Released: June 22, 2012

Libraries, patrons, and e-books

Part 2: Where people discover and get their books

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As part of our exploration of the new ecosystem of books, we asked respondents in our December 2011 survey about the way they discover books and then obtain them. We found that personal recommendations dominate book recommendations. At the same time, logarithms on websites, bookstore staffers, and librarians are in the picture, too.

In our December 2011 survey, we asked all the respondents if they ever got book recommendations from several sources and they reported:

We did not specifically ask about the role of professional book critics as a source of book discovery because we assumed they would be a source that factored into all these options.

Library users and library fans were more likely to cite all these sources of book recommendations, perhaps because they read more than non-library users. Among those who said the local library was very important to them and their family, 32% said they got book recommendations from librarians. Library card holders also got recommendations from all these sources at greater levels than non-card holders (28% vs. 7%).

Our online patron respondents said they received recommendations from a variety of sources, with the vast majority saying they get recommendations from family and friends, book reviews, and website recommendations.

“If I hit on a genre I like,” one reader on our panel said, “I’ll go to, look up a book I’ve read and enjoyed, and then look to see what other books Amazon thinks is like the book I just looked up. I also use social networking book sites, like Good Reads, to get ideas. I also use recommendations from Facebook friends as a place to start.”

In addition to friends and family, our online query respondents frequently mentioned book clubs as the recommendation source of their most recent book. Some also turned to browsing (both a library’s physical stacks and external websites), podcasts, TV and radio reviews, and award lists for more recommendations.

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

In our December 2011 survey, we found that 78% of Americans ages 16 and older read or listened to a book in the past year. We asked those book readers how, in general, they prefer to get their books, and found that a majority of print readers (54%) and readers of e-books (61%) say they prefer to purchase their own copies of these books rather than borrow them from somewhere else. In contrast, 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:

Looking specifically at library card holders, we find they are buyers as well as borrowers of books. At the same time, they are more likely to say they borrow than are the book readers who are non-card holders. Audiobook listeners with library cards are much more likely than others to prefer borrowing their audiobooks, and those without library cards are more likely to prefer buying their own copy.

Our online group of e-book borrowers offered some insight into how they decide whether to borrow or buy their books. Generally tech-savvy, our respondents are also particularly heavy readers.30 When it comes to e-book borrowers, 33% say they generally prefer to buy e-books and 57% say they generally prefer to borrow them.

Many respondents in our online panel said they liked to purchase books they might want to re-read or share with others, especially spiritual and self-help books. Many also preferred to purchase books for reading to children (although others cited their children’s voracious reading appetites as the reason for regular library trips). Graphics-heavy books, reference books, and books that are part of a series were also frequently mentioned as best for purchasing. At least one student mentioned a preference for purchasing used books, “so I can highlight and mark pages at will.”

Finally, some found the permanence of a personal print copy reassuring. “I know that electronic devices can fail,” one respondent said. “If [a device] does fail, what I once thought was permanent… isn’t.”

Where did the most recent book come from?

We asked book readers about the most recent book they read in any format, print, audio, or e-book: How had they obtained it? Almost half (48%) of readers ages 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.

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 13% of those who didn’t consume audiobooks.

In terms of device ownership, those who own e-readers or tablets are more likely than non-owners to have bought the last book they read–and they are more likely to say they prefer buying books than getting them other ways. Some 64% of e-reader owners purchased their last book, compared with 46% of non-e-reader owners. For tablet owners, 59% purchased their last book, compared with 47% of non-tablet owners.

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

A closer look at libraries

Asked where they got the most recent book they read, library card holders are just as likely as non-card holders to have purchased the book, but much less likely to have gotten it from a family member or friend and more likely to have obtained it from the library. Overall, some 20% of book readers say their most recently read book came from the library.

Library card holders are also notably more likely than others to be consumers of other kinds of content, especially material in electronic form: 62% of card holders say they regularly read daily news or a daily newspaper (vs. 52% of non-card holders) and most of them say they read such material on a computer or handheld device. Some 55% of library card holders regularly read magazines and journals (vs. 39% of non-card holders) and 35% of those card-holding readers say they read such material on a computer or handheld device.

Our online panel respondents outlined the complex paths they often take to find and pursue books that catch their eye. One respondent read the Hunger Games series along with her 13 year-old daughter: “We got the books from the library after waiting a long time for reserved copies. We loved them so much that we are going to purchase the whole series tomorrow from the school Scholastic book order form. Also I have all them on my new iPad Kindle app and my son is now able to start reading them.”

Another online panelist wrote that she had found her latest book by chance at the library, which she described as “a complete fluke since I rarely browse physical shelves these days. I have a preschooler and he rarely stays put still long enough for me to find something while we’re in the library.” She added, “Usually, I find books in the catalog, go to Amazon to read reviews about it, request books for pickup at my local branch and then pick them up on our way to the children’s section in the library.”

Many of our online respondents described how the library fit into their book discovery process as a way to “try out” new authors and genres before committing to a print purchase. “I like to read new-to-me authors by borrowing from the library,” one said. “If I enjoy the book, I will then purchase it.” Many of our online panelists wrote that even when they preferred to borrow a book, they often purchased books that had long wait lists or were unavailable at their local library, or if they thought the book would be too long to finish in the allotted time.

The library was also an important source for the many respondents who described themselves as voracious readers, as it freed their reading habits from the constraints of budget and storage space. Still, there some who buy the book after having read a borrowed copy.  The only time I buy a book to keep is when I have read it and liked it enough to feel like I want to have it forever and read it again and again,” one wrote.

The e-book ecosystem: Where do e-book readers start their search?

In our December 2011 survey, three-quarters of people 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.

Among those who read e-books, men are more likely than women to look first at online booksellers, and whites are more likely to look online than African Americans. E-book readers with at least some college experience are more likely to look at online booksellers first than those with less education, and e-book readers who live in households 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 (KOLL),31);" >] which allows Amazon Prime members to check out one e-book at a time up to once a month.32);" >] 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 titles have this option enabled.33);" >]

Even e-book borrowers take their cues from commercial sources. Some 71% of e-book borrowers say they get book recommendations from online bookstores and websites; 39% say they get recommendations from the staff at bookstores they visit; and 42% say they get recommendations from librarians.

  1. Such as library users, library card holders, and those who said the local library was very important to them and their family.
  2. For instance, about half of our online questionnaire respondents said they read at least 20 print books per year, and about half read at least 11 e-books in the same time frame. And though audiobooks were not as popular as print or e-books, about half of the respondents had listened to at least on audiobook in that time—also significantly more than the general population we polled in our representative phone surveys.
  3. “Customers Love Kindle Owners’ Lending Library—KDP Authors and Publishers Benefit.” press release, Business Wire, 12 Jan 2012.
  4. Help: Lending Kindle Books. Last accessed June 14, 2012.