Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading the reader (Survey)

Late last month, the Australia Council of the Arts released the results of a survey they conducted with Macquarie University. It is, the introduction to their final summary says, “the third stage of a major study of Australia’s changing book industry, by the Australian Research Council and Macquarie University.” The project, according to the Macquarie University website aimed to investigate:

  1. Authors and their responses to changing circumstances;
  2. Book publishers and the ways in which they contribute economic, social and cultural value; and
  3. Practices of contemporary book readers.

They say they are looking into extending the research into other parts of the “Australian book industry”. Today, I’m going to focus on the readers, which is the only part in which the Australia Council was apparently involved but, having discovered the whole project, I just might delve a little more into it in future posts.

The summary document’s subtitle is “A survey of Australian reading habits”. What ho! I wish they’d asked me!

So, who did they study?

There were three parts of the research:

  • A series of focus groups: with Year 8 students at Ryde Secondary College, and with different groups at Parramatta Library (both book clubs that meet at the library and the general public)
  • An online survey of Australians aged 14 years and over undertaken by Roy Morgan Research in October 2016. The final sample of 2,944 was, they say, “nationally representative in terms of age, gender, geographic location, income and ethnicity”.
  • A seminar with masters degree students at Macquarie University.
Their research found, overall, “a strong culture of books and reading in Australia”. It appears that “although developments in digital technology have radically changed many daily habits and pastimes, reading books is one of the nation’s favourite leisure activities, ahead of browsing the internet and watching television.” How fascinating. I’m a little surprised, but pleased. They did say their sample was nationally representative, but would an online survey of just under 3,000 people really catch a representative sample of all Australians? I admit to a little scepticism (is that fair?) but still, the findings are interesting.

Overall, they found that

  • value and enjoy reading, and would like to do more of it. Apparently we spend more TIME “browsing the internet and watching television” but are more likely to rank reading books as our favourite leisure activity over these activities. The most common reason we read for pleasure is “to relax and release stress”. This probably explains what we most like to read – see a couple of points below!
  • mix up digital forms with more traditional ways of reading. The majority of us apparently still read print, but over half of us mix this with e-reading, and 12% use audiobooks.
  • read more books than book sales suggest, which is not surprising, I would have thought, given the use of libraries, lending between friends etc (and this is what they found). When we buy books, the major chains are our main source, followed by online bookstores, and then secondhand shops with independent local bookshops a close fourth.
  • like crime/ thrillers/mysteries best! I am fascinated, really, that these “relax” people, but I know this is so (and not just from the survey). The main reason I read is not “to relax and release stress”, and “thrillers and mysteries” are not my favourite reads, so I’m out of step here. You can probably guess the most popular non-fiction category? Yes, autobiography/biography/memoir. Interestingly, the survey found that “around half (51%) of all Australians (including those who are currently non-book readers) are interested in reading the types of books that may be eligible for literary prizes such as the Man Booker and the Miles Franklin and 45% enjoy literary classics. A similar number (48%) are interested in literary fiction by Australian writers past and present.” What they say, and what they do, though, seems a little different.
  • value Australian books and the Australian book industry. I’ll just quote the first paragraph here which is that “The majority of Australians (65%) like to read fiction by Australian authors and 59% like to read non-fiction by Australians. Readers aged 50 and over are the most likely to consciously choose Australian-authored books, while younger readers tend to like Australian books without thinking about the nationality of the author. There is a strong level of interest (42%) in books and writing about Indigenous Australia.”

The report goes on to provide breakdowns of the numbers, including these points regarding interest in reading Australian writers, Australian literary fiction and indigenous writers. There tended to be some gap, in these areas, in terms of people’s interest and what they are actually reading. The report also notes that the most frequent readers – and this is no surprise – are female, over 30 years old and tertiary-educated.

You can read all the detail at the report I’ve linked to above, and that report provides a link to the more academic data provided by Macquarie University. I didn’t go there, I’m afraid. Life is a bit too busy.

Playing with the data

I did, though, have a play with the fun interactive dashboard of the data, which enables users to interrogate the data a little via various parameters. For example:
  • 10% of all readers (all genders and ages) who use online sources to find out about books, use book blogs/bloggers. But if you change the parameters to Frequent Readers who are Female and aged 30-39, then 19% use book blogs/bloggers, while only 7% of Frequent Female Readers who are 60-69 do. Funnily (!), Occasional Male readers aged 14-19 seem not to have ever heard of book blogs/bloggers, whereas their Female counterparts have! Overall, book blogs/bloggers are fourth in terms of online sources of information after online booksellers, Facebook and GoodReads. Other sources include online literary journals, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. It’s really interesting to see the difference here between different permutations of readers.
  • Regarding physical sources, only 5% of all readers (all genders and ages) obtain information from face-to-face bookclubs, but change that to Frequent Readers who are Female, and the percentage jumps to 10%. The most popular physical source is “word of mouth”, at 60% plus for most of the possible permutations.
  • 42% of All Australians (all genders and ages) agree that “books and writing about indigenous Australians are of interest to me“, but if you change the parameters to Frequent Readers who are Female and All ages, the percentage jumps to 56%. Further refine that to Female Frequent Readers who are 60-69 and it jumps a bit more to 60%. By contrast, the percentage for Male Frequent Readers in the same age group (60-69) is just 45%.
Help Books

