Reading Habits Survey 2015

I have some, shall we say, strong reading preferences at this point -- in particular, I tend to prefer shorter books, and books that aren't a part of a series. But I am only a single data point, and in conversation with the clever and thoughtful Sunil Patel, I got to wondering how representative of current reading tastes I am.

So I thought I'd ask.

The survey asked only seven questions, and I put the call out on social media, so I can't guarantee that the self-selected set of respondents here, who are all connected to my own social network at some degree of remove or another, are representative of all readers. Summarized here are the data I collected. (Pardon the inconsistent chart formats -- some are SurveyMonkey screen shots, and some I built separately in Excel.)

First off, unsurprisingly, basically everyone who participated in the survey considers themselves to be a book reader. Out of 505 responses, only 15 people answered "no" or "not sure."

So just about everyone self-defines as a reader, but what does that mean in practical terms? How many books are we talking? Or more specifically: how many books did you read last year?

How many books did you read in the last 12 months? The X axis is books read last in the last year; Y is how many respondents answered for each range.

How many books did you read in the last 12 months? The X axis is books read last in the last year; Y is how many respondents answered for each range.

...Wow. People who read, it turns out, read a loooooot of books. Roughly a third of our readers went through between one and twenty books last year, and another 40% read between 30 and 100. And a shocking-to-me number of people reported reading 100, 200, even 300 books in a year. The maximum number reported -- and not a unique one -- was 500. Respect. Where do you find that much time?!

Next, I thought I'd ask about ebooks. What percentage of the books you read last year were ebooks? So this was interesting -- unsurprisingly, a large number of readers won't touch ebooks. A much smaller number read ebooks exclusively. Zero-ebooks brought 97 respondents, and only 50 said 100 percent.

What % of books you read in the last 12 months were ebooks? (in # of respondents)

What % of books you read in the last 12 months were ebooks? (in # of respondents)

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It bears noting, though, that a lot of books simply aren't available in ebook format, and sometimes pricing is prohibitive on one format or another, so a cost-conscious consumer may flip back and forth. And yet! Very, very few people are comparatively willing to read either format equally. Notice that dip in the middle. The majority of readers responding want their books the way they like them. So much for the death of print, huh?

Next up was an analysis of what genre our readers prefer. I'd expected a majority of science fiction and fantasy readers, since I put the call for survey responses out on Twitter and I run in a lot of circles that skew toward those genres. But in fact our reading tastes are deliciously promiscuous.

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In retrospect I might have found better results for the later questions about series by limiting the responses to genre fiction, but frankly I was curious how much nonfic and literary fiction crossover reading occurs. It looks like... quite a lot.

And that "other" category proves some substantial oversight on my end, or at least grounds for debate about what makes a genre. Of the 112 respondents answering "other," 40 wrote in some version of Young Adult. Other genres often mentioned include religious, erotica, and historical, and quite a few respondents used that space to specify very specific subcategories of readership ranging from steampunk to sewing. A very few respondents chose to mention non-genre-specific reading preferences, too, like seeking out black novel protagonists, YA books including trans characters, or Canadian authors.

And now we get on toward the initial questions I had when I started this endeavor -- of all of those many, many books being read, what percentage of them are in series?

What % of books you read in the last 12 months were part of a series? (in # of respondents)

What % of books you read in the last 12 months were part of a series? (in # of respondents)

It's hard to come away with a solid conclusion out of this one. Roughly 10% of our readers didn't read any series at all, and about 60% say that series books make up half or less of their reading material. I'd interpret this to meant a slight preference against series works -- but given that many of our respondents read lit-fic, nonfiction, and other genres in which series are not a widespread practice, it's difficult to determine what this means in actionable terms.

So why don't we ask about that directly: how do various factors affect your decision to begin reading a book or not? Note that we're specifically not asking about marketing nor economic concerns -- I didn't want to muddy the waters, but in the long run it's likely that considerations like price and word-of-mouth trump other considerations entirely.

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We see few surprises here. Around 88% of readers are more likely or much more likely to read a book if it's part of a series they've read already, and very, very few people say otherwise. This is especially interesting considering that series attrition is a known phenomenon -- people definitely do stop reading series in the middle, and many a series has never reached completion as a result. This may well be a case where what we think we would do is at odds with what we actually do.

Moving on, there's a slight preference toward a book that is the first in a series, but it's only around 5%. There's a much stronger preference toward the first book in a completed series; about half of readers are more likely or much more likely to read the first book in a series after the last book has been written. So people... like series, basically. I guess that shouldn't be a surprise; they wouldn't be published if nobody was buying. 

In retrospect, I should have asked separately how people feel about standalone books in particular. I originally thought that more/less likely to read a book in a series would make that answer visible in the negative space, but I don't think the data is clear enough to allow any such conclusions to be drawn.

And then there's the length question. I may be unusual in preferring standalone books, and roughly two-thirds of readers don't care one way or another how long a book is. But of that third that care, it looks like there is indeed a bias away from longer works. about a quarter of readers say they're less likely or much less likely to read a book over 500 pages, where only about 12% say they're more or much more likely.

There is a slight bias toward shorter books, on the other hand. Around 15% of respondents say they're less likely to read a book under 300 pages, but around 20% say they're more likely. That's not enough to commit to writing shorter books alone, but it certainly does mean there's space in the market for quicker reads.

The self-pub question was an afterthought. It looks like some stigma remains, and over half our readers are less likely or much less likely to read a book that's been self-published. On the flip side, only 12 readers out of 507 said they'd be in any way more likely to read a self-published book. But the bright side here for our direct-to-reader authors is that 43% of readers simply don't care how you were published one way or the other.

A more mathematically savvy analyst than I might be able to look at those responses and determine if there is a relationship between readers who are willing to give self-pub a shot and those who prefer ebooks. If you'd like to look at the data and run that analysis (or any other), shoot me a line and I'll give you the raw data -- minus the email information for people who wanted to be contacted when this post goes up, of course.

And finally a gimme: are people more likely to buy a book if they know the author on social media? Heck yeah, they are -- 4% of people said they were less likely, but a whopping 70% said they were more and much more likely. So it looks like all that time spent nattering around on the Facebooks and Twitters really does get you in the door.

Annnnnd that's the 2015 Reading Habits Survey. Some surprises, some really not surprises, and a whole lot of "result inconclusive, ask again later." Which does, at least, answer my original question -- my preferences aren't common, but I'm not alone, either. Readers are a diverse bunch, and like a whole lot of different things. And I find that a comforting piece of information: there's plenty of room in publishing for all of us.

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