Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The 80/20 Rule for Readers

By Kay Kendall

This afternoon my husband asked me an upsetting question. “Are fewer people reading books these days?”
I gulped. “Yes,” I replied, “but I try not to think about it.”

On the one hand, I see statistical reports monthly and year-to-date and this year versus last year. The trend is down, slowly but steadily down. This depresses me. 
On the other hand, I hang out with writers and readers—both in real and in virtual life—leading to a false sense of euphoria. Why, everybody reads and buys books and complains about no space in their homes for ever more books. Heated debates appear online about the virtues of e-books and paper books, which is better and why. In truth, my world is replete with readers. Everyone cares, and cares enough to argue heatedly, but usually civilly, which is nice in this fraught climate of ours these days.

Twenty years ago I learned how important it is to “compartmentalize” one’s mind. President Bill Clinton was said to have mastered this skill as he went through his impeachment crisis. Perhaps I learned how to compartmentalize my views on today’s declining book sales from reading about his ability. Who knows?
So today, after I gave my husband my anguished answer, he scuttled off to his French class and I was left to ruminate on the conditions of publishing today. That is when I remembered the 80/20 rule.

Have you heard of it? I first learned about it in a marketing class in the 1980s. The concept seemed unreal to me at first. The professor said that 80 percent of a product was bought by just 20 percent of customers. Therefore, the marketers had to define their target market and sell to them. That way led to high sales and success.
Since that time I’ve seen the 80/20 rule applied to all types of situations. I have also learned that this rule was first promulgated in 1906 by an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto. His research showed that 80 percent of land in Italy was owned at that time by 20 percent of the country’s inhabitants. From there the 80/20 rule was applied to many other areas of human endeavor. Also known as the Pareto principle, the 80/20 rule is now used to describe almost any type of output in the real world. The rule is commonly used to analyze sales and marketing. Companies must dissect their revenues to understand who makes up their core 20 percent of customers…or readers as the case may be.

At this point you probably are wondering what this has to do with my concerns for declining book sales. The answer is simple. The 80/20 rule relates to the two parts of my brain. There is the joyful part of my brain that focuses on my friends who love reading and buy many, many books every year—every month and even every week. That joy lives because of my acquaintanceship with people who make up that blessed 20 percent who buy 80 percent of all books.
That happy part of my brain hums along, plotting my current work in progress and planning future books to write. It willfully ignores the other piece of my brain in which knowledge resides that book sales are declining.  
When I unlock that gloom, I allow myself to think of my neighbors’ house, where I have never seen one book, and not even a magazine. While I know the whole family can read, that is not the problem. They simply do not choose to read books. Since they have lived next door for at least 15 years, I know that even before the explosion of online media, they read no books, magazines, or newspapers. The two children read, but it is only on iPads and cell phones, and usually just for gaming.
This leads me to share an anecdote that happened a few years ago. Two of my friends were discussing what to give a third pal for his birthday. The first friend said, “How about a book for John?” The second friend replied, “No, he already has one.”
Although I thought that was hilarious—and apt in John’s case—I also wonder if that could be said of more and more people today.
I cannot change a societal trend. What I can do is focus on the 20 percent of people who still read and love books. These are my people. I shall write for them. Should I be so lucky as to have one of my books connect by some miracle with a non-reader, I shall hope to ensnare her or him into the grand world of the imagination, found in books. Be they real or virtual, books contain multitudes of wondrous imaginings. What a pity if someone misses out on all that magic.

Read the first 20 pages of Kay Kendall’s second mystery,                                                                                      
That book won two awards at the Killer Nashville conference in August 2016—for best mystery/crime and also for best book.  Her first novel about Austin Starr‘s sleuthing, DESOLATION ROW, was a finalist for best mystery at Killer Nashville in 2014. 
Visit Kay


  1. I can't imagine a home without books! But I guess that's because I'm part of that 20 percent group. However, I can't help but think, as you said, the 80 percent is missing out on all that magic! Great thought provoking blog, Kay!

    1. I'm with you, ML! No books in a home? How very sad. One set of grandparents and both of my parents were book lovers. My son is and his two children are so we are keeping up our side...the happy 20 percent. Glad you are too.

  2. I love this perspective, and I subscribe to it wholeheartedly. My target is "women of a certain age" who like a good clean mystery, who want a glimpse of younger women engaged in work/activities that weren't available when they were young themselves, and who typically prefer to hold a book in their hands. I happened to mention this noon that I write mysteries, and a women fitting that description stopped me after the meeting and asked for info about my books. I handed her a book mark with the relevant information, and I hope my books will be an avenue to bring the two of us into conversation. Thanks for your post! :-) --kate

    1. That is it, C.T. to converse and connect. While my own book sales aren't up there with John Grisham's, I take joy in every reader who says s/he connects with my books...and thank you for responding to my post!

  3. Honestly, I don't think I want to KNOW a person who doesn't read! I don't care about the format, and in fact can't tell you which books I've read in print and which I've read on the Kindle.

    Both of my parents loved to read, and instilled a love of reading in all their kids.

    Deb Romano

  4. I know I can be my full self when I am speaking with another reader. If I am aware--or become suspicious in the course of a first conversation--that another person does not read books, then I pull back a bit pieces of my personality. But I love talking about books, about writing them and everything about the publishing business. Just love it, and boy do I let myself rip when I get to talk with a like-minded person. It is so delicious. Thanks for commenting, Deb.

  5. Interesting post. All I can say is my office at home is stuffed with books. I'm behind on my reading, but I keep on reading. This is who I am.

    1. Hi, Linda. Yes, my friend, you live in that blessed, delighted 20 percent group. You and I both acquire more books than we have time to read. Although I never bought the tee shirt...not yet anyway...I often think of its slogan: So many books, and so little time.

  6. Great blog Kay. I am happy to be in your 20% group.Now get a move on with your WIP. I need to buy another book.

    1. Yes ma'am, Pam! I'm finishing up mystery #3 and beginning #4. Stay tuned.

  7. Kay, I address this in the nonfiction book I'm working on about genre fiction. I'm convinced there IS something we can do to reverse this trend. We'll have to chat sometime. Until then, give every child in your life a book.

  8. Hello, Ken. I would love to hear your ideas. Meantime both of my grandchildren (ages 7 and 9)are voracious readers. Their dad/my son reads and he married an English major turned technical writer. I am doing what I can to ensure reading endures!