Print Books Dominate American Reading Habits in 2013, but There are Signs of a Reading Revolution

What were the reading habits of Americans in 2013 and what do those habits mean for those of us in the education sector? A recent survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project provides a snapshot; giving insights into reading habits; preferences between paper, ebooks and audiobooks; as well as offering interesting insights into habits across age, gender, race, education level, and community type (urban, suburban, rural). Such reports help those of us in the education sector gauge reading preferences, readiness for resources in different mediums, the viability of different products and services, along with giving us insights into future trends and possibilities.

While half of Americans own a tablet or e-book reader (up from 18% two years ago), their reading habits continue to be dominated by paper texts. These and similar statistics come from the 2013 Pew Internet survey on e-reading, as reported in E-Reading Rises as Device Ownership Jumps. As it stands, devices are in more American’s hands, and they are starting to use them more for reading (an increase of reading on these devices from 23% in 2012 to 28% in 2013).

What type of devices do people own? Consider that only 3% of those surveyed had a tablet in 2010, but 42% owned one by January 2014, and only 4% owned an e-reader in 2010, but over 30% by 2014. At the same time, computer use is declining (42% in 2011 and 29% in 2013). Cell phone ownership remained largely steady, with a 4% increase from 2011-2013. Given such trends, those in the education sector responsible for texts and related resources are wise to design products and services that meet the ongoing demand for paper, but place high priority on resources for the tablet first, e-readers second, the cell phone third (or platforms and formats that work across those devices). This advice is amplified by the fact that low-cost tablets hit the US market in 2014, including possibilities like the $40 UbiSlate. Assume that fewer people will read or use long texts on a computer.

Among the trends, I find one pair of statistics especially notable, namely the rapid adoption of tablets and e-readers combined with the fact that print continues to dominate reading habits of Americans. This seems to show that the adoption rate of the devices is rapid, but habits are slow to change and/or reading resources have not caught up with this rapid adoption. Of course, the survey does not get into the type of reading and the other uses of tablets, ebooks and cell phones. Perhaps peopleĀ prefer to read one type of text in paper and another on a tablet or similar device. Either way, when one sees this quick of an adoption rate, it means something transformational, potentially disruptive. And since more people own the devices than are using them to read books, that seems to suggest that they are using the devices for other purposes (multimedia consumption, web browsing, games, communication). Part of the limitation of the study, therefore, is the fact that much “reading” and knowledge consumption is taking place outside of “books” and “texts”. The study provides helpful insights into “book” reading, but does not explore the rest of the reading landscape (think new literacies).

Great news to those of us who are bibliophiles is the fact that 76% of survey respondents read at least one book in the last year, with the median number of books read annually at 5 and the average being 12. The average for women in notably higher, 14 books a year compared 10 for men. Interestingly, among those who own an e-book reader, men are more likely to use the devices to read ebooks (88% compared to 72%). Those 30-65+ are averaging 12-13 books a year compared to only 9 a year for those 18-35 (the survey did not include those under 18). In addition, African-American and white respondents reported reading close to the same number annually (12 and 13 respectively), but hispanic participants reported an average of 7 books a year.

More Americans are connected, traditional reading habits remain intact (although far less so for those 18-35, the demographic reading the fewest books), and adoption of ebooks continues to gradually increase. What are the implications for your organization? What unanswered questions might you want/need to explore?