Paper or e-book? Americans still prefer paper

August reading
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ Kelly Rossiter's August reading

Kindles and Kobos and iPads and tablets are everywhere these days; bookstores are harder to find; one would think that the e-book is taking over the reading world. But according to a new Pew study, printed paper books are still by far the most popular format. This has long been an issue of interest to TreeHugger, because of the question about which uses less energy and resources, an e-book or a paper book (they both have a big impact), and because we often worry about the effects of new technologies.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that people still are reading books, with 73 percent of Americans reading one in the last year, down from 79 percent in 2011 when this was last studied. Pew calls that “largely unchanged“ but it seems like a big drop to me. The typical American has read 4 books in the last year, pretty much unchanged from 2011.

More and more of those books are e-books, but paper still prevails;

E-book readership increased by 11-percentage points between 2011 and 2014 (from 17% to 28%) but has seen no change in the last two years. Similarly, the share of American adults who listen to audio books has changed only marginally since Pew Research Center first asked about this topic in 2011 – at that point, 11% of Americans had listened to an audio book in the last year, compared with 14% now.

The director of research from Pew tells the New York Times:

I think if you looked back a decade ago, certainly five or six years ago when ebooks were taking off, there were folks who thought the days of the printed book were numbered, and it’s just not so in our data.

comparing coversLloyd Alter/ comparing covers e-book and old paper/CC BY 2.0

I suspect that it is too soon to tell. First, there is that baby boomer demographic with their aging eyes. After writing my review of Condominium, a reader suggested I look at John D. MacDonald's A Flash of Green again. I grabbed my dad’s sixties-vintage copy with the sexist cover and found that the tiny print was impossible to read. Even with the paper book in hand, I still bought the iBook so that I could adjust the font to a size that was easier to read.

Then there is the content, which is changing too. There is more and more short digital-only writing being done, Books are long because that’s how they have been printed and packaged and sold. As David Weinberger noted in Too big to know:

Books do not express the nature of knowledge. They express the nature of knowledge committed to paper cut into pages without regard to the edges of ideas, bound together, printed in mass quantities and distributed, all within boundaries set by an economic system.

To think that knowledge itself is shaped like books is to marvel that a rock fits so well in its hole in the ground.

It is inevitable that the changes in the medium will change the content too, leaving the tablet or the phone as the more flexible, universal medium.

Finally, there is the space that books take up; more and more people are renting, living in smaller spaces, and moving relatively often. Under those circumstances, paper books are a burden, unless they are borrowed from the library, the greenest way to read.

I suspect that when they do this survey again in a few years that the results will be very different. Where do you fit on this chart?

Paper or e-book? Americans still prefer paper
That's what a Pew study says, but things may be changing.

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