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Half of Americans Own an eReader or Tablet, But Only 28% Read on Them

If theA8045C40792D4C2C8D049265B3698472[1] latest survey report from the Pew Research Center is any indication, rumors of the flattening US ebook market have been greatly exaggerated.

The Pew Research Center released a new report today which looks into how and what Americans are reading, and in one fell swoop they cast doubt on a 2014 prediction from one pundit and invalidated the assumptions made by another. A telephone survey of 1,005 US adults has revealed that a growing number read an ebook in the past year, and that nearly half own an ebook reader or tablet.

And best of all, for the 3rd year in a row ereader ownership is up in the US.

A full 28% of respondents of the January said that they read ebook in the past  12 months. That may be lower than the 68% of the survey group who reported reading a paper book, but it is still a significant increase from the 23% in last year’s survey who had read an ebook.


That is a rather interesting result, and it makes me wonder whether the AAP sales data from the past year accurately reflects the entire market. Surely all these new readers had to have been buying ebooks, right? What are the chances they were all simply reading free ebooks?

I don’t think that’s very likely, not even with the current recession, because the Pew survey also showed that ereader ownership has also increased over the past year. 32% of the survey group now own an ereader. That is a nice increase from the 26% of the January 2013 survey group who reported the same.

Tablet ownership has also increased, with 42% respondents saying that they owned an iPad, Kindle Fire, or some other tablet.

The survey goes on to show that women are more likely to read ebooks (33% vs 23%) and they were also more likely to own an ereader (33% vs 29%), but about the same percentage of men and women owned tablets. A later section of the report also showed that women on average read more books (both digital and print) than men.

And people aren’t just reading on a tablet or ebook reader. They’re also reading more on smartphones than they were 3 years ago. But even with the surge in device usage, ereaders were still the most used reading device with 57% of those who read ebooks reporting that they used one (compared to 55% for tablets and 32% for cellphones).

College graduates were of course more likely to be readers and gadget owners than respondents without a college education, and there was also a correlation between the number of books read and the education level.

And finally, the report found that there was a fair degree of overlap between print, ebook, and audiobook lovers, with only 13% of ebook readers having given up paper entirely:

  • 87% of e-book readers also read a print book in the past 12 months, and 29% listened to an audiobook.
  • 84% of audiobook listeners also read a print book in the past year, and 56% also read an e-book.
  • A majority of print readers read only in that format, although 35% of print book readers also read an e-book and 17% listened to an audiobook.

The report goes into an extensive ideographic breakdown of the survey group, and you can find it on the Pew Research Center website.

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Paul January 16, 2014 um 2:12 pm

The only major in habit that I see, is that I tend to buy ebooks at $1-$5 mark but I’m more willing to pay for the print copy above that price. Hence although the amount of money I spend on ebooks remains constant, I have more of them (and I’m not seeking the latest releases but much older books).

William Ockham January 16, 2014 um 3:07 pm

If you read the report carefully, you will discover something that gets ignored by almost everyone. Take a look at their reported mean and median for # of books read. Assuming roughly 250 million adults in the U.S., they are saying that 3 billion books got read in 2013. Now, go take a look at the question that breaks down how many books a year people read. Assume that for each of the groupings (0, 1, 2-3, 4-5, 6-10, 11-20) except the last one, the mean for that group is the half way point (i.e. that 2-3 averages out to 2.5). You can figure out how many of those 3 billion books were read by each group. And it appears that the top 15% of the population reads nearly 2 billion books (roughly 2/3 of all the books that get read) and average about 1 book a week.

I’m a whole lot more interested in what those 15% of the population are doing.

Nate Hoffelder January 16, 2014 um 3:10 pm

I did see the difference between the median (50% mark) and mean (average) number of ebooks read; I just didn’t understand what it meant. Thanks for spelling it out.

Jeremy Greenfield January 16, 2014 um 11:17 pm

Really interesting observation. And, IMO, the correct conclusion.

Brennok January 18, 2014 um 1:22 pm

I am definitely one of those book a week people. I average around 5 days a book. I don’t read any ebooks though.

