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It’s Past Time Researchers Stopped Comparing Digital/Print and Started Asking About Genre, Category, and Length

81203_e8f0bf6819_bThe Pew Research Center released a new report yesterday which showed that, for the third year running, the number of respondents who had read an ebook (or listened to an audiobook) remained flat while the number who had read a paper book wavered.

You can read the report on the Pew Research Center website, and you can read about it on a half-dozen sites. But I don’t know why you would bother; the headline data isn’t terribly useful – not in 2016, anyway(*).

The thing about this Pew survey is that it lacks specifics.

Pew asks a question which isn’t relevant in 2016. The print/digital divide mattered in the first few years after Amazon jump-started the ebook market in 2007, but in 2016 the market is a lot more complicated.

The question Pew should be asking is how readers consume the various genres and categories.

How are people reading their nonfiction?

Does it differ from their preferred format for novels?

What about comics vs digital comics?

The problem with Pew’s current report is that, for example, we now know that the romance and thriller genres have largely gone digital (and SF isn’t far behind). We also know that digital adoption in comics is occurring at a different rate than other types of ebooks, and there are also intimations that nonfiction readers are sticking with print.

You can’t find any of that nuance in Pew’s existing report, and it is the weaker for it.

And while we’re talking about reading preferences, let’s not forget that "ebook" is an incredibly elastic term in 2016. People are reading short stories, eSingles, websites, digital magazines, anthologies, articles saved in Pocket, and what have you, and yet Pew is only asking about ebooks.

If , for example, a given collection of stories is labeled a magazine issue rather than an anthology, it would not be reflected in the new report. Or if someone read an article in Instapaper rather than buying and reading it as an e-Single, that activity would not be tracked in the report.

And that makes little sense in 2016.

PI_2016.09.01_Book-Reading_0-04Don’t get me wrong; this report does have some useful data. Later sections confirm other reports that reading ebooks on tablets and smartphones is now more common than reading on ereaders.

The report also shows that 6% of the survey group read only ebooks, and that "7% of college graduates are digital-only book readers (compared with just 3% of those who have not graduated from high school), as are 8% of those with annual household incomes of $75,000 or more (compared with 3% of Americans with incomes of $30,000 or less)".

Those are useful data points, yes, but as I sit here looking at the survey results I am reminded that some in the book publishing industry, as well as pundits in the media, will use the stats to write off ebooks entirely.

"More people still read paper books that ebooks, so digital has failed to kill print" some uninformed reporter will write in the next few weeks. "Only 6% of consumers read only digital books, so it doesn’t matter that our ebook prices are so high" a Big Five CEO will proclaim.

Edit: Gizmodo has already proven me correct on my first prediction.

To be fair, it is not the fault of the Pew Research Center that this data will be misinterpreted. But we can’t have an informed discussion of the  state of reading until we have more data.

And we won’t have that data until researchers start asking better questions.

And that’s my takeaway on this report.

What’s yours?

image by smith

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carmen webster buxton September 2, 2016 um 1:36 pm

I spent a couple hours in the customer lounge while my car was being serviced. The dealership has two lounges and is always busy, so people are there for anywhere from an hour to three or four hours, and they need to entertain themselves. I did an informal survey of the room. Three people had print books, two had laptops, I had a Kindle, and the rest (about 8 people) were on their phones, but of course I couldn’t tell what they were doing. Absolutely no one was looking at the flat screen TV with the closed captioning turned on.

What I wondered about the Pew Survey is how do they make money from it? Who or what paid for it? Do you know?

Mike Hall September 2, 2016 um 2:20 pm

I don’t think they need to make money from the survey. The report says that their primary funder is the Pew Charitable Trusts which is a non profit NGO with $billions of assets.

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Fjtorres September 2, 2016 um 2:31 pm

One other flaw with their methodology is they report on people who read *one* book in the last year, as if the preferences of somebody who reads a book a year (or less often) have the same market impact of a person who reads and buys dozens of books a year.
So not only does it matter what people read, it also matters who does the reading and how often.
At a minimum it will shed some light on the ereader vs phone/tablet question. How many people who read on phones and tablets do so because they don’t read often enough to justify a dedicated reader and how many do it because the actually prefer it?
There are plenty more meaningful questions to explore than the tired print vs digital divide, especially at a time when it’s clear that the two formats target different markets and increasingly have as much in common as the markets for cars and bicycles.

Mike Hall September 2, 2016 um 2:44 pm

They make all the right noises about sampling techniques but I remain a bit sceptical about these processes as the sample is ultimately phone owners who are prepared to participate in surveys and the hope is that all the demographic and other adjustments – some based on similar surveys – will remove any biases this introduces. Recent UK experience in predicting election results does not increase my confidence in surveys.

The median number of books read per year is only 4 so most of the responses don’t tell us much about the books being read or the devices being used to read them as only a (relatively small?) subset of the sample are reading most of the books. It would be interesting to see an analysis of those who read, say, 30+ books per annum but the sample size might be too small to provide reliable results. Maybe there is a significant difference in the paper/e-book split between prolific readers and those reading the median number or less?

I suspect that the interesting questions of genre and the like can only be answered by a survey that weights the answers by the number of books read and, to get significant results, this would probably require a much bigger survey. However, many prolific readers will not be able to give reliable numbers for the books read, their genre breakdown or whether print or e-book so the results will not be particularly reliable.

Fjtorres September 2, 2016 um 2:49 pm

Another reason why focusing on ebook-only vs pbook-only is irrelevant and misleading:

SF&F is one genre that is very mindful of its past and a good portion of that past is locked in out of print books and magazines and unavailable (yet) in digital. And a lot of the magazine material will never make it to digital until the copyrights expire.

Asking a student of the genre if they are digital-only will inevitably draw a negative because even if they prefer digital and are committed to it for new releases they are stuck with tracking dead tree editions to fill out their collections. Presenting them as a mixed reader is misleading because it isn’t by choice but necessity.

Ella Quinn September 2, 2016 um 7:02 pm

In order for a study to be really effective, the genres, especially romance, would have to be broken down like RWA did a few years ago. I write historical romance and 55% of my readership is in paper. That is a far cry from contemporaries where digital is queen.

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