- TeleRead: News and views on e-books, libraries, publishing and related topics - http://www.teleread.com -

TeleRead Calls Bullshit On All These Meaningless Publishing Industry Reports

Posted By Dan Eldridge On December 29, 2012 @ 3:39 pm In ebook,reading | 3 Comments

"One of the biggest mistakes we as a society in general, and industry in specific make is that we mistake medium for the message. Those who can keep their eye on the message—Amazon and Netflix for example—profit handsomely. On the flip-side you have Flickr."   —Om Malik [1]

E-book reading is up, print reading is down, girl with e-reader, girl with e-books [2]This particular time of year—the stretch between Christmas and, say, the first week or two of January—seems to always result in some sort of consumer-relevant trend story that is repeated over and over again in the media, ad nauseum, until most people simply begin thinking of the story as nothing less than pure fact.

And that’s certainly a forgivable offense: It’s easy enough to grow sick of reading (or hearing, or watching) a slight variation of the very same news blip so many times that thinking about it critically becomes a mental exercise.

It’s already clear that the 2012-13 holiday season is going to be no different. One of this year’s biggest trend stories comes to us from the nexus of technology and publishing, and if you’ve been scouring the sites over the past couple of days that cover those fields, you’ve probably seen it:

E-book reading is way up, statistically speaking. Print reading is down. (That’s the story.)

Haven’t noticed? Take a look at this article from ZDNet, titled “Good-bye books, hello e-books [3].” Or this one, from the Los Angeles Times, called “E-book reading jumps as print declines [4].” Which other news outlets, you may wonder, have recently reported similar variations of the same theme? Try The New York Times [5], Yahoo [6], The Washington Post [7], VentureBeat [8] and GlobalPost [9], just for starters.

[10]If you take the time to read those articles, you’ll find that they’re all referencing a December 27 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project called “E-book Reading Jumps; Print Book Reading Declines [11].” There’s quite a lot of information to be parsed in the Pew study, and perhaps not surprisingly, some of the news outlets that have covered it seem to be at least somewhat confused by its interpretation. The aforementioned ZDNet story, for instance, suggests that “The number of people who are reading printed books is declining. But reading isn’t.”

And yet … here’s the thing: According to the Pew report, at least, that doesn’t entirely seem to be the case. Take a close look at the following quotes, which come from the “Findings” section of the report:

In the past year, the number of those who read e-books increased from 16% of all Americans ages 16 and older to 23%. At the same time, the number of those who read printed books in the previous 12 months fell from 72% of the population ages 16 and older to 67% … Overall, the number of book readers in late 2012 was 75% of the population ages 16 and older, a small and statistically insignificant decline from 78% in late 2011.

[12]Now, I’m definitely no statistics whiz; I barely passed the Intro to Stats course course I took during my first year at university. So perhaps I’m the one who’s confused—it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. But if the overall number of book readers—which, for the purposes of this study, seems to include readers of both e-books and print books—has declined from 78 percent to 75 percent over the past year, wouldn’t that suggest that the act of reading has, in fact, declined slightly? (And by the way, I’m not telling—I’m asking. I really don’t know! Any mathematically-inclined readers willing to attempt an explanation would be much appreciated.)

* * *

Just to be clear, I should point out that in no way am I intending to take a pot shot at ZDNet, or for that matter, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols [13], the (very accomplished and supremely talented) author of the article in question. Heck, from what I can tell, many of the publishing industry’s most-quoted thinkers and professionals seem to be lobbing lots of contradictory information back and forth regarding the Pew study .

Even The New York Times‘ blog post [5] about the report, for instance, included a line of fairly confusing info: “Sales of dedicated e-book readers may have peaked last year,” writes tech reporter David Streitfeld [14], “but the percentage of Americans owning one rose to 19 percent from 10 percent.”

Wait … what?! The first part of that quote seems to imply that a significantly smaller number of people bought dedicated e-readers in 2012 than in years past. But the second part seems to imply that the percentage of people who own a dedicated e-reader nearly doubled in 2012.

Does that sound right to you? Unless there’s some sort of free e-reader store no one told me about, it definitely doesn’t sound right to me. Then again, we’re not really given the full picture in the Times piece; Streitfeld tells us that the percentage of dedicated e-reader owning Americans rose nine percentage points in 2012 … but he doesn’t tell us which year or years that data is based upon. Did the nine-point rise happen in two years? Three? Five? Who knows? Not me. And not you, either, unless you’ve already dissected the entire Pew report.

