Sorry Baby Boomers. Where Millennials have been put to task for killing things like fitted sheets, home buying, luxury gifts, and more, it’s thanks to Millennials that engagement with books has remained stable — and even increased — since the pandemic began.
New research from authors Rachel Noorda and Kathi Inman Berens, both of Portland State University, published by the Panorama Project and funded by OverDrive, the American Library Association, the Book Industry Study Group, and the Independent Book Publishers Association, explored consumer attitudes toward media and books. The findings are fascinating and insightful in exploring who is buying books, where readers are engaging with books, where and how books are being discovered, and more.
The research, undertaken amid the COVID-19 pandemic, involved surveying over 4,300 qualified individuals across an array of age groups, races, and locales in the United States. To qualify, individuals have to have indicated engaging with one book over the course of the previous year. The data explored three age groups: Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials. Researchers also looked at five US regions and numerous racial demographics. It is believed to be the first such study and offers conclusions to questions and assumptions many in the industry, from booksellers to publishers to librarians and book influencers, have been eager to learn.
Book engagement was the key measure in the study. Rather than focusing solely on the number of books read and “avid readers”, who tend to be of highest interest to industry members, the researchers looked at how individuals engaged with books, including:
- people who check out materials from the library but don’t always read or watch
- people who give books as gifts but don’t necessarily read much themselves or
consider themselves readers;
- people who discover books via other media such as video games or films and TV;
- people who buy books but don’t always read them;
- people who buy books for a purpose other than reading, such as collecting or
- people who use books for work, school, or hobbies.
A wide definition of “engagement” meant that deeper insight into who is buying, borrowing, and sharing books was possible.
The entire study and all of its findings can be read in full here. The Panorama Project, as well as researchers from Portland State University, plan to hold a webinar to discuss the findings March 10 and it’s open for registration.
Of the three age groups studied, it was Millennials who engaged with books more than any other. But more specifically, it was avid Black, Latinx, and male-identifying Millennials who engaged with books the most, though across all age groups, it was individuals who did not identify as white who engaged the most. The singular exception was when it came to the context of buying books as gifts. This was the one space where white, female-identifying Baby Boomers outpaced any other group.
Books sales over the last year during COVID-19 saw an increase of over 8 percent, and study participants reported not changing their habits during that time. It was instead avid book engagers — those who engaged with four or more books per month — who helped drive that spike in sales.
And it’s not just books people engage with, either. Research found those who engaged with books also engaged with other media, from television to movies and more. The same Millennial demographics who engaged avidly with books did so with other media, drawing researchers to note that media types are not in competition with one another. Rather, there are opportunities for cross-media collaboration waiting to be explored.
In other words, readers who loved books also loved other media, and one did not take attention away from another.
Book discovery is highly fragmented, even for younger demographics. Though recommendations from friends ranked highest among all groups, it only constituted about 1/5 of the entire survey population. Readers are finding books and engaging with them in numerous ways. Likewise, bookstores, libraries, and other similar channels benefit one another, such that each of those resources becomes a stronger source of engagement and sales in other channels. Bookstores and libraries are not in competition; they’re in collaboration with one another.
Additional Study Findings of Note
While the above were the most noteworthy findings, others are worth highlighting as well. Key findings when it comes to general book engagement, as well as age groups:
- The most important factors when it came to purchasing a book were the book’s genre or category, followed by the author, and reviews of the book. Only nine percent of those who responded said price was a major consideration.
- The main reason people engage with books is for entertainment, followed by self-improvement or project-related purposes.
- Per month, the survey respondents noted engaging with 2.44 e-books, 3.88 print books, and 1.89 audiobooks. Millennials engaged with books the most: 3.1 e-books, 5.3 print books, and 3.1 audiobooks.
- While Millennials were least likely to have a library card — 70.5% compared to 75.8% for other age groups — they borrowed more books from the library during COVID than other groups.
- About 40% of survey responses indicated posting an online review or recommendation for a book.
- Gen X engaged with fewer print books than other age groups, but they engaged with audiobooks and e-books at higher rates than other groups.
- Baby Boomers engaged with books the least of all demographics, and during COVID, they turned to books the least of any age group, preferring to engage with TV or movies. They borrowed fewer books from the library as well.
Key findings when it comes to race:
- Black Americans engaged with a higher number of books per month than the general survey: 4.2 e-books per month, 5.2 print books, and 2.7 audiobooks.
- Asian Americans held the highest percentage of library cards at 81%. They post more reviews of books and are most influenced by reviews.
- Latinx people were least likely to hold a library card at 69.9%, but they borrowed more material from the library during COVID than other groups. They also borrow and buy more material in all formats than the general survey. Latinx readers bought more books during COVID than other groups.
And when it comes to locale:
- Midwesterners discover books via the library more than any other US region and hold library cards at a higher percentage. Despite this, they were not borrowing more from the library than other regional counterparts during COVID.
- Readers in the Southwest were least likely to hold a library card, and they were least likely to engage with audiobooks. They engaged with e-books more than any other region, but did not buy e-books at a higher rate than other regions.
- In the West, e-books were purchased at higher rates during COVID than any other region. These readers were also least likely to purchase print.
- Northeasterners bought print and audiobooks at higher rates than any other region. They were most likely to share reviews online, as well as borrowing at higher levels from libraries during COVID.
- Readers in the Southeast engaged most with audiobooks and print books more than other regions.
There is so much more fascinating and insightful data to be mined from the full report, including a deep dive into gender differences and exploration of where and how Generation Z engages with literature. If nerding out about book discovering, demographics, and engagement with books is your jam, set aside a few hours and dig in.