Released: April 4, 2012

The rise of e-reading

21% of Americans have read an e-book. The increasing availability of e-content is prompting some to read more than in the past and to prefer buying books to borrowing them.

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Summary of findings

One-fifth of American adults (21%) report that they have read an e-book in the past year, and this number increased following a gift-giving season that saw a spike in the ownership of both tablet computers and e-book reading devices such as the original Kindles and Nooks.1 In mid-December 2011, 17% of American adults had reported they read an e-book in the previous year; by February, 2012, the share increased to 21%.

The rise of e-books in American culture is part of a larger story about a shift from printed to digital material. Using a broader definition of e-content in a survey ending in December 2011, some 43% of Americans age 16 and older say they have either read an e-book in the past year or have read other long-form content such as magazines, journals, and news articles in digital format on an e-book reader, tablet computer, regular computer, or cell phone.

Those who have taken the plunge into reading e-books stand out in almost every way from other kinds of readers. Foremost, they are relatively avid readers of books in all formats: 88% of those who read e-books in the past 12 months also read printed books.2 Compared with other book readers, they read more books. They read more frequently for a host of reasons: for pleasure, for research, for current events, and for work or school. They are also more likely than others to have bought their most recent book, rather than borrowed it, and they are more likely than others to say they prefer to purchase books in general, often starting their search online.

The growing popularity of e-books and the adoption of specialized e-book reading devices are documented in a series of new nationally representative surveys by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project that look at the public’s general reading habits, their consumption of print books, e-books and audiobooks, and their attitudes about the changing ways that books are made available to the public.

Most of the findings in this report come from a survey of 2,986 Americans ages 16 and older, conducted on November 16-December 21, 2011, that extensively focused on the new terrain of e-reading and people’s habits and preferences. Other surveys were conducted between January 5-8 and January 12-15, 2012 to see the extent to which adoption of e-book reading devices (both tablets and e-readers) might have grown during the holiday gift-giving season and those growth figures are reported here. Finally, between January 20-Febuary 19, 2012, we re-asked the questions about the incidence of book reading in the previous 12 months in order to see if there had been changes because the number of device owners had risen so sharply. All data cited in this report are from the November/December survey unless we specifically cite the subsequent surveys. This work was underwritten by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Key findings:

A fifth of American adults have read an e-book in the past year and the number of e-book readers grew after a major increase in ownership of e-book reading devices and tablet computers during the holiday gift-giving season.  A pre-holiday survey found that 17% of Americans age 18 and older had read an e-book in the previous 12 months and a post-holiday survey found that the number had grown to 21%. This coincides with significant increases in ownership of e-book reading devices and tablet computers over the holiday gift-giving season. Ownership of e-book readers like the original Kindle and Nook jumped from 10% in December to 19% in January and ownership of tablet computers such as iPads and Kindle Fires increased from 10% in mid-December to 19% in January. In all, 29% of Americans age 18 and older own at least one specialized device for e-book reading – either a tablet or an e-book reader.

The average reader of e-books says she has read 24 books (the mean number) in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by a non-e-book consumer. Some 78% of those ages 16 and older say they read a book in the past 12 months. Those readers report they have read an average (or mean number) of 17 books in the past year and 8 books as a median (midpoint) number.

Those who read e-books report they have read more books in all formats. They reported an average of 24 books in the previous 12 months and had a median of 13 books. Those who do not read e-books say they averaged 15 books in the previous year and the median was 6 books.

For device owners, those who own e-book readers also stand out. They say they have read an average of 24 books in the previous year (vs. 16 books by those who do not own that device). They report having read a median of 12 books (vs. 7 books by those who do not own the device).

Interestingly, there were not major differences between tablet owners and non-owners when it came to the volume of books they say they had read in the previous 12 months.

Overall, those who reported reading the most books in the past year include: women compared with men; whites compared with minorities; well-educated Americans compared with less-educated Americans; and those age 65 and older compared with younger age groups.

30% of those who read e-content say they now spend more time reading, and owners of tablets and e-book readers particularly stand out as reading more now. Some 41% of tablet owners and 35% of e-reading device owners said they are reading more since the advent of e-content. Fully 42% of readers of e-books said they are reading more now that long-form reading material is available in digital format. The longer people have owned an e-book reader or tablet, the more likely they are to say they are reading more: 41% of those who have owned either device for more than a year say they are reading more vs. 35% of those who have owned either device for less than six months who say they are reading more.