(Courtesy OCAL, via

There’s a whole lot of fun to be had exploring the factors people consider when choosing books to read – such as topic/subject/setting/style, or liking the author, or reader reviews, or the cover. There are eighteen reasons, and they can be explored by the same permutations – Frequent, Occasional or All readers; Female/Male or All genders; and age breakdowns or All ages. Interestingly, in all the permutations I checked, Reader Reviews ranked higher than Professional Reviews. Hmm … how much of that is due to the dearth of professional reviews available these days. The top reason though, that people base their choice on what to read, is “topic, subject, setting or style”.

The interesting thing, now, is to see what, if anything, is done with this research. For example, if people are interested in reading Australian writers or indigenous writers, but don’t, why is that? Is it that there’s not enough specific promotion of these books in the places most people go to? Or?

Any comments?

34 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading the reader (Survey)

  1. I got an A in statistics, but it was 36 years ago and I’ve barely used it since. Nevertheless 3,000 is a reasonable sample size, but only if the interviewees were selected randomly. You say ‘on-line’ which might mean self-selected, which would skew towards computer literate and motivated readers. Wonder how many of those pious objectives – read Australian, read Indigenous – actually translate into sales.

    • Yes, Bill, it wasn’t the number but the fact that they are all online which I feel may skew the population a bit ie targeting that subset who are active online and willing to do online surveys.

      And, it’s hard not to do, but the questions about reading Australian lit, indigenous lit, could be a bit leading? But how do you find out without asking? I guess the goal now will be to plug the gap.

  2. Interesting. I am curious to know if younger readers surveyed are simply reporting back on books they are assigned to read in curriculums from high school up through college and uni. It seems I have met many people who claim interest in Australian/Indigenous books but given the easier, popular reads of best selling lists veer towards them. I wonder too how the jnformation will be used.

    • I didn’t interrogate the younger people’s data much but probably what you say is true for the Occasional readers among them, and less so for the Frequent ones. I guess re those claims,at least they know what they SHOULD be doing, eh?

  3. Very fun and interesting! Maybe there just aren’t enough Australian and Indigenous writers writing crime/thrillers/mysteries? 😉 You know there is always a bit of disconnect between aspirational reading and reality. If anyone was keeping track of all the books I said I want to read but haven’t there would be a huge gap. And if that someone gave me the list I’d look it over and exclaim I want to read these! And then I’d thank them for the lovely compiled list and eventually get around to reading a few of them but not for a while. 🙂

    • Haha, I should have said that Stefanie! And yes, good point re aspirational vs actual reading. I certainly aspire to read MORE indigenous writers and more translated fiction that I do.

      • The disconnect between aspirational and actual reading – what a great way to put it!

        I think Stefanie is on to something, though, in noting that while there is plenty of non-Indigenous Australian crime writing, there is a deficit of Indigenous crime writing. Nicole Watson’s The Boundary is the only recent example that comes to mind, but I’d love to learn of others.

  4. Re: the prizewinner question. If you asked me if I was interested in reading prizewinners I’d tell you ‘no’ too. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to read or intend to read a novel that happened to win a prize. It’s just that I don’t seek out prize winners per se.

  5. One of the problems Australian writers have now is actually getting books on the shelves in bookshops. Print media review sections have contracted and review space generally, on line and in print, has decreased. It’s a difficult time to be read. In my time spent in Canada I learned how Canadian publishers received government support in a significantly different way from the way adopted here, and that the penetration and domination of multinational publishers was far less there than it has been here. If the government goes ahead with dismantling the territorial copyright system as proposed, it will get worse.

    • Thanks for that perspective Sara. I read so much about this copyright system, from different angles, but can’t help being worried. And then there’s the issue of once they’re on the shelves, people knowing what’s Australian. One of my favourite independents here has a special shelf or two for recent Aussie releases. I always check it out.

      • It’s also baffling to me that the only program dedicated to books on Australian TV doesn’t make a point of promoting Australian literature. I can’t imagine this happening on equivalent programs in Europe or the USA.

  6. I find most of my male friends read biographies and autobiographies – especially about sportsmen or musicians. If they read fiction it is usually espionage type stories. I really make an effort to read Australian books. I was so pleased when I was in Caloundra to see that the local library identified Australian books with a kangaroo symbol on the book. Not so here in Melbourne. However, I could not buy A Writing Life of Helen Garner by Bernadette Brennan at the two book shops. The sales people hadn’t even heard of it. However, I found it easily in Melbourne. I think Australian books are not promoted enough. My three grandsons aged 10-13 read non stop. When they were younger they read a lot of Australian books but now they are older they read more American books.