Speaking of which, the full 15-page report can be downloaded in PDF form by clicking here [15], for those of you who are so inclined. (If you’d like to play along at home, you can download the actual survey questions, also in PDF form, here [16].) And please don’t get me wrong—it’s a very detailed and informative report. And for those of you in the business of selling content professionally, it probably also contains some degree of value. (And yet I also get the sense that you’d need an advanced calculus degree to understand the terrifying mathematics equations that appear in the “Weighting and Analysis” section on page 12. Just sayin’.)

* * *

So … what exactly is my point? Well, I’m not actually trying to suggest that all the e-reading and digital publishing studies our industry publishes are inherently flawed or misintentioned in some way. And yes, I’ll admit that the title of this post was written with at least the tip of my proverbial tongue hidden inside my cheek. I can also assure you that we are going to continue covering the majority of the significant industry reports that come our way here at TeleRead; that’s not going to change anytime soon.

In fact, it just so happens that this particular Pew report is relatively rich with the sort of easy-to-understand data that I was surprised not to have already known. For instance: According to the report, “In the book-reading population, those most likely to read e-books include those with college or graduate degrees, those who live in households earning more than $75,000, and those whose ages fall between 30 and 49.” And furthermore, what digital reading enthusiast could possibly resist feeling a tiny jolt of hope after reading the following quote from the Pew Internet & American Life Project director Lee Rainie, who was interviewed recently [7] by The Washington Post:

“We haven’t reached this point yet, but there are reasonable thoughts that the book experience of the future will be dramatically different than today. It will be a multimedia [and] highly social [experience], and [it may] even incorporate a wiki experience.”

* * *

[17]

But regardless of all that, here’s a novel idea I’d like to put forth: Maybe instead of continuing to debate endlessly about the superiority or popularity of our industry’s various mediums—the backlit e-readers and the mini-tablets and the endless numbers of apps—we should start focusing at least a little bit more on the message itself [1], and the potentially life-changing ideas and innovations therein.

Let’s imagine for a moment, if we may, a white paper about the long-term cultural impact of hugely unusual print products like comic artist Chris Ware [18]‘s recently published Building Stories [19], or the January 2010 edition of the San Francisco Panorama [20], a one-shot Sunday-edition newspaper published by McSweeney’s [21]. Or how about an IBISWorld [22] market research report that documents the various technological advancements that will one day become commonplace due to genre-busting digital experiments like The Silent History [23]?

[24]

Chris Ware’s “Building Stories”

Unfortunately, those are all examples of the sort of scientific data extraction that isn’t actually possible (yet), but my point remains the same:  No matter what sort of digital or analog device we happen to be gathering information from at any give time, the truth is that for the majority of us who are heavily invested in reading, knowledge and personal growth seem to be the things we’re after. What else? Maybe a little entertainment from time to time, or even a brief period of escape from the real world.

And yes, I’m fully aware of the fact that I’ve contradicted myself. Because what else, after all, is a professionally-produced consumer trends report if not the pure epitome of verifiable knowledge? But I’m sure you get my point. After all, as the influential author and business thinker Daniel Pink once pointed out, it’s very likely that right-brainers will rule the future [25]. Is it too much to ask for a Pew Research Center study or a Forrester Report that mixes a bit of creative thinking along with the dry data? (Again: I really don’t know.)

* * *

At any rate, as we move into 2013, a year that is all but guaranteed to be full of publishing industry surprises—some positive, no doubt, and some negative—those of us here at TeleRead sincerely hope that those of you who work within the content creation fields will bear in mind the huge importance of art and creativity and risk-taking, even where significant financial decisions are concerned. Especially where significant financial decisions are concerned!

And here’s hoping that by the time 2014 rears its head, the end-of-the-year industry reports will be packed full of ideas and words that barely exist today. I hope I can speak for all of you when I say that I can’t wait to see what this always-inspirational industry manages to cook up over the next 12 months.

Happy New Year, everyone.

‡ ‡ ‡

[26]

 

 


3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "TeleRead Calls Bullshit On All These Meaningless Publishing Industry Reports"

#1 Comment By Gary On December 29, 2012 @ 10:10 pm

The Pew Report says:
“Overall, the number of book readers in late 2012 was 75% of the population ages 16 and older, a small and **statistically insignificant** [emphasis added] decline from 78% in late 2011.”

