This is the first comprehensive examination of the reading habits of the general population since e-books have come to prominence.

The emergence of e-books has disrupted industries and institutions that have enjoyed relatively stable practices, policies, and businesses for decades. Widespread consumer interest in e-books began in late 2006 with the release of Sony Readers and accelerated after Amazon’s Kindle was unveiled a year later. By the end of 2011, there were widespread reports about the exploding demand for e-books, both for purchases and for borrowing from libraries.

In the year ending in January 2012, the American Association of Publishers reported that e-book sales had risen more than 49.4% in the adult books category, 475.1% in the children’s and young adult category, and 150.7% in the religious publications category.5 We at the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reported that ownership of e-book readers among adults age 18 and older had nearly doubled from 10% of the population to 19% over the holiday gift-giving season at the end of 2011, and ownership of tablet computers had surged a similar amount.6 In the final week of 2011 the e-book version of 42 of the top-selling 50 books on USA Today’s best-seller book list was outselling the paper version of the same book.7

All this ferment is changing the way many people discover and read books.

About this research

To understand the place e-reading has in Americans’ evolving reading habits, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given the Pew Internet Project a grant to study this shifting digital terrain. That would include exploration of gadgets like e-book readers and tablet computers, applications that allow people to consume books and other media in new formats, mobile connectivity that facilitates access to media anywhere and anytime, and the evolving role of libraries in their communities. We hope this work will be useful to library patrons and librarians in discerning how libraries can serve their constituents in a world where “books” are becoming very different from what they have traditionally been; newspapers draw bigger audiences online than they do in print; maps are becoming multimedia productions; magazines and journals are structured to facilitate conversations; historical artifacts can be understood in new ways; digital databases can be accessed on the fly from smartphones and tablets; and knowledge-creation itself is becoming a crowdsourced activity of aggregating networked information.  Libraries have traditionally played a key role in the civic and social life of their communities, and this work is aimed at understanding the way that changes in consumer behavior and library offerings might affect that unique relationship between libraries and communities.

This report is part of the first phase of that Gates Foundation-funded research: an analysis of the way people read in the digital era – especially the way they read books.8 Subsequent reports will cover how librarians and patrons perceive the situation with e-books and other digital content, and how people in different kinds of communities (urban, suburban, and rural) compare in their reading habits. Further down the line, this research will cover the changing landscape of library services.

The Pew Internet Project conducted several surveys to complete the work reported here. The first was a nationally representative survey of 2,986 people ages 16 and older between November 16 and December 21, 2011. The sample was conducted 50% on landline phones and 50% on cell phones and in English and in Spanish. In addition, the survey included an oversample of 300 additional tablet computer owners, 317 e-book reader owners, and 119 people who own both devices. The overall survey has a margin of error of ± 2 percentage points.

A modest number of questions about tablets and e-book readers were asked in two surveys conducted in January on an “omnibus” survey. These surveys involved 2,008 people and were fielded between January 5-8 and January 12-15. Those surveys were conducted on landline and cell phones and were administered in English. We fielded them to determine if the level of ownership of tablets and e-book readers had changed during the holiday gift giving season – and in fact it had. We reported that the level of ownership of both devices had nearly doubled in a month – from 10% ownership for each device in December to 19% in January.9 The margin of error for the combined omnibus survey data is ± 2.4 percentage points.

Finally, we asked questions about book reading and ownership of tablets and e-books in a survey fielded from January 20-February 19, 2012. In all, 2,253 adults (age 18+) were interviewed on landline and cell phone and in English and Spanish. The margin of error for the entire sample is ± 2 percentage points.

Tech timeline of e-readers & tablets