Old-Style Reader vs. New-Style

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Part 3 of 3: The  Brave New Publishing World

If I’m correct when I posited over the last two days that there’s a new kind of agent and a new kind of publisher in town, what about the reader? What’s a new-style reader look like?

Obviously, this is a core question for everyone in publishing–writers, agents, editors, marketers, sales reps, bookstores–to ask.

Because, really, when you come down to it, the reader is the end consumer for which we’re creating product. (Duh.) If we don’t know what’s changed  and what’s remained the same for the reader from, say, 10 years ago, or even 5 years, we don’t understand how to meet that person’s needs.

The reader is, in essence, the bottomline for everyone. If the reader doesn’t buy our product, publishing’s entire food chain breaks down.

First, here’s the good news: one study shows that the number of hours a reader in the U.S. spends reading books in 2002 was 106 hours per year. In 2012, the number of hours (estimated, of course) is 107.

Another study showed that U.S. consumers spent 104 hours reading in 2008, and the projected time spent reading in 2012 is 107.3.

Both studies indicate that book reading time, if anything, is increasing.

Harris Interactive gathered statistics on how many books U.S. adults read in 2010 and in 2011. The comparison between the years shows that reading habits are holding relatively steady, with people reading approximately the same number of books each year except for two marked differences. The number of individuals who read no books in a year increased from 9 percent in 2010 to 15 percent in 2011. Readers who in 2010 read 6-10 books  went down from 16 percent to 15 percent, and those who read 11-20 books in 2010 were 21 percent while that group went down to 16 percent in 2011. Those who read more than 21 books per year went up from 19 percent to 20 percent in 2011.

That indicates a loss of readers in the middle range, while the avid readers read more. That’s concerning for all of us.

But everyone–and everything–is competing for those same, finite hours of the reader’s life. So how do readers decide which book to pick up next?  Personal recommendations win the day, coming in at 49.2%. But, coming in second? Bookstore staff recommendations. Word-of-mouth has been the leading way to get readers to buy books for as long as I can remember–and in this brave new world that remains a constant.

Here’s a slide show that provides more info, including that readers skew older and female. And the affect e-readers is having on buying decisions. It’s an informative show!

What do you think has changed for readers in recent years? How have your habits changed?

What insights did you gain either through this post or the slide show?

Were you encouraged or discouraged?

37 Responses

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  1. Amanda Dykes says:

    70 million avid readers in the U.S.? Wow! This may reveal how naive I am in the numbers department, but I would have guessed far less than that. I was also impressed that independent, chain, and online bookstores were pretty comparable in sales. I hear so often that everything is going the way of the e-reader, and while projections for that technology’s increased usage over the next five years or so seem reasonable, the brick-and-mortars look to be holding their own, at least in the realm of the pretty pie charts.

    I find I’m the embodiment of the “as e-readers increase, so does resistance” conclusion. I got one for Christmas, and I love it for some things and hate it for others. I’m my own Jekyll and Hyde on this one. I realize this chart is not talking about people who are torn (like me), but still I sympathize with both camps.

    One thing stumps me though. On the “key influencers” slide that breaks down where unclaimed Borders customers will go, why did no one mention the cream-cheese-stuffed-pretzels? Serious consideration, you know. 😉

    Truly, thank you for such a well-researched, analyzed, and presented series this week.

  2. carol brill says:

    Janet, thanks for the great data. Turns out I am an avid reader to the 3rd degree, reading 60-75 books(mostly novels) a year.
    What’s changing – more of my avid reader friends read at least some books on e-readers. That means we share books less (probably not a bad thing for authors and book sales)
    but it also means we more often are all reading different books. I miss the great book discussions we had when we shared and read the same books. I can discuss books on Goodreads, but it is not the same as sharing about great reads while sitting on the beach with friends

  3. I think readers are a lot less patient than they maybe were in the past. Because so many of us are busy, we don’t want to waste our time reading a book that doesn’t grip us right away. I remember in the past being determined to finish every book I started, but over the years, there have been more and more books I’ve set aside and never finished because they started too slowly. This reminds me as a writer to always have a great hook and start the story running from page 1.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I’m the same way, Lindsay. I used to doggedly complete every book I started. Because I read mostly with a Kindle, it’s super easy to close out (and delete) a book and go to the Amazon store for a new selection. I love shopping on my Kindle! It’s made me pickier about what I read.

