Reading and Book Buying Behaviour

This chapter will present available research on Canadians' reading and buying behaviours as well as spending on books, and examine this research to see what implications it suggests for Canadian book retailers.


Canadians are living in an increasingly saturated media environment, and in an era in which we have more and more options for our leisure time. The extent to which these factors are influencing Canadians' book reading behaviours are the subject of much debate, and their impact is in fact quite hard to gauge through studies based on self-reports. Reading is arguably a habit that connotes thoughtfulness, education, and even high-mindedness, and study respondents may be reluctant to admit a slipping reading habit.

In other words, many reading studies will overstate reading behaviours, simply because they rely on respondents' subjective estimations of an activity that is often laden with values. That said, the studies are useful for benchmarking and tracking purposes, as well as general trends.

The studies cited in this chapter point to some common general traits of the Canadian reading public in 2007, which we can observe before embarking into more detailed breakdowns of findings.

  • Reading for pleasure remains a popular leisure activity in Canada, and there are no conclusive studies proving that Canadians are dropping books read for pleasure in favour of the Internet or other uses of leisure time.
  • That said, Canadians face many more demands on—and options for—their leisure time today, and they are finding it difficult to fit everything in, including reading for pleasure.

General Reading Habits and Disposition

A 2005 readership study by the Department of Canadian Heritage (PCH), Reading and Buying Books for Pleasure, found that nearly 9 in 10 (87%) Canadians said they read at least one book for pleasure in the 12 months preceding the study1 and that half (54%) read virtually every day. The average time spent reading is 4½ hours per week (unchanged since 1991); the average number of books read per year, 17 (down only slightly from 1991). Fully one-quarter (26%) reported that reading is the leisure activity they most commonly engage in, as many as cited TV-watching, putting reading and TV-watching in the #1 spot among leisure pursuits in Canada (and dwarfing “Internet activities,” which only 9% cited). These findings support thePCH report's conclusion that “reading for pleasure remains a solidly established and widespread habit with little or no change over the last 15 years.”

Canadians' attitudes toward reading appear to be very positive. The following attitudinal findings are pulled from the PCHstudy as well as a report from the Canadian Publishers' Council (CPC), Book Buying Attitudes and Behaviours (conducted in 2004 among only English-speaking Canadian adults).

  • Nearly half (43%) of Canadians said they enjoy reading “very much,” and a further 39% like to read some of the time (PCH).
  • Eighty-five percent indicated that “reading is very important to me” (PCH).
  • Eighty-two percent said they “read for fun” and 72% to “relax/unwind,” higher than the 60% who read to “learn” (CPC).
  • Forty-three percent picked “reading books” as an activity they would choose to do if they had more time, virtually tied with the #1 pick, “visiting with friends in a home” (45%) and the #3 pick at 40%, “out of home entertainment” (CPC).

ThePCHstudy, which included both French-language and English-language readers, found that only 13% of Canadians consider themselves non-readers. This group is divided into low literacy non-readers, reluctant non-readers, and dormant readers. In terms of potential audience for book retailers, aliteracy (the condition of being able to read, but not wanting to) may pose as serious a threat as low literacy (which puts up more practical barriers to reading). While the number of aliterate citizens seems to be growing faster in the US than in Canada, the book reading (and buying) market in Canada is small enough already that both retailers and publishers are justifiably concerned about increasing demands on and options for Canadians' leisure time, and the accelerant effect this could have on aliteracy.

Such concerns are underlined in theCPCstudy, in which 37% of the English-speaking respondents said they are reading fewer books than five years ago, compared to 22% saying they are reading more.

Socio-demographic Tendencies

ThePCHstudy showed that the general intensity of Canadians' reading behaviours goes up with age and level of education; that women are significantly more engaged with reading than men are (e.g., less than half of men read regularly and twice as many women as men are heavy readers); and that Canadian anglophones are more bibliophilic than are francophones (especially those living outside of Quebec).

The aging Canadian population was cited as a potential boon for reading and book culture in the years to come, given that older people tend to read more and that the baby boomer generation is relatively highly educated, interested in continuous learning, and enjoying longer life spans.

Canadian-authored Books

There is conflicting evidence about Canadians' commitment to reading Canadian authors. For example:

  • ThePCHstudy found that 71% of Canadians are interested in reading Canadian authors, and 72% had done so (48% within the 12 months leading up to the survey).
  • TheCPCstudy found that more English-speaking Canadians disagreed (64%) than agreed (37%) that “it is important to read books by Canadian authors.”
  • TheCPCstudy found that an author's being Canadian was ranked very low as a purchase driver for books, and thePCHstudy estimated that despite its respondents' high claims of interest in Canadian books, Canadian authors made up only 12% of all books read in 2005 (down slightly from 17% in 1991).

However, whether or not they consciously seek them out, Canadians are buying Canadian books in significant quantities. Statistics Canada data reports that 2004 sales of Canadian-authored books (including both trade and educational titles) exceeded $750 million.

The Effect of the Internet on Reading for Pleasure

ThePCHstudy found little evidence that growing Internet use has deleteriously affected Canadians' reading of books for pleasure, and even found a positive correlation with reading rates and use of the Internet at home. At the time of the study's writing, the Internet was found to have a greater—and negative—impact on Canadians' consumption of magazines, newspapers, and TV.

However, Canadians today do face many demands on their leisure time, including the Internet. The following graphic from theCPCstudy shows how reading books is competing against other entertainment options among English-speaking Canadians. As we can see, audio-visual entertainment is exerting more pull on the Canadians surveyed than is reading.

Text equivalent for Canadians’ Leisure Activities
Figure 1. Canadians' Leisure Activities.
Source: Canadian Publishers' Council, Book Buying Attitudes and Behaviours, 2004

Readers' Sources of Awareness for Books

ThePCHstudy found that Canadians deem the four following sources the most important for finding out about books: recommendations from friends (40% “often helps”), gifts (24%), book reviews (23%), advertisements (19%).

Readers' Sources of Books

Canadian book readers in thePCHstudy said they most commonly obtain their books from bookstores (62%), but sizeable proportions also rely on public libraries (32%) and borrowing from other people (19%). Nine percent said they source books from second-hand bookstores, but we note that sales of used books had been expanding over the period of the study (and since) and this percentage may be higher now.

Heavy readers (reading 50+ books per year) represent high potential sales to retailers, but they are not generally the heaviest buyers. While avid readers do buy some of their books from bookstores (62%), they are disproportionately reliant on public libraries and second-hand bookstores (PCH, 2005).

When thePCHstudy looked specifically at buyers (as distinct from readers but often overlapping with them), bookstores increase in their importance as a source of books (81%). Similar to heavy readers, heavy buyers are more reliant than lighter buyers on alternate (often cheaper) sources of books, including second-hand bookstores, big box stores, and the Internet, which is very likely related to the bigger volume of books they buy.

Comparisons with the United States

Despite many market similarities, Canada and the US appear to be following different trend curves at the moment regarding reading. For example, looking at the 2005 PCHstudy and the American Census Bureau's 2002 Reading at Risk study:

  • Canadians' reading rate remained virtually constant over the past two decades, while Americans' declined.
  • Where 87% of Canadians read a book in a 12-month time frame, 57% of Americans had.
  • Where 79% of Canadians read literary materials in a 12-month time frame, 47% of Americans had.
  • Where one-half of Canadians read virtually every day, almost half of Americans read an average of less than one book per year.

The Quebec Market

Reading rates in Quebec are the lowest measured in Canada. According to thePCHstudy, the percentage of Quebeckers who read books regularly is now estimated to have dropped below the one-half mark (46%), and fewer than 4 in 10 (37%) are mainly literary readers (compared to between 43% and 48% elsewhere). Reading rates among Quebeckers appear to be on the decline, especially among francophones.

Book Spending

According to Statistics Canada, in 2004, half (50%) of Canadian households reported purchasing books (excluding textbooks). The average household expenditure on books was $106, higher than reported spending on magazines and newspapers in the same year. While magazine and newspaper spending appears to be on the decline, spending on books has actually risen by 25% since the mid-1980s to $85 per person per year, according to the 2005PCHstudy.

A 2005 report by Hill Strategies Research, Consumer Spending on Culture in Canada, the Provinces, and 15 Metropolitan Areas in 2005 (based on Statistics Canada's Survey of Household Spending), provides further insights into book buying in Canada. This study pointed to strong growth (48% between 1997 and 2005) in overall cultural spending in Canada and it reported that:

  • $1.4 billion dollars was spent on books (excluding school books) in Canada in 2005, representing a 55% increase since 1997, and representing 6% of total spending on cultural goods and services ($25.1 billion) in 2005.
  • The $1.4 billion spent on books was higher than spending on movie theatre admissions ($1.3 billion), newspapers ($1.1 billion), and magazines and periodicals ($730 million).
  • While book spending grew since 1997, movie theatre admissions and magazines and periodical spending was relatively stagnant and newspaper spending decreased.

