LA Times misreports e-reader poll results

Mike Anton of the LA Times wrote a story about e-readers’ opinions of e-books versus print books. The story claims that a poll showed that e-reader owners prefer print books. I’m here to report that this reporting is sorely lacking.

The untruths start with the title: “Even e-reader owners still like printed books, survey finds.” Most of the article actually is not about e-reader owner’s preferences for book formats, other than these two paragraphs:

Although many Californians who own Kindles, Nooks and other e-readers love their gadgets, they still prefer books the old-fashioned way — on paper — according to a poll by USC Dornsife and the Los Angeles Times.

Even with sales of e-readers surging, only 10% of respondents who have one said they had abandoned traditional books. More than half said most or all of the books they read are in printed form.

I’m hoping that Mike Anton, the article’s author, only spent 95% of his time collecting man-on-the-street opinions about e-books and print books, and the remaining 5% misunderstanding the actual poll. I’m being generous here, because reporters typically overstate statistics to grab a bigger, man-bites-dog narrative. They figure no one will check. As a former high school newspaper editor, I’m kind of sick of seeing journalism every day that should have been stomped on before college.

The relevant poll questions are at Greenberg Research. (Yes, this was a political poll of California registered voters, hardly nationally representative of the reading public). The two questions (asked only of e-reader owners) from which Anton makes his claims are:

Which of the following best describes how you read books? (all e-book, mostly e-book, mostly print, all print)

Results: 40% all or mostly e-book, 54% all or mostly print

Would you say you are satisfied or unsatisfied with your e-reader? (very sat, mostly sat, mostly unsat, very unsat)

Results: 87% satisfied, 59% very satisfied, 2% very unsatisfied

Nowhere does this survey ask e-reader owners if they like or prefer e-books over print books. It doesn’t even ask if these owners like books at all, much less a particular format. Maybe registered voters in California are forced to read paper MS-DOS manuals on the job and badly scanned e-books of Goodnight Moon (without illustrations) and they hate them all. Or they love all book formats, including audio books. We can’t know that from the survey because it doesn’t ask.

Nor does the survey ask if the respondents’ book purchases are ever affected by availability. E-books availability is a key question in these self-reported results about how many of a person’s books are e-book or print. Here is a short list of the restrictions on e-book availability that would affect whether someone could read all or most of their books in e-book format:

  1. Almost no textbooks,
  2. Almost no children’s books,
  3. Not all nonfiction,
  4. Library lending is highly restricted,
  5. Agency-model pricing of big publisher e-books often makes them more expensive than the print edition
  6. Fewer small press or backlist novels among genre fiction

The satisfaction question then becomes more important than the print/e-book question. Almost 9/10 are satisfied with their e-readers (not including tablets like iPad). We can infer a lot more from this question since these ‘gadgets’ are pretty much single use devices. It is a smaller leap, but still a leap not supported by the survey, to say that these folks enjoy reading e-books, and are in fact opting for e-books over print books in at least some cases. But we can say that over 80% of e-reader owners registered to vote in California read e-books!

I know, it’s not shocking, in fact, it’s not even newsworthy. And that’s the point. The survey doesn’t report anything that is newsworthy about e-book readership. This article should have never been written. For those in the publishing world, move along, this isn’t the fact-based insight or news you were looking for. Just the usual crappy journalism.

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