No, the printed book is not dead—in fact, confirms the latest research from the Pew Research Center, print books are showing surprising staying power. But reading still faces stiff challenges from other electronic media, and beyond format changes, the Internet has forever changed the way people connect not only to books, but to each other. PW caught up Pew executive director Lee Rainie, to talk about Pew’s latest survey on people’s book reading habits, and the future of reading.
I was a little surprised that the media coverage of your latest survey report, released last month, focused so much on the finding that print books are still hanging on. Was that a major take-away that you saw here?
Yes, and we stressed it in our write-ups of the findings in part because it continues to surprise people that printed books have life, which maybe cuts against the conventional wisdom that the printed book is, you know, struggling.
What surprised me is that we're witnessing an e-book boom, with huge numbers of self-published authors coming into the market, and yet the average number of books being read isn't rising, a trend that runs counter to what we see with other media, where consumption is up. Are publishers missing an opportunity here?
I'm not sure about missed opportunities. The fact of the matter is that there's a large market for books in this country, at least in the sense of people still reading them at minimal levels, and there are a lot of people who read lots of books. And it strikes me that the publishing industry is innovating—the number of genres, formats, and in more ways in which they are marketing and finding pathways to readers. You know, they're working at it.
But as the number of e-books being published has ramped up, and people can now take a library around in their pockets, wouldn’t you expect an increase in the average number of books read?
Yes, when supply increases, you would think that that would affect demand. But of course, this is not taking place in a static universe. The number of other claimants on people's time and attention is also growing, and book publishers are not just competing against each other, they're competing with a host of other enterprises that are making pretty compelling pitches to people for their time. With so many ways people can allocate their time now, I think the surprising thing for us is that books are holding their own.
Pew first started looking at people’s reading habits in 2011, and a lot has changed since then. Has the survey evolved, too?
Well, we did a quite extensive survey about the state of reading when we began this work in 2011. In 2011, benchmarking was an important thing to do because e-books were coming of age, and we had just gotten a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to do research that they hoped would be useful to librarians trying to figure out their futures. So we believed that getting a big, rich, broad fix on the state of reading and the state of book in 2011 was a logical starting point. In subsequent surveys, we haven't gone into that much detail, in part because our sense is that people's book reading habits are not changing dramatically year-to-year. It's not like their political views, where measuring it with a lot of regularity makes sense because people change as circumstances change. In book reading, year-to-year, there's not that much change.
One of the things that has changed, however, is the devices people are reading on. There is a big uptick in people using tablets and phones, and not so much dedicated e-book readers. So, you have people who are on the move, people who have commutes and things like that are taking along a device that's makes books accessible to them in circumstances that aren't classic book-reading circumstances. So now, books can be omnipresent in people's lives, if they want them to be. And our data are very clear that there is a class of Americans who just can't get enough books, and if they can't be with the format they love, they love the format they're with.
How might you change or augment future surveys?
It would be fun to do genre-specific queries. I think people want to know much more about what's going on with romance novels, or with coloring books, science fiction, or biographies. The other thing that I think will show up in our work in years to come is how traditionally book-centered stuff changes with the rise of virtual reality and augmented reality. If you look at the folks who think smartly about the future of books, they've been predicting this for a while. Some publishing houses have given it a little bit of a try. It hasn't really become enormously compelling yet, but that moment is in our future is my guess. Today people can access factoids, or real-time information, like how to get to somewhere. But also, they can be transported to a much richer world of the imagination. So trying to watch for that and capture the moment when it sort of reaches its tipping point would be something that would be important for us to do.
In 2012, Pew concluded that e-book readers are sort of a breed apart—they read double the number of books as print readers, on average. They read more for pleasure, and for research. And they buy more books. But as the market has changed in recent years—the major publishers have raised prices, for example—e-book sales have declined. Does your data suggest that e-book readership has stalled?
The word we've used is plateau. Stalled isn't quite right. The growth rate has declined, which is not the same as, you know, measuring e-book consumption through sales statistics. But our data show that the number of people who are reading e-books has slowed down just in the last five years. But, again, that’s an interesting part of this story, because, remember back to 2008-2010, predictions of the death of printed books were fairly abundant, and there was this palpable sense that the disruption was going to be abrupt and complete, and that e-books would essentially take over the world. That hasn’t happened.
If e-book readers are such power readers, though, as your 2012 data suggested, isn’t this e-book plateau a real problem for publishers?
So, there are a lot of reasons why books have staying power. And one of the things we hear when we talk to consumers about print books is that print is a fabulous technology. Ink on a page is amazingly portable, longlasting, sharable. Print is still amazingly attractive to people. And, my general sense is that readers are happy with their pathways to books.
Now, speaking to your earlier notion—that we have this explosion of supply now in an e-book age—e-books are only one of any number of disruptions that have occurred in the book world over the past generation. But if you look at Gallup numbers, they suggest that the number of book readers overall and the number of books read overall really hasn't changed all that much. The number of book readers has shrunk a bit, and the number of non-book-readers has grown a bit. That’s there, and it’s meaningful, but it’s not hugely striking. So I think, overall, the story is that through this boom in the supply side of the story, the demand side has been relatively stable.
Beyond your work with Pew, you co-authored a fascinating book called Networked, and I wanted to ask you about that book, because, we seem to talk about digital in publishing most often as it relates to the format of e-books. But the Internet has more fundamentally changed the world for books, hasn’t it?
Yeah, so, in the book, our grand argument is that the basic atomic unit of social life in the modern age is different from the basic unit of social life of days gone by. People today are now living more in loose, far-flung networks, and these looser networks are a different kind of social phenomenon than the tight-knit groups of the past. People today have a lot more relationships—and strands of relationships—than their ancestors did. Today you can be part of a fan group that's global for a particular author, or genre, and it doesn't matter whether you find like-minded folks in your local community. You can share what you know with all of those other fans, wherever they are. And that's a big change in human experience.
Also, there's this fluidity of connection and contact with relevant things today that is distinct from the past, where people didn't have the capacity to pick their friends—in the past, your friends came with whoever lived next door. Today you can join groups, and move away from groups at various times, and reignite relationships at times when you're reminded of them, or when you feel like you have a need. Now, people will wring their hands and say isn't it awful that people today have these tangential, unimportant strands of relationships? But the other side of that story is that it is really efficient to deal with your relationships today. You don’t have to remember them all the time, but every once in a while, when you express a need on Facebook or Twitter, for example, you get feedback, and learn a greater diversity of things than you ever could get by just saying something over a bar stool at the local tavern.
That feedback loop is key, I believe. Where the Internet was once viewed by some as infinite shelf space, understanding and tapping these new networks offers a huge opportunity for publishers, does it not?
There are two ways off the top of my head that I can think of that book publishers might sort of expand their notion of what this networked reality means for them. At the first level, every product can be a community—so if you find an audience for a piece of work, an author, a genre, whatever, you've got a built-in fan base and a fan base that you can much more readily identify now than in the past, and once you know who they are and what they want, you can better meet their needs.
The second thing is that in this world where people have to work to learn things and to have their needs met, books—and the knowledge that comes with books—can be really important nodes in people's networks. You know, people as they try to navigate this ever more complicated world, publishers and librarians serve themselves well by thinking like a friend, by thinking like, "I'm a really smart part of your network. Here's how I can serve you.”
Editor's Note: PW interviewed Raine prior to the Frankfurt Book Fair, not at the show itself.