Reading Habits

New Pew Poll Finds That E-Books Are Booming but Print Holds Its Own

A new Pew study finds that readers are embracing e-books on a variety of devices but that print is holding its own.

01.19.14 11:45 AM ET

Traditionally (strange word to use in connection with technological change but bear with me), devices that bring us entertainment displace one another. VHS kicks Beta off the island, CDs make cassette tapes obsolete, and so it goes. But according to a Pew Research Center poll released this week, the same does not hold true for the devices Americans use to read.  While the number of people reading e-books continues to climb (17 percent in 2011, 23 percent in 2012, and 28 percent in 2014), the figure for people who read books remained fairly constant for the same period. Even people now reading mostly e-books on tablets, e-readers, and cellphones said they also read print books.

In other words, e-reader and tablet usage is growing, but it isn’t cannibalizing the book buying market. Americans are reading books in roughly the same numbers that they have for the past few years. But they’re also reading on more devices than previously (and yes, I know, calling a book a device is cringe-inducing, but would you rather I called it a delivery system?).

This news rings true to me, since it so closely reflects my own reading habits. I read mostly actual books, but I also read on my iPad and very occasionally on my iPhone (as someone who lives with the haunting fear of being stuck somewhere with nothing to read, I rate the iPhone as the best invention since the paperback).

As for how much I read, I’m not typical. That would be an American who reads five books a year. But nearly 80 percent of us say they read at least one book a year, so I guess publishers aren’t being fanciful in those ads that say, “If you only read one book this year, make it [Your Title Here].” Of those who copped to reading once a year, 69 percent said they read a print edition, 28 percent chose an e-book, and 14 percent listened to an audiobook.

Might all this change rapidly in the next few years? Absolutely, since while the number of people who read e-books in the past year rose from 17 percent in 2011 to 28 percent in 2014, the number of Americans who own either a tablet or an e-reader jumped to around 50 percent—and did so with dizzying rapidity. Tablet ownership in 2010 was 3 percent and 4 percent for e-readers; now it’s 42 percent for tablets and 32 percent for e-readers. Nearly 50 percent of Americans own one or both devices. Of course, tablet owners can do a lot with those devices besides read e-books, but still. And considering that almost half of readers under 30 said they read an e-book last year, it’s not hard to see where this is going. (Or where it already is: If you buy the idea that technology almost always opens the door to esthetic developments, consider how the e-book and audio book boom has made possible all the, how to say?, discreet 50 Shades reading: an entire genre—a booming genre—within the publishing industry is thriving thanks to e-reading.)

As for who owns those tablets and e-readers, men and women are about equal. Discrepancies in ethnicity aren’t remarkable, and as you’d expect, more young and middle-aged people are digital readers. The more education and disposable income you have, the more likely you are to be reading on a digital device. Where you live (city, suburbs, or the country) seems to matter almost not at all.

So, most of this is dog-bites-man. But the real takeaway, I think, is how entrenched printed books are in the culture. Time and again, I hear my friends exulting that they’ve digitized their CD collections. (As someone who owns several thousand CDs—hell, I still own several thousand LPs—I sympathize with anyone who has inventory problems, but I’m not sure what it would take to pry those objects from my clutches. A collapsing floor could do it, I guess.) But I never hear anyone say they’ve ditched their home print libraries in favor of e-books. Not once.

This is even more remarkable when you consider the number of books on people’s shelves that they didn’t like or didn’t even finish. You go to a movie that stinks, and a couple of hours later it’s out of sight, out of mind. Download a song you don’t like or get tired of, just punch delete. Books are much worse. There sits all of Proust, all but laughing at you because you’ve never made past the first 50 pages of Swann’s Way. It might as well be doing high fives with The Executioner’s Song and every other doorstopper you’ve put down and never picked up again. But there they sit on your shelves, taking up space, not paying rent, physical reminders that you wasted your time and money. What percentage of our personal libraries are losers that we for whatever reason can’t quite bear to part with? I would guess it’s considerable.

Of course, there are plenty of other books on our shelves that we love, sometimes because the contents bewitched us, sometimes because the book itself is so beautiful—I’ve hung on to a particularly lovely copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame for decades, and I’m not even that wild about the story. Books in this sense are like LPs—physical objects that are fun to hold, fun to look at (rolling joints on them is not really ideal, but never mind). Transportable? Not so much. Easy to ruin, scratch, tear? You bet. But in their ungainly, old fashioned ways, books and records beat their digital equivalents in every category but convenience. They truly are, in that sense, the best delivery systems ever.