Trends in Reading Habits

Naomi Curzon

Trends in Reading Habits

. What makes a bestseller?

      Editors are undoubtedly interested in knowing what makes a bestseller, and it seems that computer scientists may have come up with an answer.

After analyzing successful books and gathering information about lexical, syntactic and discourse patterns, scientists have developed an algorithm that describes bestsellers. Called statistical stylometry, it can predict with 84% accuracy whether a book will be a success. The winning formula: lots of nouns, conjunctions and adjectives; fewer verbs and adverbs; more verbs describing thought processes, such as recognize, remember; and fewer verbs explicitly describing actions and emotions, such as want, take, promise.

The following, the opening paragraph from The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, seems to be in keeping with the theory.

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

. Are Americans still reading?

It may be difficult to predict what will become a bestseller, but Americans are still reading despite the digital devices and social media that are occupying more and more of our time and attention; and they are still reading books — in whatever form — at about the same rate as in 2002, before digital devices became ubiquitous. According to a 2017 Gallup Poll, 48% percent of Americans read 1-10 books per year, and 35% read more than 11 books per year. Young adults, 18-29 year-olds, are the heaviest readers, and since 2002 there has been a significant increase in reading among the over 65s. People are also reading more to research specific topics of interest, and to keep up with current events (Pew, 2016).

. How are people reading?

The printed book is still the most popular medium despite the growth in ownership of digital devices. The number of people reading e-books increased from 17%-28% between 2011-2014, but since then this proportion has remained the same, with romance and thrillers being the most popular genres in the e-book realm.

According to a 2016 Pew Report, of the 73% of the population that read in any format, 65% read printed books, and of these, 40% read printed books exclusively; in contrast, only 6% used exclusively digital or audio readers. In addition to using dedicated e-readers, more and more people are finding it convenient and comfortable to read on tablets and smartphones. This latest trend has meant that publishers of e-books have to adapt texts to new formats and fonts for the smaller cellphone screens (Wall Street Journal, The Rise of Phone Reading).


Figure 1 Changes in Reading Habits 2011-2016

Young adults and college students are the most likely to use varied reading media; minority groups and those that have not attended college are more likely to use cellphones than designated reading devices; and understandably, those over 50 are the least likely to use cellphones for reading.

The number of people listening to audio books remained steady at about 14% between 2014-2016 (Pew), but there may be a new listening trend on the way following a reported surge of 35.3% in digital audio book sales in the first three months of 2016.

Figure 2 Reading Habits in 2016

Ⅳ.  Who’s reading?

The most voracious readers are college graduates, both in print and digital form. Young adults tend to read more books than seniors, and also read more in digital form than their elders; in general women read more (average of 14 books per year) than men (average of 9 books per year) and prefer print, but are as likely to use digital formats as men are. As might be expected, people with higher levels of education are more likely to read more books than those with only high school diplomas or less.

Disappointingly, children are reading less; since 2012 there has been a steady yearly reduction of 1% in the number of UK children reading for pleasure, especially in the age group three-to-ten. A 2016 US survey showed that only 50% of children under 12, and only 20% of teens read on a daily basis, but many more read once a week. For children under 12, reading is the third most popular activity, but for teens, reading-for-pleasure was eleventh on their leisure activity list, well behind their media and digital pastimes. It seems that few teens are using their digital devices for reading.

Ⅴ. What are people buying?

According to Nielsen statistics, the 2015 US book market was dominated by adult non-fiction (41%), followed by juvenile fiction (27%), adult fiction (23%), and juvenile nonfiction (9% of sales).  Movie-related books are among the most popular genres with adults, but current events and the media have an influence on book buyers: for example, after the recent American presidential election, there was an upsurge in sales of books about politics and social justice, the white working class, and rural America, such as  White Trash by Nancy Steinberg, and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which returned to the best seller list after a short break. Sales of Hannah Arendt’s The Origin of Totalitarianism 1951, which normally sells fifty copies a year, went up 16-fold. There were also increased sales of dystopian books such as The Handmaiden’s Tale, 1984, Animal Farm and It Can’t Happen Here.

Among the younger generation movie-related books are also popular; young adults read more in 2015, possibly in response to successful movies such as Divergent, The Maze Runner, The Fault in Our Stars, If I Stay, and The Book Thief, which were based on popular fiction.

To summarize the trends:

  • the printed book is still very much alive and kicking.
  • as many adults are reading for pleasure as ever before (Pew 2016).
  • digital devices now allow books to be accessed at any time, any place.
  • more people are reading to research topics of interest, and to keep up with current events.

For the editor, these trends indicate that there should be no shortage of work.




%d bloggers like this: