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Reading In The 21st Century- Part 1: Publishing Trends & New Realities

by | Jul 11, 2022 | 0 comments

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By: Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries

Prior to the beginnings of the COVID pandemic, studies found decreasing numbers of people reading for leisure. The American Psychological Association reporting that in 2018 one of every three teenagers had not read a book for pleasure in the year before the pandemic hit. They attributed this decrease in reading to the rise of social media and gaming platforms geared to millennials. However, with all of the closures due to the pandemic, things have changed radically.

The latest edition of the annual American Time Use study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, released in June 2022, shows that Americans collectively read nearly 25% more than usual from May to December 2020, the first year of the pandemic. For youth 15 and older, daily reading grew from 17 minutes/day in 2019 to 20 minutes in 2020.  The numbers were even greater for those from 20 to 34 years old and people over 65. And older Americans over 75 increased daily reading the most, averaging 57 minutes a day. Global numbers were also up by 35%, with analysts guessing that this was a way to fight boredom during the lockdowns. 

Over 60% of Book Riot readers reported they have increased their reading habits during the pandemic as well. In 2020 the Global English Editing estimated that 35 percent of the world’s population was reading due to lockdowns and restrictions. 

BOOK SALES IN BRITAIN ALSO UP

By 2021, London’s The Guardian reported that UK book sales were “highest in a decade,” with crime, scifi, fantasy, romance, and personal development topics of greatest interest. The article noted that “book sales continued to climb last year despite lockdowns, with more than 212m print books sold in 2021 – the highest figure of the last decade.”

“Driven by booming appetites for crime novels, sci-fi, fantasy, romance and personal development titles,” the article continued, “sales last year showed an increase of 5% on 2020. The sales were worth £1.82bn – a 3% increase on 2020, and the first year on record that sales have topped £1.8bn. The figures were released on Tuesday by Nielsen BookScan, which was forced to fill in lockdown data gaps with estimates based on its monthly consumer surveys, which collect data from around 3,000 book buyers each month. Bookshops across the UK were shut for over three months at the start of 2021.”

“Overall, the year’s bestsellers show book buyers seeking out comfort, laughter, escapism, familiarity,” noted Nielsen’s Jackie Swope, “and maybe a sense of community, given the continued impact of social media in bringing in new authors with existing platforms and creating conversations around new and old books.”

MEASURING THE CHANGING RHYTHMS OF SCHOLARLY PUBLICATION 

Academic Analytics Research Center (AARC) has been following all of the changes and trends in scholarly publication. 

Tricia Stapleton, Chief Communications Officer for AARC, notes that “there are now doctoral programs in ‘quantitative’ social sciences.” She explains “at the same time, expectations for individual scholars in the academy are also increasing; newly hired Assistant Professors are publishing two or three times as much as new hires 10 or 15 years ago. Long form argumentation requires much more work. While there will always be scholars who are willing to invest the time, we believe the future will see fewer of them, especially outside the humanities.”

“While working on an earlier paper about the disproportionate contribution of senior faculty to book publication in disciplinary literatures,” Stapleton reports, “it appeared that book publications were trending down overall. So, our AARC team  had an inkling that something was going on, but we needed to explore the question in depth to verify the phenomenon. Individual disciplines are changing to take advantage of the new research sources and research methodologies.” 

Anthony Olejniczak

AARC’s Anthony Olejniczak and William E. Savage published a key analysis of publication in the social sciences in PLOS ONE earlier this year, titled More journal articles and fewer books: Publication practices in the social sciences in the 2010’s. The article “studied the publishing activity of social science faculty members in 12 disciplines at 290 Ph.D. granting institutions in the United States between 2011 and 2019.” 

Their premise was that “Journal articles are the de facto currency of evaluation and prestige in STEM fields, but social scientists routinely publish books as well as articles, representing a unique opportunity to study increased article publications in disciplines with other dissemination options.” Their findings were surprising: “The article-dominated literatures of the social sciences are becoming increasingly similar to those of STEM disciplines.”

Olejniczak also co-authored a related article titled “The Rhythms of Scholarly Publication: Suggestions to Enhance Bibliometric Comparisons Across Disciplines” in Frontiers in Research Metrics & Analytics earlier this year. 

Their goal was to interrogate whether “publication practices changed such that more or fewer books and articles are written now than in the recent past?  Has the percentage of scholars actively participating in a particular publishing type changed over time? And do different age cohorts evince different publication strategies?”

Their results were also surprising:  “In all disciplines, journal articles per person increased between 3% and 64% between 2011 and 2019, while books per person decreased by at least 31% and as much as 54%. All age cohorts show increased article authorship over the study period, and early career scholars author more articles per person than the other cohorts in eight disciplines.” And again he states “The article-dominated literatures of the social sciences are becoming increasingly similar to those of STEM disciplines.”

Their findings were highly significant: “Different disciplinary cultures have different understandings about the use of bibliometric data to influence decision-making, some embracing it, others resenting it. But all indicators make it clear that the role of bibliometrics in shaping the future of universities—from the department level to central administration—is increasing.”

