Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Who buys books, and why?

Sandra Parshall


TV and movies may be aimed mostly at young men these days, but if publishers and booksellers are wise, they’ll go after the older female audience. A comprehensive survey of book-buying habits that was released at Book Expo in late May leaves little doubt that the book business as a whole would be sunk without the patronage of middle-aged and older women.

The survey, which you can see in slide-show format on the Verso Advertising website, involved 9,300 book-buyers 18 or older, 48.2% of them male (the U.S. population is 48.4% male) and 51.8% female (U.S. population: 51.6% female). The margin of error is given as 1.5% and the “probability threshold” as 95%.

The most encouraging statistic the survey turned up is that 28% of the country’s population 18 or older – that’s 62.4 million adults – reads more than five hours a week. Half of those read 10 or more hours per week. Of these avid readers, 63% (39 million) are female and 37% (23 million) are male.


When the study breaks readership down by age, it gets even more interesting. The majority of avid readers are over 45, and the largest group is over 55.

It’s not surprising that the amount of time “avid readers” spend reading rises sharply as they enter their mid-forties and jumps again as they move into
their fifties and sixties. Kids grow up and leave home, people retire, and they simply have more time for leisure reading. The 25-34-year-old group reads least of all, perhaps because those are the years when many people are establishing themselves professionally, getting married, and having children.

But what explains why women, at any age, consistently read more than men do?

In the mystery community, people always point to the willingness of women to read books by men as well as those by women, and the resistance of many men to reading books written by female authors. Maybe this holds up across all genres, but it doesn’t really explain why women spend more time reading. It’s not as if men run out of books by male authors to read. A man could read every minute of his life and never exhaust the supply of books written by other men. Something else must explain the difference between the reading habits of the sexes, but I have no idea what that something is.

A major section of the survey has to do with e-book purchases – the market share is growing, and is expected to reach 12-15% within two years, but only 7.5% of readers are willing to pay hardcover prices for electronic downloads. Of the rest, 28% want prices kept at $10 or less and another 28% won’t pay more than $20 for an e-book.

When asked about the primary factors in book-purchasing decisions, 52% of survey respondents cited author reputation, 49% said personal recommendations, 45% said price, 37% said reviews, 22% said cover artwork and blurbs, and 14% said advertising (including online advertising).

The survey (which is being conducted in several “waves” over the course of a year) is designed to help independent booksellers understand who the avid book-buyers are and how the stores can gain more of their business, but a couple of its conclusions should be noted by all booksellers – and publishers. Older Americans make up two-thirds of the country’s avid readers. And 63% of that sought-after group is female. A lot of older women say they feel “invisible” in society, but wise booksellers and publishers will recognize the value of this group of readers and be sure to provide them with the books they want to read.

30 comments:

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, I think the missing variables involve what else people are doing with their time. You cited life cycle factors in why older people read more, but the current crop of younger people, raised with pervasive electronics, is not likely to turn to books when they get older. As for men, maybe the time they don't spend reading goes to watching sports.

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm afraid publishers and booksellers are counting on younger people, who don't read much now, turning into avid readers as they age. Like you, I doubt that will happen. Too many other forms of entertainment claim their attention.

Are we the last generation of avid readers?

Diane said...

I have ALWAYS been an avid reader. I started reading mysteries - adult ones - when I was 10. And that has continued through marriage & kids, then work, and now retirement. My Grandmother, Mother, daughters and now granddaughters (including one 15 yr old step-granddaughter) were/are all avid readers. The guys not so much.

As for what folks are willing to pay for ebooks, it shouldn't cost as much as a printed book. It doesn't cost the publisher as much to publish since they don't have paper costs, etc.

As for how I discover what I want to read, there are many sources. Some are cover looks, I'm sure. Though not consciously. Just browsing through the bookstore, reading the blurb on what the book is about. Once I read it, if I like the book, I go back and suck up any more by that author and look out for new ones by them.

Laura DiSilverio said...

Like Diane, I've always been an avid reader. Both of my girls--10 and 13 are also avid readers, so hopefully we're not the last generation of readers, Sandy. I'd take the surveyed readers' comments about why they buy books with a grain of salt because I'm not sure any of us are truly aware of how advertising, book covers, and other subliminal things influence our purchases.

Sandra Parshall said...

Laura, I think the whole subject of what influences readers to purchase books is poorly understood. These days, as you know, writers are constantly debating whether social networking is worth the investment of time and effort -- will it pay off in book sales? Nobody knows! Yet we're all pouring our time into Facebook, Twitter, etc. Advertising makes people aware of a book, but does it make them buy it? Only if the ad manages to strike a responsive chord. What works with one reader will leave another cold. And the poor writer goes on wondering where she can best spend her time (and promotion dollars).

Laura DiSilverio said...

Sandy--I agree one thousand percent. Not knowing where to effectively put my marketing time and money has been the single most frustrating thing since I became a published novelist.

Vicki Lane said...

Terrific post, Sandy! One reason I chose to write about a woman in her fifties was hoping that she would appeal to a lot of those 'women of a certain age' out there.

lil Gluckstern said...

I have always been an avid reader as are my daughters, and grandchildren. I always bought books even though I really couldn't afford them, and I love my library-wherever I lived. I am so happy to have these blogs available online because you authors are coming alive for me, and I am humbly grateful when you respond to my comments. Don't underestimate the blog's power. I am constantly calling my local indie for yet another book for my TBR bookcase because your blog has interested me, and I am discovering new authors all all the time. It is a pleasure, and a joy to connect the book with the name with a person. So many books...

Sandra Parshall said...

Lil, thank you for your comments! It's great to have someone say that yes, blogging "works" for authors. I know that many of us wonder whether we're squandering our writing energy on blogs when we should be pouring all of it into our books. I'm glad to know the effort isn't wasted.

Julia Buckley said...

I can't imagine a world where people have stopped reading books. I think the avid readers will continue, because so many children take the reading mantle from their parents.

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