A new report released this week is being billed as the first study to capture critical data about how consumers “engage” with books within a “connected media ecosystem” that includes video games, TV, and movies.

The report, Immersive Media & Books 2020, is the most ambitious project yet from the Panorama Project, the cross-industry research initiative chartered in 2018 by leading digital library vendor OverDrive. Drawing on data from more than 4,300 “pre-qualified” respondents, surveyed from September through November of 2020, the report offers one of the most comprehensive looks at consumer media consumption and behavior in the e-book age, with demographic data broken down into three age groups, five U.S. regions, and seven racial/ethnic groups.

The study was designed and carried out by professors Rachel Noorda, Ph.D., and Kathi Inman Berens, Ph.D., faculty members of the Portland State University graduate program in Book Publishing, with financial support from OverDrive, the Book Industry Study Group, the American Library Association and the Independent Book Publishers Association.

The study's focus on consumer "engagement" with books—vs. "reading" behaviors—is a key distinction.

"To capture the wide range of things people do with books, we researchers asked people how many books they engaged per month, rather than how many books they read," explains the executive summary. "Reading for entertainment is still the #1 reason people buy books: 50% of survey respondents said that was their top reason to engage with a book. But that leaves a wide swath of book engagement behaviors—50%—that the industry could probe. This study provides the data to do so."

Engagement with books can run the gamut, researchers found, including people who check out materials from the library but don’t always read or watch them, people who give books as gifts, buy them to collect or display, and people who dip into a book for reference, whether for work, school, or a hobby.

In terms of demographics, the report found strong book buying patterns among Black and Latinx millennials, labeling "men, millennials, and non-white people of all generations" as groups to pay attention to. "They engage with more books than middle-class baby boomer women, except in the context of book gifting," the report concluded.

The data also revealed interesting engagement patterns in the age of digital media, including multitasking. Some 61% of e-book readers and 70% of audiobook listeners reported multitasking when engaging with these book forms. "Our data support broadening the notion of what constitutes immersive attention," the authors conclude. “Immersion does not mean only the deep, uninterrupted concentration we associate with reading printed books or playing video games. Immersion can also happen while multitasking. The data support a more nuanced view of how entertainment products and formats feed different types of attention."

The data support a more nuanced view of how entertainment products and formats feed different types of attention.

Among the report's other key findings: "avid" book engagers (those who engage with more than four books per month) are "equivalently active" across other media, which presents an opportunity for publishers to consider how books might benefit from cross-media discovery. The report also finds that book discovery is "context-agnostic and highly distributed." For example, the largest category of discovery—recommendations from friends—accounts for just one fifth of the survey population illustrating that there "are many ways people discover books and thus there are many ways to reach potential book buyers, borrowers, and gifters."

The report found that libraries, bookstores, and online channels "mutually reinforce" each other. Some 75% of respondents reported having library cards, with 30% saying they will choose to buy the book rather than wait when a book is stuck on a long holds list at the library. Also notable, more library card holders are buying books during the Covid-19 crisis (in all formats) than the general survey population. And activities like author events at libraries, browsing library shelves, and browsing online library catalogs, all lead to new book discovery.

When it comes to the Covid-19 crisis, the authors acknowledge that it has played a role in shaping consumer behavior in 2020, but how much of a role will be pulled more into focus over time.

"Over 2021 and beyond, the world will see whether new book engagement behaviors developed during the pandemic will persist beyond it," the report states. "Our study is proposed to be longitudinal; as we gather survey data going forward, the robust snapshot in this report will be contextualized by new answers to deliberately repeated questions, shedding light on new directions and behaviors the publishing industry should watch."

A free webinar to discuss the report's findings is set for March 10.

Note: Each respondent was first asked to select all of their methods of book discovery and then asked to select one preferred method.

Note: Each respondent was first asked to select all of their places of book discovery and then asked to select one preferred place.