Pew report: one in five adults reading e-books

Faith Merino · April 4, 2012 · Short URL:

The survey finds that those who own e-readers and tablets read more than those who don't

Print is dead. Long live long-form digital text! I will admit: I was a non-believer. When the Kindle first debuted back in 2007, I didn’t see a future in it. I didn’t really write it off completely, but I didn’t see myself ever buying a Kindle or reading an e-book for the simple fact that I hate buying new books. I get almost all of my books used or borrowed, because to pay $15 for a new book every week would end up draining the account I have reserved for paying off parking tickets.

And then I became a parent. And you know what the worst part of new parenthood is? Not vomit, or sleep-deprivation, or projectile poop (yes, that really happens). It's the frustration of trying to turn a page while holding a sleeping baby. It can’t be done!!

So I got myself a Kindle and have never been happier.

Such is the subject of a new report released Wednesday night by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, which surveyed some 3,000 people to learn more about American adults’ e-reading habits.

The findings: a full 21% of respondents reported having read an e-book within the past year, as of February 2012. To put this into perspective: in December 2011, just 17% of those surveyed had read an e-book in the past year. That’s a jump of four percentage points in just two months--which makes sense, since a number of people probably received new ultra-low-priced e-readers and tablets during the holiday gift-giving season.

The study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been on the forefront of research into the overlaps of technology and education.

There were some parts of the report that confirmed what we already know--such as who owns e-readers and who is reading e-books. Owners of e-readers tend to live in high-income households and come from more highly educated backgrounds. They typically prefer books in all formats and they tend to read more newspapers and magazines than other groups.

But interestingly, the survey finds that e-reader owners actually tend to read significantly more than the general population. While the average reader without an e-book reading device admitted to having read 16 books in the past year, the average owner of an e-reader or tablet claimed to have read 24 books in the past year. And among those surveyed, the people who owned e-readers or tablets were more likely to say that they are reading more since the introduction of electronic media.

That last tidbit is also of interest, since not all e-book readers own tablets or e-readers. Indeed, among those who have read an e-book in the past year, 42% said they’ve read e-books on a computer, and 29% said they’ve read them on their cell phones. Meanwhile, 42% said they read their books on e-readers like Kindles and Nooks, and--oddly enough--only 23% said they read e-books on a tablet computer. Yes, you read that right: more people read e-books on their cell phones than they do on their tablets.  Although Lee Rainie, one of the authors of the report, points out that that's largely due to the fact that more people own cell phones than tablets. 

“More people in the past year have read an e-book on a cell phone than had read an e-book on a tablet. But tablet owners are more likely than cell owners to be regular readers of e-books," Rainie told me. 

Indeed, tablet-owners were more likely to have reported reading every day (25%) than laptop owners (7%) or cell phone owners (5%).

Of course, different situations call for different formats. I’ll admit: I’ve never read an e-book on my cell phone for fear that my eyeballs would pop out of their sockets, but I have read during my cardio routines at the gym, and for obvious reasons, e-readers are far more convenient. Those surveyed expressed similar thoughts on which formats are better for certain situations. For reading to a child, the vast majority of respondents said print books are better, while the opposite holds true for reading while traveling. Respondents also said they prefer print when it comes to sharing books, while e-books are better when you want to get a book quickly. When it comes to reading in bed, the playing field is almost level, with 43% saying they prefer print books and 45% saying they prefer e-books.

Some good news for Amazon: the survey found that those who read e-books typically prefer to buy their books rather than borrow them, compared to the general population. And when they want to buy a book, they’re more likely to say that they start their search online.  With National Library Week coming up next week, I wonder what this means for U.S. libraries.

"Libraries clearly are being impacted by the move to digital," said Mike Crandall, senior lecturer at the Information School at University of Washington.  "This is not something new—they’ve done it with microfilm, audio, CDs, video, and many other forms of materials besides the printed book."

"E-books have some interesting characteristics that make them more challenging, in the sense that they are a direct replacement for the traditional printed book, but the same could be said for the journals and newspapers that many libraries started providing through their public access terminals years ago," he added.

What does all of this ultimately mean? It means that if you haven’t bought stock in Amazon yet, you should probably do so soon.


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