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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: http://www.humanite.fr/livre/salon-...

by Alain Nicolas

Paris Book Fair: The French read less, but still love to read

Translated Monday 24 March 2014, by Kathryn Stedman

A study published on the eve of the Paris Book Fair shows that although reading has fared better than many other cultural pursuits during the economic crisis, and while it remains a highly valued pastime, its practice is on the decline.

“French people don’t read anymore”. “Technology is killing the book”. “People don’t value reading as much as they used to”. In recent times such phrases have become so hackneyed that they no longer require validation. Moreover, they seem to corroborate statistics on the performance of the book market, which everyone agrees is modest at best. Whatever their differences of opinion, sources agree on one point at least: the book market is entering its fourth (or fifth, for the more pessimistic among them) year in decline. Is this the result of a long-term trend? Institutional changes? Or is it a phenomenon linked to the current economic crisis?

The study, in which 1,013 participants aged 16 and over were interviewed in person, was commissioned by the French Publishers Association (SNE) and the French National Book Centre (CNL) and carried out from 14 to 17 February by IPSOS MediaCT. While it does not provide all the answers, the study does help to shed some light on the issue, notably revealing a decline in the practice of reading but a strong endorsement of its benefits.

• Who reads?
Overall, 70% of French people read a book in 2013, representing a significant decline over the last 2 years – -5% compared to 2011. On average, they read 15 books a year, or 1 less than 2 years ago. Unsurprisingly, readers are primarily female, educated, urban and belong to the upper-middle classes.

• Print or digital?
69% of French people read print books (74% in 2011), and 11% also use digital devices (8% in 2011). The digital market remains marginal and its increase does not compensate for the losses suffered in the print sphere. Similarly, it cannot be blamed for the decline in the popularity of printed books. In general, “digital” readers are younger, less educated and 90% also read printed books. Only 1% of readers exclusively read digital books. Respondents who surfed the internet most frequently were also the most avid readers.

• When do people read?
Frequency of reading has gone up: 45% of readers do so each day.

Delineation by age group shows that 15-24 year olds read more than average (and more so on digital devices) while 25-34 year olds are amongst those who read the least. The obligation to read at school and university, plus the reduction in leisure time encountered upon joining the workforce and having children, helps to explain these differences.

The “big readers” (26% in total) are women with an average age of 50 and no children younger than 15. The “free time” effect is self-evident, contributing to the feminisation of the reading public, who here again tend to belong to the educated, upper-middle classes.

• Who reads what?
Women read detective novels (43%), practical books (42%), contemporary fiction (35%), history (29%) and children’s books (26%)

Men read history books (40%), detective novels (37%), comics (35%), scientific literature (31%) and practical books (29%).

There is a spike in the reading of science fiction among men under 24.

• Why do people read?
First and foremost, to broaden their knowledge (59%) and secondly, to relax (58%). Percentages vary with age: reading as a means of learning is disproportionately high among the under 24s, while reading for pleasure is more prevalent among the older generation. Men are primarily motivated to read by a thirst for “information” (broadening knowledge and learning, 71%) and women as a means of escapism (55%) and relaxation (72%)

• Why don’t people read?
58% of respondents said they didn’t have time, 40% claimed to devote their free time to other pursuits. The cost of reading came in 5th place, cited by just 12% of non-readers. Non-readers are 58% male, with an average age of 52: they are less urban, less active, less educated and significantly less wealthy (68% have a monthly income per household of less than 2,300 Euros).

Readers and non-readers both place a high value on the practice of reading. Reading to children is considered “important” by 96% of people in France. Books are “a source of knowledge” for 95% and can be “deeply influential” for 94%, with 54% going so far as to say that “a book can change your life”. Younger people however tend to be less forthcoming with such affirmations. Finally, books are considered to be the most trustworthy source of information (40%) compared with media and television (16%) and the internet (7%). Unsurprisingly, the internet is perceived as a reliable source of information by 18% of young people, although they too, like the older generations, still retain a similar faith in books (39%).

In short, reading is a much valued but lesser practiced pastime, which enjoys a particular status among young people and retains solid foundations at a time when many cultural pursuits are in decline. The fall in the volume of book sales does however highlight that the industry is at a crossroads. We know that specific funding for bookstores has already been earmarked; however, this will be insufficient if demand continues to fall, either for economic or cultural reasons.

Everyone is in agreement that a powerful proactive policy is needed. In a recent statement, the French Publishers Association (SNE) rightly demanded that reading become an “important national issue”. However, clarion calls in the national budget and from local authorities to finance this “pact of mutual responsibility” raise doubts that, with neither troops nor ammunition, this “call to arms” will be nothing more than a beau geste. Despite her expertise in this field, the French Minister of Culture, who is attending the Book Fair on Friday, will have her work cut out to reassure increasingly worried stakeholders that this is not the case.

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