Despite positive sales of print books, Gallup reports Americans are reading less

Yesterday had the good news: booksellers seemed pleased with the volume of sales over the holiday season, notwithstanding the challenges from supply chain disruptions and publishers scrambling to fulfill reprint orders.

But as night follows day, every good news story about the book sector will inevitably be followed by a bad news story. Today, Publishing Perspectives points to a Gallup survey that found Americans are reading “are reading roughly two or three fewer books per year than they did between 2001 and 2016.” The survey of 811 U.S. adults, conducted between December 1 and 16 of last year, indicated that people reporting having read between one and five books in any format over the past year was up to 40% from 34% in 2016. By contrast, the number of people who reported reading eleven books or more was down from 35% to 27%.

The change in average number of books read was starker for women (-3.6 books per year) than men (-1.3 books per year), though men were reading fewer books to begin with. The decline among college graduates was in the neighbourhood of six books per year.

These stats seem counterintuitive, given that unit sales of print books in the U.S. rose 8.9% in 2021 over the previous year, though Publishing Perspectives points out that the Gallup survey asked about books read not books purchased. The article also posits that the decline in reading may be a result of “omnichannel integration,” with users of various media – including films, music, games, and television – consolidating their entertainment on a single device, thereby eliminating much of the friction involved in accessing alternatives. The article quotes Amazon Publishing executive Eoin Purcell as suggesting that what has changed during Covid-19 lockdowns is intensity: that is, whatever media a user tended to prefer before the pandemic has benefited from more focused attention by that user over the past two years.

While Porter Anderson, the author of the Publishing Perspectives article, is hesitant to declare for certain what might account for the Gallup numbers, he does see some possibility that Purcell’s intensity metric might have value:

Purcell, seated at a traditional publishing house that stands among Amazon’s sister operations in film, television, and music, said, “Customers responded by doing more of what they loved. That’s what we saw. For some that was reading. For some that was listening to audiobooks or podcasts. For some it was listening to music. For some it was watching more shows on Amazon Prime.” Intensity.

Is what Gallup is picking up on, then, a lessening of intensity? Perhaps the crassest way to put it might be to ask whether all the intensity of the harshest periods of COVID-19 restrictions actually could have led to a period, hopefully temporary, of intensity exhaustion? “Enough with the reading already,” might be the poll respondent’s comment, if that’s the case.

North of the 49th parallel, BookNet Canada found that the majority of people they surveyed about leisure-time activities cited social media, video streaming, and watching TV as among the things they do most frequently. Of those who specified reading, the majority (12%) read print books, while 38% of daily readers were aged 65 or older.

BookNet also found that 55% of respondents had visited a bookstore or library – either virtually or in person – in the first half of 2021, a notable figure given the patchwork of closures across the country due to the ongoing Covid pandemic.

Whether the U.S. stats are a cause for concern or a short-term blip on the radar is especially hard to discern during ongoing disruptions to daily life as a result of the Omicron variant of Covid and its associated impacts on public health, business, and family life. Anderson ends by saying, “A little sober watchfulness is never a bad thing.” Possibly so but, without being a Pollyanna, it may be just as valuable to pay attention to those publishers and booksellers reporting a robust season to close the year; if booksellers’ biggest problem during the second year of a global pandemic was not having sufficient stock of some titles to accommodate all the customers who wanted them, that’s indicative of a fairly healthy sector, regardless of increased omnichannel integration – or whatever the latest businessspeak bafflegab might have us believe.

Despite positive sales of print books, Gallup reports Americans are reading less