Social Readers

Part one of LJ’s deep dive into generational reading behaviors shows that the millennial generation—often credited in the media with “killing” industries in which they don’t care to, or simply can’t afford to, partake—are known to be killing it as readers in the opposite sense: they’re enthusiastic book consumers, library users, and, perhaps surprisingly, print fans.

Part one of LJ’s deep dive into generational reading behaviors digs into millennials’ avid reading habits

The millennial generation—often credited in the media with “killing” industries in which they don’t care to, or simply can’t afford to, partake—are known to be killing it as readers in the opposite sense: they’re enthusiastic book consumers, library users, and, perhaps surprisingly, print fans. As far back as 2014, a Pew Research Center report found that younger Americans, including the millennial generation, are out-reading other adult generations, with one statistic stating that “88 percent of Americans under 30 read a book in the past year, compared with 79 percent of those age 30 and older.” Statistics from a 2016 Pew survey revealed that millennials use the public library more often than other adult generations do.

Library Journal set out to discover just where and how they find those books, which genres and formats they prefer, and more about how today’s libraries can best meet their reading needs. Some 491 millennials, ages 23–38, completed LJ’s generational reading survey, with 60 percent reporting, “I am always on the lookout for good books to read.” Only ten percent reported, “Reading is not an important part of my life.” On average, millennial readers who had read at least one book for pleasure in the last year read nearly 11 books for pleasure in the previous 12 months, and 48 percent reported reading more now than they did three years ago. The survey uncovered a series of other interesting trends about what and how millennials read.

 

FINDING THE FUN

Where are millennials getting their pleasure reading? The survey reveals a split between purchasing and borrowing books, with 34 percent borrowing from a library at least monthly in the last year, compared with 31 percent who purchased books at least monthly. Amazon.com, chain bookstores, and general retail stores were the top three sources for book purchases, though respondents also reported buying books from used bookstores and library book sales. What drives a millennial to buy a book instead of borrow? The desire to keep a book (58 percent) and to be able to read at one’s own pace without concern for library loan periods (44 percent) are the main factors, consistent with trends seen in other age groups included in the survey (more on other generations will be forthcoming). Some 30 percent of millennials also responded that it’s easier to buy a book online.

What book formats do you typically read or listen to?

  TOTAL MILLENIAL READERS MALE FEMALE

Paperback

74.1% 69.6% 75.7%
Hardcover 72.9% 76.5% 71.7%
Ebooks 40.9% 39.1% 41.4%
Audiobooks 24.0% 27.0% 23.3%
  8% ready only one format    

SOURCE: LJ GENERATIONAL READING SURVEY 2019

 

LJ survey results show that 69 percent of millennial readers have library cards, and the data highlight millennials’ view of the public library as offering not just value, but also the opportunity to explore new titles without financial investment: 44 percent said that the main factor in the decision of whether to borrow a book is cost: i.e., a desired book is too expensive to purchase. Another 42 percent reported that they turn to the library in order to “take a chance on a new author or book I never heard of for free,” while 39 percent said they borrow titles when they are “not sure about reading the book.” Notably, once a book has been borrowed, a majority—60 percent—of millennials reported that they go on to purchase that same title. And more than three quarters—77 percent—later purchase books by the same author.

When a millennial is browsing for new material, whether to purchase or borrow, several factors influence book selection. A title’s content sample or preview is most convincing, at 69 percent, while cost is the next consideration. Book jacket designers take note: in spite of the old saying, 51 percent of millennials make their decision based on cover art and 41 percent rely on jacket copy. Promotional author blurbs also make an impact, with 37 percent of millennials noting that these influence their choice.

 

What nonfiction subjects do you typically read for pleasure?

  TOTAL MILLENIAL
READERS
MALE FEMALE
Biography / memoir 37.5% 37.6% 37.1%
Cooking 35.3% 26.7% 38.0%
History 34.1% 43.6% 31.3%
Health / fitness / 
wellness
26.9% 21.8% 26.2%
Self-help/psychology 24.3% 11.9% 28.1%
Parenting 21.9% 10.9% 25.6%
Crafts/hobbies 20.2% 20.8% 20.1%
Arts (e.g., fine arts, music, 
theater, etc.)
20.0% 25.7% 18.2%
True crime 20.0% 12.9% 22.0%
Religion/spirituality/
philosophy
19.7% 14.9% 21.4%
Science 18.3% 30.7% 14.4%
Business/careers 16.8% 21.8% 15.0%
Poetry 16.3% 13.9% 17.3%
Sociology 15.1% 17.8% 14.1%
Essays (i.e., personal
points of view on 
select subjects)
14.7% 19.8% 12.8%
Travel 14.4% 12.9% 15.0%
Pets/animals 14.2% 11.9% 15.0%
Style/fashion 13.5% 6.9% 15.7%
Home decorating/
gardening
13.0% 6.9% 15.0%
Sports/recreation 12.3% 29.7% 6.7%
Politics/current events 11.3% 15.8% 9.9%
Gaming 10.6% 27.7% 5.1%
Technology 10.6% 19.8% 7.3%

