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Some good news from the world of books (and McSweeney's)
This has been an interesting few years for the book industry. There have been many changes and realignments, and these changes have led many to predict that (a) reading is dead; (b) books are dead; (c) publishing is dead.

This has been an interesting few years for the book industry. There have been many changes and realignments, and these changes have led many to predict that (a) reading is dead; (b) books are dead; (c) publishing is dead; (d) all printed matter is dead. Or that all of the above, if not already dead, will be dead very soon.

The good news is that there isn't as much bad news as popularly assumed. In fact, almost all of the news is good, and most of it is very good. Book sales are up, way up, from twenty years ago. Young adult readership is far wider and deeper than ever before. Library membership and circulation is at all-time high. The good news goes on and on.

But still, perceptions persist that in a few years there will be no books printed on paper. That e-readers will take over the industry, and perhaps soon after, some other trend will kill books dead.

Sales of e-books still represent a small percentage of the overall book market. Depending on who's counting, the portion of the market is between 8% and 10%. When Amazon reports that their e-book sales are now larger than their paperback sales, it's easy to extrapolate this to encompass overall reading trends. But that would be a mistake. Amazon is an internet company, and it follows that their sales would favor electronic delivery of text. They are but one of many ways people get books, and the ratio of printed books to e-books changes drastically with each venue.

Even with the rise of e-books, and the struggles of some bookstore chains, all the anecdotal evidence we knew pointed to the book industry being on solid footing. But we wanted proof, so back in May of 2010, amidst some of the most dour prognostications about the state of the industry, we asked fifteen or so young researchers to look into the health of the book. Their findings provide proof that not only are books very much alive, but that reading is in exceptionally good shape—and that the book-publishing industry, while undergoing some significant changes, is, on the whole, in good health. Let's start with some bedrock data that disproves any statements that the industry is in freefall. According to Nielsen's BookScan—a sales-monitoring service widely regarded as representing 70 to 75 percent of trade sales—Americans bought 751,729,000 books in 2010. Excepting 2008 and 2009, when sales reaches 757 million and 777 million, respectively, that's many millions more books sold than in any other year BookScan has recorded. (Five years earlier, in 2005, the total was just 650 million.)

The decline from the all-time high of 2009 can't be overlooked, but it's worth remembering—in 2010, in the middle of a crippling recession, with unemployment in the double digits, people still bought more than 750 million books. (In all likelihood, quite a few more, considering BookScan's tendency to underestimate.) In fact, we're at an all-time high in just about every category and every measurement. Here are some examples, with each statistic using the latest available figures:

• In 2008, there were more original book titles published in print than ever before: 289,729 different titles in the U.S. alone.

• In 2007, there were more U.S. publishers than ever before: 74,240 (that's compared with 397 in 1925). This figure has been rising every year since the data has been collected.

• In 2005, there were more published authors in the U.S. than ever before: 185,275 (compared, for example, with eighty-two in 1850).

• In 2008, the last year complete numbers are available, overall revenue from book sales in the U.S. was at $24.255 billion, down just a tick from $24.959 billion in 2007, the all-time high.

• Adult literacy in the U.S. is also at an all-time high: 242,895,000 adults (98 percent of the adult population) were considered literate in 2010.

• Library membership in the U.S. is at an all-time high: 208,904,000 Americans held library cards in 2009. (That's 68 percent of the population, the greatest number since the American Library Association began keeping track in 1990.)

• Library circulation is at an all-time high: 2.28 billion library materials were circulated in 2008 (that's 7.7 circulations per capita) compared to 1.69 billion in 1999 (6.5 circulations per capita).

Today and in the next few weeks, we'll take on every facet of the book world to provide as much information and data as we can. We'll also address concerns and arguments that you might have already made about the numbers cited above.

Today we address three topics in depth:

The state of libraries

The state of book production

The state of global literacy

Look for more articles and information tomorrow and in the days to come.

We want to thank John Knight for overseeing the project and all our researchers for their hard work.

Source: McSweeney's