September 9, 2016
This week in American reading habits
by Simon Reichley
Last week, we did a brief summary of data released by the NEA on the number of Americans reading literature (defined as poetry, plays, short stories, or dramas). The short version is that only 47% of all Americans surveyed had read a work of literature in the last year. Even lower rates were found among men, people of color, and the uneducated.
Hot on the heels of that report, the PEW research center has released the results of its annual “Book Reading” survey, conducted in March and April of this year. The PEW survey was concerned with book reading in general, and in which formats Americans are doing their reading on. The data makes no distinction between fiction and non-fiction.
The broadest and most general findings of the survey are that :
- 73% of Americans have read a book in the last calendar year, down from 79% in 2011
- 65% of Americans have read a physical, print book, down from 71% in 2011
- 28% have read an e-book, up from 17% in 2011 (but unchanged since 2014)
- 14% have listened to an audiobook, largely unchanged since 2012
- On average, Americans read twelve books per year
- Americans making more than $75,000 per year read 40% more books per year than those making $30,000 or less
- Americans living in urban, suburban, and rural environments all read at approximately the same rate
Because of differences in methodology and sample size, it’s difficult to do a one-to-one comparison between these results and the NEA’s. But it is interesting to note the twenty-five-plus-point difference between the general readership and readers of “literature.” Unfortunately, the same discouraging trends among men, people of color, and the uneducated show up in this data as well, with those populations reading fewer books per year by more than a third.
While the number of books that Americans read has stayed steady, the ways in which they’re reading have been changing lately, a fact we in the publishing industry are forced to confront ad nauseam. But this report seems to indicate that things are settling down. Overall reading numbers have stayed more or less steady since 2012, and e-book and audio rates have been steady for a few years now. What is changing (and we’ve seen evidence of this before) is that within the e-book category, people are more and more likely to be reading on their phones or tablets, rather than on dedicated e-readers. Tablet use has nearly quadrupled, and smartphone use more than doubled, while e-reader use has remained pretty much unchanged since 2011.
We’ll be poring over these numbers in the coming days, and let you know what else we find.
Simon Reichley is assistant to the publishers and office manager at Melville House.