Print vs. Digital Books? The Majority of Americans Still Favor Print
by Andrew Perrin
A growing share of Americans are reading e-books on tablets and smartphones rather than dedicated e-readers, but print books remain much more popular than books in digital formats.
Americans today have an enormous variety of content available to them at any time of day, and this material is available in a number of formats and through a range of digitally connected devices. Yet even as the number of ways people spend their time has expanded, a Pew Research Center survey finds that the share of Americans who have read a book in the last 12 months (73%) has remained largely unchanged since 2012. And when people reach for a book, it is much more likely to be a traditional print book than a digital product. Fully 65% of Americans have read a print book in the last year, more than double the share that has read an e-book (28%) and more than four times the share that has consumed book content via audio book (14%).
But while print remains at the center of the book-reading landscape as a whole, there has been a distinct shift in the e-book landscape over the last five years. Americans increasingly turn to multipurpose devices such as smartphones and tablet computers – rather than dedicated e-readers – when they engage with e-book content. The share of e-book readers on tablets has more than tripled since 2011 and the number of readers on phones has more than doubled over that time, while the share reading on e-book reading devices has not changed. And smartphones are playing an especially prominent role in the e-reading habits of certain demographic groups, such as non-whites and those who have not attended college.
These are among the main findings of a nationally representative telephone survey of 1,520 American adults conducted March 7-April 4, 2016.
The share of Americans who have read a book in the last year is largely unchanged since 2012; more Americans read print books than either read e-books or listen to audio books
Following a slight overall decline in book readership between 2011 and 2012, the share of American adults who read books in any format has remained largely unchanged over the last four years. Some 73% of Americans report that they have read at least one book in the last year. That is nearly identical to the 74% who reported doing so in a survey conducted in 2012, although lower than the 79% who reported doing so in 2011.
Americans read an average (mean) of 12 books per year, while the typical (median) American has read 4 books in the last 12 months. Each of these figures is largely unchanged since 2011, when Pew Research Center first began conducting surveys of Americans’ book reading habits.
Readers today can access books in several common digital formats, but print books remain substantially more popular than either e-books or audio books. Roughly two-thirds of Americans (65%) have read a print book in the last year, which is identical to the share of Americans who reported doing so in 2012 (although down slightly from the 71% who reported reading a print book in 2011).
By contrast, 28% of Americans have read an e-book – and 14% have listened to an audio book – in the last year. In addition to being less popular than print books overall, the share of Americans who read e-books or listen to audio books has remained fairly stable in recent years.
E-book readership increased by 11-percentage points between 2011 and 2014 (from 17% to 28%) but has seen no change in the last two years. Similarly, the share of American adults who listen to audio books has changed only marginally since Pew Research Center first asked about this topic in 2011 – at that point, 11% of Americans had listened to an audio book in the last year, compared with 14% now.
Nearly four-in-ten Americans read print books exclusively; just 6% are digital-only book readers
In total, 34% of Americans have either read an e-book or listened to an audio book in the last year, but relatively few Americans read books in these digital formats to the exclusion of print books.
More than one-quarter (28%) of Americans read books in both print and digital formats (which includes e-books and audio books). Some 38% read print books but did not read books in any digital formats, while just 6% read digital books but not print books.
Relatively few Americans are “digital-only” book readers regardless of their demographic characteristics. However, some demographic groups are slightly more likely than others to do all of their reading in digital format. For instance, 7% of college graduates are digital-only book readers (compared with just 3% of those who have not graduated from high school), as are 8% of those with annual household incomes of $75,000 or more (compared with 3% of Americans with incomes of $30,000 or less). Interestingly, young adults are no more likely than older adults to be “digital-only” book readers: 6% of 18- to 29-year-olds read books in digital formats only, compared with 7% of 30- to 49-year-olds and 5% of those 50 and older.
College graduates are roughly four times as likely to read e-books and about twice as likely to read print books and audio books – compared with those who have not graduated high school
As was the case in previous Pew Research Center surveys on book reading, certain groups of Americans read at relatively high rates and in a wide variety of formats. These include:
College graduates – Compared with those who have not attended college, college graduates are more likely to read books in general, more likely to read print books, and more likely to consume digital-book content. The typical (median) college graduate has read seven books in the last year.
