What do we actually know about British readers?

We have a vague idea, and a great deal of received wisdom, but, notoriously, we’ve found it challenging to answer some of the simplest questions. Publishing is a delicate ecosystem of publishers, distributors, and retailers, and (with one notable exception) there are understandable gaps between every link in the chain. 

Generally speaking, if a publisher has subscribed to the appropriate services and the data chain is behaving nicely, we can roughly know where (some of) our readers are. There’s also a wealth of small-scale anecdotal evidence that comes from speaking with booksellers. "We sold both our copies to young women," and the like. If the book is large enough, there may be social media data — although, again, those who leave Goodreads reviews are rarely representative readers, and tweeting about a book is (sadly) not the same as buying it.

The notable exception, of course, is Amazon, which knows every single buyer of every single book, what they searched for to find it, how long they read it, how quickly they read it, how far they got, and everything else about their life

Fortunately, we do not exist in a vacuum. There is a wealth of consumer insight available from sources outside of the industry. One easy (and free) place to start is with the public sector. OfCom, for example, publishes two annual reports — Adult Media Use and Children’s Media Use — which detail digital reading and audiobook consumption. Departments, organisations, and think tanks — from ACE to the RSA, DCMS to PEW Research — are constantly conducting surveys on literacy, media, entertainment and cultural engagement. What these studies lose in publishing specificity they gain in breadth and objectivity. They weren’t commissioned with publishers in mind, and have no axe to grind. And they provide useful context by placing reading and readers next to other media and activities.

Of the commercial options, a personal favourite is YouGov, which maintains a massive database of hundreds of thousands of UK consumers, with a huge range of variables. Just as a taste, I’ve tapped into that with one of the most simple demographic questions: how do readers behave by generation? 

According to YouGov, a whopping 41% of the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945) say they read or listen to a book for pleasure every day. This declines as readers get younger. Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964) are next at 31%. Gen X (1965 to 1981) drops to 18%. Only 10% of Millennials (1982 to 1999) read daily, and a similarly grim 9% of Gen Z (2000+). 

When we dive into preferred genres, we start seeing where conventional wisdom might be leading us astray. Millennials, for example, are the generation most likely to say their favourite genre is Romance. Crime is the most popular genre across the board, although its dominance rises with age.

In Non-Fiction, Gen X are the generation most likely to say they enjoy reading about Religion & Spirituality and Science & Technology. Gen Z are the generation most likely to say they enjoy Society & Sociology books, while Baby Boomers are the most likely to cite Food & Drink as a favourite. Perhaps the stat that leaps out most is this: 49% of Gen Z say they don’t enjoy reading non-fiction at all — a potentially worrying number. 

What do the generations look for in a book? Fifty-six percent of Boomers are looking for "a good story", but only 38% of Millennials say the same. Poor Gen X — 49% read to "relax and wind down" and 41% read to "escape reality". Only Millennials are even remotely interested in reading as a community activity: 9% say they read to "discuss with other people", which, although a low figure, is still higher than any other generation. Meanwhile, 13% of Gen Z say they read to "stay informed". That may seem low, but that’s the highest figure across all generations. Boomers, meanwhile, are mostly likely to say they read to "help them fall asleep" (22%).

This is, of course, the mere tip of the iceberg. Interested in the most popular genre of fiction for Spurs fans? (Fantasy! Which sounds like a punchline to a joke written by an Arsenal fan.) Romance lovers are more likely than Science Fiction fans to describe themselves as introverts, but it is the latter who are more likely to call themselves "cat people". The UK city with the highest percentage of Food & Drink book lovers? Glasgow. And fans of Fashion books? Manchester. Which faith has the highest percentage of comic book lovers? Islam.

None of this, of course, directly answers the deceptive "simple" question of who bought that exact book? As Amazon has shown, that takes a very elaborate — and slightly intrusive — end-to-end platform. In an absence of reliable, robust, precise data, it is critical that we take on more perspectives than our received wisdom. Sources such as YouGov — and many others — can provide an invaluable counter-weight to our assumptions, and help us better understand the fascinating, complex lives of our audiences.