  4. Lori says:

    I have been reading a lot of books over the last year and I would say I have read over a 100 hours. However with my comute, the last few years I have also been listening to books in the car and I would be over 100 hours there too. With more audio books becomming avaiable I don’t expect my listening habits to change. Time available for reading may change.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Audio books are an important part of the equation that didn’t enter into the discussion until you brought them up, Lori. I haven’t seen stats on audiobook sales this year, but last year they were up significantly. I think more people are accessing books through audio as time constraints squeeze out chances to sit down with a book.

  5. Thanks for all this great information, Janet. The first thing that catches my attention is that the avid reader is defined as anyone who reads 10 books or more a year. That’s not what I would have thought is an avid reader. While the majority of people buying books for entertainment wasn’t a surprise, the mere 8% stating they buy for children or grandchildren was a shock and a bit discouraging for someone in the children’s market.

    I had one question on slide #10 about how people find out about new titles. It says book reviews is only 18.9%, but that personal recommendations is 49.2%. Where do book bloggers fall in that–the book reviews or personal recommendations category? I was thinking the reviews stat might refer to newspaper reviews and those found on sites like Amazon and B&N, but I wasn’t sure.

    Thanks again for this helpful information.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Cheryl, I don’t know either how those who gathered the stats for the slide show defined personal recommendations vs. blog reviewers. I would guess that blog reviewers would fit in the same category as reviews found on Amazon and B&N since those aren’t considered professional reviews. Professional reviews would be in newspapers and trade publications.

  6. Lynn Dean says:

    I wonder if the questions that led analysts to report that the number of books read had decreased were worded such that they included or excluded e-books and audio books? I could easily report that I read less “books” (as in bound books) last year, when in fact I purchased and read almost 3X as many ebooks and audio books as ever before!

    I’d say the biggest changes in my habits echo the comments made by others. I’m busier than ever. I commute longer distances. I have less patience with mediocre writing and feel less obligated to finish a book that does not hold my interest. I still love a great story, though, and will gladly shell out a bit extra for an audio book that I can enjoy on a commute. Since e-readers come with an audio capacity (however crude at the moment), I anticipate that the next big advance will be the inclusion and improvement of an audio version with each ebook purchase.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Lynn, I suspect the people who answered the questions were left to define reading a book as they chose. I personally would have counted any book that I completed–whether in physical form, e-book, or audio (I don’t listen to condensations).
      You make a good point when you mention that, with improved audio capabilities on e-readers, the reading public will have an additional, enjoyable way to take in more books.

  7. Like many people I find this survey fascinating, but I have some issues with a few aspects.

    I’ll apologize in advance for “too long; didn’t read” but this presentation and the data behind it have problems that take some explaining to get at.

    1. The graphs are misleading. The percentages aren’t represented by the pie slices. In slide 10, for example, almost half the people responded with “personal recommendation” yet the graphic representation shows about a quarter. I understand why that happens and what it means, but the graph actually makes it harder to understand, not easier.

    This is a problem with all surveys that try to represent data for questions that use “check all that apply” responses. When interpreting that slide, the viewer has to ignore the shape of the pie, pay attention ONLY to the numeric value, and take pains to ignore comparisons.

    For example: we cannot tell from the data provided how many people who relied on a personal recommendation ALSO paid attention to an ad. This is what Edmund Tufte would call “chart junk.” It’s not deliberately misleading but it creates a perceptual problem with the viewer.

    2. Slide 11 demonstrates an additional problem. The three components – independent bookstore, online bookstore, and chain – all show similar statistics. In addition to the overlap issue (we don’t know how people responded to the “pick all that apply” form of question), we also don’t know how many books those people bought in each venue. The problem is repeated in slide 12. The inferences on slide 14 are flawed because they are assuming that the data support the notion that all three channels are equally important based on head count. Without knowing how much got spent in each venue, or how much overlap exists across segments, there’s no good statistical support for that inference.