Men who own e-reading devices and e-content consumers under age 50 are particularly likely to say they are reading more.

The prevalence of e-book reading is markedly growing, but printed books still dominate the world of book readers. In our December 2011 survey, we found that 72% of American adults had read a printed book and 11% listened to an audiobook in the previous year, compared with the 17% of adults who had read an e-book.

E-book reading happens across an array of devices, including smartphones. In our December survey we found that e-book readers age 16 and older were just as likely to have read an e-book on their computers as had read e-book reader devices specifically made for e-book consumption. Cell phones are reading devices, too:

In a head-to-head competition, people prefer e-books to printed books when they want speedy access and portability, but print wins out when people are reading to children and sharing books with others. We asked a series of questions about format preferences among the 14% of Americans age 16 and up who in the past 12 months have read both printed books and e-books.

As a rule, dual-platform readers 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. However, print was strongly preferred over e-books when it came to reading to children and sharing books with others. When asked about reading books in bed, the verdict was split: 45% prefer reading e-books in bed, while 43% prefer print.

 Which is better for these purposes

 

The availability of e-content is an issue to some. Of the 43% of Americans who consumed e-books in the last year or have read other long-form content on digital devices, a majority say they find the e-content is available in the format they want. Yet 23% say they find the material they are seeking “only sometimes,” “hardly ever,” or never available in the format they want:

The majority of book readers prefer to buy rather than borrow. 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. Those who own e-book reading devices and tablet computers are more likely than others to prefer to purchase.

As for the most recent book people read:

For internet users who read e-books, online bookstores are the first stop. Asked where they start their search for an e-book they want to read, 75% of e-book readers start their search at an online bookstore or website. Some 12% start at the library.

Overall, people read for a variety of reasons. Americans cite a range of motives for their reading and it is often the case that people point to multiple reasons for reading. As a rule, technology users, and especially tablet owners and those who own e-book readers, are more likely than non-owners to read for every purpose.

Why people like to read. Asked to tell us what they like most about book reading, those who had read a book in the past 12 months gave a host of reasons that ranged from the highly practical to the sublime.

Why people like to read

Demographics of e-book readers. In our survey ending in February 2012, we found that 29% of adult book readers had read an e-book in the past 12 months. Overall, that comes to 21% of all adults. Those who read e-books are more likely to be under age 50, have some college education, and live in households earning more than $50,000.

Portrait of e-book readers

Those who own e-book reading devices stand out from other book readers and there are sometimes differences among device owners in their reading habits.   

Our December 2011 survey found that those age 16 and older who own tablets or e-book reading devices are more likely than others to read for every reason: for pleasure, for personal research, for current events, and for work or school.

Device owners read more often. On any given day 56% of those who own e-book reading devices are reading a book, compared with 45% of the general book-reading public who are reading a book on a typical day. Some 63% of the e-book device owners who are reading on any given day are reading a printed book; 42% are reading an e-book; and 4% are listening to an audio book.

Device owners are more likely to buy books. Some 61% of e-reading device owners said they purchased the most recent book they read, compared with 48% of all readers. Another 15% said they had borrowed their most recent book from a friend or family member (vs. 24% of all readers), and 10% said they borrowed it from a library (vs.14% of all readers).

Asked their preference for obtaining books in all formats, e-book reading device owners were more likely to say they prefer to purchase than to borrow books in any format – print, digital, or audio. In related fashion, they are also more likely to say they start their searches for e-books at online bookstores.

Book recommendations. Overall, owners of e-reading devices are more likely than all Americans 16 and older to get book recommendations from people they knew (81% vs. 64%) and bookstore staff (31% vs. 23%). In addition, compared with the general public, owners of e-reading devices who use the internet are also more likely to get recommendations from online bookstores or other websites (56% vs. 34%).

Where do you get recommendations for reading material

Other key findings:

  1. American adults age 18 and older, as of February 2012.
  2. Americans age 16 and older, as of December 2011.
  3. Many people said they consumed e-books on several devices, so these numbers add up to more than 100%.
  4. We did not press them for further details about those other sources.

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