Inside the Australian and New Zealand book industry

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Macquarie University report into Australian readers finds broad support for local publishing industry

Macquarie University has published a report examining Australian book readers, the third and final stage of its three-year research project on Australia’s changing book industry.

The book readership stage of the research project surveyed just under 3000 Australians, and was conducted in partnership with the Australia Council for the Arts, which provided additional funding and collaboration.

As with the previous two stages of the research project, which examined how authors and publishers are responding to global change, this stage investigates how book readers are changing their reading habits as they adopt new technologies. In particular, the survey explores how the advent of ebooks, online book retailing and social media have affected the ways in which Australians interact with books and engage in reading.

Principal results

The researchers determined that eight percent of the population can be considered non-readers, which is defined as people who haven’t read all or part of a book in any format for pleasure or interest in the past 12 months.

For the respondents, reading books (65% at least once a week) comes after browsing the internet (95.7%) and watching TV (92%) in terms of the frequency of their leisure activities. Only 5.4% of respondents never read books, while 29.1% read books less than once a week.

On average, Australians spend about seven hours reading books each week, of which about 70% is reading for pleasure. Men were found to be far more likely to be non-readers than women, who make up two thirds of frequent readers. Almost 40% of frequent readers are over the age of 60, compared to just over 15% of under 30s.

Frequent readers are most prominent among respondents with a graduate diploma or postgraduate degree, however, there are no significant differences in annual earnings between the groups. The researchers found that their results were ‘generally consistent’ with the demographic characterisations of book readers found in previous studies, with the exception of the findings regarding annual earnings.

The reasons for reading was broken into three categories: enjoyment, learning and health. The ‘drama of good stories and watching a good plot unfold’ was the most common reason respondents said they enjoyed reading. Half of all respondents identified with this reason. This was followed by ‘escaping reality or becoming immersed in another world’ (46.7%) and ‘stimulating imagination and creativity’ (45.6%). For learning and health, the top two reasons for reading were to learn about topics that interested the respondent and for relaxation/stress release respectively.

As books face new competition for readers’ time and attention, the researchers said anecdotal evidence suggests social media has drastically changed reading patterns and behaviour. Evidence from the survey suggested people appear to be spending slightly less time reading books compared to five years ago, but more time reading overall. Regarding book-reading time, just over 40% of non-readers read ‘much less’ than they did five years ago, which was also true of 23.4% of occasional readers.

Genre and format preferences

The books ready by respondents were divided into broad categories of fiction and nonfiction and then broken down further into specific genres. In fiction, crime/mystery/thrillers was the most popular category (48.5%), while in nonfiction, autobiography/biography/memoir was the most popular (45%).

Other popular fiction categories included historical (36%), contemporary/general fiction (33.4%), science fiction (32.2%) and romance (17.3%).

YA readers (15.4% of respondents) are typically younger (median age of 30-34, compared to 45-49 in Australia), female (67%, compared to half), use social media frequently (73% every day) and have read more books in the past month (4.4, compared to 3.2).

Ninety percent of respondents ‘often or sometimes’ read print books and just over half (53%) ‘often or sometimes’ read ebooks. Just 12% ‘often or sometimes’ listen to audiobooks, with almost three quarters (73.5%) responding that they never do so.

A similar number of respondents (73.6%) never read on an ereader, which is higher than the percentage of respondents who never read on mobile (64.2%) or iPad/tablet (16.5%). This reflects the number of respondents who favour iPads or tablets over a dedicated ereading device: around one third read ebooks ‘often or sometimes’ on iPads or tablets, almost double the number who ‘often or sometimes’ read on a dedicated ereader.

Buying books

According to the results, 43% of Australians bought a book in the month prior to the survey, with the mean calculated to be just over two books purchased. When removing the respondents who hadn’t purchased a book, the mean number of books was just under five.

Overall, bricks-and-mortar stores are still more popular than online stores (although this includes second-hand bookstores), with 71% of respondents indicating they purchased books from a bricks-and-mortar store ‘often or sometimes’, and 52% buying from an online store ‘often or sometimes’.

The most popular online stores for book purchasing (Amazon, Apple and Book Depository) are all international stores. Overseas retailers are ‘often or sometimes’ used by just over 40% of the respondents, with just over 30% buying online from a local store.

Factors influencing reading and buying behaviour

The results clearly demonstrate that personal preferences are the most important factors in book selection. Ninety percent of respondents indicated ‘topic, subject, setting or style’ as the most important, and three quarters nominated ‘read and enjoyed previous works by author’ as a factor.

