by Sandra Parshall
I love polls, surveys, and reports – anything that reveals what people are thinking and doing. If the topic is any aspect of the book business, I’m doubly fascinated, so the dull-sounding 2008 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics & Buying Behaviors Annual Report from Bowker Publishing Services is my idea of a page-turner.
This isn’t a survey based on a tiny sampling. Bowker had 11,933 people send weekly reports throughout the year. Some results weren’t surprising. We already knew, didn’t we, that women buy more books than men do? Last year, according to Bowker, 65% of all trade books were purchased by women. Women, after all, are the ones who buy books as gifts for others as well as for their own reading pleasure.
Baby boomers were the biggest book buyers – 35%, compared to 30% of “matures” (Don’t you hate that expression? Are baby boomers “immatures”?). The numbers for young readers were every bit as dismal as we might expect in this internet-obsessed era: only 17% of book buyers were classified as Gen X, 10% were part of Gen Y, and a pathetic 5% were teens. We can take heart from the certainty that some of those books purchased by women were gifts for the young people in their lives. Maybe the kids even found time between Twittering and Facebooking to read them.
I’ve heard and read many times that romance outsells mystery by a wide margin, so I was pleased to see that the Bowker report puts mystery in the top spot – 16% of all sales, compared to 12% for juvenile books (Yes! Moms, aunts and grandmothers are buying books for kids) and only 11% for romance. Espionage/thriller is a separate category, and those books account for 4% of sales, so if you add them to mystery and call it all crime fiction, the percentage hits 20% of the market. Science fiction and religion make up 4% each, followed by autobiography and biography at 3%, and history, cooking, and business/economics at 2% each.
The question of why people buy the books they do brought predictable answers: 17% of all book buyers said they purchase a book because they’ll read whatever that particular author publishes, and another 17% buy because of the topic. Additional factors that influence purchases: matching gift books to the recipients’ tastes, 8%; adding to a collection, 8%; price, 7%; recommendations, 5%. When the question is narrowed to fiction only, 28% said they buy a book because of the author and only 9% mentioned the topic.
I found a couple of revelations genuinely startling.
While women buy more printed books, men are driving the e-book business, making 55% of all electronic purchases in 2008 (and in the first quarter of 2009, that figure went up to 57%). E-books went from 0.6% of book sales in 2008 to 2.4% in the first quarter of 2009, so the long-predicted boom in this market seems to be happening at last. Less surprising is the news that 52% of e-book buyers were between the ages of 18 and 34.
I was happy to learn that books aren’t by any means a luxury purchased primarily by people with a lot of disposable income. A whopping 41% of book buyers earned $35,000 or less per year. Another 36% earned between $35,000 and $75,000. The wealthy make up a tiny percentage of the country's population, and it's good to know that book sales aren't entirely dependent on that small group of readers.
Perhaps the saddest news, which isn’t really news to any of us, is that brick-and-mortar bookstores have lost so much ground that the internet now claims the largest market share for books – 23%, compared to 22% for major bookstore chains, 10% for book clubs, 7% for independent bookstores, 6% for mass merchandisers, and 4% for warehouse clubs. Supermarkets, religious bookstores, discount/closeout stores, book fairs, and drugstores hold minuscule slices of the market, and various “other outlets” lumped together account for 22%.
Where does Amazon, the elephant-in-the-room we can no longer ignore, rank in sales? It took 14% of the market last year. As devoted as both writers and readers may be to the concept of a neighborhood bookstore with a friendly atmosphere and helpful staff, busy people are finding the convenience of online ordering irresistible. Writers who shun or preach against Amazon and its internet brethren may be attacking their own best interests.
Furthermore, the Bowker survey reveals that the internet is now the most popular source of information about books. Twenty-one per cent of all book buyers reported that they learned about the books they bought through internet promotion, while 16% said they discovered books through traditional sources – print reviews and ads, etc. In fiction, the percentages were 21% online and 13% traditional sources.
All the crime fiction writers I know are well aware of the promotional value of an online presence. It has rapidly become conventional wisdom that a novelist must have a website, must have a blog, must contribute to listservs such as DorothyL. What about Facebook, MySpace, Twitter? Groan all you wish about these time sinks, but today’s fans expect writers to be accessible, and social networks are free paths to that connection between author and reader. (I’m not on Facebook or MySpace, and I don’t tweet, but I have a feeling at least one of these is in my future. Will you be my friend?)
Do any of the Bowker report findings surprise (or dismay) you? Do they match your book-buying habits? Let’s narrow the questions to crime fiction only and do a little poll of our own. (I won’t ask you to reveal your annual income, although one question is economics-related.)
1. In your household, is the primary book-buyer male or female?
2. Do you buy hardcover books, or do you save money by buying only paperbacks and getting hardcovers from the library?
3. Do you buy more books online or at brick-and-mortar bookstores? Do you buy books in supermarkets, drugstores, Wal-Mart, etc.? In each case, why?
4. What influences your purchase of a book? (Choose all that apply.)
(b.) Topic/story summary
(c.) Recommendation from a trusted person
(d.) Print review or ad
(e.) Internet buzz
(g.) Other (specify)
5. Do you purchase e-books? Do you plan to continue or begin purchasing e-books in the near future?
6. Which age category do you fit into?
None of your darned business!