The following table breaks down spending on books by province (excluding school books) according to Hill Strategies Research (2005):

Table 1. Spending on books by province, 2005



Per Capita


$610 million



$280 million


British Columbia

$200 million



$140 million



$39 million


Nova Scotia

$33 million



$27 million


New Brunswick

$23 million



$13 million


Prince Edward Island

$4.2 million


Source: Hill Strategies Research, Statistics Canada, 2006 Census

An earlier report from Hill Strategies Research, Who Buys Books in Canada? (based on 2001 Statistics Canada data) found that in 2001:

  • Book spending was most common in the Prairies, British Columbia, and Ontario, and least common in the Atlantic provinces and Quebec.
  • Ontario had the highest spending per household on books ($212).
  • The incidence of book buying did not vary significantly between large cities, small cities, and rural areas, but household spending on books rose in large cities.
  • Nearly two-thirds (64%) of book buying households spent more than $200 per year on books.
  • Book spending went up in households active in other arts and leisure activities.
  • Book spending was much more common in high-income households (76%) than in lower-income households (23%), and high-income households spent an average of $282 on books compared to $111 among low-income households2.
  • Those aged 25 to 54 were the most likely to spend money on books.

Book Buying

According to the 2005PCHstudy, 81% of Canadians said they bought at least one book (new or used) in the 12 months preceding the study. TheCPCstudy found that among its English-speaking base of buyers, 23% reported buying more books today than five years ago, while 38% said the same number and 39% said fewer.

Book buyers aren't limited to book readers: in the PCHstudy, 36% of non-readers said they had bought a book in the previous year. This points to an important motivation for book purchases: gift-giving to others. A 2002 Pollara survey, English-Language Book Buyers in British Columbia, Canada, found that buying a gift for someone else was the second-most important motivator for buying a book among its respondents after “interested in subject/pleasure/personal interest.” The 2004CPC study corroborates this trend.

General Findings

ThePCHstudy's general findings on book buying include:

  • The average number of books bought per year in 2005: 12.
  • On average, the Canadians surveyed said they spent $147.37 over the 12 months preceding the survey on books for pleasure.
  • Although they read less, spending on books by francophones outside Quebec is higher than average.
  • Roughly one-third (34%) of Canadians reported buying at least one book per month.
  • Canadians read more than they buy each year, and an estimated 7 in 10 books read are not purchased.
  • An average of 62% of books bought are for personal reading while 38% are bought for others.
  • Heavy readers buy the lowest amount of books on a proportional basis.
  • Just over half (53%) of buyers thought they bought a book by a Canadian author in the previous 12 months (but importantly, 25% couldn't say).
  • Heavy buyers of books (12 books and more) represent 76% of total books sold and 70% of the monetary value of industry sales.

More on Heavy Buyers

As well as the PCHstudy, the CPCstudy of English-speaking Canadians, Book Buying Attitudes and Behaviours, provided these findings on English-speaking heavy book buyers:

  • They are a smaller segment of the book buying public than non-buyers and light buyers.
  • They use a wider variety of sources for their purchases (in particular, used books—almost a third of the books they bought were used; more on used books below).
  • Only 1% of them said they paid full price for all of their book purchases.
  • They spent $200 or more on books.
  • The author is especially important to them as a purchase driver compared to other buyers.

Used Book Buyers

The importance of the used book market continues to grow, as consumers investigate an increasing selection of discount channels (including online) that lessen the financial toll of book buying. The 2005PCHstudy found that 41% of Canadian book buyers reported purchasing at least one second-hand book in the 12 months prior to the survey.

Before its discontinuation in 2004, the syndicated study BookTrends (by market research firm Ipsos), commented increasingly frequently on the impact of the used books sector in the US. For example, BookTrends found that the number of used books bought by Americans in 2003 increased by 5% over the same period in 2002, while demand for new books fell by 2%. Barrie Rappaport, BookTrends' manager, summed up the trend this way:

“Why should publishers need to know about used books? Many have told me that they can't publish against them. All publishers, however, sell against them …. the retailer also sells against them.”

BookTrends found that (in 2002):

  • Leisure books (i.e., books read for pleasure) composed the most sought after used book genre, led by mystery/thrillers, romance, science fiction/fantasy, and religious fiction novels, while used informational books like cookbooks and relationship/personal health books were the least in demand.
  • Most used books were bought in person, with Internet purchases a distant second. But the Internet rose in prominence as a source for used books in the categories of non-fiction and antiquarian.
  • The four key channels of used book distribution were used bookstores, independent bookstores, online retailers, and “others” (including library, church and garage sales, and thrift shops).
  • The typical used book-buying household resembles a new book-buying household in terms of demographics.

As noted in the first section of this chapter, used books (and used bookstores) are especially important to heavy book readers and buyers.

