Nearly 1 in 3 Americans Are Reading Ebooks

Rebecca Hussey

Staff Writer

Rebecca holds a PhD in English and is a professor at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. She teaches courses in composition, literature, and the arts. When she’s not reading or grading papers, she’s hanging out with her husband and son and/or riding her bike and/or buying books. She can't get enough of reading and writing about books, so she writes the bookish newsletter "Reading Indie," focusing on small press books and translations. Newsletter: Reading Indie Twitter: @ofbooksandbikes

One of the key findings from a new study by the Pew Research Center shows that 30% of Americans now read ebooks, up from 25% in 2019. The number of those who read a print book stayed the same in that time period, while audiobook reading increased from 20% to 23%. The Pew Research Center conducted its study between January 25th and February 8th, 2021. Data is available on their site for the years 2011-2021.

Print books still remain the most popular format, with 65% of the study’s respondents saying they had read a print book in the last 12 months (compared to 30% and 23% for ebooks and audiobooks respectively). 75% of Americans have read a book in any format in the past 12 months. That number includes people who have read a book completely or part way through.

The study shows that Americans read an average of 14 books in the last 12 months. The typical American read five books in that time (the median). This shows that “power readers” — those who read many more than five books a year — brought up the average number of books read, but the average, middle-of-the-road American read five.

The Pew Research Center’s data shows how reading habits and preferred formats have changed — or not — over the last 10 years. Readers of books in all formats, currently at 75%, have stayed relatively steady with a high of 78% in 2011 and a low of 72% in 2015 and 2019. Print book reading, currently at 65%, has fluctuated between a high of 72% in 2011 and a low of 63% in 2015. Ebook reading has fluctuated, beginning at 17% in 2011 and peaking at 30% in 2021, with a drop to 25% in 2019. Audiobook listening has generally been on an upward curve, beginning at 11% in 2011 and peaking at 23% in 2021.

The study contains other fascinating findings about reading habits in the U.S. in the past 12 months. Ebook reading has grown, but few Americans read digital only, meaning only ebook or audiobook. 32% of Americans read print books only and 33% read a combination of print and digital. Only 9% read ebooks and/or audiobooks only. 23% said they read no books at all.

Other findings reveal ways reading habits have not changed. As in past studies, adults with bachelor’s degrees or higher are more likely to have read a book than those with some college or with a high school education or less. Those ages 18-29 are more likely to be readers than those 65 or older.

However, not everything has stayed the same. Lower income adults (meaning a household income of less than $30,000) were more likely to have listened to an audiobook since 2019, up from 14% to 22%. Since 2019, adults living in urban communities who read a book in any format increased from 75% to 81%.

PEW does not speculate about reasons behind these findings. Greater access to technology supporting ebooks and audiobooks surely has influenced the rise in digital reading in the last 10 years. Further research might show how the pandemic has influenced changes in reading habits since 2019 and whether it affected the increase in reading overall, as well as the increase in ebook reading during that time. It may be the case that the ease of access to ebooks in a time when bookstores were closed or open only on a limited basis influenced their popularity.

Further information on how different demographic groups reported their reading habits is available at the Pew Research Center website.