June 24, 2013 - Christians have long earned their reputation as “people of the Book,” but now in the midst of the digital revolution, their books—and the Good Book itself—are taking on a very different shape.

From the printed page to smartphone and laptop screens to e-reader tablets, the reading choices for consumers today are diversifying.

The YouVersion app serves as an excellent example. The free Scripture-reading app is fast-approaching 100 million downloads since its launch just 5 years ago—an encouraging sign in an age when biblical literacy is of Christian concern. Yet the digital download of Scripture is not a direct trade for the printed word. Considering the fact that the average American home contains multiple Bibles, it’s likely that most digital Bible users also own physical copies of the Bible.

As the digital revolution continues to gain momentum, it is causing a host of changes in the book industry at a rate difficult to keep up with. Barnes and Noble are reporting losses, for example, while rumours gather of closing stores. Cokesbury recently made the decision to take the digital leap and transfer 100% of their retail online. And this week at CBA’s International Christian Retail Show in St. Louis, Mo, the question of how to leverage digital and print book sales will be front and center.

How will the rise of e-reading affect the future of the Christian book industry? What will be the implications of digital books on brick-and-mortar stores? And how will these digital changes affect consumer preferences? These are all crucial questions. But to answer them, a far simpler question must come first: Who are these e-book and print readers?

Here Come the Digital Natives
Barna Group’s most recent study on the topic, conducted in May of 2013, discovered that one-quarter of American adults own an e-reading device. And for as often as the Church is decried for perpetually lagging one step behind the wider culture, this is one area where Christians are right on par with the national average. One in four Christians use an e-reader or mobile tablet for reading purposes. In fact, e-reading is even more expansive among pastors. From 2010 to 2012 alone, pastors’ use of e-readers has tripled from 14% to 44%, respectively. And this trend is only growing. But besides pastors, who are these new digital natives opting for e-readers?

The groups most likely to own an e-reading device share several factors. They are often between the ages of 29 and 47, college-educated, and married with children. Those with an annual income of higher than $60,000 are also likely to gravitate toward e-readers. White Americans are much more likely than non-white Americans to own an e-reader. And on the whole, women are more likely than men to say they own an e-reader—a trend that is not surprising in light of the rise of “mommy bloggers” and predominantly female book review bloggers.

More than mere ownership, e-reading is fast becoming an integral part of users’ experience: the typical reader uses e-books about one-tenth of the time, but for more acclimated readers about one-third of his or her reading is done on a digital device. This does not include use of websites and social media. What’s especially interesting is that those who own an e-reader actually spend about 50% more time reading books in a typical week than those not using e-readers. 

Brick-and-Mortar Charm
But for every digital enthusiast, you’ll find even more readers professing their love for the printed page. And despite the vast retail options available to them today, a loyal faction of Christian readers choose to do their shopping at brick-and-mortar Christian bookstores.

Age is one factor in shopping patterns of Christian book buyers. In research conducted by Barna Group for CBA, the biggest demographic of Christian retail shoppers are Busters, ages 30-48, and Boomers, ages 49 to 67. The Mosaic generation, ages 18 to 29, is only half as likely to shop in such stores and only one-fourth as likely to be monthly shoppers. These generational differences are consistent with the fact that Christian consumers under the age of 30 are significantly less likely than previous generations to buy devotionals, commentaries, and Christian magazines—all formats that lend themselves to traditional print.

Christian retail shoppers cite several reasons for their preference of buying at the checkout rather than with a mouse click. The biggest reason cited was selection (29%), closely followed by the practical consideration of cost and convenience. Finally, 21% of Christian retail shoppers indicated that they buy their books at physical stores because they love the ethos of the staff and store itself, and they want to support its ministry.

What’s striking about Christian retail shoppers is that they are voracious readers—spending more time weekly reading (three hours per week) in both print and digital formats than non-CBA book buyers (two hours per week). What’s more, as much as they love print, they’re not afraid to go digital if it means more reading. In fact, Christian retail shoppers are slightly more likely to own an e-reading device than the average Christian. So while some may be tempted to view the Christian bookstore as antiquated novelty, the fact remains that Christian retail shoppers are more committed to buying and reading books than most.

Digital Expectations of Access
Nine out of ten Protestant pastors make book recommendations from the pulpit. Apparently these recommendations are effective as church worship services are a major source of recommendations about Christian products. Nearly one in three Christians have purchased a Christian product after hearing a sermon in a church and one in six have made a purchase after hearing about it on the radio.

By comparison, social media is less influential among Christians in terms of product exposure; however, this learning curve is growing. About one-fifth of all Christian store shoppers have been influenced to purchase a Christian product because of social media, like blogs, Twitter and Facebook.

What’s more, Christian consumers are increasingly using digital tools not just to discover content, but also to go “straight to the source” of that content. Overall, two-fifths of Christian store consumers say they have digitally communicated with their pastor or local faith leader (via email, Facebook or Twitter) and one-fourth indicate they have similarly communicated via digital means with someone they consider to be a well-known Christian leader.

What the Research Means
As the crossover between technology and faith increases, book publishers and retailers can find new opportunities alongside to new challenges. David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, suggested the following implications of the research:

First, the digital revolution is changing the way people find, shop for, and purchase products. It also means the advantage of wide selection is neutralized for physical retailers, since innumerable products are available online. For Christian bookstores this means that the value proposition of great selection will not be sufficient for the long-term.

Second, the digital world is creating an environment in which people often don’t have to buy a product to find content they are looking for; many times, that information is available for free online. This means that the only “cost” for consumers is their time—that is, how much time it takes them to search for, locate and read online content.

Third, the nature of Twitter and Facebook is making it easier for consumers to interact directly with authors, leaders, and influencers. There is a greater connectivity online between authors and their readers that creates the potential for more intimacy between content producers and consumers. Retailers, who have traditionally served as connectors of Christians to content, could be increasingly cut out of the picture, without strategic efforts to become more integral to the digital future. In short, social media is like a backstage pass to authors, so retailers have to be increasingly aware of the changing expectations related access.

Additional insights about this research are available in the report Christian Retail: The Rise of E-Reading. And you can watch a brief video with Barna President, David Kinnaman, discussing the implications of this research.

Also, click here to discover Barna Group tools on the rise of e-reading.

About the Research
The OmniPoll(SM) included 1,116 online surveys conducted among a representative sample of adults, ages 18 and older in the United States who describe themselves as “Christian.” The survey was conducted from May 5 through May 11, 2012. Additional data was generated in a sample of 1,086, conducted in May 2013. The margin of error for each of these samples is +/-2.8 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.

This study used an online research panel called KnowledgePanel® based on probability sampling that covers both the online and offline populations in the U.S. The panel members are randomly recruited by telephone and by self-administered mail and web surveys. Households are provided with access to the Internet and hardware if needed. Unlike other Internet research that covers only individuals with Internet access who volunteer for research, this process uses a dual sampling frame that includes both listed and unlisted phone numbers, telephone and non-telephone households, and cell-phone-only households. The panel is not limited to current Web users or computer owners. All potential panelists are randomly selected to join the KnowledgePanel; unselected volunteers are not able to join.Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

Christian retail shoppers are those defined as shopping in Christian bookstores in the last six months.

Portions of this research were commissioned by CBA.

About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. It conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each update on the latest research findings from Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources are also available through this website.

© Barna Group, 2013.