The Variable of Price

Having noted the importance of used books to Canadian book readers and buyers, we should also highlight the crucial role that price plays to prospective book buyers. A 2003 Quill & Quire article, “Who Reads?”, observed that “many consumers perceive books—especially hardcovers—as expensive.” This presents a challenge for the book industry given the number of other leisure options competing for Canadians' time.

The 2002 Pollara survey found that “discount price” followed only “author” and “recommendation from a friend” in the attributes British Columbian respondents considered important when buying a book; price outdistanced book reviews, placement in a best-seller list, Canadian authorship, award, book cover, and in-store promotion. Moreover, the Pollara survey found that “price/cost/affordability” was the biggest hurdle respondents encountered when buying books (30%).

In the 2004CPCstudy, respondents buying fewer books today compared to five years ago cited price, second only to lack of time, as the main reason they were buying less.

Consumers are looking for, and expecting, discounts on book prices. TheCPCstudy found that more than three-quarters (78%) of its English-speaking respondents bought at least some of the books they purchased in a three-month time frame at a discount; fully one-third (33%) had bought all their books at a discount. This tendency goes up among heavy buyers. Similarly, the study found that loyalty programs do encourage book purchasing, especially among higher buyers.

The Place of the Internet

The 2005PCHstudy found that the Internet is currently more important to Canadians as an information source for books than as a channel for book buying. Specifically:

  • Nearly 4 in 10 (37%) Canadians went online in the 12 months prior to the survey to find books or information about books.
  • Just over 1 in 10 (12%) went online in the same period to buy books.

The study also found that the rate of going online to seek information about books is growing at a much faster rate than is the rate of buying books online. But the study did note that interest in buying books online is increasing: in 2005, 1 in 5 (21%) buyers said they were interested in making an online book purchase in the near future versus 14% in 2002. ThePCHstudy estimated that in 2004, about 4% of all books sold in Canada were bought online.

Convenience is a key draw for online book buyers. The 2002 Pollara study found that by far the top two reasons British Columbians cited for buying books online were “couldn't find the book in-store” (44%) and “it's easier/for convenience/to save time” (29%).

Despite respondents' professed satisfaction with Internet book buying (in both the Pollara andPCHstudies), both studies found that Canadians still prefer traditional purchasing to the online sort for their books: the Pollara study found that 67% of respondents' preferred mode of purchase was the bricks-and-mortar bookstore, versus just 15% for the Internet.

Retail Factors in Book Browsing and Buying Behaviours

Hewlett-Packard conducted a fascinating (if sample-limited) qualitative study in 2003 called An Observational Study of an Independent Book Store, the contents of which suggest what advantages traditional book retailers have over the online channel. The authors observed and interviewed customers and staff of Kepler's, a large independent bookstore in Menlo Park, California, over a two-week period. The resulting research underlined the importance of tactile, visual, and environmental stimuli in influencing book purchasing decisions. Some of the study's most interesting observations included:

  • Most people in the store had come in to look around and browse; many were there to kill time before meeting someone or passing through from some other place.
  • Many of those who had an intention to buy something were looking for a gift for someone, which often led to their buying something for themselves, too.
  • But customers often didn't know what they were looking for, and most spent more than half an hour browsing books before leaving with or without purchases. Very few customers brought lists, suggesting a very different experience than that of grocery shopping or other task-oriented missions.3
  • The experience of being in the bookstore emerged as very important; buying a book was not necessarily customers' main motivation for being in the store. Looking around, talking to staff, comparing books—all these generally happened before a purchase was made. One could extrapolate from this and imagine that the Kepler's customer who buys a book is in one way paying for an experience as well as a product.4
  • The average Kepler's customer used a good deal of the store's space to wander around, sample products, and socialize with other customers or staff.
  • Customers' main focus was the display tables—much more than the shelves. Tables highlight books' visual attractiveness and convey much more information than shelves do—pictures, comments, quotes, award stickers, etc.
  • Bookstore customers are samplers. As with so many other important purchase decisions, consumers want a sense of what they are committing to before purchasing a book. The study noted, “People came to the store because they could see what was there, touch it, flick through it, compare it to other candidate products …”
  • Related to the previous bullet is the importance of tactility to book buyers: “The people who bought the most books were those who touched them …. the very hands-on approach led to more time being spent in the store and more books being bought.”
  • The majority of Kepler's customers wanted more information, and “this was demonstrated by the fact that they spent time reading the front and back of book covers, read staff recommendations, and valued passing comments by other shoppers.” Information provided in-store can lead to an impulse buy, which as we detail next, is a crucial component of book sales.

