Major publishers have favored well-off whites in hiring and other HR matters. Consider all the low-paying or unpaid internships, not to mention a bit of an Ivy League bias at certain houses. The industry, yes, has made some progress. But a new report from the Panorama Project suggests in effect that publishing could benefit from much more, if it wants to tap the minority market to the max.
Black and Hispanic people actually “engage” more with books than does the general population, says Dr. Rachel Noorda at Portland State University, a coauthor of “Immersive Media and Books 2020: Consumer Behavior and Experience with Multiple Media Forms.” Here is the breakdown among respondents who “‘engaged’ with at least one book in the previous twelve months”:
● Average number of ebooks per month: 4.54 for Black, 3.22 for Hispanics, 2.44 for general survey population.
● Average number of audiobooks per month: 2.68 for Black, 2.2 for Hispanics, 1.89 for general survey population.
● Average number of print books per month: 5.23 for Black, 3.95 for Hispanics, 3.88 for general survey population.
“This is book engagement, not necessarily buying,” Dr. Noorda emphasizes to me, and that’s an important distinction. Still one can only view the report as powerful ammunition for diversity advocates and those eager for publishers to look beyond elite audiences, a topic discussed here earlier. In 2019 American households spent a pathetic $92 on recreational reading, including newspapers, magazines and other nonbooks, compared to several thousand on other forms of entertainment.
The new Panorama report covered a variety of topics, ranging from piracy to synergies between books and other media, but minority engagement was the one that really caught my eye, along with statistics on the millenials as book-buyers or at least engagers.
I think the industry has underestimated these reading populations for a long time.Dr. Rachel Noorda
“I am not surprised by the high level of engagement from Black and Latinx respondents,” Dr. Noorda told me. “I think the industry has underestimated these reading populations for a long time. With these high proportions of Black and Latinx populations in avid book engagers, I hope that it encourages publishers to continue to implement hiring and promotion policies that engage with Black and Latinx publishing professionals.”
Among the surveyed consumers, who would the report define as “engaged”? As summed up in the report:
● “People who check out materials from the library but don’t always read or watch them;
● “People who give books as gifts but don’t necessarily read much themselves or consider themselves readers;
● “People who discover books via other media such as video games or films and TV;
● “People who buy books but don’t always read them;
● “People who buy books for a purpose other than reading, such as collecting or displaying;
● “People who use books for work, school, or hobbies.
“To gather data only about ‘avid readers’—the industry’s perceived most valuable customer—would render invisible the many ways people engage with books. Reading for entertainment is still the #1 reason people buy books: 50% of survey respondents said that was their top reason to engage with a book.”
Here are some key points in the report:
● “The strength in book buying was driven by avid (Black and Latinx millennials) book buyers. Demographics to watch: men, millennials and non-white people of all generations. They engage with more books than middle-class baby boomer women, except in the context of book gifting.
● “In the general survey population, book buying amounts stayed the same during COVID. However, we know that there was an 8.2% increase in book sales in 2020 (as reported by NPD). Therefore, avid book engagers (4+ books per month) drove the biggest book sales jump in a decade.
● “Across all formats, millennials engage with books more than either of their two older cohorts (Gen X and baby boomers)
● “Customers who engage avidly with books do so with other media, too. Cross-media discovery is highest with millennials. This suggests not a competition for scarce dollars and attention, but opportunities for cross-media collaboration.
● “Libraries, bookstores, and online channels mutually reinforce each other, leading to engagement and sales in other channels.
● “Book discovery is context-agnostic, especially for millennials. The means of book discovery is highly distributed. Even the largest category (recommendations from friends) accounts for just 1/5th of the survey population. This indicates that people are fragmented in the ways they discover books and that there are many ways to reach potential book buyers, borrowers, and gifters.
● “Pirates are also customers. 41% of book pirates not only buy books, but buy the same book in multiple formats. Some pirate a book when it’s unavailable at a library.” The report classifies as “book pirates” the “respondents who said that they read and/or download books that typically cost money (not public domain) from a website where other readers have posted copies for free.”
Discussing millennials, the report said they “are less likely to own a library card than the general survey population: 70.5% compared to 75.8%. But millennials also have a greater percentage of respondents who are borrowing more books from the library during COVID than the general survey population.” Library borrowing stats for millenials:
● Ebooks: 28% compared to 21.8% in the general survey population.
● Audiobooks: 27.2% compared to 18.7% in the general survey population.
● Print: 29.1% compared to 23.9% in the general survey population.
Yes, the report should be of interest to libraries as well as publishers. Among other initiatives, the library endowment proposal I created with some veteran librarians calls for a large fund for the recruitment and hiring of minority libraries. What’s more, via national library systems, minorities along with others would enjoy improved access to titles matching their needs and interests.
Exactly why people buy books
This chart says it all—genre and author count the most.
I was surprised to see price so far down on the list. This certainly is at odds with the impressions I’ve gotten over the years. High prices have not exactly helped ebook sales from major publishers.
Guiding the Panorama Project is an advisory council including “representatives from Penguin Random House, Sourcebooks, Open Road Media, American Library Association, Audio Publishers Association, NISO, OverDrive and Ingram Content Group.”
The new report, actually part of ongoing research, was “conceived pre-pandemic by Panorama Project and researchers at Portland State University to track the role of books in the entertainment media ecosystem, and examine public libraries as agents of book discovery, consumption and purchase. The Immersive Media study supplies crucial behavioral information, with a confidence rate of 98.5% accuracy, about how book buying, borrowing, discovery and consumption existed before the pandemic, and shifted during and because of it.
“4314 people were surveyed in between September 18, 2020 and November 15, 2020. To participate, survey respondents had to have ‘engaged’ with at least one book in the previous twelve months. Book engagement was defined as ‘buying, borrowing, subscribing to, reading or gifting a printed book, an ebook, or audiobook in part or in whole.’ Survey respondents who had not engaged with a book in the previous twelve months did not advance beyond the first question of the survey.”
Note: I originally went with “Latinx” because the Panorama report used that term. But many just might prefer “Hispanic” or another alternative. So except in direct quotes, I’ve replaced “Latinx.” I’m trying to respect both common usage and the report’s language. Of course, given all the nuances, this is a perfect example of the need for diversity of all kinds in publishing! – D.R.