The Shatzkin Files

A feast of data to interpret in new Pew survey of book readers about ebooks

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There are a few gems to interpret in the just-released Pew survey of ebook reading.

1. We are getting very close to half (they report 43%) of Americans 16 and older saying they have read a book or other long-form content in digital format in the past year. As other data in the survey suggest, this number is still rising rapidly.

This number is an index of how much of the reading public can be reached without print. Since elsewhere in the data it is reported that only 78% of the people 16 and over have read a book in any format in the past 12 months, it appears that more than half the book readers can be reached without print already.

2. Pew tracked some startling growth around Christmas. Just before the holiday, 17% of Americans 18 and over (sometimes they seem to measure “adult” from age 16, sometimes from age 18) had read an ebook in the previous 12 months. But right after the holiday, that number had jumped to 21%. Remembering that 22% of the population hadn’t read a book at all in the past 12 months, that means that about 27% of book readers report having read an ebook recently. And that number jumped nearly 25% in a month!

3. One of the most startling data points reported is that both tablet ownership and ereader ownership had just about doubled over Christmas, from 10% in mid-December to 19% in mid-January in both cases. With overlap accounted for, Pew estimates that 28% of Americans 18 and over own one or both.

Device ownership is still climbing fast, although it is likely that the overlap, a single person owning both devices, grew faster over this Christmas than it had before. When people get a second device, a replacement or a complementary device, they probably don’t indulge in the same buying spurt as they do when they get their first device. The data summary I saw didn’t correlate the rise in ownership of each of the two devices with the rise in ownership of either of the two devices, which limits our ability to forecast how much content growth we should see following the increase in device penetration.

4. Device owners who own an ebook reader read an average of 24 books in the previous year, but those who don’t, including those who own tablets, only read an average of 16 books. The report says that tablet owners read the same number of books as those who don’t own devices.

This data would seem to confirm the conjecture that multi-function tablets present many alternatives to ebook reading and therefore aren’t as reliable catalysts for reading growth as dedicated ebook readers are.

5. The survey found that 41% of people who have owned a tablet or ebook reader for more than a year say they are reading more books than before, but only 35% of those who have owned either device for six months or less make that statement.

This could mean that people just steadily increase their reading when they get a device. But another possible explanation (which I think is likely to be the more meaningful) is that the difference doesn’t have to do with how long people have owned a device but instead reflects the fact that the heaviest readers shift to digital formats first. The more recent converts are less likely to be heavy readers and therefore are less likely to increase their book reading because of device ownership.

6. In the December 2011 survey, 72% of American adults had read a printed book in the past year, 17% had read an ebook, and 11% had listened to an audio.

So ebooks passed audio in penetration of consumers in 2011. Audiobooks started to rise in popularity in the mid-1980s, nearly 30 years ago. eBooks have been gaining traction since late 2007, or less than five years.

7. In an 18 month period (June 2010 to December 2011), the number of people reading an ebook on the average day jumped from 4% to 15%.

This is a great data point and really illustrates the explosive growth of ebooks. The number of people reading an ebook on any particular day doubled twice in 18 months. Two more doublings would put the number of readers each day at 60% and, given that the heavier readers become digital first, that might constitute access to 80% of the consumption. The rate of growth will absolutely slow down; it will not double twice again in the next 18 months. But how much will it slow down? How about two doublings in the next three years? Five years? Whatever it takes, that’s the distance between us and an overwhelmingly ebook world.

8. A startling stat: more device owners are reading a printed book on any given day than an electronic one. Only 49% of Kindle and Nook owners are reading an ebook on any given day, but 59% are reading a printed book. Less surprising is that 39% of tablet owners are reading an ebook and 64% are reading a printed book.

Of all the data in this report, this piece would give the greatest comfort to those who believe the printed book has a long and prosperous future still in front of it. It would be considerably more helpful if we understood better which printed books these people are reading. If the device owners are reading novels in both formats, that’s quite a different thing than if they’re reading novels on their devices but using cookbooks in print. And we should remember a fact that Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex has imparted: ebook device owners tend to keep increasing the ratio of their reading to ebooks from print books over time.

9. One question delivered the most startling answers considering how far along we are in device penetration. The most commonly employed ebook reader is a plain old computer, on which 42% of people read ebooks as opposed to 41% on Kindles and Nooks. That’s surprising. Perhaps even more surprising is that more people (29%) read ebooks on a cell phone than on a tablet computer (23%).

As an iPhone-only book reader, I’m going to stop feeling like so much of an outlier. But there is even more significance to the fact that so much of the reading is done on PCs. That means two very important things to me. One is that a lot of people are reading in the office on their computers while their bosses and colleagues think they’re working. And the other is that all the hope that is harbored by illustrated book publishers that tablets will drive greater uptake of their ebooks, that sales so far have been constrained by the limitations of ebook readers, may already have been demonstrated to be futile. If nearly half the ebook audience already reads on fully capable PCs, they are already able to consume ebooks with color and illustrations and video and audio without needing a tablet. But they aren’t. The question is, “will they ever?”

10. eBooks narrowly nosed out print, 45% to 43%, as the favorite for reading in bed. Apparently they didn’t probe whether tablets or phones, which are backlit and enable reading without room light, are favored in that situation.

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  • One is that a lot of people are reading in the office on their computers while their bosses and colleagues think they’re working.” 

    Well, that explains it! I keep hearing that statistic about PCs, but I know only one person who reads novels mostly on a desktop machine (it’s a Mac,actually) while on the other hand, I know dozens who read on Kindles and several with Nooks.  No one wants to admit they read at work!