    Example: I’ve shopped in each of those three venues over the last year. I bought one book at an independent store. I bought one book at a chain. I bought over fifty books online. While my actions may not be typical, no data in the survey indicates what the range of typical buying behavior might be. Without that information, drawing those kinds of inferences is risky.

    3. Slide 25, the ereader adoption slide, is a bit misleading as well. While I have no difficulty with the data as presented, nor with the analysis of the adoption curve that follows, the analysis of resistance on 27 is a bit problematic. I don’t know what the margin of error is on this ’09 data so I can’t be sure that the 10% difference between 2009 and 2011 is statistically significant. Yes, it’s up, but totaling “not sure” and “definitely not” — the two negative aspects listed — yields a very small reduction (72% in ’09 compared to 68% in ’11). Again, without accurate error data, drawing any conclusions about the significance of this difference is problematic.

    Add to that the spread of app based reading (which is addressed only nominally in the tablet analysis) doesn’t really get to the core issue that every person with a smart phone already HAS an ereader and is that much less likely to purchase a dedicated device.

    This section seems slanted to support an agenda, but it might just be sloppy statistics.

    4. And I’ll stop here, where I probably should have started. Slide 3 gives some sample data. I’ll assume that Verso knows how to calculate a simple error and confidence interval based on a weighted n of 2200. Under normal circumstances that would be a really good sample size.

    The problem is in the response rate and the sampling technique. The response rate on this is minuscule — 2,200 out of a pool of 130,000,000. By itself, that’s not a problem because low response rates can be countered with randomized sampling. The problem is that we can’t tell if this is a randomized survey. The methodology on sampling is not given. If this group is self-selected — that is, 2200 people out of the 130million decided to click the link to the survey — then the sample is not random even if presented on a randomized basis to visitors to any of the 5400 targeted websites. If it’s not randomized, we have no way of knowing whether or not the sample represents the larger population. The best we can say about any of the findings is that it represents some percentage of the individuals in this sample. Without knowing whether or not the sample is representative of the population, the error statistics and confidence intervals are meaningless.

    Bottom line, the numbers fall into the “interesting” but “suspect” category. Generalizing on them to any larger population carries significant opportunities for error. I wouldn’t trust these to guide investment or business strategy without a much closer look at the market, at the sampling methodology, and at the sponsor who underwrote the work.

    But that’s just me.


  8. Janet Grant says:

    Nathan, oh, thou skeptic, thank you for your insights on the slide show. Your points are excellent. Since I don’t know any more about who created the slides or the specifics of how the surveys were taken, I can’t shed any light on the veracity thereof. But I found the information helpful in understanding the possible direction reading/buying habits are headed. Obviously it will take more than one group’s reporting of survey results to make solid conclusions, but I’m going to keep my eyes open for more data to fill in the blanks.

    • Heh. I’m skeptical of a lot of stuff, not just this. My doctoral program taught me to look at every bit of research with a jaundiced eye and that’s just carried forward.

      Which is not to say that this survey isn’t interesting nor that it doesn’t suggest some ideas for further study. I’m sure that the findings are quite accurate for the 2200 people they asked. I’m also sure that I’m an out-lier on that adoption curve, so my anecdotal behavior isn’t terribly useful either.

      I’m just leery of generalizing survey data to a larger population when the instrumentation hasn’t been validated and when the sampling method isn’t clear. Call me old fashioned but I remember the lessons of “Dewey Defeats Truman” even if I’m not (quite) old enough to remember the upset directly.

      Thanks for an engaging series this week, Ms. Grant. It’s been fun playing along at home.

