Are books becoming an elite commodity?

Letter from Europe – Book Fair

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Book fair

By Ron Augustin

Book fair performance and publishing statistics seem to indicate that book sales are up in most parts of the world, while at the same time book reading audiences tend to be shrinking in terms of smaller percentages of the (growing) population, and are shifting towards particular social groups.

For the publishing industries in most European countries, the main international trading platforms and showcase opportunities are the book fairs of Frankfurt, London and Bologna. In addition to local events, book readings at bookshop level and the internet, almost every European country has one or more annual book fairs in its capital and major cities, the majority of which are visited by a rather local public even while some professional and non-professional exchanges occur on a more national or international level.

One example is the book fair in Lisbon, an open air event taking place in the summer, with less than 200 exhibitors but half a million visitors over 18 days of its exhibit. With 1,000 exhibitors on five days in May, the Turin book fair draws some 300,000 visitors from the general public. Not far from there, the International Comics and Games Festival at Lucca is (with Angoulemes in France, Comiket in Japan, and ComicCon San Diego in the US) one of the world’s four largest comics trading platforms, with more than 250,000 people visiting the 300 stands scattered over the city for five days in November. This compares to the Frankfurt Book Fair with around 7,000 exhibitors and 280,000 visitors on five days each year, half of whom are book industry professionals.

Belgrade, Bucharest and Saint Petersburg are each attended by around 1,000 exhibitors and 200,000 visitors, while book fairs in cities such as Geneva, Vienna, Rome, Milan, Budapest, Warsaw, Krakow, Thessaloniki, Sofia, Vilnius, Prague, Gothenburg, Kiev, Krasnoyarsk and two in Moscow, each with exhibitor numbers from 200 to 400, draw between 50,000 and 100,000 visitors every year.

With the exception of the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, the international European book fairs are held in March and April, including those of London, Paris, Leipzig and Bologna. This year, in preparation of this sequence, some European publishers of children’s books had already met with counterparts from North America, the Middle-East and China at the Children’s Books Salon organized at the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office on 12 to 14 February.

The London Book Fair

The London Book Fair is largely restricted to industry professionals. It had 1,500 exhibitors this year, and was attended by 29,000 visitors on the three days from 12 to 14 March. The Asia-Pacific exhibitors included 38 from India, 35 from market focus Indonesia, 20 from China, 9 from Japan, and 30 from Korea, Singapore, Australia, Thailand, Taiwan and Pakistan. One of the trends that the London Book Fair is evincing in common with the other main book fairs in Europe is the increased presence of book professionals from Turkey, Russia and Ukraine. Across the UK, around 50 smaller local book fairs for the general public are held every year during spring, summer and Christmas.

In the French-speaking part of Europe, the main book fairs are Brussels, Paris and the International Comics Festival at Angoulemes, all three attended by the general public and industry professionals. Held from 14 to 17 January, the Brussels fair celebrated its 50th birthday with some 600 exhibitors and 72,000 visitors, mainly school classes, while the Angoulemes Comics festival with 250 exhibitors drew 200,000 participants from 24 to 27 January. The Paris book fair took place from 15 to 18 March with 1,200 exhibitors, among whom were half a dozen publishers from China and Japan, and 160,000 visitors.

Increasingly an international fair, at least with regard to Europe, the Leipzig book fair was held from 21 to 24 March with more than 2,600 exhibitors, including publishers from Korea and Japan, and 200,000 visitors. Educational books have been the fair’s main focus for the past few years.

The Bologna Children’s Book Fair

As a professional license trading platform, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair is restricted to industry professionals. This year, it took place from 1 to 4 April with 1,440 exhibitors and close to 30,000 visitors. BCBF managed to attract 236 exhibitors from Asia-Pacific, including 90 from China, 55 from Korea, 30 from Australia and New Zealand, 21 from India, 17 from Taiwan, 14 from Japan, and 10 from Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

From India, 18 publishers and three printing houses had stands at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, as compared to 19 publishers, seven printing houses, nine premedia service providers, two trading companies and one literary agency at the London Book Fair. The London Book Fair International Excellence Award for Literary Translation Initiative went to Tulika Books from Chennai. The children’s publisher was praised for its “ambitious, energetic and inclusive publishing program driven by a real social imperative, to promote multilingualism and give children stories in the languages they speak at home, while resisting the absolute dominance of English.”

