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The fourth question about books

Dr. Dimitrij Rupel. (Photo: STA)

By: Dimitrij Rupel

New titles. The British book industry produces 173,000 new titles a year; USA more than a million titles; France 47,500 titles; according to various estimates Germany between 70,000 and 90,000 titles. These figures should, of course, be adjusted to the extraordinary reach of English and French: English is spoken by more than a billion and 350 million people, and French by around 300 million. Especially books in English have a huge market available. British books are sold in the US, Canada, Australia…, American practically everywhere. The one-year book production in Slovenia amounts to around 4,000 books. (There are actually between 2,500 and 3,000 books on sale.) Let’s say there are about 1,000 titles per million Germans, and the same number applies to France. The figures given, of course, do not speak of reading habits, of the differentiation of the reading audience; on copies, on copies sold, borrowed or read. [1]

Number of copies. In France, the average circulation is around 5,000 copies, in Germany the average circulation of novels is around 4,000, and around 2,000 non-fiction books. According to Miha Kovač, the average circulation in Slovenia is 826 copies. Slovenia produces around 3 million copies of books, or 1.5 book units per capita; German production is about 3 copies per capita, and French 6.5 copies per capita, which is ten times as many as in China.

Consumption of books. Slovenians buy an average of 2 books a year and borrow 3.5 books from libraries. 53 percent of Slovenian citizens do not read books, in Norway 12 percent. In Norway, the consumption of books is three times higher than in Slovenia. Norwegians read 15.5 books a year, Slovenes about 5 books: half of the population none, readers 10. These data are not entirely reliable, as most Slovenian books, at least those supported by JAK, about 280, are published in smaller editions. The average circulation of co-financed books at JAK in 2020 was 540 copies. JAK requires at least 500 copies for literature, 400 copies for the humanities and 200 copies for poetry.

New technologies. In recent years, there have been major changes in the production and consumption of books around the world. In addition to printed books, electronic and audio books are also published. However, international research shows that there are some problems with the production and consumption of books in smaller countries.

All these changes have put small European book markets such as Slovenia, Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Serbia in the position of the last strongholds of traditional publishing models. There are virtually no self-publishers and e-books in such countries. Moreover, among these countries, the main format is still bound book. Nevertheless, the number of titles is growing everywhere, average circulations are shrinking, and earnings are declining. As a result, the role of public money spent by governments on promoting domestic book production as a means of national cultural identity is becoming increasingly important. [2]

The fourth question. Circulations in Slovenia are mostly low, due to the relatively low willingness to buy and read books. Only one percent (survey participants, say citizens) buy more than 20 books a year, which means that we are dealing with a small number of people who have a library at home or the need to collect and reuse books, pass them on to family members, friends, etc. If we take into account purchased and borrowed books, there are about 5 of them per capita in Slovenia, and about 10 per average Slovenian reader. In the countries north and west of Slovenia, the numbers are higher, in Norway as much as three times. In addition to general cultural and moral issues (do we consider reading to be a value?), other important questions arise in relation to this information:

  1. Is it possible to measure intellectual competence by the number of books read? Is the intellectual ability affected by the quality of reading (in-depth reading)?
  2. Is the increase or the decline in the number of students/intellectuals associated with the increase or the decline of reading?
  3. Can we expect a decrease in the number of competent/top intellectuals with the declining consumption of books? [3]
  4. How can it be possible to encourage greater and better consumption of books, which are not in short supply in Slovenia?

While the first three questions can be answered in the affirmative, the fourth is much more puzzling and challenging. The answer to it is related to the general cultural atmosphere in society, to the articulation of the literary environment, e.g., with critical monitoring of book production, and above all with the school system, with the readiness and attitudes of teachers and professors. If the reader, for one reason or another, knows only a small number of books, he, of course, cannot be aware of the diversity of the book offer and the possibilities of the spiritual adventures that reading offers. The lack of reading culture will sooner or later give the impression of a lack of supply, and we will find ourselves in a vicious circle. Random or limited selection can lead to frustration with reading and reduce demand for books, which can lead to lower production, lower quality publishing programmes and lower circulations. In the absence of systematic criticism and promotion of quality, how should we choose interesting books and correct the impression of their uninteresting nature?

We read good books with pleasure and cannot put them away until we have read them. If – for example, in relation to contemporary literature or the supply of non-fiction – the reputation of uninterestingness and boredom spreads, such a mood may affect many negative processes that will affect publishers, authors and, indirectly, readers. We often hear and read critical remarks about un-democracy and complexity (“non-transparency”) in relation to these processes. In culture, and especially in the arts, quality/professionalism takes precedence over democracy. This question would be a suitable material for an interesting book. Would you read it?

Dr Dimitrij Rupel is a sociologist, politician, diplomat, writer, playwright, editor, publicist and former foreign minister.

[1] Figures are generally available online, otherwise I rely on the manuscript of Miha Kovač Results of the KiB survey (Book and Readers) 6 compared to the Norwegian Survey of Reading Habits 2018 and publishing and library statistics.

[2] Miha Kovač and Rüdiger Wischenbart, “Globalization and Publishing”, The Oxford Handbook of Publishing (Edited by Angus Phillips and Michael Bhaskar), Apr 2019.

[3] At first glance, the number of students (for whom reading is compulsory) and the number of intensive readers (more than 20 books per year) match, but two questions arise – the question of the number of intensive readers outside the student population and the credibility of respondents’ answers. When it comes to culture and education, people like to exaggerate, of course upwards.

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