SOURCE: LJ GENERATIONAL READING SURVEY 2019

FACT OR FICTION?

When asked whether they read fiction or nonfiction titles over the past 12 months, millennials reported that their reading leans toward fiction: 59 percent vs. 41 percent for nonfiction. Top fiction genres are mystery/suspense, general adult fiction, fantasy, romance, and thrillers. Although even the youngest millennials are adults by now, roughly 29 percent shared that their favorite genre is young adult fiction, while some 15 percent enjoy graphic novels and comics. There are notable differences between what men and women reported as their favorite fiction genres; few respondents reported a nonbinary gender, so LJ wasn’t able to draw conclusions about their reading habits. Roughly 45 percent of women reported reading romance titles, while roughly 13 percent of men read in the same genre; more men than women chose science fiction (roughly 39 percent to roughly 22 percent). Millennial fans of young adult fiction are predominantly women (about 32 percent vs. about 16 percent).

 

 

What fiction genres do you typically read for pleasure?

  TOTAL MILLENIAL
READERS
MALE FEMALE
Mystery / Suspense 50.8% 42.5% 53.3%
General adult fiction 45.7% 35.8% 48.7%
Fantasy 42.4% 48.1% 40.6%
Romance 37.6% 13.2% 45.2%
Thrillers 37.6% 44.3% 35.4%
Horror 28.8% 35.8% 26.5%
Young adult fiction 28.6% 16.0% 32.3%
Historical fiction 27.9% 31.1% 26.8%
Science fiction 25.7% 38.7% 21.9%
Classic literature 25.1% 30.2% 23.3%
Short stories 20.9% 21.7% 20.5%
Graphic novels /
manga / comics
15.2% 30.2% 10.4%
Erotica 14.7% 13.2% 15.3%
Christian fiction 10.8% 7.5% 11.8%
Urban lit / street lit 10.3% 12.3% 9.5%

SOURCE: LJ GENERATIONAL READING SURVEY 2019

Biography and memoir titles top the list of preferred nonfiction, followed by cooking, history, and health/fitness/wellness. More men reported reading history, science, business/careers, and arts titles, while women leaned toward cooking, self-help/psychology, parenting, true crime, and religion/spirituality/philosophy. Millennials living in small towns or rural areas showed a stronger propensity toward both cooking and humorous nonfiction works.

 

AFTER BORROWING FROM THE PUBLIC LIBRARY ...

  TOTAL MILLENIAL
READERS
MALE FEMALE
Percent who later
purchased the same book
60% 74% 56%
Percent who purchased
other books by the
same author
77% 74% 78%

SOURCE: LJ GENERATIONAL READING SURVEY 2019

Genre and topic play a role in millennials’ choice of whether to borrow or buy a book for pleasure reading. Those surveyed use the library to check out general adult fiction, short stories, and historical fiction, while erotica, Christian fiction, horror, and urban/street lit are more frequently purchased, possibly indicating a need for libraries to beef up their offerings in these areas. Nonfiction topics more often purchased by millennials include self-help, religion, or career titles, while books focused on politics or current events frequently come from the library, perhaps because they get out of date too quickly to lend themselves to rereading. Some 39 percent of millennial readers said it is either “very important” or “important” to them that the books they read reflect their cultural background, values, or personal identity; roughly 52 percent of non-white readers responded affirmatively to this survey question. A large majority (86 percent) of millennials said they don’t have any difficulty finding books that serve as mirrors for their own life experiences, including 79 percent of non-white respondents. Effectively debunking the canard that books by authors of color won’t appeal to white readers, roughly 62 percent of millennial readers reported looking for titles that include characters and/or narratives about lives different from their own. That tops the interest in this type of reading across all generations, which averaged 54 percent.

 

How interested are you in reading books with characters and/or narratives that reflect cultural backgrounds, values, and personal identities different from your own?

