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40% of Americans read for pleasure

16 February 2004

The US Census Bureau's new Statistical Abstract of the United States contains some comfort for the book world. Perhaps surprisingly, Americans would still rather settle down with a good book than surf the web. 40% of adults said they read books for leisure during 2002, compared to 27% who said they surfed the Internet.

Pat Schroeder, President of the Association of American PublishersThe national trade association of the American book publishing industry; AAP has more than 300 members, including most of the major commercial publishers in the United States, as well as smaller and non-profit publishers, university presses and scholarly societies, said: 'There's something kind of comforting about a book - the texture of the paper, you can dog-ear the corners - it's like comfort food.' Although this conjures up alarming images of people devouring books (and contributing to the overweight figures which the survey also notes - half of American women are overweight, compared to two-thirds of men), there has always been something different about most Americans' attitude to books, particularly paperbacks. It's probably just because Americans have so much more disposable income, but for a long time it's been common to throw out mass markets paperbacks once they've been read, whereas in most other countries even paperbacks are kept or passed around.

As a recent interview with John Grisham in The Star, Malaysia, showed, what a lot of these readers like to read is blockbusting authors such as Grisham. With one hundred million books in print in the US alone, plus his huge number of translated editions, Grisham is a real phenomenon. The standard US first printing for a Grisham novel is now an amazing 2.8 million copies.

The author himself says: 'What I think about is making the best book I've ever written. That's my goal every time.' Veteran Grisham-watchers will know that some of his books are better than others, but his fans don't care. His courtroom dramas pit the little guy against the big guys with their intricate plotting and pacy stories. In a different milieu, similar storylines with a racing background have made the British ex-jockey Dick Francis a consistent bestseller over many years. Many readers like the familiarity of knowing, roughly, what they're going to get. Even if these bestselling authors come in below par from time to time, their fans will still reach for the next new novel. And that's why publishers love the consistency of authors who can mostly be relied on to write the same kind of book time after time.