about $6 billion less than 2010’s bookstore sales.

reading @ the movies

Image credit: Flickr - Susan NYC

Wouldn’t conventional wisdom have us believe that far more Americans visit movie theaters than bookstores? Aren’t we inundated with pundits bemoaning the death of books and reading in America? The data, however, just doesn’t support such claims.

The national perception about books and reading might actually begin to change if publications such as Publishers Weekly begin publishing less melodramatic and more honest headlines such as “Bookstore Sales Outpace Movie Ticket Sales By Nearly $6 Billion.”

In the meantime, what are writers themselves going to do to demand that this self-perpetuating cycle of negativity be broken?


Joshua Bodwell

Joshua Bodwell is the editorial director at David R. Godine, Publisher and Black Sparrow Press in Boston. He served as executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance for nearly a decade. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in magazines and quarterlies such as Ambit (London), Glimmer Train’s Writers Ask, Poets & Writers Magazine, Threepenny Review, and Slice. His journalism has garnered awards from the Maine and New England press associations. He was awarded the 2015 Marianne Russo Award from the Key West Literary Seminar. (Photo Credit: Curt Richter)

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