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US book-buyers are getting older

22 June 2009

Two-thirds of book-buyers in the US are 43 and older. This stark statistic was revealed in the recent Book Industry Study Group study. Book sales in the US are flat, with sales expected to stagnate for at least another year.

The study's analysis of the US book buying population by age revealed that Matures (born pre 1948) buy 32% of books, Boomers (born (1948-66) buy 35%, Generation X (1967-78) buy17%, Generation Y (born 1979-89) buy 10% and Generation Next (born after 1990) buy just 5%.

You might think that life-stage plays a part in this and hope that these younger purchasers will become more avid readers and buyers as they get older, as they have done in the past, but the research suggests that this may no longer hold true. If you think about the competing calls on their time faced by Generations Y and Next as opposed to the Baby Boomers at the same age, it's clear that a more pressurised work-place, plus the competing allure of the Internet, computer games and other forms of entertainment, have had a huge effect. Younger people are simply reading less than the previous generation used to at that age, and there's no real reason to expect that this trend will reverse because fewer young people are becoming avid readers.

A similar trend seems to be evident in the UK. As reported from the Books and Consumer study (News Review 13 April) Steve Bohme, Book Marketing Limited's Research Director, pointed out: 'The market has become increasingly reliant on a smaller pool of buyers buying more books each year' and pointed out that it is also very dependent on older female buyers.

The BISG study presents a stark picture in other ways too. It found that Americans are spending less time reading books and more time online. Perhaps surprisingly, 41% of all books were bought by people earning less than $35,000 (£21,594) ie those who can least afford them.

There's no doubt though that stereotypes about fewer older people going on the Internet less are rapidly being overturned. The 50 to 64-year-olds are leading the way in adopting the Kindle in the US, whilst in the in the UK a recent Age Concern survey found that 55% of 50 to 59-year-olds and 41% of 60 to 69-year-olds have purchased from the Internet. Silver surfers are turning to the web in increasing numbers.

As a writer you may well feel that it doesn't matter where people buy books from, as long as they do buy them. More web book sales will make things even more difficult for terrestrial booksellers and will threaten existing bookshops, but authors will still be able to reach readers through online book sales. The US study is alarming though because it suggests that there is a fundamental age-related change going on in reading habits - and that may mean fewer readers in the future.