In celebration of Banned Book Week (go ahead, let your hair down!), I thought I might muse about some good news. Since I already posted on my banned book (Slaughterhouse Five) I need another angle of approach. One of the less envious aspects of being an editor at an academic press is being yoked to facts. Many authors have a basic misconception about numbers in their heads. They think their book will sell on the scale that Barnes and Noble, such as it is, will stock them on the shelves. I have to admit that I dream of walking into a bookstore and finding one of my titles on the shelf—and I know it’s not likely to happen. Those of us who work in publishing see the hard figures, how many copies have actually sold. And the results can be quite sobering.
The news isn’t all bad, though. I ran across an article by Andrew Perrin titled “Who doesn’t read books in America?” and the way the question was phrased made me think. I’m used to thinking of it the other way around: how many people read, or buy, books? I once read that about 5% of the US population constitutes the book-buying market. Now, that is a large number of people, even if it’s on the smaller end of the overall spectrum, but Perrin’s article from the Pew Research Center states that only 24% of Americans state they haven’t read a book, whole or in-part, over the past year. This, I think, is cause for celebration. It means more of us are reading than are not, even if we don’t always finish the books we’ve started.
Think of it like this: whether print or electronic, people know to turn to books for information. Oh, there are all kinds of details I’m leaving out here—the safeguards of a reputable publisher over the self-published manifesto, as well as the self-published brilliant book over what managed to squeak through the review process at a university press because an editor felt the pressure of a quota—but the numbers are encouraging nevertheless. Looked at this way, more people are reading than are not. And the best way to promote books is to suggest they should be banned. That’s why I don’t despair of the shallow books praising Trump—if they’re banned they become prophetic. Academic books, my colleagues, don’t sell as many copies as you might think, even if they’re not banned. The good news is, however, that we haven’t forgotten whence to turn for knowledge.