The Importance of Impulse

Pollara's 2002 English-Language Book Buyers in British Columbia, Canada, found that virtually as many respondents (48%) said they bought books on impulse as said they go into a store knowing what book they want to buy (53%). An earlier (1996) national study by Barnes & Lorimer found that fully “63 percent of purchasing decisions were made in the store, and 39 percent purchased books they had never heard of previously.” These findings underline the crucial role the retail environment (including store layout and informational resources) plays in stimulating sales of books. Potential book buyers are looking for cues, as underlined in the following findings.

The Importance of Display

A provoking finding from Barnes & Lorimer's 1996 study was that two-thirds (66%) of respondents bought books displayed face-out (as opposed to spine-out). Pollara's 2002 study with British Columbians also revealed the advantage displayed books have: 32% bought books displayed face-out on the shelf and 16% bought books displayed on a table—combined, much higher than the 22% who bought books displayed spine-out on the shelf.

CPC's 2004 study found a link between display and impulse purchases. Displays (40%) were the top reason cited by respondents for unplanned purchases, followed by the related reason of “book positioning” (27%), and then book reviews (20%).

Final Evaluation Criteria for Purchasing Books

Both Barnes & Lorimer and Pollara found the top three reasons for buying a book to be “interested in subject,” “gift for someone else,” and “because of the author.” TheCPCstudy found that 86% of English-speaking book buyers said they bought books for themselves in the three months prior to the study, while 38% bought books for someone else.

When we look at these figures, we can surmise that the content and authorship of the books is very important to Canadians buying books for themselves. However, given the incredible selection they face, the fact that many of them go into a bookstore not knowing what they want to buy, and that many are looking for gifts, the display and information retailers provide to help potential buyers find books of interest is exceedingly influential.

Implications of Consumer Behaviour

The habit of reading books for pleasure continues among Canadians despite increasing demands on and options for their leisure time. According to some research, reading for pleasure has so far proved more resistant to the competition of the Internet than have magazine or newspaper reading or TV-watching. But the habit is not to be taken for granted; reading rates have been dropping in many comparable world markets and Canadian readers face many of the same barriers and challenges to reading regularly as do the populations of these markets.

Chief among these are demands on time (leisure time in particular) and the perception that books are expensive. The trend toward used and/or discounted books is well underway, and retailers of all stripes and colours cannot but acknowledge this. The question facing them is what to do about it. One possibility would be stocking both new and used titles to give potential buyers price choice. Another would be rewarding heavy buyers for their purchasing behaviour through loyalty programs or other incentives. Clearly, there is a need for brainstorming on the issue of potential book buyers' price sensitivity.

In terms of online or offline channel preference, Canadians seem to be valuing each for different reasons. They like the convenience and selection of online bookstores, and the experience provided by a good bricks-and-mortar bookstore. The Hewlett-Packard study shows that Kepler's customers appreciated the visual and tactile stimuli, social atmosphere, physical space, and in-person informational aid available in-store—all of which were observed to be key precursors to the actual purchasing of books. The bookstore served as a leisure experience in itself. While we note that these factors will vary by type of retail outlet, traditional Canadian bookstores might be well served by leveraging the Kepler's findings through attention to atmospheric and spatial elements, informational resources (e.g., staff picks or shelf talkers), and staff training, quality, and support.

Finally, the research is unanimous in declaring that potential book buyers are greatly influenced by the way books are displayed in-store. Many impulse buys are made as a result of book displays, and impulse buys account for a large number of book purchases made. This provides the rationale for the co-op or placement fees increasingly requested of publishers by retailers.


1 Another 2005 study, Hill Research Strategies' A Profile of the Cultural and Heritage Activities of Canadians in 2005, came up with a different percentage: it said that 67% of Canadians read at least one book in the 12 months preceding the survey. The study did not specify type of book. Despite the dissonance in the statistics from thePCH and the Hill Research Strategies study, both studies found that the rate of book reading in Canada has remained stable since the 1990s.

2 Hill Strategies Research was careful to note how much more this $111 meant to low-income households as a proportion of total income than the $282 to high-income households: five times more, to be exact. The study concluded, “Clearly, the financial commitment required to buy books is much more significant for low-income households than for high-income households.”

3 This exploratory impulse contrasts with the more purposeful behaviours prompted by online book sites; as one Kepler's customer explained, she only ever bought online when she knew exactly what she wanted.

4 This hypothesis gains ground when we look at one customer's admission that he ended up buying something to justify his having used, in effect, the bookstore: “He liked spending time reading in the physical store because it was the only time he got to read properly and even if he didn't read the whole book, it was time away from other things. He did, however, feel some need to buy something just because he had been in the store and would often walk away with a magazine ‘at least.'”