The various types of readers

(This is the sixth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

(Before I start, I’d like to make sure you know this is all speculation and probably wrong.)

My guess is you can break book consumers into broadly five different kind of behaviours. Emphasis here is on consumers so this doesn’t cover corporate, institutional, or similar professional purchases at all.

  1. Heavy reader. People who buy several books a month, read most of them, and still have a mile-high ‘to read’ list. This is relatively small number of people who have an outsized impact on the market and have mostly converted to ebooks.
  2. The literate reader. People who read anything from six to twelve books a year. How big this group is depends on the language and culture. In 2010 in Iceland, for example, an extensive survey pegged this group at over half the adult Icelandic-speaking population (PDF). For most countries that proportion will be lower. This group has partially switched to ebooks but at a much, much lower rate than the heavy readers.
  3. Blockbuster reader. The reader who only reads one book a year and then only a bestseller. These are the people that only buy authors like Dan Brown, J K Rowling, and whoever the dude is that writes those Jack Reacher novels.
  4. Super fans. They like this here one thing and aren’t ashamed of it. E.g. Twilight fanatics who haven’t read anything else in their lives. Harry Potter nutters. They’ve found that one thing they like and feel no need to branch out. More likely to reread and re-buy that one thing than to read something new.
  5. Gift givers. For whatever reason, these types have decided to forgo the universally accepted traditional gift of ‘cash in an envelope’ and foist their cultural selections upon undeserving relatives and acquaintances.

Group 1, heavy readers, is the one that has been driving most of the growth of the ebooks market so far. They’ve probably either completely switched over to ebooks or will have soon.

Group 2, is, in theory, the next major growth area for ebooks and also the one where ebooks are likely to stall. My guess is that most people in group 2 don’t read on the commute (if they did, they’d probably read more than 6–12 books a year) and so aren’t that affected by the bulk of your average book. A lot of the books they read are lent on or borrowed and so don’t cause major storage issues.

These people read a few books a year and share them with their friends. They have a lot to lose from switching to ebooks and little to gain. Ebooks in general are objectively more ugly. They can’t be shared easily with your friends. They require an expensive device that in many cases is shared across the household (i.e. to read on the iPad you have to take it away from your kids who are using it to play games). The specialised ereader devices cost as much as this reader’s entire year’s worth of reading (i.e. as much as six to twelve paperbacks would cost, but without the benefit of lending). Certain segments of Group 2 do benefit immensely from ebooks (those with poor sight who prefer bigger font sizes and those who do read on the commute). They are also the ones who have probably already switched.

Many members of group 3 will only ever buy an ebook by accident. If you do something only once a year you damn sure want a souvenir. I can’t imagine this group switching in big numbers. Nor should they.

Group 4 will probably buy their favourite book as an ebook, and a hardcover, and paperback, and the UK edition, and the Japanese edition off Ebay. They’ll hunt down a copy from the first print run. They’d kill for a copy of the limited first run from that small publisher before the title got picked up by the big publisher. They’ll read and write fan-fiction (so much fan-fiction). They’ll buy the book in Kobo, iBooks, and Kindle and compare the three but they won’t buy any other title because it isn’t what they love.

Group 5 is unlikely to ever give ebooks. Why give an ebook when you can just as easily buy an iTunes/Amazon gift card which you can then pretentiously wrap? Why give a gift card when you can give real cash? Why give cash when you can just confess that you don’t love the recipient enough to give their gift selection some thought, and tell them to just fuck off and not bother you again?

How these five groups divide the industry between themselves is going to vary wildly from market to market, genre to genre, and ebooks aren’t going to shift that composition in any major way.

Moreover, one person can belong to different groups depending on the market. Here’s Hypothetical Karen.


  • Is a huge SFF fan. Reads several titles a month.
  • Is a semi-regular reader of literary fiction. About six titles a year.
  • Only reads other genres when a mega-blockbuster comes along.

