US Consumers Say 'Yes' to Books

America's fascination with cable television and electronic media apparently does not come at the expense of the first of the three R's: reading.

Consumers bought more than 1.6 billion books in 1994, or close to 17 books per household, reports a study released in August by Veronis, Suhler & Associates, an investment-banking firm in New York. The survey notes that unit sales of consumer books increased 3.6 percent in 1994 - the largest jump since 1989.

Such purchases continue to fuel the multibillion-dollar book-publishing industry, where sales are expected to increase fairly steadily through the end of the decade, notes the ninth-annual survey. The $15.2 billion consumers spent on books in 1994 will likely reach $21.6 billion by 1999, the survey says.

''The fact that ordinary consumer books are growing at the rate they are kind of disproves the whole theory that America has become illiterate or that we're all zombies watching our computer screens,'' says Lawrence Crutcher, a managing director at Veronis.

Mr. Lawrence attributes the growth to large companies ''getting their publishing programs better focused'' and to improvements in distribution channels, where superstores are making ''large quantities of titles available to the average American.''

Adult trade books - those generally sold through retail outlets - make up the majority of the sales for what the survey calls ''consumer books.'' Along with religious books, the second-highest seller in the consumer category, sales of adult trade books are expected to continue to increase.

Adding sales of professional and educational books to those of consumer books pushes the total sales figure predicted for 1999 to $33.1 billion, up from 1994's $23.8 billion.

But rapidly rising paper costs will bump up book prices and slow growth in the short-term, say both the Veronis report and an annual study of trends it draws on put out by the New York-based Book Industry Study Group (BISG). The average price of an adult hardcover book, for instance, is expected to rise from $18.30 this year to $19.40 next year, and to $22.40 in 1999.

Publishers will also face new challenges, such as digitalization, writes Charles Ellis, president and chief executive officer of John Wiley & Sons, a publishing house, in the BISG study. Mr. Ellis notes that because the digitizing world is less familiar to traditional print publishers, ''keeping ahead of the curve will be expensive.''

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