You say:
“But if the overall number of book readers—which, for the purposes of this study, seems to include readers of both e-books and print books—has declined from 78 percent to 75 percent over the past year, wouldn’t that suggest that the act of reading has, in fact, declined slightly?”

———————-
The problem here is that every survey has a margin of error. I don’t know what the margin of error is in the Pew survey, but **imagine** (that is, assume for the sake of this discussion) that the error is +/- 5 percent, 19 times out of 20. That means that for one poll out of 20 the error will be MORE than +/- 5%.

Therefore, we can be pretty sure (but not absolutely certain) that the number of readers in the general population in 2011 was between 73 and 83 percent. (71 or 72, or 84, or 85 percent are still ‘possible’ true numbers for the percentage of readers in 2011.)

We can also be pretty sure (but not absolutely certain) that the number of readers in the general population in 2012 was between 70 and 80 percent. (with a possibility that the ‘true’ percentage of readers was outside of this range).

From the data provided, therefore, it is entirely possible that the percentage of readers in the general population increased from 72 percent to 81 percent over the last year. It is also possible that the percentage of readers dropped from 84 percent to 69 percent last year. It is also possible that the percentage of readers was 77 percent in 2011 and was 77 percent in 2012, so there was no change at all.

That’s what “statistically insignificant” means. The supposed drop of 3 percent is small when compared to the known accuracy of the polls. Therefore, you can not determine the real change in the number of readers from the data provided.

#2 Comment By Gary On December 29, 2012 @ 10:48 pm

Part 2:

You say:

Even The New York Times‘ blog post about the report, for instance, included a line of fairly confusing info: “Sales of dedicated e-book readers may have peaked last year,” writes tech reporter David Streitfeld, “but the percentage of Americans owning one rose to 19 percent from 10 percent.”

Wait … what?! The first part of that quote seems to imply that a significantly smaller number of people bought dedicated e-readers in 2012 than in years past. But the second part seems to imply that the percentage of people who own a dedicated e-reader nearly doubled in 2012.

—————————
This is not impossible. Imagine the following possible scenario. [Note - All numbers are completely made up. I really wish I knew how many readers were sold, but the manufacturers won't release that information.]

Year 2008 – readers sold 1 million – total readers owned by the population 1 million
year 2009 – readers sold 2 million – readers owned 3 million*
year 2010 – readers sold 4 million – readers owned 7 million*
year 2011 – readers sold 8 million – readers owned 15 million*
year 2012 – readers sold 7 million – readers owned 22 million*

*This, of course, ignores the fact that some of the e-readers sold in previous years broke and were thrown out, so the total, cumulative number of readers would be smaller than the sum of all units sold.

Even though “peak sales” were 8 million units in 2011, the sale of another 7 million units in 2012 still increases the total number of units in the hands of the population by a significant amount.

And, of course, the 10% and 19% numbers for e-reader ownership came from survey data, and these numbers are not perfectly accurate, since every survey has a margin of error.

————————

I think I really agree with the title you put on this story. Its mostly bullshit, or perhaps looking at the tea leaves in the bottom of the teacup. There is hard data out there. Amazon.com could tell you exactly how many kindles they have sold in each month of the last 5 years. They could also tell you how many ebooks they have sold in each month of the last 5 years. However, Amazon WON’T release this data. Instead, we are reduced to scrutinizing the tidbits of information contained in press releases about various surveys.

Perhaps in another 20 or 30 years there will be scholarly articles about the development of ereading that are based on real data that has been ‘declassified’ by hardware vendors, ebook retailers, and publishers. This might make a wonderful PHD thesis for someone who has not yet been born. Until then, all we can do is guess at what is really happening.

#3 Comment By Dan Eldridge On December 30, 2012 @ 11:07 am

Gary, Thank you so much for your comments — not to mention your explanations. And I’m especially glad you pointed out the “statistically insignificant” phrase … because now that I’ve read and digested your explanation, I think I’ll have to admit that the main reason I decided *not* to include that “statistically insignificant” phrase in my post was because I didn’t really understand the writer’s inference. In other words, I didn’t catch on to the fact that he was referring to the study’s margin of error.