If my theory above is true, Hypothetical Karen’s SFF fiction library would be mostly ebooks, her literary fiction novels would mostly be hardbacks, while the blockbusters would all be paperbacks, probably borrowed from a friend, with the exception of the few that she bought cheap as ebooks. Her shelves would be dominated by SFF favourites—some that pre-date ebooks, some that are just too good to just own in digital—and literary fiction.

But most readers won’t belong to more than one group. I think it’s likely that Hypothetical Karen and her ilk have already had an outsized impact on the market as early ebook adopters but are too small a group to influence future developments to any substantial degree. If this is true then ebooks might have to cross a second chasm after crossing the early adopter chasm since the early majority group might well be smaller than expected and the late majority group could well be more recalcitrant than expected.

Of course, like everything else in this post, this is blatant speculation and probably wrong.

My theory is that these are the four basic reader archetypes (plus one buyer archetype) and that the split between these five groups varies dramatically from genre to genre, title to title. Romance novels are probably dominated by group 1 with a smattering of group 2. Since romance readers are a large collection of heavy readers, it’s unsurprising that the genre is an ebook powerhouse.

Genre readers, in general, are likely to be of group 1 or 2 with group 3 coming in occasionally with individual titles. Most mainstream fiction and non-fiction (like celebrity biographies and autobiographies) are dominated by group 2 with only a smattering of groups 1 and 2.

And a title that is almost exclusively bought by gift givers is likely to tank in digital unless the publisher lucks out in some way and it gets adopted by a niche audience of some sort.

Even though some market segments may well have a much lower percentage of ebook buyers than others, sales successes are likely to boost the sales of all of a title’s formats. A blockbuster in an ebook-light genre is going to sell more ebooks than a mid-list title in an ebook-heavy genre. Big sales trump customer mix every time. The problem is that blockbusters are unpredictable and somewhat random while building a solid genre mid-list catalogue is in theory less so. Which suggests that if you have capital, you should focus on blockbusters and lottery stakes, but if you don’t have capital but do have in-house expertise, you should focus on solid genre offerings.

Of course, this is all conjecture and probably wrong. (“This is all make believe!”)

Figuring this out for real

What you really need to do is to figure this out for your readership. Exactly how to do that is tricky.

You need to find out how reading activity is distributed among your readers (i.e. how many are light, moderate, or heavy readers). You need to figure out their past format choices. Don’t ask them their preferences; they don’t know and will make shit up—people lie. Ask them what they’ve actually done in the past, preferably the recent past. You need to find out how much of what they read they buy themselves. You need to know what genres they’ve bought in the past. You need to find out what they want from you, because that might not correlate with their past choices.

If it doesn’t correlate, then take it with a grain of salt. Only trust customer suggestions that they are willing to immediately back with money. You don’t have to take the money, but their willingness to part with it is an important indicator.

How do you find this out? Beats me. Almost every realistic and economically viable way of getting trustworthy information about your readers will be biased towards either heavy readers and super fans or towards digital readers.

If you figure out a way, let me know.

9 thoughts on “The various types of readers

  1. In the U.S., we have some data to confirm your theory, at least in part. Pew Research has been polling a question that asks “How many books have you read in the last year?” They have asked this question, along with others about ebook adoption, library usage, and device ownership, in surveys over almost the whole ebook adoption cycle. They haven’t done the analysis necessary to track ebook adoption across the various groups, but they release their raw data 6 months after they publish. I have just started to reanalyze their data to look at this issue.

    I can answer the “who are your readers” question in the context of the U.S. If you don’t know, your readers are all part of group 1. The reason is the one you explained back in your posts about book “lemons”. The time and money cost of finding a new author is too high for anyone except group 1. As author, you will know when it isn’t true when you hit the top 25 bastseller list on Amazon (unless you write romance, where there are enough group 1 readers to get you there).