ANTHONY OLEJNICZAK ON ACADEMIC RESEARCH TRENDS

Anthony Olejniczak

Olejniczak is Director of the Columbus, Ohio, based AARC. He spoke with ATG about these recent studies in June. 

NKH: Your study was deep – covering 12 disciplines, 290 Ph.D. granting institutions in the US and over an eight-year period. Were you expecting this type of result or was this surprising to you? 

AO: While working on an earlier paper about the disproportionate contribution of senior faculty to book publication in disciplinary literatures (10.1007/s11192-021-03957-4), it appeared that book publications were trending down overall. So, our AARC team had an inkling that something was going on, but we needed to explore the question in depth to verify the phenomenon.

NKH: You noted that social science research seems to increasingly parallel the “article-dominated literatures of the STEM fields.” What does this say about the future of the traditional longer-form publication in the social sciences? What other subject trends do you believe are present – are articles more ‘focused’ on smaller issues/topics versus the ability to be more descriptive, analytical, historic, or trending implications often found in full-length books? 

AO: The AARC team spent a fair amount of time discussing changes in research methodologies in the Social Sciences in recent years. A more quantitative research focus, team- research, and team- publishing seem to be the future of the Social Sciences, at least based on current trends. Future studies might explore whether the text, language, and topics of Social Sciences journal articles show a trend toward smaller and more focused studies rather than broader qualitative analyses. At present, we haven’t been able to test for those trends. 

NKH: Do you believe that this trend may also be affecting the Humanities areas as well? 

AO: Currently, not so much. AARC data show that books, monographs, and chapters in edited volumes in the humanities are still the dominant form of research dissemination among humanities scholars. (However, it will be interesting to track further developments, particularly the digital humanities; we may see changes there as well. Coincidentally, we wrote an opinion earlier this year which included a discussion of publication modalities in the humanities. Briefly, it confirmed that books and chapters are still the most common publication types in the humanities.

NKH:  Does this seem to be increasing over time, a trend that appears to be growing? I wondered as I read this whether the requirements of the academy or individual disciplinary trends may be at work here as well.

AO: We think it’s a combination of both. Individual disciplines are changing to take advantage of the new research sources and research methodologies. There are now doctoral programs in “quantitative” social sciences. At the same time, expectations for individual scholars in the academy are also increasing ; newly hired Assistant Professors are publishing two or three times as much as new hires 10 or 15 years ago. 

NKH: Certainly, book-level research is far more exhaustive and time-consuming. Might this be a factor?

AO: Long form argumentation requires much more work. While there will always be scholars who are willing to invest the time, we believe the future will see fewer of them, especially outside the humanities.

FOR THE LOVE OF READING

A 2022 article in the Journal of American College Health, titled “For the love of reading: Recreational reading reduces psychological distress in college students and autonomous motivation is the key,” the authors found that the “majority of recreational reading research highlights the benefits of reading on academic achievement, and verbal skills, such as reading comprehension, writing style, grammar and vocabulary.” 

The study also found similar benefits for older readers in their sample. The authors noted that “although the initial effect size may appear inconsequential, if a student read a book for leisure each month, it is predicted that this would add up over the year and result in a larger or more powerful effect on their health. Perhaps, this holds across self-care activities…Self-care should not be considered a band-aid during exams or midterms, but rather to truly benefit from self-care activities, they have to be practiced, or offered regularly throughout the term.” 

A comparable study from Cyrus found similar results: “Digital technologies supported adolescents’ social habits and allowed them to keep in touch with significant parties outside the household while complying with the required measures. This was perceived by participants as a way to ‘shorten the distances’ set by COVID-19 restrictions.”

Other studies, including those from Punjab, examined gender differences among children and other factors of importance in increased reading. 

MORE A NEW BEGINNING THAN A SAD ENDING

In Simone Murray’s 2021 book, Introduction to Contemporary Print Culture: Books as Media, this Australian professor of Literary Studies focused on the future of the book in a digital world.  To her, books represent a type of ecosystem in which a complex variety of interdependent ‘species’ are able to coexist in a healthy ecosystem -from small independents to huge international corporations.  Murray also focuses on the role that small independent presses feel as cultural advocates, in which the production of a wide range of genres, ideas, thoughts and stories are able to coexist. Independent and small presses providing alternative voices and user experiences and acting as types of cultural advocates in a “bibliodiverse” universe. Instead of less or loss, this opens up important new channels, new voices and new perspectives. 

Johan Fourie

In a 2021  Finweek opinion piece, Johan Fourie, professor of economics at Stellenbosch University, noted that “only a decade ago, the end of the book was predicted to be imminent, threatened by the arrival of the Kindle and other ereaders. Yet here we are, in the third decade of the 21st century, still mostly consuming books very much like those that Johannes Gutenberg first printed more than five centuries ago.” 

“But books are more than just collections of information,” Fourie reminds his readers. “They become part of our identity. Just as libraries define societies, so the books in our homes define who we are – and what we aspire to. That is why the book is unlikely to disappear. Instead, it is likely to become more accessible, more personal, and more meaningful in future, creating new opportunities for authors, publishers and innovators alike.”

