Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Statistical Abstract: How Many Copies Are Sold?

The one statistic you won’t find in the Statistical Abstract of the United States is the number of copies of that publication actually sold. The Statistical Abstract is much-loved by data mavens; and what I discovered is that their number is tiny.

The book is physically published and distributed by the Government Printing Office. The GPO also proudly lists the Stat Ab as one its best sellers. Indeed it ranks third of the top twenty five. The top three are Your Federal Income Tax for Individuals 2010, The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report, and the Statistical Abstract, 2011. But GPO’s own bragging list doesn’t offer any numbers.

I bent myself into a pretzel and, finally, did manage to find an answer of sorts in a draft document put on the web by the GPO itself. The document is part of some sort of report to Congress, I think. Here I found some numbers of the 2004/2005 FY sales of that book by the GPO. Mind you, the Stat Ab is also sold as a CD, but I couldn’t find anything on CD sales of the product. And since the rise of the Internet, most people, I would say, use the electronic versions of the book readily available there. But those who would axe the Stat Ab will point to the figures I am about to unveil. Herewith the data for 2004/2005:

Paperback version: 2,189
Cloth version: 1,135
Standing orders for paperback: 473
Standing orders for cloth: 670

The unimpressive total—at least from a commercial point of view—is therefore 3,324.

Now the American Library Association tells me (here) that there are 122,101 libraries in the United States. Of these 9,221 are public libraries. If all of GPO’s copies are bought by public libraries, just over a third bother to buy it. But it’s not only libraries that buy it. At my old alma mater, Editorial Code and Data, Inc., we bought and still buy a paper copy, although in practice we use the CD. But the only visible political support for the publication of this book appears to come from librarians. The elites among them, I would guess.

What I’ve gotten out of this painful experience—the threat to the good old Stat Ab—is a realization of the size of the community committed to preserve and maintain the statistical lens by which we see the otherwise invisible (because they are too huge) structures of modernity.


  1. To me this information about defunding the Stat.AB reveals that apparently a majority of our "well-informed and responsible citizenry", and never mind our legislative branch, thinks it will actually reduce the dreaded budget deficit somehow meaningfully. Why else would they even consider such cuts? Surely not to remove the lens through which details of our expenditures can be seen by the electorate.

  2. Brigitte:

    I think the latter is the case as the dollars are virtually bug dust. Holding data tightly serves the interest of the government.