Young adults – 80% of 18- to 29-year-olds have read a book in the last year, compared with 67% of those 65 and older. These young adults are more likely than their elders to read books in various digital formats, but are also more likely to read print books as well: 72% have read a print book in the last year, compared with 61% of seniors.1
Women – Women are more likely than men to read books in general and also more likely to read print books. However, men and women are equally likely to read digital-format books such as e-books and audio books.
The share of Americans who read books on tablets or cellphones has increased substantially since 2011, while the share using dedicated e-readers has remained stable
Tablet computer and smartphone ownership have each increased dramatically in recent years, and a growing share of Americans are using these multipurpose mobile devices – rather than dedicated e-readers – to read books. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of Americans who read books on tablet computers has increased nearly fourfold (from 4% to 15%), while the share who read books on smartphones has more than doubled (from 5% to 13%). The share of Americans who read books on desktop or laptop computers has also increased, although by a more modest amount: 11% of Americans now do this, up from 7% in 2011.
By contrast, 8% of Americans now report that they read books using dedicated e-reader devices – nearly identical to the 7% who reported doing so in 2011.
About one-in-five Americans under the age of 50 have used a cellphone to read e-books; blacks and Americans who have not attended college are especially likely to turn to cellphone – rather than other digital devices – when reading e-books
Previous Pew Research Center studies have documented how several groups – such as blacks and Latinos, and those who have not attended college – tend to rely heavily on smartphones for online access. And in the context of book reading, members of these groups are especially likely to turn to smartphones – rather than tablets or other types of digital devices – when they engage with e-book content.
For instance, 16% of blacks report that they use their cellphones to read books. That is nearly double the share of blacks who read books on traditional computers (9%) and four times the share who read books using dedicated e-readers (4%). Hispanics are less likely than blacks as a whole to read books on cellphones (11% do so), but Hispanics are also substantially more likely to read books on cellphones than on e-readers or traditional computers. By contrast, whites tend to turn to a range of digital devices when reading e-books: 13% read e-books on cellphones, but 18% read e-books on tablet computers, 10% use e-book readers and 11% engage with e-book content on desktop or laptop computers.
Cellphones also play a relatively prominent role in the reading habits of Americans who have not attended college. College graduates are far more likely than those with high school diplomas or less to read books on tablets (25% vs. 7%), e-book readers (15% vs. 3%) or traditional computers (15% vs. 6%). But these differences are much less pronounced when it comes to reading books on cellphones. Some 17% of college graduates read books this way, compared with 11% of those with high school diplomas or less – just a 6-percentage point difference.
Along with these groups, Americans under the age of 50 are especially likely to consume e-book content on cell phones: one-in-five (19%) do so, compared with 9% of 50- to 64-year-olds and just 4% of those 65 and older.
The share of Americans who read in order to research a specific topic of interest has increased in recent years
In addition to asking whether – and on what devices – Americans read books specifically, the survey also included a broader set of questions asking about reasons that people might read written content of any kind (including books, but also magazines, newspapers or online content).
Among all American adults:
- 84% ever read to research specific topics of interest (29% do so nearly every day).
- 82% read to keep up with current events (47% nearly every day).
- 80% read for pleasure (35% nearly every day).
- 57% read for work or school (31% do so nearly every day).
A similar share of Americans report that they read for pleasure, for work or school, or to keep up with current events compared to the most recent time these questions were asked in 2011. However, the share of Americans who read in order to research specific topics of interest has increased by 10-percentage points over that time frame, from 74% to 84%.
Older and younger adults are equally likely to read for pleasure or to keep up with current events; younger adults are more likely to read for work or school, or to research a topic of interest
In some cases, the factors associated with high rates of book readership are the same ones associated with reading for specific purposes. For instance, college graduates are more likely than those who have only attended high school to read books in general – and they are also more likely to read for all four of the specific motivations examined in this survey.
At the same time, there is not always such a direct relationship between book reading and overall reading for specific purposes. As noted earlier in this report, young adults are more likely to read books than older adults. And when asked about specific reasons why they might read a range of content, these young adults are much more likely than older adults to say that they read for work or school, or to research a specific topic of interest. However, Americans of all ages are equally likely to indicate that they read (whether in book form or otherwise) for pleasure or to keep up with current events.
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