I’ve long been fascinated with how readers make their purchasing and reading decisions. A few key reasons:
- I like to read, and I’m often puzzled by how I ended up choosing this book or that author.
- I actually like marketing, so this whole decision-making process interests me.
- There’s a dearth of data on the reader journey.
I’ve shared a few resources for finding the right books, specifically for epic fantasy readers, but in this article I’m going to dig deeper into the wider reader journey, based on what data I could actually get my hands on (most of which is helpful but woefully dated).
Who’s Reading Books, and Who’s Not?
The majority of Americans still read books—old fashioned, printed on paper books.
In 2022 the Pew Research Center reported that 75% of adults said they’d read at least one book in the previous year (though some people probably lie about reading because they want to sound cool). This was a significant increase from previous years, where numbers were closer to 64%. Furthermore, most readers favored print formats, with only 9% of U.S. adults restricting their book consumption to digital formats (and a large number consuming in both print and digital).
The 2022 US Book Reading Statistics survey squared with Pew’s findings that print books still dominate the market, showing a commanding 20% lead in print product share over ebooks. As you’d expect, age and other demographics can also tell us a lot more about who’s reading and which formats are getting traction. For instance, this survey indicated that adults aged 65 or higher were most likely to read overall and most likely to prefer print books over digital, and that consumers identifying as male were less likely to read than were those identifying as female.
A 2021 Gallup poll, however, indicates that readers are reading fewer books overall (regardless of how many Americans are reading). Likewise, WordsRated’s most recent look at daily reading habits indicates that readers are spending 16-17% less time reading daily than they were a decade ago (although per day reading time has been climbing up again since 2018).
Demographics included or aside, reader habits accounted for, there’s a clear demand for books, especially in print formats.
How do Readers Choose What Books to Buy—or Read?
Most active readers have no shortage of titles on their to-be-read lists. Data from Kobo (old data, it’s worth noting) indicates that up to 50% of online fiction sales originate with book-specific searches—meaning that readers already knew which book they meant to look for and buy. On one hand this simplifies the reader journey, because readers don’t struggle to find something they want to read. On the other hand, it makes the reading journey incredibly complex, because the choice to read one book means choosing not to read another for the time being.
This stage of the journey is where market data falls shortest—and is most needed.
Author Gigi Griffis surveyed 355 avid readers in 2017 to try answering the big question of how readers choose what books to buy. Griffis’s data is very telling, though it’s worth noting that we need a lot more surveys like this one because:
- This study primarily focused on the very active, serial readers (which is just one segment of another segment of all readers).
- Survey participants are nearly all fiction readers primarily (and adult nonfiction drives more sales revenue in the U.S. than any type of fiction does), limiting applicability to the wider reading conversation.
- The data is nearly six years old now, with lots of changes in the book landscape since then.
- And last but not least, despite this being a terrific source of insights, it’s still working from a very small sample.
All reservations aside, here are some telling findings from Griffis’s survey:
The biggest reason readers buy books is because they know and love the author
There’s clear consensus on the forces influencing book purchases, and the top two survey responses support some old anecdotal assumptions:
- 82% of readers bought a book because they already knew they loved the author.
- 76% bought because of a friend’s recommendation.
- 48% went for a new book because of a giveaway or sale.
- 47% attributed their purchase to amazing cover art.
- 44% took author recommendations to get a new book.
- 39% made a purchase based on book blog recommendations.
- 39% also bought based on placement in a physical store.
- 36% picked up a book because of recommendation in some sort of non-blog publication.
- A number of readers purchased based on social media experiences as well:
- 35% found new books to buy via Facebook.
- 28% discovered and purchased new books thanks to Twitter (now X, I guess? Who even knows?).
- 12% bought after Instagram exposure.
- 11% found and purchased new books thanks to library recommendations.
There’s a fairly even split across common forces in the buying process
Griffis also asked avid readers to identify the reasons that influence purchasing decisions most commonly—the repeated, persistent influences behind the buying process. Unsurprisingly, the top reason readers buy is because they already know they love an author’s work. Reason number two (barely below number one) is because of a friend’s recommendation. These two combined accounted for 46% of book purchasing decisions among Griffis’s respondents.
The buying process is similar across readers as well
The three most common steps Griffis’s avid readers took before purchasing were:
- Reading the back cover (82%)
- Reading book reviews (56%)
- Reading sample pages from the book (41%)
It’s also worth noting that 13% of these readers said they purchased books without doing any of the above. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising based on how big a factor existing fandom is for readers, but it makes an interesting case for some other marketing elements like cover art, bookstore placement, overall author brand, etc.
Book reviews play a huge role in getting new readers to buy
Another really valuable element to Griffis’s survey is an exploration into where readers get their book reviews—and what they glean from them.
As noted above, 56% of avid readers check the reviews before they buy a new book. Here’s Griffis’s breakdown of where this happens:
- 76% of readers consume book reviews on Amazon.
- 64% of readers read Goodreads reviews.
- 25% of readers check reviews in newspapers, magazines, and other publications.
- 24% of readers read reviews on book blogs and similar resources.
- Just 6% of readers sample Barnes and Noble reviews.
Furthermore, Griffis’s survey unearthed some really interesting nuggets as to how reviews influence the purchasing journey for readers. While the survey doesn’t show what convinced readers, it explores a big batch of reasons avid readers would refuse to buy a book:
- 56% of readers would skip out on a purchase if reviews mentioned the book having typos or grammar fails.
- 25% of readers were put off by reviews mentioning a slow middle.
- 24% of readers would avoid purchasing a book if the reviews said the plot was unbelievable.
- 21% of readers would skip a book if reviews showed distaste for the book’s ending.
- 20% of readers would forgo a book purchase if reviews said the main character was unlikable.
Griffis has several other interesting findings as well, so her survey is well worth looking at, aged or not.
What makes readers read the books they purchase?
Selling the book is only half the battle. Actually, it might be even less than half, based on some of the clearest post-purchase reader data.
Jellybooks, a tool and reader service used to analyze book reading habits, has reported less than 40% completion rates for most books that readers purchase. They’re not the only entity looking closely at this. Kobo—which has even more robust and accurate ways to measure reader behaviors—has consistently found that the best-selling books are not the most read books, and certainly not the books readers are most likely to read to the end.
While it should in no way come as a surprise that many readers opt not to finish every book they buy, there’s very little clear data on which journeys led to incomplete readings, which reader personas are most likely to abandon a book, etc. The only truly clear insights come from Kobo’s decade-old findings that readers were more likely to complete books in the romance, thriller, and mystery genres—which will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with reader loyalty in these genres.
A clear implication, however, is that readers won’t become long-term, serial purchasers in cases where they don’t finish the books. Since Griffis found that author loyalty is the biggest influencer in avid readers’ purchasing habits, it stands to reason that readers need to build that loyalty by reading the books and not just by purchasing.
Where Does All This Leave Readers? And Writers? And Publishers?
No matter what you make of these scattered findings, the publishing market is due for some more data. It is much easier now to track reading behaviors, given the omnipresence of digital formats, but Jellybooks customers, Kobo authors, and big New York publishing houses alike are often investing most heavily in books that make neither a commercial nor a literary impact.
There’s always guesswork where taste is concerned, but there should be data too.
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About the Author
Stephen Taylor is the author of The Witherclaw Trilogy as well as short fiction appearing in The Future Fire, MYTHIC Magazine, The Centropic Oracle, and other publications. His short story “Only an Ocean” won a Silver Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. When he’s not writing, he’s often playing my violin or wandering in the woods.