Who hasn’t heard someone lament the death of books? Once the ultimate form of intellectual entertainment, the book began to lose footing early in the 20th century, with the innovation of radio.
It was a tough time. Television followed. Then the computer and video games. The internet and smartphones appeared set to hammer home that final nail in the coffin. Taking stock of the culture, Neil Postman recalled, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”
Our devices produce limitless and instantaneous distractions. Yet it’s not clear that they’ve finished off the book—or even necessitated its change to a digital form. As reports from the last couple years indicate, the demand for print books is actually growing.
For the second year in a row, physical book sales are up. The website BookRiot notes that this uptick coincides with the opening of more independent bookstores and a decline in e-reader popularity. All of which is welcome news for your local bookseller. But why now? And can the trend continue? With that in mind, CivicScience asked more than 1,500 adults when they last bought a physical book.
According to the results, more than one-third of adults have bought a physical book recently, and only 21% say it’s been more than a year since they’ve done so. Only 14% rarely or never buy them, which, reassuringly, is not the same thing as never reading them.
Overall, women are more likely than men to have bought a physical book recently, with 24% of men having not bought one in several years. This shouldn’t be too surprising, as it lines up with just about every datapoint you can find on how women consistently read more than men.
Among some other less surprising findings? Wealthier adults buy physical books more often, as well as those who have attained higher levels of education. Only 12% of adults with college or graduate degrees rarely or never buy physical books, compared to 30% of those with a high school diploma or less. And though adults with a bachelor’s degree who bought a physical book in the past week may appear low, that’s probably because so many people have bachelor’s degrees now.
To some, physical books seem antiquated. But despite gripes that younger people spend too much time on their phones, many are buying physical books, helping to fuel the indie bookstore boom. Millennials lead the way here, with 16% having bought a physical book in the past week and another 25% having done so in the last month. Gen Z, whose results look a lot like Gen X’s, may be the least likely to have bought a physical book in the last week, but the portion who bought one in the last year is even higher than that of Boomers.
Millennials’ book buying habits may have been a welcome surprise to many booksellers, but Gen Z could ultimately tell the tale. As it gains more purchasing power, its interest in physical books could edge upward and follow that of Millennials—or mirror the pace of older generations.
Reading Between the Lines
In a sense, it’s encouraging to know that physical books are being bought more frequently than in the recent past. But why has this been happening? Is it possible people are actively trying to make more time for reading? Or that their main activities drive them to purchase physical books? Drilling down into the data may provide some clues.
One connection may exist with social media. Adults who spend between one and four hours per day on social media are the most likely to buy physical books. Perhaps this has something to do with the marketing of books online, websites like BookRiot or Goodreads that focus on readers, or the constant exchange of ideas that spur people to go out and buy a book for further inquiry. And it’s even possible the thought of excess screen time could lead people to seek a non-digital activity.
Finally, adults who normally work extra hours are also more likely to buy physical books, while those with more free time are the most likely to have not bought a physical book in more than a year. As with social media results, this could also indicate a need to get away from screens, a manner of avoiding digital burnout for workers, especially those who sit at a computer all day.
It’s hard to say what exactly is fueling the uptick in physical book sales over the last couple years. Maybe the abundance of screen time, the onslaught of Twitter storms and news headlines, and the feeling of burnout from work has led people back to the simpler things they enjoyed before the age of constant connection. And maybe it’s more complicated. Maybe those media are also introducing people to ideas they’re compelled to explore in greater detail.
Whatever the cause, those tried-and-true hardbacks seem to be having a moment. How long it will last could depend on whether Gen Z picks up the book-purchasing torch from Millennials, and whether the physical book can continue to swim against the digital tide, with things like virtual reality not far off. Check back to see how the next chapter in this trend is written.