    • That’s interesting. From the data I’ve seen and from what I’ve been told, group 2 (the 6-12 a year casual but regular readers) is practically an endangered species in English-language countries. Which would lead to a bit of a polarisation of readerships:

      1. Heavy readers who buy ebooks.
      2. Blockbuster readers who mostly buy print.

      That would explain why big publishers are so focused on finding new blockbuster sellers. In countries like Iceland, mainstream literature is truly mainstream (i.e. competes on the same level of popularity as other mainstream media). In the U.S. only blockbuster novels attain the volume necessary to enter the mainstream. Also, if you don’t follow publishing regularly, blockbuster novels are probably the only ones you know anything about and can safely buy. If you are a mega-corporation publisher with massive overheads, blockbusters might be essential for survival.

      Now I’ve made myself sad thinking about this. 😦

  2. One minor quibble, with a great post. The cost of digital devices shared across groups is only an issue when you think reading on your cell or mobile as difficult. In fact the Pew data yesterday showed that 33% f respondents already read ebooks on their cells. When you factor in how many people read news, watch video and play games we actually have a direct route to Groups 2 and Groups 3 if we just got beyond our disregard of mobiles and got serious about reaching potential readers on mobile platforms and convincing them to read (our books) rather than watch or play, or listen. The best book is the one you have on you and wit a smartphone you always have all of them on you!

    • Haha, yeah. Not going into how phones might affect this is a rather big omission, admittedly :-). I’m not convinced, though, that readers in Groups 2 and 3 either want ebooks or are well served by ebooks, even though they can read them on mobiles. Ebooks don’t offer the same benefits as print for that consumer group (collectible, lendable, typography, design, and a variety of bespoke physical sizes). Massively lower pricing might partially counteract that, but it still means I’m skeptical about the market ever converting 100% to ebooks.

    • No question that the book market is destined to have a significant print audience for years to come (and probably indefinitely). It’s one of the reasons I think cheaper paperbacks will survive for the titles that break into the orbits of those category 3 readers you identify. Category 2 readers can probably be satisfied with hardback and POD. Category 4 as your say will swing with the brand wind, 5 will prefer nice hardbacks I suspect!
      On the other hand I fear if publishers cannot win on mobile the books may ultimately face shrinking readership in favour of shorter forms and alternate forms!

  3. Baldur, I wonder if my example highlights another grouping? Those whose sight is slowly deteriorating and for whom print, at 10pt, is just hard work. With my e-reader / laptop I can read comfortably at 14pt, or whatever suites me?

    • I did mention that in passing when I wrote about Group 2 above, that there is a subsection of that group and others that benefit immensely from ebooks. So, yeah, it’s definitely a factor that separates out a big slice of readers.

  4. Pew breaks it down into these bins (# of books read in the last year):
    0 – 24% of adults
    1 – 5%
    (2-3) -14%
    (4-5) – 12%
    (6-10) – 17%
    (11-20) – 13%
    (20+) – 15%
    (D/K) – 2%

    Those numbers are from the latest survey (this month). These numbers have been relatively stable, year over year, although my first cut at examining the data suggests that avid readers are reading more (probably because ebooks are cheaper).

    Overall, I think what’s happening is that the “mid-list” is moving to ebooks, the megacorporations are moving to blockbusters only (and the corporate vanity titles like lit prize winners), and the non-narrative print books are moving to online sales. Which means the mass-market bookseller is doomed. We’ll have specialty stores that sell books and blockbusters sold at other retailers (which isn’t all that different from the way things were in the U.S. 40 years ago).

    One interesting thing is that there is a real difference in the ebook vs. physical book sales mix for the old guard bestsellers (Stephen King, James Patterson, John Grisham) vs. newer folks like Gillian Flynn. The more recently a writer made the “sure-fire” best-seller category, the higher percentage of their sales are ebooks. That suggests (not proves) that younger readers, even the blockbusters only crowd, are more likely to buy in ebook format. Again, I’m hoping to be able to answer that question with the Pew data.

    • Which means the mass-market bookseller is doomed.

      I agree. It’ll be interesting to see what the knock-on effects will be.

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