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Where & Why We Buy Books (2011 Edition)

Last week I posted a survey on my site—a survey that asked you about your book buying habits. This was a follow-up to a similar survey I had taken a year prior. The results were, I think, nothing short of fascinating. I sought to find out where we are buying our books today and why we are buying them where we do.

By way of background, 1,865 people completed the survey; 67% of the respondents were male and 82% lived in the United States. 88% identify as Reformed in theology, which means that this survey offers a little bit of a glimpse into this whole “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement.

As promised, I’ll share the highlights of the survey.

The first question asked this: “How many PRINTED (not e-book) Christian books do you purchase each month, on average, from e-commerce stores?” I wanted to continually distinguish between printed books and ebooks, hence the all-capital PRINTED. The results of this question were a little bit lower than last year, which makes me think that the difference could largely be attributed to people migrating away from printed books and toward ebooks.

Books Per Month

The next question asked about book reviews, asking if a person tends to read at least 1 review of a book before purchasing it. The results were quite emphatic—we like our reviews.

Read Reviews

The natural follow-up asked where people find these reviews. This question was asked on a blog so it was no surprise that blogging took the lead. But even with that bias in mind, it is remarkable how blogs have become a go-to resource for reviews. And close behind blogs is Amazon, showing that customer reviews can be very valuable. Publishers take note: continue to get your books into the blogosphere.

Review Sources

The questions now turned toward the heart of the survey which was to determine where we buy our books and why we buy them where we do.

Book Sources

Amazon’s dominance is apparent here. Over 93% of respondents had purchased at least 1 book from Amazon in the past 2 years. This was a percentage point higher than last year. CBD and Westminster also made strong showings here; Monergism was not too far behind. When I filtered the results so I could see where Americans buy their books, Amazon rose to 95%.

The next question was an obvious follow-up: From which store do you buy books most often.

Most Often

Amazon continued to gain strength from last year, pulling in 73% of the votes here. So let that one sink in for a moment: 73% of us purchase the bulk of our books from Amazon. And it wasn’t even close—Westminster came in a distant second at 7.2%.

Not surprisingly, Amazon also dominated in the next question.

Next Book

Almost 72% of us will buy our next Christian book at Amazon—9 times more than the nearest competition. And compared to last year, Amazon’s edge has grown a little bit.

The next question was a particularly interesting one as it asked about where we find the best prices for our books.

Best Prices

Now perhaps I should have qualified this as “Christian books” as opposed to simply “books,” though I think that was assumed by the context of the survey. 74% of respondents said that Amazon offers the best prices on the books they want to read. The truth of the matter is, though, that if you tend to buy the kinds of books that I positively review on this site, the kind of books that Reformed folk are reading today, Amazon typically does not have the best pricing. The other stores are in a price war with Amazon and tend to offer better value. Still, Amazon carries the perception of better value. They have poured a lot of resources into building and maintaining this perception.

I wanted to know what factors influence us as we buy books, so asked this question:

Factors Influence

Combine price with shipping and add in a little bit of availability and you’ve got your formula. Essentially, we are after cheap convenience. And who can blame us, really? This will be a large part of why Amazon leads the way—they offer free shipping (then again, so do many of the competitors) and they offer low prices (but again, not as low as competitors). And, of course, they tend to carry pretty much everything.

From there I narrowed in on the single most important factor.

Single Factor

Not surprisingly, price led the way. In fact, there wasn’t any real competition. We do not want to pay much for our books, which is perhaps a little bit ironic considering how much we value the printed word. Nevertheless, the widespread availability of books means that prices have to fall. And we want to take full advantage.

From here I asked about price comparisons.

Price Compare

So we do price comparisons and yet many of us buy from Amazon which typically does not have the best prices, at least on the kinds of books I think we tend to buy. I’m a bit confused. Unless the answer is that we’d rather pay $1 or $2 more for a book but then also buy some batteries, a DVD and a new set of dishes—things only Amazon offers.

As I did last year, I asked about whether we factor theological affinity into our decisions. In other words, if an e-commerce store also sells the kinds of books we hate, will we still shop there?

Bad Books

And apparently many of us will. Which is consistent with our dedication to good prices and convenience.

Last year I turned from here to publishers. This year I wanted to probe a little further into the ebook market. My first question was kind of a weak one (in retrospect):

E-Reading

The long and short is that two thirds of us now read at least some of our books on an electronic device. And 20% of us now do the majority of our reading electronically. That is truly significant. The results probably would have been more helpful if I had done a better job with the question. Maybe next year.

OK, but are we just trying out electronic reading or are we increasingly committed to it?

Twelve Months

It would appear that those who try it enjoy it. Or if not that, they find a reason to continue doing it (price, perhaps?). 26% of us intend to do more electronic reading in the year to come—the same amount as those who have no intention of ever making the transition. I think I will need to do an entire survey on e-reading at some point in the near future.

What devices are we using to do this reading? It looks like Amazon dominates here as well.

Device

The Kindle has the dominant position here. It’s worth noting that many of those who read via iPad, iPhone and even computers will be using a Kindle app to do so.

Where do we buy our books? There are few surprises here.

Buy EBooks

Logos and Monergism Books show some strength here. Apple is getting into the act. But Amazon dominates. Again.

Reflections

And those are the results. Let me close with a handful of reflections.

First, Christian bookstores are barely competing with one another; they are competing together against Amazon. Even in a relatively niche market Amazon is dominant. Of course books are popular and even a small share of the market is significant, so those Christian bookstores can still make a go of it. But they need to fight this perception that Amazon offers the best prices.

Second, if we are truly committed to good prices, we should shop carefully and compare pricing before hitting the “checkout” button at Amazon. Unless there are other reasons to buy from Amazon (we are Prime members; we want to buy other items at the same time), we should look carefully at the Christian e-commerce stores to see if they offer better pricing.

Third, Christian bookstores need to maintain (or increase) their commitment to ebooks. The market is heading in that direction and the stores will need to be certain that they do not miss their opportunity. The big challenge, of course, is that Kindle owners will almost always get their books from Amazon; the most popular device has pretty much guaranteed that you will also use it to buy your books.

I am sure there is much more that could be said. I will leave it to you to leave a comment with some of your takeaways.

(Check out this companion article for more about pricing)