THE INCREASINGLY CENTRAL ROLE OF THE INTERNET

Earlier this year, Italian economists noted in chapter on regulating digital markets, the global importance of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, “which set access to information and communications technology and universal and affordable access to the Internet as keys to a future sustainable world.”  

However, the diverse global  economic and legal systems make international standards and norms difficult to establish or imagine in developing workable, international regulation of Big Tech. The European Union is likewise seeing a significant shift in how technology is making it possible for everyone during the pandemic to get the information, pleasure and resources that they need.

[see chart below]

Source: EU Commission – Digital Scoreboard

2022 PEW STUDY FINDS PRINT COHABITING NICELY WITH EBOOKS

In January 2022, Pew Research published their study of reading, print books and ebooks, finding that they all seem to be ‘cohabitating nicely’ together. In fact, the survey found that print books continued to be more popular than either audiobooks or ebooks in their survey of U.S. adults. Other significant results are:  

Americans are spreading their book consumption across several formats. The share of adults who have read print books in the past 12 months still outpaces the share using other forms, but 30% now say they have read an ebook in that time frame. Other results include:

  • Three in ten adults surveyed now read ebooks
  • 65% of adults saying that they have read a print book in the past year.
  • College adult are most likely to prefer reading in multiple formats
  • College grads reporting that they read books in any format
  • 75% of U.S. adults say they have read at least some parts of a book in the past 12 months in any format with Pew noting that this “figure that has remained largely unchanged since 2011.”

VIDEO, PODCASTS AND AUDIOBOOKS ALSO GROW IN STRENGTH

And during the pandemic, video also has been important; however, research in this area is still evolving. In a recent Journal of Communication paper titled “Netflix, library analysis, and globalization: rethinking mass media flows,” found that “the industrial context of the 21st century, which is characterized by much greater choice in services (channels and streamers) and substantial audience fragmentation across these choices, also necessitates adjustment of theories that were developed for norms of limited choice and mass audiences.” This article also stressed that any “investigation is limited by the inaccessibility of the most useful data for answering these questions: data regarding audience use.” 

Audiobooks, podcasts and similar types of listening-based entertainment, have also been found to be significant during the pandemic, with a 2021 report from Edison Research finding that podcasts were listened to by over 80 million American weekly “with the most diverse audience ever.” Additionally, the study found that “approximately eighty million Americans – 28% of the U.S. 12+ population – are now weekly podcast listeners, a 17% increase over 2020. The overall monthly podcast listening audience is now more diverse than ever: 57% of monthly podcast listeners are white, 16% Latino, 13% African American, 4% Asian, and 10% of some other background.”

THE PANDEMIC DISRUPTS TRADITIONAL PUBLICATION & INDEXING

Further, the pandemic increased the use of the internet for posting pre-publication drafts along with research data.  Libraries and their institutions increasingly took on publishing roles through groups like the Library Publishing Coalition, and encouraged Open Access options for publication. Issues of quality, vetting, and the disintermediation of research from indexing and other traditional filters and finding tools continue.

With the pandemic, individual researchers publicly posted their research and data, making the information available…but missing any quality checking or easy identification through indexes and other traditional filters. Web searching and even informal postings replaced traditional finding tools and quality measures. Issues of versioning, the ‘fuzziness’ of when something was truly ‘published,’ vetted, ‘real’ haunted researchers, students and others.

EBOOKS BECOME ESSENTIAL DURING THE PANDEMIC AND BEYOND 

In January, the American Association of Publishers reported that among their members ebook sales accounted for 11.3% of sales revenue. They caution readers to “bear in mind that this figure relates to revenue from the sale of popular, consumer ebooks released by established trade publishers. It largely excludes sales of educational and technical titles, and sales through self-publishing platforms such as Kindle Unlimited. And those categories typically comprise a much higher percentage of digital sales. But if you’re curious about the books you see in your local bookstore, then 11.3% is a useful data point. In October 2021, research outfit NPD Group reported that, “e-books account for 18% of sales, or more than one in six books sold.”

And a new study from the Pew Research Center found that one out of every three Americans are reading ebooks and print. The study used data from 2011-2021, finding that “30% of Americans now read ebooks, up from 25% in 2019. The number of those who read a print book stayed the same in that time period, while audiobook reading increased from 20% to 23%. Print books still remain the most popular format, with 65% of the study’s respondents saying they had read a print book in the last 12 months (compared to 30% and 23% for ebooks and audiobooks respectively). 75% of Americans have read a book in any format in the past 12 months. That number includes people who have read a book completely or part way through. The study shows that Americans read an average of 14 books in the last 12 months. The typical American read five books in that time (the median).” 

A 2021 research report in Publishing Research Quarterly noting that “in response to commuters’, educators’ and consumers’ need for screen time reduction, audio publishers are utilizing COVID-19’s push for a virtual world by marketing and reaching their audiences online. Looking ahead, digital audiobooks will continue to increase in popularity, especially as smartphone and smarthome technology becomes more advanced.”

 Nancy K. Herther is a writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries      

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