Other important factors include the availability in desired format (62.6%), a friend’s recommendation (59.7%), price (44.9%) and the author’s reputation (42.2%).

Less influential are cover endorsements, which were only an important factor for 6.7% of respondents, while recommendation by public figures (7.3%) and bookshop/library promotion (7.9%) are also in the single figures, although these latter two factors are more important for younger readers.

Researchers state that it’s not clear whether local prizes, including the Miles Franklin, Stella, Prime Minister’s or various premier’s awards, have a clear influence on demand. About one fifth nominated professional book reviews and recognition for major prize as affecting their book choices, while almost twice as many said these factors were unimportant.

When it comes to literary fiction readers, however, the influence of reviews and prizes is significant. Just under 43.7% of readers who favour literary fiction consider reviews important or extremely important, and more than half (52.4%) consider winning or being shortlisted for a prize important or extremely important.

The most popular physical world source of information ‘about which books to read for pleasure’ is word-of-mouth (66.2% of respondents), followed by browsing in physical bookstores (52.8%) and print newspapers and magazines (36.1%). Physical world sources with the lowest percentage of respondents include book subscription services (2.2%), outdoor advertising (4.6%) and book events/talks (4.8%), with writers’ festivals just slightly higher (5.8%).

In the online world, book retailers and publishers are the most popular sources of information (36.9%), followed by Facebook (26.9%) and Goodreads (13.3%).

Related to this, respondents were asked how they recommend a book they’ve enjoyed to other people. Most (84%) said they make the recommendation in person, while one third lend a copy and another one fifth will give the book as a gift. Only 10% said they don’t give recommendations to other people.

Just under one third of respondents are ‘often or sometimes’ involved with books and reading on social media and the internet. The level of involvement correlates broadly with age, with the 30-39 age group having the high rate of online involvement (45.6%), followed by under 20s (41.6%).

Australian books

Overall, 64.8% of respondents said they liked to read books by Australian authors, while 47% said they liked books with Australian settings.

However, the researchers said that discussions in the groups revealed ‘a general lack of awareness about Australian books, especially among younger readers’. Older readers are more aware of Australian books and more likely to like Australian-authored books than their younger counterparts. Younger readers are less likely to care where the author is from.

Readers aged over 60 are more than twice as likely to enjoy reading Australian fiction and nonfiction books set in Australia (39% and 31%) than respondents aged under 30 (17% and 11%).

The results indicate that about two thirds of Australians agree or strongly agree with the sentiment expressed in three statements on the cultural significance of Australian books and the non-monetary value of the industry. ‘It is noteworthy that this positive attitude is shared by readers and non-readers alike; the sentiment may be somewhat less enthusiastically held among the latter, but even so, a third or more of them agreed with the statements,’ said the report.

Almost two thirds of Australians (63%) regard books by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers as important for Australian culture, however, this doesn’t entirely match the intended readership, with 42% of respondents indicating that books by Indigenous writers were of interest to them.

Over half of respondents (59%) agreed that Indigenous Australian publishers are important for books about Indigenous Australian cultures, including 36% of non-readers.

Public support for the book industry

A majority of respondents (60%) regard it as important or extremely important that books written by Australian authors are published in Australia, while a quarter thought it was neither important or unimportant, and fewer than 10% believed it was unimportant.

More than half (54%) agreed or strongly agreed with the proposition that there should be public funding specifically for Australian writing. Despite the support, 57% of respondents believe that books are too expensive in Australia.

In conclusion, the researchers write that readers are spending ‘slightly’ less time reading books now than they did five years ago, because of other commitments and competing leisure activities.

In particular, readers under 20 years are reading less frequently than other age brackets, and the researchers note that publishers are ‘correct in turning to innovative forms of marketing to reach’ young Australians. Citing younger readers’ resistance to ‘cultural nationalist movements which have affected older generations’, the researchers suggest that ‘the role and value of Australian literary books and culture may need to be reconceptualised and communicated to younger Australians in new ways that are relevant to them, if the public support which enables their creation is to continue’.

The researchers also note that the reports on the Australian book industry produced by the Book Industry Strategy Group and the Book Industry Collaborative Council ‘drew attention to the significant contribution of books to Australian cultural life’, adding that their survey results have ‘provided objective quantitative evidence on the extent to which Australians recognise this cultural value’.

To read the full report, click here. To see the Australia Council’s summation interactive display, click here


Category: Local news