Pretty Pictures and Credulity

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I happened upon this infographic this morning and was immediately intrigued. I am a fairly avid reader, so information on who reads what is always interesting to me.

However, as I gave this graphic a second look I began to question the validity of the visuals. I’m in no position to dispute the numbers of sold books in the last 50 years, so I’m assuming they are correct. (It should be noted that although the graphic is recent, the info is from an article written in 2009.)

Even assuming this, the baseline premise that number of books sold meaningfully equates to books read is a bit of a stretch, especially for some of these books. And even if this is taken as read, (ha!) the visual presentation of the data further distorts the overall picture.

Let’s examine some of the reasons why.


1. The Halo Effect

Of these ten books, four of them (Harry Potter, LoTR, The DaVinci Code and The Twilight Saga) are associated with major Hollywood films. That is not to say millions (or hundreds of millions) have not read these; rather, the halo effect is basically the idea that one product’s success has the tendency to ripple out, causing consumers to purchase products from the same manufacturer/author/whatever. (For example, Apple’s products are good at doing this, as owning an iPhone makes one more likely to buy an iMac and visa versa.)

In this case, an exciting movie gives an incentive to buy the book it was based upon.

Of course, the books came out first, but given the marketing that surrounds bestsellers that get adapted to film, (especially if it is a successful film, as all of these have been…) there is a tendency for someone who hasn’t read the book to purchase it after watching the film. However, the likelihood of them reading it in this scenario also tends to drop, being more likely if the film adaptation is significantly divergent from the book.

Naturally, since most of these successful films tend to be clustered around the holidays, the purchase-to-reading ratio can be even more skewed. (A gift of a popular book to someone, for example.)

2. Book or Books?

Another factor that might lead one to question the validity of this information is what exactly constitutes a book.

Both the Harry Potter series and The Twilight Saga are not one book but rather a series of books– Harry Potter has 7 in the series while The Twilight Saga has 4. (5 if the novella is counted)

In an inverse manner, The Lord of the Rings was originally one book but has also been sold as a series of 3 books, especially coinciding with the release of the movie trilogy.

This only serves to inflate the numbers (in this infographic) artificially, as a differentiation of books in a series will not represent a redundancy to the purchaser or the reader.

Interestingly enough, if this infographic split the Harry Potter series into 7 and assumed each sold equally well, the Harry Potter books would occupy every slot after The Alchemist, especially if the numbers were updated.

One might question if the Bible might not fall under this critique as well, since it is not technically one book but rather a collection of 66+. True enough, but the Bible as one volume has been a fairly ubiquitous reality for at least the last 50 years.

Additionally, it is very rarely split and sold as individual books, and even in these situations it is unlikely that these would even be counted as copies of the Bible sold.

3. Read it?

The Bible doesn’t get off that easy though. While it certainly sells a lot, the notion that this equates to being read strains the limits of credulity.

After all, the Bible is often gifted for Christmas, baptism, Confirmation, etc. It is also available in a number of different flavors- distinct translations, study bibles, devotional bibles, decorative bibles, etc. Many people own multiple copies of the Bible without reading each copy. Millions are mass produced and purchased by organizations and individuals for the purpose of distribution and by churches for infrequent use by parishoners. (e.g., in the pew for someone to read on Sunday)

Additionally, the whole concept of reading a book needs some parsing. The Bible is not generally read from cover to cover, and there are sections of it that one might actually never read. In this sense, it is somewhat of a reference book. That doesn’t mean that a person might not read it a lot or be very familiar with parts of it or even intentionally memorize substantial portions of it.

All of this doesn’t detract from the fact that the Bible sells a lot and a lot of people read it. But sales surely cannot be a good indication of reading in this case.

5. You Have to Read This! (or else)

The Quotations from Chariman Mao is an interesting addition to this list.

During the Cultural Revolution it was sort of an unspoken requirement to own and read this book. Reading it in school was mandatory. In every sector of society study groups were formed to study it, and quotations followed you everywhere from the army barracks to the grocery store.

In this respect, one might not seriously dispute the statistic, since in such an autocratic environment where reading a certain book is, ahem, encouraged, there is more incentive to do so.

Nevertheless, I suspect the actual number of the Quotations read is somewhat lower than this.

6. Shiny Graphics, Misleading Scale

The graphics for this infographic are very well done. However, while I can appreciate the contextualizing facilitated by displaying the numbers as books, this presentation in and of itself visually skews the scale.

Without carefully examining the graph, one might initially be led to believe that the bottom of the book represents the beginning of the scale. Closer inspection, however, reveals that it actually begins about a third of the way up from the bottom. This dramatically affects the visual impact of the scale.

If we were to cut off the visuals from where the Y axis begins, the result would be as follows:

Obviously, a completely different visual representation. After all, 27 million is a lot, but 3.9 billion is 144 times greater. (Even if you added all the other books together, the Bible’s sales would more than double that total.)

The original graphic unfortunately leads to cognitive tension, since the visuals are in conflict with the scale.

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Since the number of books read is impossible (at present) to quantify, this infographic would be far more compelling if it was simply titled 10 Best-Selling Books in the World.

The moral of the story (ha!) is that statistics can be misleading, but visual representations of statistics even more so.

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