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Book-Reading Trends Authors Need to Know

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

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Authors can get into self-pity mode when they see their book sales aren’t meeting their goals or needs. While reflecting on how your book marketing might not be measuring up can be valuable, it pays to look at macro trends in book reading and buying habits that could be impacting your sales. It might not be you!

eBook Reading Is Growing . . . Maybe and Slowly

According to a Pew Research report published in January 2022, 3 in 10 Americans now read eBooks, which is up from 25 percent in 2019. However, in the same study, 65 percent of adults reported having read a print book in the past year.

It is difficult to tell if this increase in eBook consumption is due to more widespread adoption of the format. The study was done in early 2021. So there’s the possibility that this uptick could still be due to more eBook buying during the pandemic when people were not buying books in retail and sought no-contact buying options.

I am shocked at the low, slow adoption rate of eBooks. With the rise in consumption of media on smartphones and tablets like the iPad, it would seem to be a natural evolution. Back in time, we went to the movie theater to watch movies. Now that’s becoming a historical artifact that I don’t think even Spiderman sequels will be able to save for too much longer. Why the resistance?

I’m wondering if this is due to the early eBooks being device-dependent on devices like the Kindle. Did people think eBooks were not readable on other devices? The Kindle was launched in 2007, and so was the iPhone. The Kindle app was in the Apple App Store by 2009. These two game-changing technologies were developing in parallel.

Some of it may be due to what we define as a “book,” a topic I’ll address again in a bit. There’s the possibility people want to disconnect from their screens. I get that. But they’re more than willing to consume all manner of YouTube videos, TV shows, movies, and social media, any time, day or night, even on their smartphones. There also might be a bit of format snobbery involved. It’s not a “real” book unless it’s in print.

People Are Reading Less Books Than in the Past

As reported on Statista, 83% of poll respondents indicated they have read at least one book in the past year, which is similar to polls in 2016 and 2005. But overall, book consumption is dropping.

In 1999, people polled in the U.S. were reading 18.5 books per year. By 2021, that number had dropped to 12.6. That’s a 32% drop in book consumption in two decades. It should also be noted that this included eBooks and audiobooks.

Though the reporting didn’t indicate why these results are being observed, I do have my theories.

Availability of Book Substitutes

I think the economic theory of substitutes can explain part of these results. Today, people have a wealth of content that can be substituted for book reading.

Looking at 1999, the era of social media, YouTube, and podcasts hadn’t really dawned yet. Today, people have more choices and can satisfy their information and entertainment needs in a variety of ways that weren’t available before.

The amount of disposable time may not be that much different than in the past. As more and more choices break onto the content landscape, people may substitute these new content channels for books.

Readers polled may not even realize that their book consumption habits have changed over the years. They don’t think, “Hey, I’m consuming more social media, videos, podcasts, or whatever these days and don’t have time for reading books.”

They just respond with how many books they’re reading now and are unlikely to remember how they responded in the past. Thankfully, we have survey data from stats nerds who measure such trends.

I have to admit that I am just like these book readers in the general public. I’m reading fewer “books” than I did in the past. I just don’t have the time, given the time I spend on online research, writing, social media, and content creation.

All I have to do is look at my personal bookshelf. The copyrights on the print books cluster around the 1990s up to around the 2010s, then stop. My Kindle, of course, is now my main “bookshelf.” My TBR pile, print or virtual, is getting smaller.

I’m even hesitant to buy books since I don’t think I’ll actually have time to read them. More than half of what’s on my Kindle is marked as unread; it’s not unopened, just unfinished.

Given my behavior, I feel like a hypocrite even talking about writing and self-publishing books.

What Is a Book . . . Really?

Have you ever stopped to think what a book actually is?

For the past half-millennium or so, we’ve known a book as a stack of printed pages that contain a story or other information. Then when the eBook came along in the early years of the 21st century, it was kind of like its printed book predecessors. eBook readers were about the size of a trade paperback book, with text arranged in virtual pages.

I think the biggest case for the destruction of our definition of a book is the audiobook. It’s not visually bound together. There is no such thing as pages. A reader doesn’t need a representation of the text on paper or on a screen to consume the “book.”

We also have to consider Amazon’s subscription book reading service, Kindle Unlimited. You are selling access to your book content, not the book itself.

Then there’s Kindle Vella, though I have my doubts about the viability of this serialized fiction offering. But is a collection, or seasons, of Kindle Vella episodes a book? One could argue that it is. What’s the difference between Vella episodes and chapters?

Maybe we need to just consider book content as long-form content, regardless of the technology used to deliver and consume it. Maybe the term book will be irrelevant at some point in the future.

What Does All This Mean for Authors?

I think authors need to consider themselves less as “book authors” and more as “content creators.” Does your work always need to be in a stack of bound printed or virtual pages? Have you made the leap to audio, if appropriate for your content? Have you explored other ways to express and share your creative talents?

Part of the problem is in packaging our content to make it marketable. A book is easy and familiar for authors and publishers. Other formats are not.

I think all this points to the necessity for us to provide our work in multiple formats to meet the changing needs, wants, and behaviors of our audiences.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Heidi Thorne