  TOTAL MILLENIAL
READERS
GENDER RACE / ETHNICITY METROPOLITAN STATUS
    MALE FEMALE WHITE POC* URBAN SUBURBAN RURAL
VERY INTERESTED / 
INTERESTED (net)
61.5% 68.7% 59.1% 59.5% 64.7% 66.7% 60.6% 57.0%
Very Interested 30.1% 33.0% 29.1% 26.6% 35.8% 35.4% 30.3% 24.4%
Interested 31.4% 35.7% 29.9% 32.9% 28.9% 31.3% 30.3% 32.6%
Somewhat Interested 25.5% 16.5% 28.3% 25.7% 25.1% 22.4% 26.0% 28.1%
Slightly Interested 7.9% 10.4% 7.2% 8.6% 7.0% 5.4% 9.6% 8.1%
Not at all Interested 5.1% 4.3% 5.3% 6.3% 3.2% 5.4% 3.8% 6.7%

SOURCE: LJ GENERATIONAL READING SURVEY 2019 *PEOPLE OF COLOR

 

PREFERENCE FOR PRINT

Extensive use of technology is often considered a hallmark of millennials, who are sometimes referred to as the first digital natives. Nonetheless, the survey shows they place high value on print when reading for pleasure, a finding that echoes research on textbooks. Paperback books are the most common format read by millennials (about 74 percent), with hardcover titles close behind (about 73 percent). Ebooks garnered roughly 41 percent of responses and audiobooks received roughly 24 percent. Nearly three quarters, or 72 percent of respondents, reported reading in more than one format. Explaining why they hold that preference, 63 percent of hardcover readers stated they “like the smell and feel,” while 74 percent of paperback readers appreciated the lighter weight and more convenient size. For the 12 percent who named ebooks as their favorite format, the overwhelming reason (79 percent) was 24/7 access to titles. A common write-in answer was “you don’t need a light at night to read them.” Ebook readers also enjoy the ability to adjust print size.

 

Approximately how often did you do the following in the last 12 months?

  WEEKLY MONTHLY EVERY
3 TO 6
MONTHS
LESS
OFTEN
NEVER
Purchase Books 8% 23% 31% 30% 8%
Borrow from Public Library 12% 22% 15% 24% 27%

SOURCE: LJ GENERATIONAL READING SURVEY 2019

While trends show a general preference for analog reading, millennials prefer to read a few genres and topics as ebooks. Erotica readers prefer an electronic copy, perhaps to keep the title more private. Millennials who read gaming-related books are also seeking ebooks, perhaps because of the large self-publishing market that covers particular niches of the gaming world and often releases only in electronic format.

While audiobook fans represent only 24 percent of millennials in the survey, the population that prefers this format over others (8 percent) does so nearly exclusively in order to do other things—like cooking, cleaning, or working out—at the same time (94 percent). Fifty-nine percent of millennial listeners use Audible to buy audiobooks and 28 percent download from their library.

 

MILLENNIAL READERS GET SOCIAL

One thing that sets millennials apart is the way they bring books and reading into their social lives—not just on social media, as one might expect, but in person. Millennials reported the highest level of participation in book clubs across all the generations surveyed, with 29 percent saying they participate either in person or online, whereas the average percentage of book club attendees across the whole survey is 16 percent. Despite how book clubs are often presented as a women’s activity in pop culture, millennial men are substantially more likely to join one. Millennials are also the most likely to attend an author reading at a bookstore, library, or other venue—at 21 percent, compared with 14 percent of the entire sample. While only 17 percent of millennials have participated in a large-scale one book/one community–style reading program, this is still significantly higher than the 9 percent reported across the whole of survey participants.

 

Do you participate in any book clubs?

  TOTAL
MILLENIAL
READERS
GENDER RACE/ETHNICITY METROPOLITAN STATUS
    MALE FEMALE WHITE POC* URBAN SUBURBAN RURAL
YES, in-person or online 28.5% 41.7% 24.6% 24.3% 35.3% 34.7% 26.9% 23.7%
In-person 17.3% 28.7% 13.9% 15.1% 20.9% 24.5% 16.3% 10.4%
Online 16.9% 23.5% 15.0% 12.8% 23.5% 17.0% 18.8% 14.1%
NO 71.5% 58.3% 75.4% 75.7% 64.7% 65.3% 73.1% 76.3%

SOURCE: LJ GENERATIONAL READING SURVEY 2019                                          *PEOPLE OF COLOR

 

