How many writers in the U. S.?

Hmmm. I'm reading, rather belatedly, the feature article entitled "A Fascinating Look at Selected Reading and Publishing Statistics" in my Sisters in Crime June newsletter. Back in May, after having read statistics from a study done by the American Library Association about the reading habits of the United States adult population, I'd blogged about those depressing stats. I can sum up the results of that segment of the survey, as noted in my previous blog, in two words: rather pitiful.

Now the SinC newsletter gives more statistics--about the reading public, manuscript sales, book sales, and the number of writers in the U. S. All the stats elicit reactions ranging from curiosity to melancholy, especially for anyone concerned with the decline of reading, but the stats that struck me as most interesting were the ones about how many people in the United States defined themselves as writers.

In 2004, there were 15 million Americans who said they were writers. That's an increase of 4 million from a few years ago. I'd be willing to bet prior to 1990, the number of people who called themselves writers was a mere fraction of today's 15 million. Why? Well, prior to 1990, not as many households had computers. Now, most people seem to have one or at least have access to a PC at work, school, or in libraries.

There's always been a kind of unspoken belief in the general population that anyone who possesses the ability to read and write therefore possesses all the tools necessary to become a writer. That belief now seems to have become a reality.

Back in the Dark Ages, before computers, the idea of writing a book was daunting because even with a correctable typewriter, the task was arduous. The PC was the great enabler. Now, these self-defined writers can write their books and publish them in print or on the Internet. I've known several "writers" who published with what many of us consider vanity or subsidized publishers. They think they have credentials just as good as any author published by Random House et al. (I can well imagine how many lobbed rotten tomatoes that statement will earn me.)

Would these self-defined writers have even written a book if they'd had to do it with a typewriter? I think not. I say this because I know how hard it is to write a manuscript that way. I wrote my first book, which shall remain buried in my file cabinet, on a portable electric typewriter, and it was not a correcting typewriter either.

If there were 15 million self-defined writers in 2004, what will that number be in another few years? But that's not the real question. The real question is what kind of impact does this have on "real" writers who are struggling to break in or break out of mid-list? Do these millions of writers have an effect on the publishing industry? Oh, yes, they certainly do. Just ask any editor or agent who has to deal with the slush pile.

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