More books sold to fewer people

Whereas educational materials and books for children and teenagers occupy the bulk of the European book fairs, several recent studies are pointing at increasingly poor levels of functional literacy among young adults. Among all age groups in Europe and North America, book reading has significantly declined over the past twenty years, both in terms of the number of books actually read and leisure time spent on reading books. Book fair performance and publishing statistics seem to indicate that book sales are up in most parts of the world, while at the same time book reading audiences tend to be shrinking in terms of smaller percentages of the (growing) population, and are shifting towards particular social groups.

Statistics from 2017 released by the UK’s Department for Education show that one in five children in the UK cannot read well by the age of 11. In an international survey of the same year, only 35-40% of 10-year-old kids in most European countries responded that they like reading ‘very much.’

In the US, a nation-wide assessment of educational progress undertaken in 2017 came to the conclusion that only 35% of public school students were at or above ‘proficient’ in grade-four reading. Another report finds that not more than 48% of kids up to 5 years old in the US are read to on a daily basis by their parents or other family members, and that 37% of children arrive at kindergarten without the skills necessary for lifetime learning.

Indians read the most, but mainly online

In India, a survey conducted in 2016 by Scholastic Publishers and research institute YouGov found that around one-third of children in the age group of 6 to 17 read two books a month for pleasure, and only 50% read their class books on week days. Around 85% of parents would like their children to read more, but it was also found that parents’ reading habits significantly influence children’s reading habits. According to a global study by the World Culture Score Index of 2017, India tops the list of countries where people read most, with 10 hours and 42 minutes per person per week. However, this is only an average, and more than two-thirds of this time is spent reading online.

In 2009, the National Book Trust entrusted the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) with a Youth Readership Survey, spread across 199 towns, 207 rural districts and 660,000 respondents in the age group of 13 to 35. Asked to indicate the purpose of reading from a list of options, 46% chose ‘knowledge enhancement’ and 20% chose ‘pleasure’ or ‘relaxation.’ Almost 50% of the respondents agreed that book reading as a habit was declining mainly because of the presence of TV and internet, lack of time and the perception of a poor reading culture. Out of India’s 459 million youth, 333 million are considered literate, of whom only 25%, 84 million, read books for leisure. As much as 47% of these leisure book readers are from urban India and 53% from rural India. Hindi (33.4%), Marathi (13.2%), Bengali (7.7%) and English (5.3%) are statistically the preferred languages for leisure reading.

Non-readers triple in the US

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes the annual American Time Use Survey based on a nationally representative sample of more than 26,000 people. According to its latest report, reading for personal interest in the US has gone down over the past 15 years by 40% for men and 30% for women. Average reading time fell from 23 minutes per person per day in 2004 to 17 minutes in 2017, whereas the average time a person spends on watching TV currently reaches close to three hours a day. The share of adults reading at least one novel, short story, poem or play in a year fell from 57% in 1982 to 43% in 2015. Average reading time declined not only because readers read less but because fewer people are regular leisure readers at all, a proportion falling from 26% of the US population in 2004 to 19% in 2017.

Survey data regularly gathered by the Pew Research Center based in Washington, DC, show that the number of non-readers in the US has tripled over the past 40 years. In 2017, a quarter of the US population had not read a single book. Reading rates are strongly correlated to income and education levels, but also to age and gender. The Center’s statistics for 2017 show that senior managers and students are the best-read group, with 59% of managers and 48% of college students having read five or more books during the previous twelve months. On average, 86% of higher-income adults finished at least one book in any format (print, electronic, audio) in 2017, against 62% in the lower-income range. The results are similar for 92% of college graduates against 40% for adults who haven’t finished high school. In the age range of 18 to 29 years, 84% read at least one book, against 67% for those older than 65 years.

Clearly also, women tend to read more than men. In the US in 2017, 75% of the women and 73% of the men read at least one book, with the average woman reading 14 books in a year, the average man only nine. Assuming that, in the long run, developments in the US are precursors to more global trends, we may wonder whether the book markets of the future will be driven by an elite, that is, a high-income, educated, young, and chiefly female, readership…..

Back in Europe, the next London Book Fair will be held from 10 to 12 March 2020, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair from 30 March to 2 April 2020.

Ron Augustin is the European editor of Indian Printer and Publisher and Packaging South Asia. He can be reached at europeaneditor@ippgroup.in