  9. Cathy West says:

    To be honest, I read a LOT more now than I used to, reason being I’m able to download books at a single click, the book shows up on my iPad a minute later and I’m good to go. I LOVE it! I do love the feel and look of a traditional book as well, but I live on an island that does not have a great selection of Christian fiction so in this regard, I’m able to keep up with all the great books coming out in that arena, without paying for boxes to be shipped my way and arrive two or three weeks down the road. I guess I’m a new world reader! 🙂

  10. Consuming books is easier than ever with the e-reader. I know my mom racked up her credit card bills from late nights when she could sleep. She just downloaded another book. I no longer have to wait to accumulate $25 worth on Amazon to get free shipping. I don’t even have to go to the library to get a free book. Also, the fact that I can download that sample before I do any purchasing has a BIG impact on what I actually buy. But contrary to what many say, I’m not looking for a thrilling hook as much as I’m looking for writing that takes me into the experience with sights sounds and smells, as well as characters who feel real. But that’s just me :o).

    • Janet Grant says:

      Connie, it sounds as though you use Amazon’s Lending Library. If so, could you tell us if using the library resulted in your buying books you wouldn’t have bought otherwise?

      • Janet, I’m sorry I wasn’t clear. The free books I get are downloads that are free for a time. I haven’t yet tried the Amazon library and wonder how that will work for authors myself. Another one of those signs of changing times. However, I will say–again–when I do borrow books and later choose to buy them (as with the regular library) it’s because of the writing and the characters even more than the story. The books I read again and again are ones with people I like to spend time with … even if I already know their story. Like old friends. Sorry I couldn’t be more help :o/.

  11. Kindle has indeed changed my life, reading habits, and shopping habits. I do read more. Like others have mentioned, I also start more — with the free sample chapter — and delete them. I also fear my attention span is shrinking, perhaps from spending so much time online. Nevertheless, a good read remains a good read, and I always finish the good ones.

    For writers, I think the constants remain the same: great writing, well-researched and beautifully written, win the day. Beyond that, I think James Scott Bell has it right when he says it’s a lottery…

    Thanks for the scintillating conversations this week.

  12. Lots of great info. Cool slide show too! Thanks, Janet!

  13. Peter DeHaan says:

    After avoiding e-readers, I finally bought a Kindle Fire. (I love the product but am disappointed with the battery life — or lack thereof).

    Once I had the Kindle, I was shocked to discover that the overall amount of time I spend reading has almost doubled — because I am now reading both printed books and e-books.

    It seems that if one mode of reading is not convenient or practical, that the other is. (By the way, the tradeoff is that I’m watching a lot less TV, which isn’t a bad thing either.)

    • Just a question on the battery life, Peter. Do you turn off the internet connection while on your Kindle? Because if I understand right, that drains the battery faster.

      Love my Kindle Fire. Love. It. But I still have books stacked to the ceiling. I think I read faster on my Kindle than in a book and I can adjust the font size, which apparently becomes more important as I age. Huh.

      • Peter DeHaan says:

        Crystal, that is a great question.

        In normal usage I get about 6 to 8 hours of reading time from my Kindle Fire.

        If I turn off the Internet, dim the screen, and turn the unit completely off between uses, I can squeeze in about 10 hours.

        Interestingly, I too think that I read faster on the Kindle. And, yes, I have stacks of printed books to read, too.

  14. Ann Bracken says:

    My husband gave me a Kindle before we went on vacation a few months ago. At the time he laughed that I really needed because my bookshelves were too full. He was shocked to find that I instantly turned into one of those people who, when they love a book they read on their ereader, then turned around and purchased a hard copy. There’s just something about holding a book you love in your hands.

    This is probably good for authors, because I now buy two copies of the books I love, paper and digital.

  15. As someone who just took over coordinating an online Christian fiction bookclub with over 1600 members from around the world, I am learning some aspects of readers that I was unaware of until now. This post was so interesting to me.

    And I have to now try and figure out if we can get the book choices for the poll in ereader form for some readers. I have to check links and hunt down descriptions,etc. I do this before even accepting the book in the monthly poll.

    So many books begging for attention and that becomes overwhelming to me, and to the readers. It is most important to be able to describe a book in few words for those who are just taking a minute to choose.

    Bookclubs are changing, too.

  16. Robin Patchen says:

    I used to read the books in the “bestseller” section–the kinds of paperbacks you’d fine in airport newsstands. Today I generally only read books others recommend. There are so many good books, and my time is limited, so I don’t have time to read piffle. I read more than I ever have before, and I still can’t get enough.

  17. brand says:

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  18. brand says:

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