Jeremy Greenfield January 16, 2014 um 11:15 pm

I hate to say it, Nate, but it’s your assumptions here that are wrong, even though you’re ordinarily very careful about this sort of thing. You write:

"Surely all these new readers had to have been buying ebooks, right? What are the chances they were all simply reading free ebooks?"

What about library ebooks? What about the fact that ebook prices for best-sellers have been decreasing (so even if more ebooks are being purchased, perhaps they’re not generating the same level of sales revenue)? And what about free or pirated ebooks? Or ebook borrowing? Or the increasing number of ebooks that are given away as promotion or as a business card?

There are lots of possible explanations for these numbers. Still….

The AAP has ebook sales revenue up 2-3%. Let’s assume that self-publishing is 10% of the market and let’s assume that it’s up year-over-year as a proportion of the market as a whole. If we HAVE TO fit in an increase in the proportion of Americans who have read at least one ebook in the past 12 months to what little we know and assume about the ebook sales market, then I think it’s not such a stretch to say that a five-point increase in the proportion of Americans who read one ebook last year corresponds with a modest uptick in publisher ebook sales revenue and an assumed (but completely unknown) uptick in self-publishing sales revenue.

That said, it’s not like the proportion of Americans who have read an ebook in the past year doubled and other number didn’t. We’re not that far off here, if at all.

Nate Hoffelder January 17, 2014 um 10:58 am

"What about library ebooks? What about the fact that ebook prices for best-sellers have been decreasing (so even if more ebooks are being purchased, perhaps they’re not generating the same level of sales revenue)? And what about free or pirated ebooks? Or ebook borrowing? Or the increasing number of ebooks that are given away as promotion or as a business card? "

Depending on how you slice it, library ebooks are a type of free ebooks (that reminds me, I need to go update my free ebook page).

I’ll grant you that the market prices are dropping, yes, but not the rest. Do you have any evidence to show that these new readers are any more likely than existing readers to prefer free ebooks over paid? (You can’t, for example, point to OverDrive data; it’s not localized to the US.) Without that evidence it’s relatively safe to assume that the free to paid ratio is the same.

Actually, now that I think about it, the free/paid ratio might even have shifted in favor of paid. Remember, Amazon took steps in early 2013 to discourage free ebook sites:

I don’t have details on how that reduced the number of free ebooks given away in the Kindle Store, but I do know that 2013 was the year in which everyone talked about cheap ebooks as a sale promotion, and not free ebooks. At the very least this is a point against free ebooks.

"The AAP has ebook sales revenue up 2-3%. Let’s assume that self-publishing is 10% of the market and let’s assume that it’s up year-over-year as a proportion of the market as a whole."

There are a couple conceptual flaws in this quote, and I think it might explain why you put so much weight in AAP data.

For one thing, your use of the word self-pub is incorrect; the right word is indie pub. When you use the word self-pub you set yourself up to ignore the many independent digital publishers whose data isn’t included in the AAP Statshot reports. I don’t normally nitpick when people misuse the term (often it’s simply an imperfect word choice and not a conceptual error), but your next sentence suggests that you are making the conceptual mistake.

Your other mistake in this comment is that you place too much emphasis on AAP data. To put it simply the 10% estimate is very likely wrong. AAP’s own data from 2012 says that their Statshot reports only tracked about half of the US ebook market in 2012:

I think their estimate was high in 2012, and I think it’s almost certainly off for 2013 (which did not have the Hunger Games sales spike).

fjtorres January 17, 2014 um 11:56 am

10% of sales being indie is too low.
B&N is on record with their indie sales being 25% and Amazon is higher, since they list and promote indie titles side by side the tradpub titles. I’ve seen credible estimates that point at Indies adding up to 30-35% at Amazon.
Shatzkin has reported that Indies as a group add up to a sixth big publisher, comparable to the Randy Penguin.

One big mistake indie deprecators make is assume indie = ebook which ignores all the indie pbooks sold online and via B&M

Nate Hoffelder January 17, 2014 um 2:57 pm

In this case indie refers to anything not included in the AAP data, and might even include legacy publishers. All i know is that even the AAP says their data set is far from complete, and that means anyone who makes statements (like the ones over at DBW, for example) about the flattening ebook market based on the AAP data isn’t working with a full deck (pun intended).

