Survey tries to get a read on book-buying America


You're a woman from the West or Northeast, perhaps younger than 35.

At the moment, you're reading a paperback mystery novel.

Probably you're a habitual Internet browser.

Definitely you epitomize the average American reader.

Those are the findings of a complex three-month survey of readers conducted by Publishers Weekly in honor of that magazine's 125th anniversary. Because PW is recognized as the industry's authority in most publishing trends, the survey's findings will influence publishers (the types of books they'll most frequently print) and bookstores (which want their stock to reflect what frequent book-buyers apparently want to read most).

"The most exciting finding was the one we certainly didn't expect, that younger readers buy and read more books than anyone thought," said PW editor in chief Nora Rawlinson. "By 'younger readers,' we mean household members between 26 and 34. It was always assumed that hardcore book buyers were older, maybe 45 or more. But more than half the respondents under 35 said they buy more books now than they did two years ago."

Respondents were contacted in three ways: by phone, when leaving bookstores and on the Internet. One finding immediately astonished poll-takers.

"The mean number of books purchased by individuals each year was 12, but the people contacted over the Internet purchased three times as many," Rawlinson said. "There's always been a concern that people who used computers a lot would read less, but now it's obvious they make up for computer time by eliminating some other leisure activity, maybe like watching less television."

Sixty percent of books purchased are paperbacks. Thirty-eight percent are hardcover; only 2 percent are audiobooks on cassette.

A regional surprise came next. Publishers and bookstores had long contended that the majority of regular readers reside in the Northeast. But based on geographic quadrants, the PW poll had the West nipping the Northeast by a percentage point, with the South third and the Midwest trailing.

"You can be sure publishers and bookstore chains are going to see new opportunities in the West," Rawlinson predicted.

The survey also revealed that far more women -- 58 percent to 42 percent -- buy books than men.

"It makes sense," Rawlinson contended. "Women tend to be book buyers because in families, they buy the gifts, and books are often given as gifts. They typically choose the books for the children, too."

Because women prefer fiction to nonfiction, Rawlinson said, fiction makes up about 53 percent of books sold. Further, 54 percent of nonfiction buyers are 45 or older.

The most popular category of fiction is mystery/suspense/ thriller. The genre of Grisham and Mary Higgins Clark is the top attraction for 19 percent of readers, followed by romance (9 percent, mostly women), sci-fi/fantasy (9 percent, mostly men), general (7 percent) and historical (5 percent).

Nonfiction buffs selected history (8 percent), religion/philosophy (6 percent) and biography (6 percent). The nonfiction catch-all is "all others," chosen by 23 percent of respondents. It includes self-help books (i.e. John Gray's "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" or Sarah Breathnach's "Simple Abundance") that have begun to dominate nonfiction bestseller lists.

Other significant differences by gender: Men prefer shopping at chain bookstores. Women look for bargains at discount outlets and grocery stores. Men are far more apt to purchase books on technology or business-related subjects. Women are much more likely to purchase books recommended by store staff.

Household income was also significant. According to PW, members of families with incomes above $60,000 often buy books recommended by TV or radio talk-show hosts and guests. The majority of romance novel readers comes from households with incomes of $40,000 or less.

Eighty percent of readers shop at least occasionally in major chain bookstores. Forty-three percent patronize independent bookstores. About 25 percent also buy books at supermarkets and discount department stores.

Among major bookstore chains, 43 percent of PW respondents shopped in the past year at Waldenbooks, 41 percent at Barnes & Noble, 33 percent bought books at B. Dalton Booksellers and 18 percent shopped at Borders Books & Music.

Book buyers are often better educated than the general population: 45 percent of PW's respondents have college degrees, compared with 11 percent of Americans.

Going remote

Respondents in Publishers Weekly's survey of American readers were asked to list the book they would take for a lengthy stay on a remote island.

17 percent selected the Bible, a 400 percent margin over John Grisham's second-place "The Runaway Jury." Thereafter, PW listed most popular titles by author rather than title, with the exception of inspirational or self-help books. Of these, readers' top three were Sarah Breathnach's "Simple Abundance," John Gray's "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" and "Chicken Soup for the Soul" by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen.

Classics were represented in order by William Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Tolstoy's individual "War and Peace" ranked third.

Most popular individual authors of modern fiction were Stephen King and John Grisham (tie), Danielle Steel, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, Mary Higgins Clark, Terry McMillan, Tami Hoag, Anne Rice, V.C. Andrews and Sidney Sheldon.

For copies of the survey, callthe Book Industry Study Group at 212-929-1393.

Pub Date: 6/12/97

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