Pew Research recently issued a report on electronic versus traditional reading, and it contains its share of good news, even for those with a deeper interest in the printed word. E-books appear to be encouraging people to read more, not just change how they read. Meanwhile, even e-book readers continue to read printed editions, the traditional format remaining preferred for certain uses. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, people are more likely to buy (rather than borrow) e-books than printed ones. The availability of downloadable electronic editions has not become a means to avoid compensating their creators, as happened with music a decade ago.
Pew's survey revealed that 21% of American adults read an e-book in the past year. That was as of February. In December, the number was only 17%. The sudden spike is attributed to the large number of electronic readers given as gifts during the holidays. On any given day, four times as many people are reading an e-book now as was the case less than two years ago.
The growth in e-book reading is not entirely cannibalization of printed books. Pew found that the typical e-book reader read 24 books during the past year, as compared to 15 for the non-e-book reader. The initial reaction to that is of course, those who bought e-readers were most likely people who read more books than the typical reader. However, 42% of e-book readers said they are reading more now that material is available in digital format. This increase was most noticeable for men and those under the age of 50. That is particularly noteworthy since the survey found that men, and younger people, read less than women and older people. Electronic books may be spurring on the most reluctant of readers.
Despite the rapid growth of electronic reading, printed books still dominate the field. As of December, e-book reading may have quadrupled to 17% of the adult American population, but 72% had read a printed book in the previous year. Another 11% had listened to an audio book. What may be surprising is that on any given day, the owner of an e-reader was more likely to be reading a printed book than an electronic one. Only 49% of e-reader owners were reading an e-book, while 59% were reading a printed book. The numbers for owners of the e-reader's cousin, the tablet computer, were even starker. Only 39% of tablet owners were reading an e-book on any given day, while 64% were reading a printed book.
Perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom, readers were more likely to pay for an electronic book than a printed one. Leaving aside the potential for illegal downloading, free books can be downloaded from many if not most libraries today, often from home. Nonetheless, 61% of e-book readers preferred to buy their books, versus 54% for printed book readers.
Pew asked those e-book readers who had also read a printed book (the vast majority) for which uses they preferred each. Electronic books was easily the winner for those who wished to get a book quickly (83%-13%) and who liked to read while traveling or commuting (73%-19%). E-books were also the preference of those who wanted a wide selection from which to choose (53%-35%). It was a virtual tie between the formats for those who like to read in bed. When it came to sharing books, somewhat surprising was that printed books were preferred 69%-25%. Those who are tech savvy can undoubtedly figure out how to connect two electronic readers, but it's still not as easy as handing someone a book. Where printed books totally dominated, however, was for a use that will bring great joy and relief to those who love and collect printed books. Dual platform users preferred printed books for reading with children by a margin of 81%-9%. There has been considerable fear that the next generation will not even know what a printed book is. Based on this survey, it appears that a real, physical book still is the best way to introduce and share reading with children. If children start out this way, they will know, and hopefully love, the printed word all of their lives, even if they do more reading on electronic devices. New generations of book collectors may still be being formed everyday, even as the electronic world swirls around them.