Rise in E-Book Readership Is Good News for Reading Over All, Report Says

More Americans are reading e-books than ever before, on more kinds of devices, a new report from the Pew Research Center has found. That news won’t come as a shock, given the rapid spread of e-readers and tablet computers and the rise of e-content. What might be a surprise, though: The report contains good news for print lovers, too. Readers of e-books like to read in all formats, they favor print books for sharing and to read to children, and on average they read more books over all than print-only readers do.

“They’re heavier readers. They’re more frequent readers,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the group behind the report. “These devices have allowed them to scratch that itch.”

The report, “The Rise of eReading,” analyzes findings from a survey of almost 3,000 people nationwide in November and December 2011, along with data from follow-up surveys of about 2,000 people in January and February 2012. Twenty-one percent of respondents reported, as of February 2012, that they had read an e-book in the past year. That figure was up from 17 percent in December 2011, before the holiday surge in purchases of e-readers and tablets. The average e-book reader said he or she had read 24 books (electronic and print) in the past 12 months. Those who didn’t read e-books averaged 15 books over the same time period.

E-formats haven’t diminished the appeal of reading. Thirty percent of e-content readers said they spend more time reading than they used to. That trend stood out especially clearly among owners of tablet computers and e-book readers: 41 percent and 35 percent, respectively, said their reading had increased since e-content came along, according to the findings. People also said they did a lot of reading on their smartphones and computers.

Print retains its talismanic appeal for many of those surveyed. It still trumps digital as the preferred format for sharing books. “In a head-to-head competition, people prefer e-books to printed books when they want speedy access and portability,” the report says, “but print wins out when people are reading to children and sharing books with others.” More than 80 percent of those surveyed said they preferred print books to read to the younger set.

The report doesn’t try to answer the chicken-or-egg question of whether e-reading devices make their owners more likely to read.  The surveys didn’t reveal “which direction the causal arrow flows in,” Mr. Rainie said. Are avid readers just more likely to buy devices that will allow them to indulge their habit, or “are the devices themselves bringing people more deeply into reading?”

The report also doesn’t shed any light on which genres do best in an e-reading environment. Respondents were asked why they read—for pleasure, for work or school, to keep up with current events, or to research specific topics—but not what kinds of books they read. “We didn’t ask genres. We asked purpose,” Mr. Rainie said. “All purposes are up. For people who have these devices, they’re more likely to be reading for each of those reasons.”

Pleasure remains a big draw for readers. Eighty percent of respondents said they read sometimes because they enjoy it. Almost as many—78 percent—said they read to keep up with current events. Seventy-four percent reported that they read in order to do research, while 56 percent said they did some reading for work or for school.

This is the first time that Pew has surveyed e-reading habits, Mr. Rainie said, so it does not have figures from previous years to compare. It has tracked the rise in e-reader and tablet-computer sales, though. In May 2010, only 3 percent to 4 percent of people surveyed said they owned a tablet or e-reader. That had jumped to 19 percent as of January 2012.

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user dibytes.]


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