Free Sources for Reading Surpass Paid

While audiobooks made gains among responding consumers in 2023, BookNet Canada also finds reader-respondents in all formats saying they used free-book sources last year more than they paid for books.

Reading in Edwards Gardens, a botanical garden set adjacent to the Toronto Botanical Garden. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Eli Unger

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Also see:
BookNet Canada’s Consumer Survey: Rising Book Prices
New Data From BookNet: Canadian Book Buying in 2023

A Majority Reading Free of Charge

The best news for Canadians in that market’s Leisure and Reading Study 2023—released today (June 11)—is that 79 percent of respondents to BookNet Canada‘s survey said they felt that they had enough free time or more free time than they needed.

This may be a finding that’s envied by people in many other world publishing markets, but the top-line results promoted by BookNet—a support agency for the English-language Canadian book industry—have to do with audiobooks. BookNet’s survey of 1,247 Canadians found that in terms of preferred formats, 13 percent of those surveyed said their preferred format is audiobooks, by comparison to that question’s response in 2019, when just 8 percent of the respondents said they preferred audiobooks.

Nevertheless, the new 40-page study’s key messaging has to do with how Canadian consumers are getting their books, regardless of format.

“For the first time in our survey,” the BookNet study authors write, “readers across all formats were acquiring books from free sources more than from paid sources.

  • “Last year, print readers buying their books still eked out a small margin over those getting them free of charge: 52 percent [said they] bought vs. 46 percent who said they borrowed or found other free sources in 2022.
  • “This year, 47 percent of [responding] print readers [said they] bought their books and 51 percent found a free source for their reading material.

“Audiobook and ebook readers [responding said they] continued to get a majority of their books from free sources and this continues the rising trend in borrowing or receiving from other
free sources we saw in last year’s report.”

Image: BookNet Canada

From BookNet’s information from its survey, we quote:

“Ebook readers were the group saying they were most likely to get their books from a free source (62 percent) and the public library was their source of choice (23 percent). Public library use was up for ebook acquisition from 19 percent in 2022 to 23 percent in 2023. Free Internet sites were used just as much as in 2022, but had moved to second place in 2023 (19 percent).

“Just more than half of surveyed audiobook listeners said they acquired their books free of charge in 2023 (58 percent).

“They said they were most likely to find them on a free Internet site—e.g., LibriVox, YouTube, public domain, etc.—at 20 percent, followed by the public library (18 percent), and by 10 percent saying they received their audiobooks as gifts. This breakdown was similar to results in  2022.

“Print readers [surveyed said they] were least likely of all format readers to get their books free of charge, but still 51 percent did so. The public library was the most-used free source of acquiring books [cited by respondents] at 22 percent for print readers. Public library use [reported by respondents] has stayed at 22 percent since 2020 for print readers. Borrowing the book from another person (11 percent), receiving as a gift (10 percent), or receiving them free of charge—(e.g., freebie, Free Little Library, ARC, etc.—at 8 percent were the final three ways print readers said they acquired free books.

“These are for the most part unchanged from 2022.”

Respondents in older demographic groups (ages 45 and older) said they are more likely to acquire free books of all formats than respondents in younger demographics (ages 18 to 44).

Image: BookNet Canada

As a point of comparison, BookNet’s team asked OverDrive if it was seeing library and school book-checkout data that might reflect what survey subjects were saying. The results there, as BookNet reports, showed that “Ebooks have remained relatively stable since 2020, but audiobook checkouts have continued to rise since 2014, up 20 percent in 2023 over 2022,” per OverDrive’s information.

Image BookNet Canada, with OverDrive

Briefly, regarding respondents’ answers about buying books:

Print readers said they were the most likely to purchase their books in 2023 at 47 percent, with physical and online retailers tied as new-book sources at 12 percent each.

“The 40 percent of audiobook buyers [who said] they purchased their audiobooks,” the report reads, said they “mainly did so from online retailers—Amazon/Kindle Unlimited,, iTunes, etc.—at 16 percent, although this avenue has been declining since 2020. Other audiobook purchases, respondents said, were made from a subscription service (13 percent), from a general retailer—Costco, Walmart, Shoppers Drug Mart, grocery stores, etc.—at 6 percent, or from a physical bookstore at 6 percent.”

A bit more than a third of ebook readers (36 percent) told survey personnel that they paid for their ebooks in 2023.

They said those ebook purchases were made from an online retailer or through a retailing app (19 percent) — a number that was much higher, 34 percent, in 2019. Subscription services (11 percent) and general retailers at 7 percent made up the remainder of the purchasing venues cited by respondents for ebooks.

Of those respondents who said they’re paying for books said that their outlays were roughly the same in 2023 as they were in 2022. “The largest share of readers” responding as buyers said they “still spent between CAN$1 and CAN$49 per month on books (36 percent),” the report reads.” Twenty-seven percent [said]  they did not spend any money, and 13 percent [said they] spent between CAN$50 and CAN$99.”

It’s interesting to note that our most recent partial-survey report on BookNet’s work was focused on book pricing and consumer comments. That story is here. And several free-response comments from consumers in the newly released full study tend to indicate that some book buyers feel that prices for new books are rising and are doing so too much. In the industry, of course, there are concerns among some that book prices have never kept pace with inflation and may have become caught in consumers’ affections in price ranges that are too low for profitability.

In questions about their budgeting considerations, an increased number of BookNet’s respondents for 2023 said they were choosing books priced within their budget constraints (44 percent over 2022’s 40 percent and 2021’s 37 percent).

And while Canada is hardly among the world’s largest book markets, even with its French and English components combined, the trends the new BookNet survey has uncovered toward reading free of charge may well interest international publishers who want to research how this is reflected in their own markets.

Image: BookNet Canada

A Brief Look at Other Points From the Survey
  • Forty-nine percent of Canadians surveyed said they read or listened to books weekly in 2023, with 31 percent of Canadians reading or listening to books once a day
  • Half of all Canadian readers (52 percent) surveyed for this study said they read between one and five books in 2023
  • Canadian readers surveyed said that they attended more book clubs and book-related events in 2023, both online and in-person
  • Spending on books in 2023 is similar to 2022, according to respondents, however fewer Canadian readers surveyed in 2023 said they did not have limitations on the number of books they could buy (23 percent) and more bought books within their budgets (44 percent)
  • Respondents in older demographic groups (ages 45 and older) said they are more likely to acquire free books of all formats than respondents in younger demographics (ages 18 to 44)
  • Canadian readers surveyed said that in 2023 they continued to prefer print the most (59 percent) over other formats
  • Canadian readers’ interest in abridged audiobooks, audiobooks with sound effects, and/or music, and environmentally friendly print books is on the rise, according to the respondents to this survey
  • Adult fiction remains the most popular sector for Canadian readers across all formats, according to survey respondents, but children’s books and young adult books are continuing to see increases in readership across all formats in 2023
  • Diversity and representation in books continues to be a priority flagged by Canadian reader-respondents in 2023.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Canadian market is here, more on industry statistics is here, and more on bookselling in the international publishing industry is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair’s International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London’s The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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While audiobooks made gains among responding consumers in 2023, BookNet Canada also finds reade…