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« Straight Boys, Gay Tastes | Main | Book Sales vs. TV Viewship Redux »

November 06, 2003

Book Sales vs. TV Viewership

Dear Friedrich --

A comparison between sales of a best-selling novel and viewer numbers for a failed TV show.

Total hardcover sales in 2002 for Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," widely considered a mega-hit: 1.5 million copies. (Your average published novel-writer is thrilled to sell 20,000 copies of a new novel.)

Total viewers for the debut of Fox's series "Skin": 6.3 million viewers ("dismal," according to the WSJournal). A few weeks later, only 4.1 million viewers tuned in, a figure considered so low that Fox has canceled the show.

Maybe it's just me, but I find it useful to remind myself of this kind of thing occasionally. Puts things in perspective, makes me feel my head's screwed on a bit tighter, etc.



posted by Michael at November 6, 2003



I am tired and dim tonite. Explain to me what perspective this comparison gives you? A bad TV show that fails and a bad book that sells....where are you going with this?


Posted by: Deb on November 6, 2003 10:56 PM

Sorry if I'm having an off night. We readers tend to overestimate how important and popular books are. My point here was just that even a novel that's a phenomenal bestseller can't begin to compare in terms of reaching an audience to a flop TV show. You probably haven't seen "Skin" and I certainly haven't. And it's already off the air. But even so, more people have seen it than have read the bestselling novel of 2002. That's all.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 6, 2003 11:02 PM

I think books can still be considered "important." They're just not consumed or produced on the same kind of scale. They're a more personal type of enjoyment.

I wonder, if you compared the ratio of producers to consumers in books and tv shows, what kind of numbers you would get. For example, say an author, editor, and publisher are involved in the production of a novel. I'm sure the actual figure is much higher than three people (forgive my ignorance), but it can't be anywhere as high as the hundreds of names that scroll by at the end of a TV show. Then divide the numbers of sales or viewings by the number of people on the production side. How many consumers has each producer reached?

Interesting to do a similar comparison with dollar amounts. How much money is invested in producing a novel? I honestly have no idea. But what is the cost in fractions of a penny to reach each of Alice Sebolds buyers, and what is the cost for Fox to reach each "Skin" viewer?

I'm not sure it would tell us anything culturally significant, but I can't help wondering. And it might give us some perspective on these two very different media.

Posted by: Nate on November 7, 2003 10:40 AM

Don't forget to compare videogames. They're sold and rented like movies, used exclusively at home, almost always by oneself or with an audience, and the profits are much larger than movies or television or books - but the print runs are similar to books.

Posted by: Courtney on November 7, 2003 11:04 AM

One thing that has bothered me when we talk about books vs. movies or TV as culture is that it seems we are comparing apples to oranges. Books have a very different purpose--they require more time for one thing. And you can read them multiple times for the same cost. Most movies,with some notable exceptions, seem to come and go as fast as the theaters can change the listings and, yeah, you can buy them on video or DVD but realistically, how many times can you watch one without becoming bored. TV is even worse. It's all about a moment of time.

And you are only talking about bestsellers rather than the steadily sold books, like Austen or Dickens, or even genre fiction that never shows up on the "lists" but still moves out of the bookstores on a regular basis.

Does this make sense, Michael?

You are right, I havent seen "Skin." We arent able to get cable where I live in the boonies and except for a shameful addiction to "CSI" (William Peterson-what a hunk!!!!) I tend to watch very little TV at all.

Posted by: Deb on November 7, 2003 11:17 AM

Deb, Nate -- You've both hit on important points. I'm cobbling together a few facts and figures for a new posting on the topic that'll spell out a few things. Will be eager to hear your reactions.

Courtney -- Thanks for the videogame info and input. I'm really only dimly aware of that world (big! big! big!, and that's about it), so appreciate the perspective you're bringing to bear.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 7, 2003 12:13 PM

I think you're overlooking the time and attention devoted to books versus tv shows. If half the purchasers of The Lovely Bones actually read the book, and it takes them an average of 10 hours (just to pick a number out of the sky) to read it, the public has invested... er, um, here comes the math bit... 7.5 million hours of time spent reading The Lovely Bones.

That's still not particularly overwhelming compared to the amount of time spent on Skin, but you also have to take into account the attentiveness of the time spent. It's damned easy to have a tv show on in the background without really paying any attention to it, but it's pretty hard to do that with a book - even something as simplistic as Sebold's.


Posted by: reuben on November 7, 2003 1:12 PM

I find books to be different than t.v. in that reading a book requires an emotional investment. Watching T.V. just requires some chips, a beer, sweats and feeling burned out by the world.

Posted by: iris on November 7, 2003 3:50 PM

Maybe one of the prior posters mentioned this (I don't know- too much reading). But book sales figures don't include the number of people who got the book from the library or borrowed it from friends or bought it from one of the many used bookstores in town. Also, there are a lot more books , both fiction and non-fiction, than there are television shows, so the number of readers will be spread out over a larger "area" than viewers; making book-to-show comparisons somewhat meaningless.

Posted by: Jerry on November 7, 2003 6:23 PM

Hey all -- I'll try to explain in a new posting why I think that despite all your very good points I still think it's valid to compare book sales with TV viewership numbers. Curious to hear your thoughts about it.

Incidentally, I'm not aware that anyone's ever done a study of how many books that are bought eventually get read. But I'd bet you're being a bit optimistic.

New posting now up, by the way.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 7, 2003 6:46 PM

I have heard that about 10% of all the books are read in thier entirety. Many are purchased and sit on a shelf never to be read, or the reader reads the first chapter, looses interest and never picks up the book again.

Posted by: ShipShape on November 9, 2003 12:22 PM

Must admit I've not seen the book, or the show; but I would observe that most of the "ideas" for TV or cinema still originate somewhere in the literary realm, for what it's worth.

Posted by: Alan Sullivan on November 18, 2003 7:03 PM

What I wonder is whether or not reading for pleasure is going to be slowly pushed onto the cultural sideline to a greater and greater extent. Following generations may begin to lose the literary depth and appreciation that was once attained to and as a result become a lot more shallow and unfeeling.
What do ya reckon

Posted by: Ben Timmins on May 17, 2004 6:25 AM

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