This blog was featured on 06/11/2018
Is It Time to Stop Writing Books?
Written by
Kate Raphael
June 2018
Written by
Kate Raphael
June 2018

The other day on one of my favorite podcasts, a woman told a fairly interesting story about her sister’s murder. The storyteller’s short bio at the end included that she is writing a memoir about her sister.

“Do we really need that memoir?” I thought, uncharitably.

The answer is not necessarily no. And it’s not necessarily yes. Do we “need” books at all? Stories are among the things that define humanity but this idea of mass-producing and preserving them for all time is pretty recent. As I write this, a hundred bots are producing pieces telling us that we need to shrink our stories into fewer characters, or substitute an image or meme for them. A video that went viral a few weeks ago showed dozens of Americans being unable to name a single book. This video, produced by Jimmy Kimmel and his staff, was in response to a survey that alleged that the average American reads twelve books a year, while 25% don’t read any.

Actually, the Pew Research study found that American adults “read a mean average of 12 books per year” which I guess translates to, if you take the total number of books people (say they) read and divide it by the number of adults, you get 12. But “the typical (median) American has read four books in the past 12 months.” Not surprisingly, college graduates and people with incomes over $50,000 read the most (92% of college grads read a book), and people 18–29 read a lot more than people over 30. Presumably parents are not including books they read to their kids. White people read on average a little more than Black, who read significantly more than Latinx; suburbanites slightly more than urban or rural, and women edge out men (though not among those who get paid for reading).

For booksellers, who have been fed a steady diet of dire predictions, these numbers are considered encouraging. For those of us who produce the roughly 350,000 new books published each year, they are sobering. There are roughly 250,000 adults in the country, so each of us could sell eight copies based on the twelve to one ratio. But wait — the Guardian’s Top 100 list for 2017 includes The Guinness Book of World Records and the 2015 Pokemon handbook, as well as several of the Harry Potters (did you know the British edition is called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone? I guess they figured Americans would not buy anything with philosopher in the title). And Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale sold over a million copies. And some people must be deciding to see what the Jane Austen fuss is all about.

Unless the producers of that Kimmel video parked themselves in a corner of Manhattan shockingly scarce in middle-class college grads, people who read between 4 and 12 books in the last year cannot remember even one of them. So we are knocking ourselves out, depriving ourselves of social life and binge-worthy television (I have not watched one episode of “Atlanta”) for the hope that several thousands of our countryfolk will choose our books over Demon Dentist (HarperCollins, 2015, sold 157,000+ UK copies two years after publication) and have no recollection six months later that they even read it.

courtesy Paul Falardeau

So, are we approaching the point where we should stop putting out more books? Save the forest? Tell stories to our friends? Explore new outlets — 44% of Americans, apparently, have listened to a podcast, 80% of them all the way through (though interestingly, 50% say they are “fans” of podcasts; so are people fans of something they have never even heard?).

Are the gatekeepers right that self-publishing has made it too easy for people who don’t know anything about publishing to produce books? Maybe. The editors and agents who say “This won’t sell,” are basing that on real evidence — what readers have bought before. But they have to be risk-averse. Readers don’t. Some of my friends have loved the scarcely read self-published or hybrid books I have turned them onto more than the critically acclaimed bestsellers of the same period. In preparation for a panel I moderated last week, I asked my panelists to send me titles of books they recommend. One panelist’s list included Tell No Lies, my friend Barbara Rhine’s novel about the United Farm Workers, whose Amazon rank at this moment is very close to 2 million. My own first novel, Murder Under the Bridge, miraculously showed up on a recent list of “Radical Noir” on a popular lefty blog.

Was James Baldwin the greatest writer of his generation? I think so, but I have not read the unpublished manuscripts that might be lurking in someone’s desk or basement. So writers, be adventurous readers. Take a chance on someone else’s story, and someone may take a chance on yours.

Kate Raphael is working on her third mystery, which she hopes someone will read. Her second, Murder Under the Fig Tree, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.

Let's be friends

The Women Behind She Writes

519 articles
12 articles

Featured Members (7)

123 articles
392 articles
54 articles
60 articles

Featured Groups (7)

Trending Articles

No comments yet