Released: April 4, 2012

The rise of e-reading

Part 5: Where and how readers get their books

By , , , and


The past several years have brought changes to the bookselling ecosystem, including the rise of e-commerce (and of Amazon in particular) and the continuing decline of independent bookstores and the bricks-and-mortar mega-bookstore. Borders declared bankruptcy in 2011. The current bookstore landscape now includes Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million, as well as smaller chains and independent bookstores, such as Powell’s.

Meanwhile, the sphere of e-booksellers is constantly growing. It encompasses not only Amazon and traditional booksellers—many of whom have their own proprietary e-reading devices, such as Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook—but also tech companies and makers of e-reader devices, such as Apple, Google, Sony, and Kobo. There are also many services, such as Project Gutenberg, that make e-books available for free downloads, usually because the titles are in the public domain. And smaller publishers and self-publishing companies have come into being in the digital era.

The audiobook market is currently dominated by Amazon’s subsidiary, although many other sellers exist as well.

Libraries, family, and friends have long been popular sources for borrowing print books for those who prefer to borrow their books, but e-books and audiobooks in their current formats are harder to lend, with the exception of those sold on CDs.

This chapter explores how people are navigating this new environment – how they discover books, where they get them, and their preferences for different book formats.

The way people prefer to get books: To buy or to borrow?

In our December 2011 survey, we found that a majority of print readers (54%) and readers of e-books (61%) prefer to purchase their own copies of these books. Meanwhile, most audiobook listeners prefer to borrow their audiobooks; just one in three audiobook listeners (32%) prefer to purchase audiobooks they want to listen to, while 61% prefer to borrow them.

Looking more closely at preferences by format, we find:

Additionally, tablet users and e-reader device users were more likely than non-users in general to say that they mostly prefer to purchase their own copies of both print and e-books.

Where did the most recent book come from?

As we noted in Part 2, we asked book readers about the most recent book they read in any format, print, audio, or e-book: How had they gotten it? Almost half (48%) of readers age 16 and older said they had purchased it. About a quarter (24%) said they had borrowed it from a friend or family member, and 14% said they borrowed it from a library.

Those who read e-books were more likely than other readers to have bought the book—and they are more likely to say they prefer buying books than getting them other ways. Some 64% of e-book reading device owners had purchased the book, compared with 46% of non-owners who had bought the book. For tablet owners, 59% had purchased the book, compared with 47% of non-tablet owners who had purchased the book.

How readers got the most recent book they read

Those who had read an e-book on any device in the previous year were also more likely than printed-book readers to have bought their most recent book: 55% of e-book readers had bought their most recently read book, compared with 49% of those who had read print books.

Beyond that major difference, the profile of those in each category varies:

Those who are audiobook consumers are particularly likely to rely on the library for their recent books:  24% of those who listened to an audiobook in the past year had borrowed a book from the library, compared with 12% of those who didn’t consume audiobooks.

Personal recommendations dominate book recommendations; logarithms, bookstore staffers, and librarians are in the picture, too

We asked all adults in our December 2011 survey where they got book recommendations and by far the most important source was family members, friends, or co-workers: 15

A closer look at e-books: Where do readers start their search?

In our December 2011 survey, three-quarters of those who read e-books (75%) said that when they want to read a particular e-book, they usually look for it first at an online bookstore or website, while 12% said they tend to look first at their public library.

Men are more likely than women to look at online booksellers first, and whites are more likely to look online than African Americans. Those with at least some college are more likely to look at online booksellers first than those with less education, and those making at least $50,000 per year are more likely to look online first than those making less (who are more likely to say that they don’t know where they would look first).

One in twenty e-book readers said that they usually first look for e-books someplace other than an online bookseller or their public library. It’s possible that among these sources is Amazon’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library,16 which allows Amazon Prime members to check out one book at a time up to once a month. The lending library includes books from Amazon’s own “KDP Select” authors and publishers along with more than 100 former and current New York Times bestsellers (although none of the “big six” publishers are participating). 17 Outside of the Kindle Lending Library, Amazon has an option that allows Kindle e-books to be lent to another individual once for 14 days, although not all publishers have enabled this.

Showdown: Which is better, a print book or an e-book?

We asked a series of general questions about format preferences among the 14% of Americans who in the past 12 months have read both printed books and e-books. Overall, 36% of our sample of readers in both formats prefer e-books for a majority of the circumstances we queried, 24% prefer printed books, and 40% have no preference.

As a rule, readers preferred print over e-books when it came to reading to children and sharing books with others. They preferred e-books when they wanted to get a book quickly, when they were traveling or commuting, and when they were looking for a wide selection. There was a split verdict when it came to reading books in bed: 45% of these readers said they preferred an e-book and 43% said they preferred a printed book.

Here are more details about the book readers who have those views:

Reading with a child

By a huge 81%-9% margin, those who have read in both kinds of book formats in the past year say printed books are better for reading with a child. This is a consistent judgment throughout different demographic and tech-owning groups, although tablet owners (14%) are more likely than those who do not own tablets (7%) to say they prefer e-books for this situation.

Sharing books with other people

A large majority of readers in both formats believe that printed books are better to share than e-books. This is probably a testament to the fact that sharing e-books by passing along files is quite difficult to do. Women are more likely than men to say they prefer printed books when it comes to sharing (74% vs. 63%). Those with at least some college education and those in households earning more than $50,000 are more likely than others to say this. Rural residents (79%) are more likely than urban (65%) residents to think that it is easier to share printed books.

Reading books in bed

This was a tie among readers in both formats: 45% of those who read books in the past year in both printed and e-book format said e-books were better for reading in bed and 43% said printed books. Hispanics and those living in relatively less well-off households were more likely than others to cite printed books as their preference. On the other hand, those saying that e-books were better were disproportionately likely to be those who prefer buying e-books to borrowing them, to live in households earning $50,000-$75,000, and to live in urban areas.

Having a wide selection of books to choose from

Some 53% of those who had read print books and e-books in the past year declared that e-books were better when it came to having a wide selection of books to choose from. That compares with 35% who thought print books held the advantage for a wide selection. Those who picked e-books were more likely to be ages 18-29 than other ages; more likely to live in urban areas; and to be book-reading device owners under age 40.18

Reading books while traveling or commuting

Among readers who have read print and e-books in the past 12 months, e-books hold a decided advantage when it comes to reading while traveling or commuting: 73% of readers in both formats said e-books were better for reading while on the move, compared with 19% who cited printed books. Those under age 65 held this view in notable numbers, as did device owners who are college graduates and device owners living in households earning more than $50,000.

Being able to get a book quickly

Among readers of both printed and e-books, the digital format has a lopsided advantage when it comes to being able to get a book quickly, no doubt because instant wireless downloading is possible with e-book reader devices and tablets. Some 83% of these readers said e-books were better for that and 13% picked printed books. Those most likely to choose e-books for this reason included those ages 18-50, those living in households earning more than $50,000, and those who say they get book-choice recommendations from websites.

  1. Including those who had not read a book in the last 12 months.
  3. “Customers Love Kindle Owners’ Lending Library — KDP Authors and Publishers Benefit.” press release, Business Wire, 12 Jan 2012.
  4. “Book-reading device owners” include all those in our December 2011 sample who said they own an e-reader or tablet computer.