Jeremy Greenfield January 17, 2014 um 12:35 pm

I’m not saying that you’re definitely wrong and none of the questions I brought up were statements. They were questions. The fact is we don’t know, and there’s good enough supposing on both sides to make an argument for either — weak arguments.

What I’m mostly pointing out is that there isn’t a huge discrepancy in the data sets we’ve seen that demands explanation and calls into great question any of the data sets, IMO. And this is clearly a matter of opinion because we have so few facts.

Oh, and, yes, I should have said "indie publishers." That’s what I meant.

Per the comment below, where is B&N on the record saying that 25% of its "sales" are indie titles? The only thing that I have that’s remotely like that is that 25% of the titles on the Amazon top 100 best-selling ebooks in 2013 were indie titles, which almost certainly does not translate to 25% of sales, which, in this and all cases is revenue (dollars).

Because of the nature of best-seller lists, the top titles make geometrically more unit sales than those below. It’s possible that the top five titles, because of the level of sales and their price points, could make as much money as the bottom 70 or 80. This isn’t a bad assumption in this case, in regards to indie titles, becaus indie titles are generally sold at lower price points. So, we’re still in guessing territory, but I’m fairly confident that indie title sales make up much closer to 10% of Amazon’s ebook sales revenue than 25%.

fjtorres January 17, 2014 um 2:19 pm

Here ya go, straight from the press release:

Jeremy Greenfield January 17, 2014 um 2:38 pm

Good catch. Don’t know how I missed/didn’t remember that. That said, I’m double-checking with the company on whether this is "unit sales" or "revenue."

While "sales" almost always means "revenue," I wouldn’t be surprised if they meant "unit sales" here. But we’ll see.

Thanks for pointing out. I’ll report back what I learn.

Ben January 17, 2014 um 8:24 am

Another survey that leaves more questions to be answer. A sample of "1,005" adults, 18 and older? Margin of error +- 3.4%? So to start, they already eliminated the children ebook segment? A sample this size hardly represents the national readership.

I think a long term study would be more interesting and possibly more accurate than these seasonal/annual surveys that raise more questions than it is capable of answering.

Regarding the 15%, reading 2 billion ebooks…1) what is their income level? 2) do they not work? why do they have this much time? 3) do they not have other forms of entertainment or distractions? 4) are they simply fast readers? 5) ALL OF THE ABOVE?!

eBook will level off…just a matter of time when the novelty wears off if it haven’t already.

William Ockham January 17, 2014 um 6:09 pm

I don’t think they "eliminated the children ebook segment", but rather were interested in the reading habits of adults. And they have polled this question frequently and consistently over the last few years, so we can evaluate how well the sample is being drawn. 1000 interviews is enough to get a good reflection of national readership, assuming a random sample, proper weighting, etc. Pew publishes their procedures with every survey and they are top notch by almost everyone’s estimation.

Even better, they are the only major polling institution that regularly makes their raw data available to the public (with a six month delay). I’m just starting to analyze their raw data from past surveys to get more insight into the habits of that 15% of the population who are avid readers.

Marilynn Byerly January 17, 2014 um 11:37 am

Overdrive which provides libraries with ebooks announced a few days ago that last year there were over 102 million checkouts of ebooks through their service. That’s a huge chunk of "free" books.

Nate Hoffelder January 17, 2014 um 11:42 am

But how many were handled by libraries outside the US? We don’t know.

Mike Di ckerman January 19, 2014 um 1:25 pm

I read a book a week as well, run a full-time business, and watch little or any television. (Actually, I don’t even own a TV, and haven’t for the last 15 years.) I also own a tablet, and have downloaded a few "free" books, but really don’t like reading a book on an electronic device. I’ll gladly pay more for a paper book, and find I can get great deals online purchasing used or discounted books. Library book sales are another great source inexpensive reads. I suppose at some point in time I’ll read an entire e-book, but statistically speaking, I’ll wind up reading far more paper books. If you are a serious reader, you can find time to read, even if you are a busy all the time.

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