21% of adults have read an e-book in the past year

Those who own e-book reading devices read more books and prefer to buy books rather than borrow them

Washington (April 5, 2012) — One-fifth of American adults (21%) report that they have read an e-book in the past year, and this number increased following a gift-giving season that saw a spike in the ownership of both tablet computers and e-book reading devices such as the original Kindles and Nooks. In mid-December 2011, 17% of American adults had reported they read an e-book in the previous year; by February, 2012, the share increased to 21%. 

Looking at e-content consumption more broadly, some 43% of Americans age 16 and older read long-form digital text such as e-books and magazines and many say they are reading more because books and other long-form material are in a digital format.  

In addition, those who read e-books read more books than those who don’t have the devices:  The average reader of e-books says she has read 24 books (the mean number) in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by a non-e-book consumer. For device owners, those who own e-book readers also stand out. They say they have read an average of 24 books in the previous year (vs. 16 books by those who do not own that device). They report having read a median of 12 books (vs. 7 books by those who do not own the device.

Several nationally-representative surveys by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project show that book reading happens across an array of devices, including smartphones. A December 2011 survey found that as many people had read e-books on computers as had read them on devices that were specifically designed for reading e-books. Among those who have read an e-book in the past 12 months:

  • 42% said they read their e-books on a computer
  • 41% consumed their e-books on an e-book reader like original Kindles or Nooks
  • 29% read their e-books on a cell phone
  • 23% consumed their e-books on a tablet computer.

Still, those who read e-books are not abandoning printed books. Some 88% of those who read an e-book in the past year also read a printed book. Overall, in the past year, 72% of adults read a print book, compared to the 21% who read an e-book, and 11% who listened to an audiobook.

Compared with other book readers, those who read e-books read more frequently for a host of reasons: for pleasure, for research, for current events, and for work or school. They are also more likely than others to have bought their most recent book, rather than borrowed it, and they are more likely than others to say they prefer to purchase books in general and they often start their search for books online.

“Every institution connected to the creation of knowledge and storytelling is experiencing a revolution in the way information is packaged and disseminated,” noted Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet Project, one of the authors of a new study on the rise of e-reading. “It’s now clear that readers are embracing a new format for books and a significant number are reading more because books can be plucked out of the air.”

In a head-to-head competition, people prefer e-books to printed books when they want speedy access and portability, but print wins out when people are reading to children and sharing books with others.

We asked a series of questions about format preferences among the 14% of Americans age 16 and up who in the past 12 months have read both printed books and e-books. As a rule, dual-platform readers preferred e-books when they wanted to get a book quickly, when they were traveling or commuting, and when they were looking for a wide selection. However, print was strongly preferred when it came to reading to children and sharing books with others. When asked about reading books in bed, the verdict was split: 45% prefer reading e-books in bed, while 43% prefer print.

“E-book readers and tablet computers are finding their place in the rhythms of readers’ lives,” said Kathryn Zickuhr, an author of the e-reading report. “But printed books still serve as the physical currency when people want to share the stories they love.”

These insights come from surveys conducted at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 to gauge people’s general reading habits, their consumption of print books, e-books and audiobooks, and their attitudes about the changing ways that books are made available to the public. Here are some of the other major findings in surveys:

  • There are four times more people reading e-books on a typical day now than was the case less than two years ago. On any given day, 45% of book readers are reading a book of any kind. In June 2010, 95% of those reading books “yesterday” were reading print books and 4% were reading e-books. In our December 2011 survey, 84% of the “yesterday” readers were reading print books and 15% were reading e-books.
  • Of the 43% of Americans who consumed e-books in the last year or have read other long-form content on digital devices, 23% reported difficulty in finding the e-content they wanted.
  • Overall, owners of e-reading devices are more likely than all Americans 16 and older to get book recommendations from people they knew (81% vs. 64%) and bookstore staff (31% vs. 23%). In addition, compared with the general public, owners of e-reading devices who use the internet are also more likely to get recommendations from online bookstores or other websites (56% vs. 34%).
  • Amazon’s Kindle Fire, a new tablet computer introduced in late 2011, grew in market share from 5% of the market in mid-December to 14% of the tablet market in mid-January. This change also became more significant as the overall size of the tablet market roughly doubled. Still, Apple’s iPad continues to dominate the market, with a 61% share, as of February 2012.
  • Among those who do not own tablet computers or e-book reading devices, the main reasons people say they do not own the devices are: 1) they don’t need or want one, 2) they can’t afford one, 3) they have enough digital devices already, or 4) they prefer printed books.

The research reported here comes from three waves of surveys. The first was a nationally-representative survey of 2,986 people ages 16 and older between November 16 and December 21, 2011. The overall survey has a margin of error of ± 2 percentage points.

After that, 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 adults age 18 and older and were fielded between January 5-8 and January 12-15. 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. The margin of error for the entire sample is ± 2 percentage points.

The research reported here was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes, and trends shaping America and the world. The Pew Internet Project explores the impact of the internet on children, families, communities, the work place, schools, health care and civic/political life.  The Project is nonpartisan and takes no position on policy issues. Support for the Project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. More information is available at www.pewresearch.org/internet

Media contact:

Lee Rainie, Director, Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 202-419-4510 and lrainie@pewresearch.org/internet