You’ve probably noticed the headlines in recent weeks: “No, the Internet Has Not Killed the Printed Book. Most People Still Prefer Them,” declared the New York Times. “Nope, Printed Books Aren’t Going Out of Style,” proclaimed the Verge. And my favorite, “Luddites Rejoice! Americans Still Prefer Printed Books,” noted the PBS NewsHour.
Such was the takeaway from the Pew Research Center’s most recent survey on American book readership, released earlier this month: not only are print books hanging on, they remain significantly more popular then e-books.
“I think if you looked back a decade ago, certainly five or six years ago when e-books were taking off, there were folks who thought the days of the printed book were numbered,” Pew’s Lee Rainie told the Times, “and it’s just not so in our data.”
But even for hardcore book lovers, the persistence of print isn’t exactly the feel-good story of the year. Beyond the stories about format preference that it spurred, Pew’s research, along with a recent update from the National Endowment for the Arts, suggests that reading is in decline.
Overall, Pew found that the share of Americans who have read a book in any format in the last year held steady at 73%, largely unchanged since 2012. But that’s down from 79% in 2011, the first year Pew began researching people’s reading habits. Pew also found that the average number of books read per year has also remained steady since 2012, at 12. But again, that number is also down, from 14 in 2011.
Meanwhile, in another survey released last month, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that just 43% of adults read at least one “work of literature” for pleasure in the previous year—the lowest share since the NEA started tracking reading habits in the early 1980s. The recent figure is down from a high of 57% in 1982. Trade publishers will be most concerned by the NEA stat, because the NEA survey specifically covers novels, plays, short stories, and poetry, excluding nonfiction and reading for school or work.
Behind the Numbers
Neither the Pew nor NEA surveys dive deeply into the bigger story: why book readership seems to be declining. But it’s no surprise that reading is increasingly challenged in the age of electronic media, and such concerns are not new. Back in 2004, in an NEA report titled Reading at Risk, then NEA chairman Dana Gioia pointed out that reading is, well, kind of hard compared to other media.
“Reading a book requires a degree of active attention and engagement,” Gioia explained. “Indeed, reading itself is a progressive skill that depends on years of education and practice. By contrast, most electronic media such as television, recordings, and radio make fewer demands on their audiences, and often require no more than passive participation.”
It’s certainly true that reading is a different beast compared to other media. Nevertheless, in the tablet and smartphone era, as virtually all content now competes for user attention on the same screen (much of that content free, or cheap), it’s also fair to say that the publishing industry hasn’t exactly made accessing books on screen easy.
In fact, it should surprise no one that Pew found that print books are hanging on with readers—after all, just as the e-book market started to boom, the major publishers put a collective thumb on the scales to tip readers back toward print, with efforts that included a scheme with Apple to raise e-book prices, and burdensome restrictions on library e-books.
Libraries are another area of research for Pew, and this month Pew also released their latest survey on Americans’ experience with their public libraries. Among the more interesting findings in that survey is that even as libraries continue to roll out more digital services, patrons still overwhelmingly associate the library with books. Some 64% of library users reported checking out a book in the last 12 months, well above those who used a library computer (29%).
But in an eye-opening finding, just 44% of those surveyed were aware that their local public libraries even offered e-books, though nearly all public libraries now offer e-book lending. That’s clearly a vestige of the major publishers’ reluctance to embrace e-book lending in libraries until very recently. Though all of the major publishers now allow library e-book lending, high prices and other restrictions (such as expiration dates and lend limits) have kept the growth of library e-book lending in check.
Of course, it’s hard to say for certain what effect traditional publishers’ efforts to protect their legacy print businesses may be having on book reading overall. But industry observers largely agree that higher e-book prices have almost certainly played a role in depressing e-book sales at the Big Five houses, all of which have reported declines over the last year. And Pew’s most recent findings suggest that e-book readership has stalled, too. After growing 11% from 2011 to 2013, Pew found that the share of Americans who read an e-book in the last year has remained at 28% for the last two years.
That e-books appear to have hit a plateau is astonishing, especially because we are in the midst of a historic boom in digital self-publishing, in which more books are being produced than ever before, and more Americans are becoming authors. In addition, despite more than half of the public apparently unaware of the service, e-book lending in public libraries has also expanded significantly since 2013. Leading library e-book vendor OverDrive has has reported double-digit increases in library e-book circulation for years now, with 33 library systems each reporting one million e-book circulations or more in 2015, up from 10 in 2014.
Perhaps most alarming, however, is that the dip in book reading runs counter to trends in virtually every other media—music, TV, movies, games, even news—where digital has led to a sharp increases in consumption, even as some sectors (like the newspaper and music industries) have struggled with the change.
No question, there are any number of cultural factors driving the decline in book reading, including many factors outside the control of the publishing industry. As Gioia suggested in 2004, reading is not truly comparable to other media. But what all media, including books, have in common, is that they compete for a user’s limited time. And on that score, it’s reasonable to question whether the industry’s cautious approach to digital reading has led them to miss the forest (which is reading, whatever the format) for the trees (legacy print sales).
For the most part, publishers seem not to be terribly concerned with the dip in e-book sales, and delighted with the resurgence of print. Pew’s research over the last few years suggests that publishers' efforts to boost print may, at the very least, represent a lost opportunity to create more engaged readers.
In a 2012 survey report titled The Rise of Digital Reading, Pew researchers concluded that “those who have taken the plunge into reading e-books stand out in almost every way” from other kinds of readers.
“Foremost, they are relatively avid readers of books in all formats: 88% of those who read e-books in the past 12 months also read printed books." the report noted. "Compared with other book readers, they read more books. They read more frequently for a host of reasons: for pleasure, for research, for current events, and for work and school. They are also more likely than others to have bought their most recent book, rather than borrowed it, and they are more likely than others to say they prefer to purchase books in general.”
That book reading is under pressure in an age of such keen competition for people’s time and attention is not surprising. But a further decline in book reading is not inevitable. Among the encouraging findings in Pew’s research, readers today says they are increasingly comfortable reading on their phones, and most are happy to read in multiple formats, toggling from pages to screens.
Readers “want books to be available wherever they are,” Rainie told the Times. “They’ll read an e-book on a crowded bus, curl up with a printed book when they feel like that, and go to bed with a tablet.” That certainly sounds like an opportunity to grow readership, and to reach new readers.
The question is, how do today’s book publishers and authors seize it?