    • Haha, yes, Meg, though I find the older males in my acquaintance (father, a couple of male friends) would add war history to that list, perhaps even more than sports and music biography. Other males, like Mr Gums, tends to go for classics (or anything in German to support his language learning), or genres like sci fi.

      That’s interesting re promotion. I don’t get around a wide variety of bookshops these days so am not so up on what they do (we have few chains in Canberra, and they are not highly visible in the places I go) so I’m not really sure what they do re promotion. Of course the NLA bookshop, my go to bookshop, is nearly all Australian.

      Is the change in your grandsons’ reading due to lack of books in their areas of interest?

      • At work we stock and promote a lot of Australian books, but that’s because we know which ones are Aussie.
        Many book blurbs and covers don’t promote the Australian angle – I wonder if the old ‘cultural cringe’ is still a factor in the publishers minds?

        My school accounts want Australian books for their libraries and many of our regular customers are keen Australian readers – in fact our Aust fiction section comes before international fiction as does Aust non-fiction before general non-fiction. And I sort all our picture books by Australian and others. But that is our community. Other Indies will stock their shelves differently depending on what their customers regularly ask for and actually read.

        I recently did an Indigenous Literacy week window, that all but sold out by the end of the week – which showed me the importance of highlighting and showcasing across all areas and genres.

        Needless to say we have been dissecting this survey at work for what it means for us.

  7. I do love the fact that you have brought the report and your perspectives to the WG readers. I will never understand how you seem to read so much and comment on your reading so swiftly and eloquently. I think you must really be eight people – Whispering Gums and the Seven Gum Blossoms.

    • Haha, Carmel. You do lovely things for my ego! I’m happy to be supported by Seven Gum Blossoms!

      BTW Your book arrived late last week, so it didn’t take too long from the wilds of southern Victoria. Thanks.

  8. Thank you Sue, such nice words. I do love your blog as much as I love reading. As a matter of fact, it is such a miserable day in Melbourne and I have been sitting in bed reading. My two dogs and cat have been keeping me company. What more could I ask for?

  9. I think Steph has made a good point about aspirational reading: I suspect that people think reading is ‘a good thing’ that they ought to be doing – I often hear people say I wish I had time to read more, and then they talk about hours of TV viewing! Yesterday in a café I saw a woman who could have read a whole chapter of a novel over her coffee, but spent the entire time on her phone.
    The stats for young people and Australian writing is interesting. The #LoveOzYa campaign started because their research showed that young people were reading American YA not Australian. Many could not name an Australian book or author, not even authors like John Marsden that we ‘oldies’ have heard of, even though we don’t read YA.
    I have mixed feelings about separating Australian books from the rest in bookshops, and I’d love to know if anyone’s done any research on it. What if for every person who goes looking for an Australian book on the Australian shelves, there’s another five who will never find the Australian books because they’re browsing only on the mainstream shelves?

    • Yes, I agree Lisa, I think the aspirational part is certainly part of numbers for this survey. And I suppose that’s a good thing. It might just make people sit up and think a bit.

      I feel very out of touch with reading for young Aussies now – not having any of my own. It’s a sad gap. I’ve heard of a few writers but could not really name the popular YA writers of today, as I could John Marsden, as you say.

      As for separating books out. Yes, you have a point. I’m sure there are pluses and minuses. The bookshop I refer to, though, has a couple of small shelf sections on the end (you know, at right angles to) the main run of shelves. The majority of Aussie writers (and perhaps even extra copies of the ones highlighted on these shelves, though I haven’t checked that) are interfiled in their general fiction run. Like many shops they do separate out Classics and Crime. I’m pretty sure Aussie crime is interfiled there too – I look at it occasionally when I’m gift shopping.

  10. I’d like to see booksellers promote indigenous authors more – not with stickers because I hate getting stickers on my books, but maybe in their promotional materials, catalogues and facing their titles out and so on.

    • Yes, agree. I don’t mind stickers in the sense that they are part of a book’s history. I used to peel them off but a few years ago I decided to leave them on. That’s the archivist in me I think. But, stickers could be demeaning, if poorly used, so I’m inclined to agree with your preferred methods!

      • Interesting stuff. I suspect the “piously aspirational” aspect of reading intentions might be less a feature of UK reading surveys: I may very well be wrong! Thrillers and crime are (morbidly) popular over here too- at least that has probably has led to an increase in translated fiction being read.

        • Haha, Ian, I hadn’t thought of that by-product of interest in crime! Good one.

          I wonder if you’re right about the aspiration aspect (pious or otherwise) of UK readers, and if you are, why that might be? I wonder if it might be related to our still being a new country not quite comfortable in its own skin.

  11. That’s interesting re promotion. It’s also baffling to me that the only program dedicated to books on Australian TV doesn’t make a point of promoting Australian literature.

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