    • I admit it always puzzled me as well when I saw that stat, which has actually been more dramatic than that for years. I first got a clue about this from Harlequin when they started publishing short fiction as ebooks a few years ago because they were great to read on a lunch hour! That was before there were any Kindles.


      • EricWelch

        When I travel, I always take my netbook – the iPad just doesn’t cut it as a work device – and I find myself reading a lot using any one of the four major apps (Google books [surprisingly I have found some ebooks there which are available nowhere else], Kindle, Kobo, and Nook). It’s surprising how well it works. When stuck in a line or at the MD office, the iPhone is great for reading.  Never read non-business stuff at the office, though.

      • I love to hear these stories about people using the fact that ebooks have device interoperability to such advantage! Of course, when your reader of choice is also the smallest possible device that you always have on you (as mine is), you don’t find it necessary…

        I’m glad that you restrict your office reading to office stuff, but not nearly as glad as your bosses, colleagues, cliients, and trading partners are!


      • Babette Ross

         Mike, I was also surprised about the high % of people reading on their phones, most of my friends think I’m insane as I am also only reading ebooks on my iPhone.

      • You and me, Babette!


  • Calee Lee

    Are there any statistics for children’s books?

    • None jumped out at me. You can look more closely at the Pew data (I provided a link) but I don’t think there was anything terribly signficant.

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  • MelM

    I’m someone who would have to check as reading on my laptop PC part of the time. It’s not that I don’t like my Nook but often I find myself already snuggled into the sofa or recliner with the laptop checking the news or my e-mails when the urge to read strikes. If I’m already comfortable it is just easier to click on the reading software than to get up, put the laptop away, find where the Nook has wandered to, remove the cat from my spot on the sofa, then make myself comfortable again. More the path of least resistance than a preference for reading on a PC.

    • Interesting. I would have thought that was unusual or counterintuitive behavior. Of course, people have been regarding my iPhone reading habit with incredulity for years, but yet I found out from this data that more people read on a phone than on a tablet. (Of course, there are many more phones in circulation than there are tablets. There are also many more PCs in circulation than there are ereaders.)


  • Tim

    Mike I’m curious about your take on the Purchase question in this survey? They ask Part 5: Where and how readers get their books
    and then only let you choose purchase / borrow / other. Is other supposed to be Free? I am finding I mostly go to the public domain for books for my ereader/tablet/app/smartphone reading but that choice in this question doesn’t seem to really get parsed -respondents may answer purchase if they have got it free from Kobo or otherwise?
    The main reason I’m curious of course is to see how much of the increase in reading is actually paid for or people taking advantage of the availability of all those great public domain titles in digital. 

    • Tim, I think you’ve nailed an ambiguity in the questions and answers. I agree that what we want to know is what’s being paid for and what’s not and this isn’t helpful to parse that.


    • fishpatrol

      I read Other and interpreted that as pirated content, especially since they footnote said they didn’t press people to define this further. But having pirated and public domain works tossed into the same pile isn’t very useful.

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  • Marcello Vena

    Hi Mike,

    Your question about illustrated eBooks is the very same we are asking ourselves in Italy.
    eBook market yet is very tiny but it’s growing quickly.
    Being the largest media company here, we have also a leading position in the illustrated book market. 
    We decided to experiment and designed a very advanced illustrated  ebook (epub fixed layout with many tricks and embedded scripts that makes it looking like an App!) for iPad in Europe. According to IBookstore EMEA, it’s the most advanced illustrated eBook for adults (non kids) ever launched in Europe by a big publisher. 
    It’s an art ebook with over 800 illustrations of paintings, drawings, maps and so on… We launched it 8 days ago on the iBookstore (currently the largest market place here in Italy) and this ebook (“Il museo immaginato” by Philippe Daverio) is #1 since the very first day.
    The paper version is a huge success and was published back in Nov. 2011.  The English version of US and UK is also planned….
    The most exciting data is that sales after just 8 days are many times bigger than those you would expect after a full year of sales if we use as benckmark the current average market share of ebook versus paper book… One of the recurring user comments is that this ebook can be carried into the museums to enjoy live the real paintings. Clearly  we are selling this ebook (€9,99) to the very same owners of the paper version… The use value is totally different: this illustrated ebook is not seen as a substitute but rather a complement of the paper one… even though the content is the same (well the eBook has few special effects).

    If you wanna see it and exchange few thoughts live, the London Book Fair could do…

    Best regards,


    • Definitely sounds like the kind of thing that should work, if anything will. LBF is fine; find me at the Publishers Lunch stand T905. (That goes for all my friends!)
      Mike Shatzkin
      iPhone keyboard
      Mandates brevity

      • marcellovena

        See you there either on Monday or Tuesday. I’ll will hang around the Rizzoli International Publications (E520)

      • Marcello Vena

        Ok Mike, as said yesterday, let’s meet up tomorrow (Tue) at 10am in your stand.

  • Vince

    Hi Mike:


    ”In the December 2011 survey, 72% of American
    adults had read a printed book in the past year…”


    I don’t believe the functional literacy rate in the USA is
    even 72%. People lie like crazy on these surveys. Who wants to say they have
    not read a book in the last year? I’d say the percentage of adults who have
    read a real book in the last year is about 25%. Actually, you get a more honest
    response if you ask, “Have you bought a book in the last year”.



    • Books come in a very wide variety of shapes, sizes, and reading levels.
      And it is highly likely that the question was asked in writing, and therefore the pool of answerers was only the functionally literate to start with.