The Science Reader: A Crowd-Sourced Profile

By Carl Zimmer | March 17, 2010 3:17 pm

How times have changed. Used to be, if I wanted to figure out what people were reading, I’d ask a few friends. This week, I got replies from 761 people.

On Monday I asked you to help me get a better sense of the science reader–how the science reader gets a science fix, what the science reader values, and what the science reader expects from the future. Thanks to everyone who responded–both directly to the survey questions and indirectly in the comments. Not surprisingly, commenters revealed to me some shortcomings of the survey itself–most glaringly, leaving podcasts, radio, and public libraries off the list of venues where you get your science fix. Despite these shortcomings, I still ended up thinking the survey was very useful. The picture it paints is pretty clear, and, in some ways, surprising.

And, of course, you generously donated your time and thoughts. I am no professional market analyst, but I’ve had a delightful time poring over the survey, as well as the comments of those who did not feel satisfied by the choices I offered. It wrecked a number of assumptions I had carried into the survey, and makes me think differently about where science writing is headed from here.

Here’s what I see in the results. (If you want to make your own interpretations in the comment thread, you can download the raw numbers in the survey report (pdf).)

First off, it’s clear that most of you no longer get science from print newspapers.

My first question was, “Where do you get your science fix, and how often?” I offered some formats; the choices for each ranged from avidly down to never. Of those who responded, 58% said they rarely or never read newspapers in print. A grand total of 17 of you–2%–said you read them avidly, and 7% said you read them occasionally. The rest said you read science in print newspapers only occasionally (22%).

Print magazines fared (somewhat) better in the survey. 31% responded rarely or never. 55% said you read science in newspapers occasionally or frequently.

News web sites and blogs scored big. 27% read news sites avidly for science, and 40% read them frequently. Only 1% said never.

Blogs did even better, with 50% responding with avidly and 36% frequently.

This does not mean that you love all things digital. Few of you get your science fix on TV more than occasionally; 23% said you never do so. I can’t report on podcasts, radio, and audio books, because I left them off the survey [d’oh!].

But the biggest surprise to me was ebooks. I assumed you were already riding the ebook wave. Nope. 64% of you said you never read them. Less than 2% said you read them avidly.

By contrast, you love old-fashioned paper books. Only 9% of you said you never bought science books.  67% of you said you bought three or more a year. About half of you subscribe to one or more print magazines for science.

I then asked about your digital habits in particular.

Most of you (67%) still use a computer for your digital fix. Only 15% use an Iphone. Only 5% use a Kindle–about the same number of you who are waiting for an Ipad to change the laws of physics.

You also proved to have a lot of stamina while reading on line. 62% of you said you click through long features to get to the end.

Ebooks have not yet cast their spell on you. 59% of you said you buy no ebooks a year because you’re waiting for them to get better; 19% said you don’t buy them because you just don’t like ebooks.

I rephrased the questions, asking about how you felt about ebooks: 70% of you said that ebooks were an interesting concept but not yet worth buying an ereader for. Another 7% said you can’t stand them. Only 3% of you have abandoned old books for the ebook future we’ve all been hearing about.

The last few questions of the survey dealt with getting stuff for free versus paying. And here’s where things got  interesting in a glass-half-empty-or-half-full kind of way. 40% of you said you would no longer pay for reading about science, because you can get so much for free. Only 20% of you said you’d pay to get past paywalls.

Then I described a couple possible pieces of science writing. In one case, I described an anthology of articles nicely designed in an ebook. Only 18% of you said you would not be willing to pay for that. 29% of you said you’d pay $10. 68% of you said you’d pay a price $4 or higher.

I also asked how much you’d pay for a hybrid article, with a short summary for free and an in-depth version for a payment. 63% of you said you would be willing to pay for such an article. 21% were willing to pay a buck, and 7% would pay two bucks, the highest price I put on the question.

The science reader that emerges from this survey is very comfortable online, getting a science fix from blogs and news sites. (And judging from the comments, a fair number listen to podcasts and radio, too.) But the science reader also reads a lot of books. Books made of paper, that is, not electronic ink. That pattern may change if e-readers get better, but probably not anytime soon.

The typical science reader will not be dropping a lot of money to get past paywalls. Some readers won’t pay anything online at all, but an appreciable fraction will pay for ebooks and individual articles–if they’re interesting.

It goes without saying that this survey is utterly unscientific and downright peculiar. But if it does reflect broader trends, it means that there are opportunities for small-scale, money-making experiments in new kinds of digital genres–including ones carried out by individual writers.

The comments are well worth checking out. A couple readers challenged my approach as being hopelessly twentieth-century, demonstrating my unwillingness to accept that information is too cheap to meter now. I’ve been skeptical about the alternatives, but Morgan Wirthlin made a passionate argument to turn away from ebooks and follow the lead of musicians:

I think you should consider taking your next microcosm (an /excellent/ book, by the way) and trying this model. Maybe you offer 2,000 copies of the “signature edition” on your website, which is just the normal book with your personal signature inside the cover, priced at maybe 10% above list price. Then offer 500 “subscriber editions,” which include a personalized memo and a big poster of one Carl Buell’s excellent illustrations to this hypothetical book. Finally, 50 extra special $100 “Zimmerfan editions” are sent to your most diehard readers ahead of the publication date, and include the poster, a hand-written letter of thanks, a polaroid you took, and a fossil (or even just a cool rock) you found outside. Etc., etc. It may sound ridiculous, but these are the sorts of things that people crave in the digital age. I can absolutely guarantee that you would sell out of all of these editions, and part of the reason is that your readers absolutely /want/ to support *you,* but they don’t want to feel cheated paying for something that they know they could get for free. An ‘art object’ with a personalized, cottage-industry touch is something that you cannot get for free.

And Scott Sigler, who started a novel-writing career by podcasting each chapter of his manuscripts, had this to say in my skepticism about podcasts:

Carl, podcasts DO generate revenue via advertising. I run an ad on most podcasts at, and on my archived audiobooks (the back list) I have up at It took several years to generate a large enough audience, but now that I have it, I give away content for free and make money with advertising. This is nothing new — same model radio and TV have used for decades.

It’s all about the eyeballs (or earballs, whatever). If you create solid, free science podcast content, and that content resonates with an audience allowing you to consistently generate large numbers, you can earn revenue with advertising. Yes, you can still drive traffic to a site, and urge your listeners to buy print products, but the podcast itself becomes the primary revenue generator.

I’m inspired to go off to do some scheming. Meanwhile, what do you think of these results?


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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