Oct 22, 2015

From the Archives

The State of Books and Reading in a Digital World

In just a single day on the Internet, two million blog posts are written, 860,000 hours of YouTube videos are uploaded, and five billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook. It’s difficult to ignore the increasing amount of content—and platforms—vying for our attention. Can paper and ink still compete? Where does the book fit in a digital age?

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A new study from Barna Group examines the relationship between Americans and their bookshelves. Do people still read books? If so, how often—and why? What kinds of books do they prefer and how do they acquire them? Below are some key findings from the study.

How Many Books a Year Do People Read?
Although fears of America becoming a post-literate culture may be overstated, they are not completely unfounded. A majority of the general population reads five books or less every year (67%). Broken down a little more, one-quarter of all adults don’t read any books at all (25%), while two out of five read anywhere between one and five books a year (42%). One-third of adults read five or more books a year (34%). Among the generations, Elders are the true bookworms—with about one-quarter reading more than 15 books a year (23%). Gen-Xers read the least; the highest proportion—one-third (32%)—reports reading zero books at all.

As might be expected, level of education and annual income are closely associated with reading habits. Looking specifically at socioeconomic factors, the differences between upscale adults (those with an annual income of at least $70,000 and a four-year degree or higher) and downscale adults (those with a household income of $20,000 or less a year and no college experience) are stark. Almost half of all downscale adults don’t read any books at all (47%), compared to fewer than one in 10 for upscale adults (8%). Conversely, more than half of all upscale adults read five books or more every year (51%), compared to just 16 percent of downscale adults.

Fiction or Nonfiction? 
In a world of digital fact-checking and Wikipedia, most adults still prefer to pick up a fiction book over a nonfiction one—and with novels consistently topping the bestseller charts, it may not come as a surprise. Although a fairly close call, U.S. adults prefer fiction (53%) slightly more than nonfiction (45%) when choosing a book to read.

Among the practicing Christian audience, however—and within the genre of “Christian” books—the preference is toward nonfiction; twice as many practicing Christians prefer Christian nonfiction (35%) over Christian fiction (18%). This preference aligns with the reading motivations of practicing Christians, many of whom read to grow and develop spiritually (see below).

Where Do You Get Your Books?
Many heralded the demise of print after Amazon launched the Kindle in 2007, but Americans still prefer the feel of a physical book. Even though physical books are generally more expensive than their digital counterparts, seven out of 10 adults use physical books to learn something new or to get new information (70%), compared with only three in 10 who use e-books for the same reason (30%).

When it comes to getting their hands on books, one-third of adults most often buy their books in a brick-and-mortar store (33%), compared with only one in 10 who primarily order their books online (10%). Americans also rely significantly on their local community and network as a source for books; with one-third of all adults reporting that their primary method of obtaining a book is to either borrow from the library (24%) or from a friend (11%).

These long-established acquisition methods remain fairly consistent across generations. For instance, even though tech-savvy Millennials report ordering online more often than older Americans (13%), they are slightly more likely than average to borrow from a friend (15%), on par with national norms in terms of library use and in-store purchases (34%). Another way to make the comparison is this: Elders, while buying less frequently online (8%), are just as likely as Millennials to borrow from a library or a friend.

Why Do You Read?
The benefits of burying your nose in the pages of a book are immeasurable. Reading not only makes you smarter and more empathetic, but it can also be fun and relaxing. And most Americans agree. While varying slightly among generational segments, the overwhelming majority of Americans read principally for pleasure (64%). Boomers (71%) and Elders (72%) are more likely to pick up a book for enjoyment than the younger generations.

Although most Millennials (56%) and Gen-Xers (57%) also read primarily for pleasure, other reading priorities vie for their attention. About one-sixth of Millennials—many of whom are in college and grad school—report reading for school (17%).

Practicing Christians, as might be expected, are more likely than other adults to say they read most often in order to grow and develop spiritually—more than one-third (34%), compared to only one-fifth among the general population (21%), say this is their primary goal for reading.

Despite the massive number of business-related titles on the market, fewer than one in ten adults say they read for work.

How Does Reading Behavior Differ Between Genders?
The reading habits of men and women are quite different. For starters, women are much more likely than men to pick up a book. Almost twice as many men (32%) than women (18%) say they don’t read any books throughout the year. And four in 10 women say they read five or more books a year (40%), compared to about one-quarter of men (28%).

When it comes to motivations for reading, women are more likely to cite reading chiefly for pleasure (70%, compared to 56% of men). Women are also more likely than men to prefer fiction over nonfiction: six in 10 women prefer fiction (63%), compared to only four in 10 men (43%).

When it comes specifically to Christian books, women show much higher preferences for both Christian fiction (11%) and Christian nonfiction (17%), than men (5% and 9%, respectively).

Comment on this research and follow our work:
Twitter: @davidkinnaman | @roxyleestone | @barnagroup
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About the Research
The research included in this report is the result of a nationwide online study conducted February 3 to February 11, 2015. The survey included 1,000 adults 18 and older. The maximum sampling error for the study is plus or minus 3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables. The online study is derived from a probability panel, which means that respondents are recruited for inclusion in the research based on physical mailing addresses, not an opt-in online panel. Those randomly selected households without Internet access are provided an Internet-enabled device to complete surveys.

Generations: Millennials are the generation born between 1984 and 2002; Gen-Xers, between 1965 and 1983; Boomers, between 1946 and 1964; and Elders, in 1945 or earlier.

“Practicing Christians” are self-identified Christians who have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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