And frankly, I’ve always found the whole “margin of error” thing more than a bit confusing, so again, I appreciate you breaking that down as well. I could be wrong, but my suspicion is that the average reader of a mainstream publication like the NYT doesn’t fully understand the meaning of “margin of error,” either.

Finally, I feel the need to point out to you — and for that matter, to everyone else who happens to read this comment — that the last two paragraphs of your “Part 2″ comment pretty much perfectly encapsulate *everything* I was trying to say myself. Especially your last paragraph, because I think you’re absolutely right that until 20 or 30 years pass (or maybe 10 or 15; who really knows?), it simply won’t be possible to parse this sort of data in studies or reports or papers without coming across as at least fairly confusing or, yes, even contradictory-seeming.

In the meantime, we have what we have, I guess — the Pew Research Center reports and so on — and I won’t say that there isn’t any inherent value to those sorts of reports. However! When the mainstream media chooses over and over again to treat them as indisputable fact, or manna from heaven, say, it’s kind of hard not to chuckle a bit.

Anyway, thanks for reading, Gary.


Article printed from TeleRead: News and views on e-books, libraries, publishing and related topics: http://www.teleread.com

URL to article: http://www.teleread.com/ebooks/lorem-ipsum-dolor-sit-amet-consectetur-adipiscing-elit/

URLs in this post:

[1] Om Malik: http://gigaom.com/2011/03/01/why-the-medium-is-not-the-message/

[2] Image: http://www.teleread.com/ebooks/lorem-ipsum-dolor-sit-amet-consectetur-adipiscing-elit/attachment/reading-ebooks1/

[3] Good-bye books, hello e-books: http://www.zdnet.com/good-bye-books-hello-e-books-7000009208/

[4] E-book reading jumps as print declines: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/cotown/la-et-ct-ebook-reading-jumps-as-print-declines-20121227,0,561206.story

[5] The New York Times: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/27/e-book-reading-is-up-study-says/

[6] Yahoo: http://news.yahoo.com/number-e-book-readers-increasing-united-states-survey-225537257.html

[7] The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/e-book-readership-rises-sharply/2012/12/27/7cd0dbd6-503a-11e2-839d-d54cc6e49b63_story.html

[8] VentureBeat: http://venturebeat.com/2012/12/27/e-book/

[9] GlobalPost: http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/business/121227/e-book-sales-skyrocket-print-declines-new-data-suggests

[10] Image: http://www.teleread.com/ebooks/lorem-ipsum-dolor-sit-amet-consectetur-adipiscing-elit/attachment/1-3/

[11] E-book Reading Jumps; Print Book Reading Declines: http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/12/27/e-book-reading-jumps-print-book-reading-declines/

[12] Image: http://www.teleread.com/ebooks/lorem-ipsum-dolor-sit-amet-consectetur-adipiscing-elit/attachment/stats/

[13] Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: http://www.zdnet.com/meet-the-team/us/steven.j.vaughan-nichols/

[14] David Streitfeld: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/author/david-streitfeld/

[15] clicking here: http://libraries.pewinternet.org/files/legacy-pdf/PIP_Reading%20and%20ebooks_12.27.pdf

[16] here: http://libraries.pewinternet.org/files/2012/12/Reading-and-ebooks_SurveyQuestions.pdf

[17] Image: http://www.teleread.com/ebooks/lorem-ipsum-dolor-sit-amet-consectetur-adipiscing-elit/attachment/sfpanorama/

[18] Chris Ware: http://www.acmenoveltyarchive.org/

[19] Building Stories: http://www.fastcocreate.com/1681628/chris-ware-brilliantly-bundles-building-stories-as-graphic-novel-boxed-set#2

[20] San Francisco Panorama: https://store.mcsweeneys.net/products/mcsweeneys-issue-33the-san-francisco-panorama

[21] McSweeney’s: https://store.mcsweeneys.net/

[22] IBISWorld: http://www.ibisworld.com/

[23] The Silent History: http://www.teleread.com/ebooks/is-the-silent-history-the-most-unusually-bizarre-e-book-ever-created-probably/

[24] Image: http://www.teleread.com/ebooks/lorem-ipsum-dolor-sit-amet-consectetur-adipiscing-elit/attachment/building-stories-by-chris-ware/

[25] right-brainers will rule the future: http://www.danpink.com/books/whole-new-mind

[26] Image: http://www.twitter.com/teleread

Copyright © 2010 TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home. All rights reserved.