April 11, 2021

How Do We Read? Let’s Count The Ways: Comparing Digital, Audio, and Print-Only Readers; New Report from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)

From the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA):

This report analyzes data from the 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), which the National Endowment for the Arts conducted in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau. It gives a statistical overview of how the nation’s adults engage with leisure reading and other literary activities, such as author readings, book clubs, and creative writing. The survey identifies three groups of adults: nonreaders, print-only readers, and digital/audio readers. (The latter category describes adults who read e-books or listened to audiobooks, but who also may have read books in print.)

Previous reports from the National Endowment for the Arts have shown long-term declines in book-reading and in the reading of literary texts—e.g., novels and short stories. For those who care about the future of books and literature, the new report attests to the vitality of digital and audio platforms in today’s literary culture. For example, when we account for adults who listen to audiobooks, the total number of adults who engage with books is more comparable to figures from previous years. Also, the data show that while older readers read books at higher rates than do younger adults, digital/audio reading is more common among younger than older readers. Indeed, digital/audio readers consume more books on average and engage in other cultural activities at higher rates than do print-only readers.

Results in Brief

1. More than half of all U.S. adults (55 percent, or 132 million) engage in some form of book-reading, whether via print or digital media, or listening to audiobooks.

  • Digital/audio readers now represent a larger share of adults than do print-only readers.
  • Previous research has shown a decline in the percentage of adults who read books. However, when the 2017 percentage is adjusted to include adults who listen to audio-books, the overall rate of book-reading is somewhat closer to those in previous years.

2. Younger readers, especially 18-24-year-olds, are more likely than older adults to be digital/audio readers who also may be reading print books.

  • Digital/audio readers consume more books per year than do other types of readers.
  • Adults aged 65 and older are more likely than other age groups to be print-only readers.

3. Readers of poetry and graphic novels are more likely to be digital/audio readers than print-only readers.

  • By contrast, readers of novels or short stories or works of biography, history, and religion, are more likely to be print only readers.

4. Digital/audio readers frequently engage in other cultural activities and support the arts.

  • Print-only readers engage with and support the arts more than nonreaders do, but they consistently report lower levels of support than digital/audio readers.

Direct to Full Text Report
62 pages; PDF.

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.

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