How do Readers Find Books?

How do Readers Find Books?

How do readers find books? Wow. I wish I could offer a quick, easy answer to that, but there isn’t one, as far as I can tell – at least, there is no single, cheap-or-free avenue that an author or publisher can always rely on.

Used to be, there were only really two places to find books: a bookstore or a library. Publicity for a book was through print media, word of mouth, and placement in displays. A few favored authors got to do book tours, and if you were into science fiction there might be a convention near you, if you lived in a big city. Books were what we now call hardcover books. Mass-market paperbacks arrived mid-20th century, and at that time there might be books offered in an airport, at a newsstand, or even in a grocery store.

Of course, now a lot has changed. Books proliferate online, in multiple e-reader formats, audio, sometimes graphic novel versions, and multi-media, depending on the kind of book and its purpose. Many only exist as ebooks. But the eternal question of “how do readers find books?” remains.

This square detail of a news photo was taken inside Rainy Day Books, an independent bookstore near the author’s home in the Kansas City metro area, in October, 2022. The photo shows a bookstore filled with tall and short bookcases filled with books. The walls behind the shelves are painted brick-red, the carpet on the floor is tannish-gray, and many lights in the suspended ceiling illuminate the retail area. In the foreground on the right, a customer buys a book at the counter. Photo by Carlos Moreno of KCUR 89.3, the local Kansas City NPR affiliate.
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How Do Readers Find Books Today?

Some of the oldest ways still work. Pew Research did a comprehensive review published in 2012 that revealed a number of interesting facts. Yes, these numbers are more than a decade old. I looked for a newer study, but only one had such a depth and range of data (more on that below), and most of the newer data I did find echoed the top-level findings. So let’s take a look.

Not all that surprisingly, 64% of people 16 and older get book recommendations from people they know. This group tended to skew female, white, well-educated, and well-off, which, frankly, describes the majority of readers in general.

The next-largest cohort in the Pew study (28%) said they looked online. These tended to be internet users (big surprise there), women, and college graduates in households that are middle-class or wealthier. As we’ll see later in this post, online sales have steadily grown more important. Book store staff and librarians or library websites filled out the rest of the Pew list.

This square photo shows the inside of the Johnson County, Kansas, Central Resource Library, in the Kansas City metro area. In the photo a grade-school-aged child makes an energetic leap past five tall, sturdy shelves filled with library books. Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Central Resource Library’s Facebook page.
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The good news for book lovers is that books don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Interest in reading that revived during the Pandemic persists, although inflation has recently depressed both domestic and global sales somewhat. Sales figures give a bit more current view of what is selling. Although we can infer a few things about where and how people are finding books, to truly answer our “How do readers find books?” question, we have to read between the lines a bit.

Print still commands by far the majority of global book sales, according to WordsRated, a web-based resource for “word tools.” That also holds true in the US market, which accounts for 24% of all book sales in any format. In 2022, fiction sales accounted for about 53%, while nonfiction filled out the other 47%. That’s another trend that seems to be sticking around. Another trend that’s sticking around: “Since 2017, the majority of book sales in the United States have occurred online.”

Globally, print still accounts for more than 77% of 2023 book sales, with ebooks around 16.5% and audiobooks about 7.4%. Any of our indie writer friends totally focused on ebook sales might want to consider that. In 2022, fiction sales accounted for about 53%, while nonfiction filled out the other 47%. That’s another trend that seems to be sticking around.

It’s true that digital books, in the form of ebooks and audiobooks, have been a growing sector in the past decade. But they’ve leveled off in recent years, according to a TonerBuzz review of publishing industry statistics in 2022 from a wide range of sources.

This square blue infographic from the 2020 study “Immersive Media & Books: Consumer Behavior and Experience with Multiple Media Forms” shows some of the top-level findings from the very in-depth study. The form says: “53% [are] avid book engagers, engaged with 4+ books per month (48+ books per year) Engagement: buying, borrowing, subscribing to, reading or gifting a printed book, an ebook, or audiobook in part or in whole. Black and Latinx Millennials: High proportion of avid book engagers are black, Latinx and millennials compared to general survey population. How can the industry better reach them? DISCOVERY: How: 20% recommendations from friends; 15% favorite author; 12% recommendations from family. Where: 30% browsing online bookstores; 17% browsing brick-and-mortar bookstores; 13% in-person author events. Why: 39% genre/category; 23% author; 16% reviews. 75% of responders are library card holders. 1 in 3 people bought a book in a bookstore that they found in a library.
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How Do Readers Find Books Online?

