World Reading Habits in 2020 [Infographic]

Avatar by Isabel Cabrera | March 30, 2024, 11:02 am

2020 has been a strange year… for obvious reasons.

Most of us spent more time at home. For some, this meant tuning into Netflix from the sofa, or taking the opportunity to learn new skills from online education platforms such as MasterClass or Coursera.

However, for others this was an opportunity to dive into new books and read more.

How did coronavirus change our reading habits? Which countries read the most this year? And what books were we reading?

Global English Editing set about to answer these questions.

In our new infographic, we explored world reading habits in 2020 from all angles.

Some of the highlights of our research include:

  • India reads more than any other country, followed by Thailand and China
  • Printed books continue to drive more revenue than eBooks or audiobooks. However, physical books sales did dip because of coronavirus (not surprisingly).
  • Romance is our genre of choice, with one-third of all mass market fiction books being romance novels.
  • 35% of the world read more due to coronavirus.

Coronavirus hit the world hard, posing a serious health risk to vulnerable members of our community. Lockdowns around the world also had a devastating impact on the economy.

A silver lining of sorts though was that many of us were able to read more and learn new things.

Check out our infographic below to learn more about world reading habits in a year like no other.

Let’s delve in deeper to some of our key findings and what they mean.

The evolution of literacy

It will come as no surprise that literacy has come a very long way in the past few decades – and for good reason too. In 1820 only 12% of the population could read and write, while today, 86% of the population are literate.

This is mostly due to large improvements making education accessible for all and breaking down the inequalities. While we have seen a huge improvement in first world countries, the poorer countries are still suffering from low literacy rates. In Niger, for example, the literacy rate for youth (15-24 years) is only 36.5%.

The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the agency that monitors literacy around the world, says there is still cause for concern with these low rates still existing around the world. UNESCO has been at the forefront of global literacy efforts since 1946.

However, at least 750 million youth and adults still cannot read and write.

To advance literacy as an integral part of lifelong learning and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UNESCO takes the following approaches to promote literacy worldwide, with an emphasis on youth and adults.

  • Building strong foundations through early childhood care and education
  • Providing quality basic education for all children
  • Scaling-up functional literacy levels for youth and adults who lack basic literacy skills
  • Developing literate environments

Global book industry 2020

The global book industry is worth $119 billion. Despite the number of bookshops closing across the world, sales of printed books are still driving more revenue that eBooks or audio books.

Why is this?

While digital media has evidently disrupted other mediums, such as print news publishing and music, people still seem to prefer physical books. What’s not surprising is that nature, cookery and children’s books are the most popular printed genres – for the simple reason they are the best books to have on display in your home. Plus, children need to be able to touch and feel the physical book they are reading.

Crime, romantic novels and thrillers are more popular on the e-reader. These books don’t work as well on bookshelves, and many people enjoy the convenience of being able to download an entire series at a time – without taking up physical space.

It’s always been said that the millennials are killing these old-fashioned industries. However, it’s the younger generations that are actually popularizing print. 63% of physical book sales in the UK are to people under the age of 44, while 52% of e-book sales are to those over 45.

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What are people reading?

Book genres tend to rise and fall in fashion with the times, also changing as a reflection on the values and traditions of current society.

The bestselling book genre is romance, making it the most profitable fiction genre right across the world. It’s a genre that is unsurprisingly dominated by female writers, and making its way to screen. We have seen the ever popular Bridgerton series (originally a book by Julia Quinn) take over Netflix and win the hearts of many. Religious and inspiration books are the most popular non-fiction titles, and when it comes to audiobooks, thrillers are taking the lead.

Romance is a billion-dollar industry that outperforms all other genres, and also lends itself to independent and self-publishing. While it’s no surprise that it’s mostly women who pick up this genre book, there were still 16% of readers who are men.

But, what exactly can we expect from the year ahead? Here are some of the expected trends for 2021:

  • Romance is set to continue to be the most profitable and popular genre.
  • Mystery will churn out both bestsellers and series, with many novels being adapted into Netflix series and films.
  • Young adult books have been a rising category in recent years and will continue to sell well in 2021.
  • Pandemic: it is predicted that COVID-19 will influence writers for years to come with themes that have arise from the year, such as panic, isolation and more.
  • Artificial Intelligence: this has always been a popular sci-fi category that’s growing with the advancements we are seeing in society.
  • Women are taking over the publishing industry with more and more books featuring strong, independent characters.

Where are books coming from?

Have you ever wondered which country is publishing the most books each year? It’s not something we often stop and think about as we pick up our next book to read. But where are these books actually coming from?

It’s clear that there are two countries dominating the global book production:

1. China

2. United States

Coming in third place is the United Kingdom. However, when you look at how many books are being published per million inhabitants, it’s the United Kingdom that takes the lead.

The impact of coronavirus

The book industry has been affected on a global scale due to COVID-19. Many bookshops have been forced to shift their business online, while the publishing industry itself has taken a huge hit.

Release dates have been altered, supply chains have been held up, while people have been turning to books more and more to escape reality and for a bit of entertainment during these testing times. That’s the good news. More and more people have been coming back to books.

The global pandemic and subsequent lockdowns and social distancing has caused 35% of the world to read more, with 14% saying they read significantly more.

When we take a look at exactly who is reading more, it’s pretty evenly spread across the field. The Millennials are taking the lead, followed by Gen Z, Gen X and the Baby Boomers.

Drop in physical book sales

While physical book sales are still leading the way, there has unsurprisingly been a significant drop with COVID-19. Waterstones in the UK saw their book sales rise by 400% week on week during the pandemic.

Booktopia in Australia reported a 28% increase in book sales during the 2020 financial year, topping $165 million for the first time.

In the United States alone, physical book sales dropped 38% despite 33% of people reading more due to COVID-19.

Rise of homeschooling books

If there’s one area we can’t ignore in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the homeschooling genre of books.

For some, homeschooling isn’t a choice, while others are choosing to supplement their children’s learning in light of the pandemic. 1.3 billion children across the world were unable to attend school due to Coronavirus.

Interest in homeschooling materials also has been surging, driven in part by parents who are keeping their children enrolled in schools but looking for ways to supplement distance learning. The National Home School Association received more than 3,400 requests for information on a single day last month, up from between five and 20 inquiries per day before the coronavirus.

Educational book sales increased by a whopping 234% in the UK. This is the third highest level on record. There were also jumps in the sales of puzzle books, adult coloring books and other study guides for children.

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