New Survey Reveals Library eBook Borrowers Are Also Buyers

A number of the major publishers dislike library ebooks because they fear that each ebook checked out is a lost sale. While this new survey data suggests there is some substance to that fear, the survey also shows that library patrons who borrow ebooks also buy them.

Back in June and July of this year, OverDrive sponsored a survey which was  conducted by the ALA. Library patrons were polled via the virtual library branch website OD operates on behalf of partner libraries, and asked about their borrowing, buying, and reading habits. A total of 75,385 people responded to the survey and they came from a broad spectrum of education, age, and income.

But in spite of the broad spectrum, the majority of the respondents fell into certain categories. The respondents were overwhelmingly female (78%), earned more more than $50 thousand a year (75%), were in their 40s or older (72%), and were college educated (73%).

This concentration is particularly noteworthy because it is similar to the data presented by Bowker in their annual surveys.  Educated, well-paid women are the dominant book buyer in the US, though not quite to the same degree as shown in this survey.

The survey includes questions on a number of topics, including how, why, and how often patrons use the library, but I am mainly interested in the questions on buying ebooks.

The respondents reported buying an average of 3.2 books a month and reading them on an ereader (83%). The survey data also showed that for most patrons both borrowing and buying of ebooks had increased over the past 6 months (60%, 44%), or at the very least held steady (33%, 44%).

But it’s not all good news. It looks like there is some truth to the belief that library ebooks cut into retail sales. A solid majority of library patrons (64%) said that they had never bought a book after checking it out of the library.

Of course, that number does not mean much until and unless we get data on browsing in bookstores (both offline and online) which could tell us how many samples are read without leading to a sale and how many books are picked up and then returned to the shelf. Then we would have something to compare that 64% to.

The reason I want to compare browsing vs buying behavior is because I want to see how borrowers compare the the book buying population as a whole. Putting the 2 surveys together would tell us whether library patrons buy more or less books than the average consumer.

I suspect library patrons buy more the average consumer, but the survey data I would need to prove it is available in an $800 report from Bowker. Sorry, but that’s just not worth it for me.

P.S. If someone does have those stats handy, please feel free to share in the comments.

Survey (PDF)

image by twechy

Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.


  1. Robert Nagle15 November, 2012

    I can explain this a bit. First, it is rare that the best stocked libraries will stock all the titles by an author. So maybe the patron will read one book by an author, but will have to buy the other titles.

    Second, reading can sometimes take a long time. My library allows me to check out things for 6 weeks, but I can’t tell you how often I need more time. I have even checked out books several times. The nonfiction title, Reinventing Fire by Amory Lovins, is an outstanding analysis and reference guide for renewable energy. I think this is the 3rd time I checked it out, but I still am only halfway through. I will certainly be buying the book, though maybe only after the price reduces a bit.

    Fiction titles are different obviously; you can read them quickly if you are really motivated.

    For ebooks, many of the bestsellers have waiting lists of several months, so there is a point at which the patron will decide simply to buy something.

    As an indie ebook publisher, I see library checkouts as a net positive because I know that at some point patrons will view the convenience of owning a book more than the trouble to borrow it for only 2 weeks.

  2. Liz15 November, 2012

    I’m no statistician, but I’d also think that any survey about librarys and ebooks can’t fully account for purchasing, or non-purchasing behavior as the case may be, as libraries have access to so few fiction ebooks from the big 6. It is possible that library patrons would purchase far more books that they first took out of the library if libraries had a different/expanded selection.

  3. […] Looks like library ebook borrowers also buy ebooks, contrary to publisher fears. […]

  4. Clytie Siddall16 November, 2012

    This type of analysis is also ignoring the rôle libraries play in discovery and in encouraging a love of reading. School libraries are essential for both, although local libraries are also important.

    The authors whose titles I bought as soon as I had money in my pocket as an adult, and whose entire output I’ve bought, often more than once? I discovered them in my school and local libraries.

    1. Nate Hoffelder16 November, 2012

      I skipped mentioning that detail because the publishers who don’t like library ebooks wouldn’t believe it anyway.

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