Social influences, both in real life and online, strongly shape millennials’ reading choices. When asked, “How do you generally find out about books you want to read?”, 60 percent read based on recommendations from friends and family, 40 percent discover titles by browsing on Amazon, and 33 percent are informed by social media platforms (the entire sample reported getting their recommendations from social media 25 percent of the time). Women rely more on social media, according to survey results, utilizing sites such as Facebook and Instagram. Goodreads is also a popular tool with female millennials, helping them both find new titles and track their reading; no men reported using Goodreads. Women were also more likely than men to use bookstore browsing as a strategy to find their next read. Public libraries, while not among the top results of how millennials discover books, do show up: 24 percent of respondents find titles via browsing, 19 percent draw on library displays, and 7 percent use librarian recommendations. Public figures also influence millennial reading; influencers who popped up several times in answer to an open-ended survey question include Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Stephen King, and Michelle Obama.

Millennials are not just on the lookout for their next great read, but are seeking connection with other readers; 45 percent of respondents said they like to talk about books. More than four out of five millennial readers are likely to go out of their way to review or rate a book online, or create a post about a book on social media. Some 85 percent reported that they will likely or very likely recommend a great book to friends or family, with women being the strongest sharers. And 64 percent will lend out a personal copy of a book they have enjoyed.

 

MILLENNIALS AT THE LIBRARY

While 69 percent of millennials overall have library cards, the survey results show that fewer child-free millennials visit their public library than millennials with children (56 percent vs. 68 percent). Some 31 percent of millennials have used their library’s website and/or app. Thirty percent of all millennial respondents have not interacted with their public library in person or online in the previous 12 months.

Among those who utilize their public libraries, the top five reasons are:

  1. I’m looking for my next book and want to browse (38 percent)
  2. It’s a comfortable place I’m familiar with (34 percent)
  3. It’s a good place to bring children (33 percent)
  4. There’s a specific book I’m looking for (32 percent)
  5. It’s a relaxing place to unwind and spend some “me-time” (30 percent, but jumps to 40 percent for respondents with a high school education or less—perhaps reflecting the lower average income of those groups, which makes it harder to access paid alternative spaces, or the likelihood that their workplaces are less private).

Despite the attempted rebranding of libraries in recent years, millennials asked to choose descriptions or phrases that apply to their public library still put “quiet” in first place (though at only 23 percent). “Free” was next (21 percent) and “welcoming” was third (20 percent). The number one answer for male respondents was “helpful” and for female respondents was “free.” Libraries appear as the most popular option for millennials who attend in-person book clubs, and come in second to bookstores as the most popular venue for author readings.

These survey results show that millennial readers are engaged and have broad interests across genres. While their digital comfort doesn’t reduce their predilection for books in print as much as some might have predicted, millennials’ tech bent shows in their buying and browsing habits, and they will take the time to share, both online and in real life, the books that have made an impact.

As these findings demonstrate, libraries that assume their websites and digital offerings are the key to best serving their millennial users may be missing the boat. While digital matters, the research shows millennials not only prefer print books but also still interact with the library primarily face to face. Libraries can up their game with this demographic by focusing on several areas. First, make books more discoverable through face-out displays, content excerpts, and surfacing recommendations from influencers. Second, reduce friction through longer loan periods or automatic renewals (and publicize those already offered). Third, strengthen collections in underserved areas such as erotica, Christian fiction, horror, and urban/street lit, and don’t hesitate to buy diverse books or to recommend them to all readers. Last and most important, focus on facilitating millennials’ social interaction with books, authors, and readers, both on- and offline. Making it easy to share books they recommend to social media right from the library’s site, showcasing reviews and booklists in turn, and hosting book clubs and other book-driven programming will bring even child-free millennials into the library to connect with their future favorites—and one another.

Illustration ©2019 Marta C'Asaro


METHODOLOGY

The survey instrument was developed by Library Journal with input from sponsors. The survey was hosted, and multi-generational respondents were recruited, by an independent market research firm. The full study collected 2,232 responses between May 14 and May 18, 2019. The data was tabulated by Library Journal research staff.

This report is based on 491 U.S. millennials (currently between the ages of 23 and 38). The data is unweighted.

This study was made possible thanks to the support of sponsors: Penguin Random House, Baker & Taylor, Bibliotheca, Macmillan, and NoveList.


April Witteveen is a Community Librarian with the Deschutes Public Library system in Central Oregon

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