Print is dead…if dead means just as popular as ever

There’s been a lot of talk lately about a recent Pew Internet study surveying the reading habits of Americans in 2012.  E-book purchases are rising, unsurprisingly, and lots of industry experts are looking at the decline of print book sales as proof that the heralds of woe have rightly proclaimed the death of traditional publishing.

This graphic is pretty uncontroversial, at least.
This graphic is pretty uncontroversial, at least.

The worrying statistics are these: of the 1,754 book readers above the age of 16 that Pew spoke to, 23% read an e-book in the past year, up from 16% in 2011.  The number of readers who read a print book decreased from 72% to 67% over the last twelve months.  Not surprisingly, a 15% jump in the number of e-reader owners is responsible for the fact that there are more e-books around.  One in three people now own a Kindle, Nook, or iPad (but only the really lucky ones snagged a discontinued HP TouchPad during the $99 firesale in 2011).

But the study might be hiding something in the way it presents these figures.  Everyone wants to believe that e-books will take over the publishing industry, and it’s only a matter of time before print is dead.  Pundits have been crying wolf about that since the PC weighed more than your pet Great Dane.  But if you look further into the report, you’ll find something curious.  The statistics I stated above aren’t really the results they claim to be.  Pew states that the information is “based on those who say they had read a book in the past 12 months, not the full population of those ages 16 and older”.

And yet if you flip the page, you find this:

In the new Pew Internet survey 75% of Americans ages 16 and older said they had read a book in any platform in the previous 12 months.  Of them, 89% of the book readers said they had read a printed book. This translates into 67% of all those ages 16 and older.  30% of the book readers said they had read an e-book. This translates into 23% of all those ages 16 and older.

Huh.  So nearly 90% of book readers read a printed book?  And 30% read an e-book, which means 20% read books in both formats.  Surprise!  People who actually read still enjoy reading on paper, even if some of them have dual citizenship with the enemy.  Shouldn’t that be the story?

With the survey participants reading an average of 15 books a year, maybe – just maybe – there’s room for more than one game in town.  Maybe people like their beach reading as a sand-proof paperback, but prefer to browse that new biography of Einstein on their Kindle Fire at the coffee shop.  Maybe it’s not an either/or situation, and everyone should stop flipping out about the fact that evil iPads are conquering the universe.

You can take a look at the data yourself here (it’s a PDF).  Am I reading this right, or does someone with a statistics degree want to correct me?

8 Replies to “Print is dead…if dead means just as popular as ever”

  1. I agree. Even when I finally breakdown and buy an e-reader (or learn how to use my son’s and start snagging it when he’s not looking), I’m still going to buy ink and paper books as well.
    For me, it’s kind of like mp3 vs cd’s. Mp3 downloads are convenient if I want just a song or two here and there. But if an artist I really love comes out with an album, I’m going to want to be able to hold that cd in my hands, read the liner notes, take in the cover art, and place it on the shelf along with all their other albums. And I feel the same way about books and e-books.

  2. Good post, Jen. I read on my iPad, my Kindle Fire, and even my iPhone — I love digital reading. But I also still read a fair number of books in print. I read your book digitally but ended up buying a print copy for my bookshelf. The important thing to me is that kids are reading!

  3. Interesting stats! Thanks for posting about them. I read on my Kindle, my iPhone, my laptop, and of course print, though I’ve gotten to the point where I buy print books I truly love instead of just buying ones I’m not so sure about, if that makes sense.

  4. I’m with you guys. Some books are better read in print (classics, for one, and any book I have a particularly strong emotional attachment to), but e-books are fantastic if you want a cheap, quick read or need to go somewhere and portability is important. I don’t see them as competitors: just fundamentally different experiences that both have a place in my life.

  5. I don’t know. I never thought I would stop buying CDs but I just spent a good five minutes here trying to remember the last CD I bought hard copy (it was Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Revelator back in the summer of 2011). I think buying hard copy books is something we’ll probably stop doing gradually, without even noticing that we stopped.

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