By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Not Fewer Book Readers, But Lower Consumption LevelsAs we’ve reported, the American publishing industry ended 2021 on a high note, many elements of which you can review in our report on NPD BookScan‘s review from the company’s research lead in the space, Kristen McLean. What’s more, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) has issued strong StatShot reports. They run farther behind than NPD’s commentary, but they include a broader purview of the marketplace, as reported through a pool of more than 1,300 publishers.
In a January 10 report from the United States’ Gallup Poll Social Services, however, the company has found that Americans surveyed say they read an average of 12.6 books during the past year, a smaller number than Gallup has measured in any prior survey dating back to 1990.
“US adults are reading roughly two or three fewer books per year than they did between 2001 and 2016,” according to the report.
The input from Gallup’s pool was collected between December 1 and 16, in telephone interviews conducted with a random sample of 811 adults 18 and older. The margin of sampling error is rated at +4 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level. Respondents live in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The question put to respondents asked them how many books they’d “read, either all or part of the way through” in the past year, and without a print-vs.-digital bias. “Reading,” for purposes of this poll, includes all formats including ebooks and audiobooks.
It’s important to note that the poll is not revealing a smaller number of book-reading citizens, but a lower level of content consumption among those readers.
In his discussion for Gallup of the finding, Jeffrey M. Jones writes, “The decline in book reading is mostly a function of how many books readers are reading, as opposed to fewer Americans reading any books. The 17 percent of US adults who say they did not read any books in the past year is similar to the 16 percent to 18 percent measured in 2002 to 2016 surveys, although it’s higher than in the 1999 to 2001 polls.
“The drop is fueled by a decline,” Jones writes, “in the percentage of Americans reading more than 10 books in the past year. Currently, 27 percent report that they read more than 10 books, down eight percentage points since 2016 and lower than every prior measure by at least four points.”
When Jones writes that it’s unclear what’s behind a decline in content consumption levels among readers, he touches on the entertainment-overload issue that has concerned many in book publishing as the digital dynamic has placed reading into a common and turbo-charged distributional climate with film, television, music, gaming, and more.
Michael Busch, the CEO of Germany’s Thalia bookselling chain, has recently referred to digital “deepening the omnichannel integration” of the “customer journey.” (Busch will join us in a roundtable on January 28 for Italy’s 39th Scuola per Librai Umberto e Elisabetta Mauri program, details are here. And we have alerted him that we may indeed use his interesting phrase, omnichannel integration, with gratitude.)
And while many in world publishing were initially slow to concede that consumers were seeing the lines of access blurring between various entertainment media (often on a single device), one of the most cogent points that Eoin Purcell, the chief of Amazon Publishing for Germany and the United Kingdom, made to us in a late-year conversation was that the “digital acceleration” triggered by spread-mitigation efforts particularly in the first year of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic appeared to be less about adding new readership and more about “intensity.”
Purcell, seated at a traditional publishing house that stands among Amazon’s sister operations in film, television, and music, said, “Customers responded by doing more of what they loved. That’s what we saw. For some that was reading. For some that was listening to audiobooks or podcasts. For some it was listening to music. For some it was watching more shows on Amazon Prime.” Intensity.
Is what Gallup is picking up on, then, a lessening of intensity? Perhaps the crassest way to put it might be to ask whether all the intensity of the harshest periods of COVID-19 restrictions actually could have led to a period, hopefully temporary, of intensity exhaustion? “Enough with the reading already,” might be the poll respondent’s comment, if that’s the case.
Jones, in his Gallup article, writes that it’s not a question of accessibility. “It’s uncertain,” he writes, “whether concerns about COVID or COVID-related restrictions are leading to a decline in visits to libraries or bookstores, similar to the documented declines in air travel and movie theater attendance Gallup found in the same poll.”
Certainly the Broadway producers’ dilemma problem aligns with what Jones is talking about, Michael Paulson having written for The New York Times on Sunday (January 16) that the shows have deeply staffed up on understudies and stand-ins so that casts can get through performances when colleagues become infected, only to find now that “audiences are vanishing.”
At Gallup, Jones writes, “However, unlike those activities, for reading, Americans can order books or download electronic books or audiobooks without leaving their homes.”
And if anything, McLean at NPD says, physical book retailers are capitalizing now on “the best of what’s working” to keep content moving off the shelves “after nearly two years of pandemic experimentation and implementation. From rebranding and re-merchandising efforts, to community-building strategies and aggressive promotional campaigns,” she predicts, “some retailers are really going to nail it, and physical bookselling will grow share overall in 2022.”
Jones’ and Gallup’s cautionary message is worth keeping in mind this year, particularly because of the demographic in which the December polling has shown a decline in reading: college graduates report reading an average of “about six fewer books in 2021 than they did between 2002 and 2016, 14.6 [books] versus 21.1.”
“Americans in most major subgroups” polled, Jones writes, say that they “are reading fewer books now than in the past. This is based on a comparison of the 2021 results to an average of those from the three polls conducted between 2002 and 2016. During those years, Americans read an average of 15.2 books a year.
“The decline is greater among subgroups that tended to be more avid readers, particularly college graduates but also women and older Americans.”
The bright spot? Men’s reading seems to have declined less, “by barely one book,” than women’s. Granted, men now report reading 9.5 books by comparison to women’s 15.7 now (down from 19.3 between 2002 and 2016). But with the US publishing industry having long placed more content and marketing emphasis on its female consumer base than on its potential male readership, it’s good to see that men’s reading habits may not be deteriorating as readily as women’s in Gallup’s polling purview.
What will be decidedly less happy to many in the business is a finding Jones reports among older respondents, those 55 and older. They’ve reported dropping to 12 books per year from a previous 16.7 books per year.
Perhaps the most important blinking yellow light here is Gallup’s finding that, “Reading appears to be in decline as a favorite way for Americans to spend their free time. In 2020, a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, when many Americans were still reluctant to leave their homes, Gallup found 6 percent of US adults naming reading as their favorite way to spend an evening, down from 12 percent in 2016. Since Gallup first asked the question in 1960, at least 10 percent of Americans had identified reading as their favorite evening activity in all but one survey.”
Reading vs. Buying
Understandably, the relief of an industry like book publishing to find that it could adjust, weather, and even thrive in a pandemic-constrained environment in many markets has been a moment for cheering. The American market and many of its more digitally advanced sister markets of the world clearly are right to be buoyed by how they’ve fared and proud of the hard work it has taken to accomplish upbeat results.
And the Gallup write-up from Jones includes an important point that the drivers behind these recent findings remain unclear. The results described may be temporary. We just don’t know.
Indeed, in a recent discussion of these findings on a private list-serve group followed by industry professionals, a lot of skepticism was expressed, not least because the US market’s performance has shown superb sales resilience and many gains in the pandemic era.
A good point then was made, though, that what Gallup’s respondents are talking about is how much they’ve read, not how much they’ve bought.
As happy as many sales reports have been, actual reading may not have been as robust as assumed. Further, it was pointed out that in reference to the publishing industry, Gallup has a position of ideological independence: its appraisals may be, again understandably, less colored by (perfectly logical) industry interests than the metrics collected more closely to, and in concert with, industry players.
Suffice it to say that amid many positive data reports and the logical satisfaction of what has appeared to be so many fine performances under challenging conditions, it’s good simply to contemplate and remain vigilant about these data points from Gallup that suggest there could be a softening of enthusiasm among the normally more engaged classes of consumers.
A little sober watchfulness is never a bad thing.
More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on world publishing is here.