However they find them, according to TonerBuzz, Amazon sold 67% of all ebook sales in 2022, 41% of all print book sales, and 65% of all new book sales in any genre. The print-on-demand format grew by 12% between 2019 and 2022. We at Weird Sisters Publishing can take a little comfort in the fact that of the top five genre fiction categories, science fiction and fantasy is #4, and crime and mystery is #2 (after romance).

The Panorama Project’s Immersive Media & Books 2020 Consumer Survey gives us a few more direct hints, although once again we’re talking about data from the Pandemic era, and things may have changed some since then. Their study revealed heartening trends among younger readers – well, Millennials, so still fairly young – and diverse audiences of readers.

Two of their “top three” ways to learn about books were recommendations, either from friends or family, just like in the Pew study. But many also followed a favorite author. Authors with email lists of subscribers, rejoice! You are right on-trend (as of four years ago, anyway). “favorite author” and “author events” kept turning up in the avenues for finding and choosing books.

Browsing online bookstores was a top method – think Amazon, Goodreads, and other online portals. They also reported browsing brick-and-mortar stores and going to author events among their top three. No, those sparsely-attended readings or signings and trips to sf conventions were not entirely in vain! And, finally, they’ll look for you, your genre, and your reviews when on the hunt for a book to read. They do also look in the library – fully 75% have a library card and know how to use it!

This square design is predominantly gold and cream, with a stylized open book in the background. The words are dark brown and dark gold. The quote says, “I don’t have to look far to find treasures. I discover them every time I visit the Library. – Michael Embry.” Image courtesy of ebookfriendly.com.
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Being Found Calls for Creativity

Clearly, there’s no single “best answer” to the question of “How do readers find books?” There are lots of ways, lots of trends. But if I can generalize for a moment, I’d venture to say that the best way for an author, especially an independent, self-published author, is to “be out there,” available to be found.

One statistic I found in this review of the research is that, although 1 of every 3 ebooks sold in the US is self published, it’s also true that more than 90% of self-published book sell fewer than 100 copies in their lifetime. That’s probably because the authors didn’t understand that creating the book is only the first step in a long, long journey.

If you’re an author, get to know your genre, and stay true to it. Your genre will attract “your kind” of reader, but you won’t have a browser’s attention long. Put your best foot forward with your cover, book description, everything about the presentation of your book. Attend author events in your genre when you can, and don’t be a wallflower. Or make a presence online by showing up frequently and engaging. Cultivate reviewers (ethically, please!). Finally, create a mailing list and cherish it. Make it – and also your blog – worth subscribing to!

How do readers find books? Specifically, your books? They’ll only ever find them if you make that discovery possible.

About the Author

Author Jan S. Gephardt attempts to make it as easy as possible for people to find her own and her sister’s Weird Sisters Publishing books. Jan is the author of the XK9 series, science fiction mystery books about a pack of super-intelligent police dogs who solve crimes and struggle for recognition as sapient beings in their own right.

She has just completed the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy, which started the series with a bang (or would have, if space explosions made noises you can hear). Bone of Contention, which wraps up the trilogy, is scheduled for publication September 24, 2024. She is now in the early developmental stages of writing Bones for the Children, which continues the story of the Pack and their friends – both the humans and the other Galactics who’ve gotten to know them. She follows her own advice about having a mailing list: Learn more about that here!

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to KCUR 89.3, the local Kansas City affiliate of National Public Radio, and photographer Carlos Moreno, for the photo taken inside Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kansas, in 2022. We also want to thank the Johnson County (KS) Central Resource Library’s Facebook Page for the photo of the unidentified child catching air inside their facility (no photographer credited). We’re indebted to the Panorama Project for their excellent infographic. And we deeply appreciate the designer at EbookFriendly.com, who created the Michael Embry quote.

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