It’s Past Time Researchers Stopped Comparing Digital/Print and Started Asking About Genre, Category, and Length
The 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.
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.
image by smith