Mapping Trends in Readership

Fri, 11 Nov 2016 17:00:51 +0000

I’ve traveled a lot in my life. As soon as I land in a new place, I like to pore over a map of wherever I am to get a sense of my surroundings. Now that I’m a brand-new member of Ooligan Press, I feel a need to do the same to understand the landscape of reading in the United States these days. How many people are reading, and how much do they read? Why are they reading? And are they reading print books or ebooks or listening to audiobooks?

The Pew Research Center is a treasure trove of statistics on American life. On September 1, they published Book Reading 2016, the latest version of a survey on American readers that they’ve taken every year since 2011. According to their report, last year 73% of Americans read at least one book—a share virtually unchanged since 2012. The typical American read four books in the last twelve months.

An older Pew study from 2012 asked Americans why they read:

  • 26% – Learning, gaining knowledge, and discovering information.
  • 15% – Escaping reality and becoming immersed in another world.
  • 12% – The entertainment value of reading, the drama of good stories, and the suspense of watching a good plot unfold.
  • 12% – Relaxing while reading and having quiet time.
  • 6% – The variety of topics they could access via reading.
  • 4% – Spiritual enrichment and expanding their worldview.
  • 3% – Being mentally challenged by books.
  • 2% – Physical properties of books—their feel and smell.

What about print books versus ebooks versus audiobooks? According to Book Reading 2016, print is still the medium of choice for most people: In the last year, 65% of Americans read a print book, 28% read an ebook, and 14% listened to an audiobook. People who read print books only accounted for 38% of those surveyed while 6% of people read ebooks only. From 2011 to 2014, the number of Americans reading ebooks jumped from 17% to 28%. But that growth stopped in 2014, and there has been no increase in the share of ebook reading since.

For those who are reading ebooks, the percentage of people who read on dedicated ereader devices, such as the Kindle, has been holding steady between 7% and 8%. But since 2011, reading on tablets has nearly quadrupled (from 4% to 15%), and reading on cell phones has almost tripled (from 5% to 13%). As someone concerned about accessibility, I was especially struck by this observation in the Pew report: “About one-in-five Americans under the age of 50 have used a cellphone to read e-books; blacks and Americans who have not attended college are especially likely to turn to cellphones——rather than other digital devices——when reading e-books.”

I’ve believed for a while that phones are a powerful way to deliver books to people—using a device that they already have in their possession. To me, this Pew information is a further argument for making the reading experience on phones as enticing as possible.

What do all these stats mean to us as publishers? Did the numbers surprise you? Did they seem unexpectedly high or low? Will they affect how you think about reaching potential readers or the choices you make regarding the form of your books? My head is still spinning as I digest it all, and I know there’s a lot more to discover—but I’m glad to have at least taken this brief look at the wider world outside the walls of our press.

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