Pew E-book Survey: 20 Percent of U.S. Is Reading Electronically

One in five Americans read an e-book last year, says a new Pew study. Malcolm Jones on the bad news for librarians.

Mark Lennihan / AP Photo

If you had any doubt that Nooks, Kindles, iPads, and even smartphones were radically changing the habits of American readers, give it up. So says a report, “The rise of e-reading,” published yesterday by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, and it has a mountain of facts to back up that claim.

One in five Americans read an e-book within the past year. About 43 percent of American adults say that they have either read a book or other long-form content (magazines, journals, or news stories) in the past year on an e-reader, a tablet, a computer or a cellphone. And 28 percent of Americans own at least one device for e-reading, either a tablet or an e-reader. Not only that, but the people who read e-books, many of whom also read printed books, are reading more than ever, even more than people who read the old-fashioned way. The average reader of e-books claims to have read 24 books in the last year, compared with an average of 15 books read by those who read only print. And this all happened before J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were available as e-books.

Publishers have reason to be thrilled by these findings. People reading more? What’s not to like? Booksellers in brick-and-mortar stores and librarians, on the other hand, can take little comfort in the statistics. Most people buy their e-books online, and they do buy most of what they like to read (the exception: audiobooks are big with library patrons—61 percent of those who listen to audiobooks prefer to borrow them). And e-book readers don’t share (not because they’re selfish, obviously, but because it’s difficult to transfer an e-book from your device to mine).

According to the Pew study, the percentage of people who read printed books still dwarfs the percentage of e-reading folk. Some 72 percent of American adults say they read a book last year, compared with 17 percent who said they read an e-book. But that was in December. When Pew did another canvas in February, the number who said they’d read an e-book jumped up to 21 percent (it was a big Christmas for e-readers of all kinds). There are, according to the report, “four times more people reading e-books on a typical day now than was the case less than two years ago.”

As for those who read both electronically and the old-fashioned way, they said they preferred e-books when they wanted a book in a hurry, when they were traveling or commuting, and when they were looking for a broad selection. Print won out when it was a question of sharing books with others or reading to children. As for reading in bed, 45 percent liked to do it with an e-book and 43 percent preferred printed books.

But how’s this for strange: 42 percent of e-book readers read their e-books on a computer, and 29 percent read e-books on their cellphones, proof enough that people will read books on just about any type of device, a fact with far-reaching implications: this week Worldreader, a U.S. nonprofit literacy agency, launched a beta version of an app for non-smartphones, or feature phones, which account for 70 percent of the mobile phones sold worldwide. Worldreader hopes to use the technology—an option that barely existed a decade ago—to bring free e-books to children and families in sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the developing world.

The section of the Pew report on why people read what they read is slightly suspect, only because you suspect that people answer surveys about reading the same way they answer surveys about sex—that is, they lie. According to the report, 80 percent of Americans over 16 say they read at least occasionally for pleasure and 36 percent say they read for pleasure every day, while 78 percent say they read at least occasionally to keep up with current events and 50 percent say they do so daily or almost every day. But note this: if people are lying, they aren’t lying as much as they were in 1978, when 13 percent of the respondents in a Gallup survey claimed to have read 50 or more books in the previous year (the December 2011 Pew study found only 5 percent of the responders willing to make that claim). The number of people who said they’d read no books (or didn’t know or refused to answer) in the last year jumped from 12 percent in 1978 to 22 percent in 2011.

But on one tantalizing question, the report has little to say: are e-books expanding the market for books or are they simply cannibalizing an existing market? Are all those e-book fans just old print fans in new outfits? According to Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project, because the e-book era has barely begun, it’s still too early for a definitive answer. “We really won’t know for sure what’s happening to the size of the book-reader population for another couple of years,” he says, while pointing out that, according to long-term data, “there seem to be fewer book readers now, but those who are book readers are reading a bit more, at least compared with early 2000s.”

One thing is certain, though. Readers are not a touchy-feely bunch. Only 2 percent mentioned the physical aspects of a printed book—the way it feels, looks, or smells—as a primary pleasure.