ContentDirector: Read Any Good Books Lately?
A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
Around the time I started working in trade publishing, Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" was a huge bestseller, clocking sales at record rates. I was impressed, and still am, but my thinking on what these numbers meant was altered by the comment of a colleague: "Just because people are buying the book, doesn't mean they're reading it."
And, of course, it's true. Hawking's book was a trendy intellectual purchase. Drop a copy of this much-talked-about dense and brainy bestseller on your coffee table, and guests were sure to gain a favorable impression of your erudition. But speak knowledgably about black holes, quarks and antimatter? Mere ownership of the tome did not such conversations guarantee.
Nonetheless, the sales were significant. We, as an industry, are creating more and more tools as we go along to track sales. Nielsen BookScan, introduced in 2001 and modeled on music industry practices, collects sales data industry-wide, and currently claims to account for 75% of sales. Ebook analytics are moving us toward becoming a data-rich business and are beginning to shift the focus of our data. For example, recent data from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project on "The rise of e-reading" reports not on book sales but on the number of people who say they have read an ebook in the past year.
Another report from early 2009 from the National Endowment for the Arts, "Reading on the Rise," found a "definitive increase" in the number of people who read books. The NEA was heartened to find a reverse in the downward trends they had observed in the prior two decades, enabling them to draw the conclusion that "cultural decline is not inevitable."
These reports are beginning to tell us what we were wondering about the Hawking book: what our customers actually do once they've bought the books. We here at Book Business and you at your corporation or institution are very involved with the business of making books: books for a variety of markets, books in a variety of formats. But no matter their content or platform, they are meaningless if there is no one at the other end of the publishing chain to receive them: our valued readers.