For all the cliches about young folk being glued to screens, or the mirror-image hipster ‘New Luddite’ push to bring back old forms of media, some recently published data actually suggests that Millennials (that is, young people whose formative years were in the 00’s) are showing a fairly even mix of habits when it comes to how they read.
The data comes from Publishing Technology, a ‘publishing content solutions’ company based in the UK and North America. They partnered with polling agency OnePoll to carry out a survey of 1,000 millennials in the UK and the same number in the US, all aged between 18-34 years. All statistics mentioned in this article will refer to the UK data, and you can see the entire study here.
E-reading Devices are Not Dead. Probably.
There were some surprises in this data. Fully 52% of the UK respondents reported owning a dedicated e-reading device (predominantly but not exclusively Kindles), and 62% used some sort of e-reading service/platform. The actual usage mix is harder to survey, and likely quite varied, but certainly the high proportion of dedicated e-reader device ownership does not automatically mean these are the devices being primarily used for reading.
Indeed, other data we’ve seen this year has suggested a strong current away from dedicated e-reading devices and toward reading on smartphones and tablets, which would constitute part of the aforementioned 62% overall figure. So a lot of those dedicated e-reading devices might be languishing in drawers.
This means that in 2015, 38% of people under 35 are exclusively reading paper books (or no books at all). And while 62% reading ebooks sounds a plausible proportion, it’s not an exclusive number, and 64% report having read at least one print book this year. It looks like for millennials there is no strong preference one way or the other. They are mixing media.
In the wider market there are a lot of different sales trends for print and ebooks depending on genre, demographic and various other factors, but overall, print still sells more than digital in most categories, and the swing toward ebooks that had long seemed both exponential and inevitable is by most accounts slowing. Yet, if this data is to be believed, in the long term the shift may have some further movement still to come.
Interestingly, a notable proportion of the young people surveyed said the price of ebooks was the main barrier preventing them from buying and reading more electronically. 36% said they’d buy a greater number of ebooks if there were more price promotions, which suggests life in the belief that digital goods should cost less than their physical counterparts – a belief that has also had an effect on the music and video industries.
While we’re on the topic of sales, it’s interesting to note another area where print and ebook habits look broadly similar. At least in this self-reporting survey (as opposed to direct sales data), spending differences didn’t vary much, with 23% reporting that they spent more on print books than ebooks, and 18% spending more on ebooks, with 14% spending equally on each. There are no statistically significant trends here, so again, we’re looking at a fairly even mix. Somewhat less evenly, 22% reported purchasing print books exclusively, while a scant 4% stuck solely to ebooks, lower than the 6% who downloaded freely available books (we can assume a modicum of piracy in this metric). While this tells us that some 84% are not exclusively buyers of either print or ebooks, it doesn’t tell us the proportion of print vs ebooks those non-exclusive readers bought. A ‘mixed’ reader may have bought 9 ebooks and 1 print, or vice-versa.
Additionally, while the survey did look at different ereading platforms and ask which the readers used, it didn’t look at how readers potentially navigate multiple platforms and devices, which, for a generation who grew up as all these services launched, may be a significant number. Platform loyalty is not a given, and money may be spread across different e-reading platforms by the same reader.
So, what we see here is a mixed set of results, with a mild preference for print books over ebooks, but an awful lot of platform-hopping. Is there anything we can gleam from this about what to expect in the future?
Possibly, but it’s tough. People’s reading habits change as they age, and it’s likely that the younger people in this survey (18 year olds) have dramatically different habits from the ‘older’ people (34 year olds). Really, the age range in this survey is too broad for the data to be hugely instructive. The people surveyed will presumably continue to age, and their own habits will change. Data for children below this age is less watertight, as they have limited or no purchasing agency, and so we have nothing more than educated guesses at this point.
It does seem likely, though, that rather than a rising tide of ebook dominance, or a great print book revival, we are seeing a rather gentler rebalancing toward a more mixed-media future which, given changes to the music (think vinyl, not CD), TV and film industries, should not entirely surprise us.