Who Reads in the U.S. and What Do They Read? The Sociodemographic Characteristics of U.S. Readers

For those of us who write for a living, we might think that everyone in the U.S. reads, especially fiction, because it is so fun. Yet, unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Rather, there are distinct social patterns of who reads and what they read. Although such information is interesting in and of itself, it can also be quite helpful to authors, who tend to have specific audiences. If they can get a sense of the sociodemographic characteristics of their readers and potential new readers, they may be able to better devise their publishing strategies in a way that will please more people, including themselves.

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Who Reads in the U.S.

Based on numbers from the National Center for Educational Statistics, approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population scores high on the standard literacy test. That is, they can not only read simple text and do simple functions like total an entry on a deposit slip or find the time and place of a meeting but they can navigate through complex text of the English language.

These Americans are typically employed and earning comparatively high wages. They tend to have more than a high school degree, meaning at least some college education and frequently a four-year college degree, and they are often within the 40 to 54 age range as well as self-identify as white. See this report for the sociodemographic characteristics.

A Pew Research Center Report on People who Read 

A recent report from the Pew Research Center, which is a non-partisan, non-advocacy research organization in the U.S., finds that 73% of Americans have read a book in any format in the last year (2016), while 65% read a print book, 28% read an ebook, and 14% listened to an audio book.

However, the trend is toward using tablets and smartphones to read books. Tablet use for reading books (not ereaders) has tripled in the last five years and smartphone use has doubled in that time. Interestingly, two of the big demographics that are using smartphones to read books are racial minorities and less than college educated individuals. Nonetheless, it is college educated individuals who are four times more likely to read an ebook and listen to an audio book.

Americans read, on average, 12 books a year, yet the median number is 4 books a year. This difference in the two numbers suggests that there is a group of readers who are reading a lot of books, much more than 12 a year, which pulls the average higher.

The sociodemographic characteristics of the people who read the most books in any format are: women, whites, aged between 18 and 29, college educated, earning $75,000 or more a year, and live in an urban location.

In terms of reading ebooks, men and women are equally likely to do so, but the younger folks, especially the 18 to 49 year olds, are more likely than the older folks–not surprisingly. Ebook readers are also more likely to live in a suburban area and self-identify as white.

Who Doesn’t Read in the U.S.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, approximately 18 percent of the U.S. population scores low on the standard literacy test. They have trouble reading even simple text in English. Many of them have cognitive function limitations, poor eye-sight, and are older than 65 years, implying that they have fewer years of formal education than subsequent generations. Many of them, approximately 25 percent of that 18 percent, are immigrants, and most likely non-English speaking.

The rest of the population (69 percent) fall somewhere between the high and low literacy levels. They likely have a high school degree and work some of the time. They tend to be middle class and working class. They are a mix of races and ages.

Another Pew Research Center Report on People who Don’t Read

Another recent report from the Pew Research Center finds that the sociodemographic characteristics of people who have not read a book in the past year tend to be men, Hispanic/Latino, over age 49, earning less than $30,000 a year, have a high school degree or less, and live in a rural area.

What are Americans Reading?

A survey done by Statista finds that Americans read mystery, thriller, and crime much more than any other category. The second category is history, followed by (in descending order) memoir, romance, cookbooks/food writing, science fiction, fantasy, and classics/literature.

The category that has seen the biggest increase in sales in the last few years is romantic comedy, growing by a whopping 357 percent. The least likely category to be read is western.

Which Genre Makes the Most Money?

According to therichest.com, romance/erotica makes the most money. The Romance Writers of America report that total sales reached $1.08 billion in 2013 and that romance captures about 34% of the U.S. fiction market. Moreover, 61% of sales are ebooks, and that number does not include self-published ebooks–meaning that the percentage of ebook sales may be even higher. As far as demographics, 84% are women, typically between the ages of 30 and 44 years old.

The other big money making genres are crime/mystery, religious/inspirational, and science fiction/fantasy.


If we were to pinpoint a U.S. reader, it would probably be college educated white women aged between 18 and 49, who are most likely reading at least some books, especially ebooks, in the romance genre. Nonetheless, U.S. readers are very diverse in their sociodemographic characteristics and overall read books in several formats and from many different genres, including the big ones like crime/mystery, science fiction/fantasy, and biographies/memoir. In terms of sales, religious/inspirational should be included, too.

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Photo Credit: Bequest from Pixabay.

Clovis Whitman

Clovis Whitman is an independent author of coming of age and new adult fiction, because he has always been fascinated by the simple yet complex question of "Who are you?"

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