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BookNet Canada: The impact of COVID-19 on reading

BookNet Canada: The impact of COVID-19 on reading, part 2

Activities Canadians are doing more of now

Graph: Activities that Canadians are doing more of now. Consuming news 70%, watching videos, tv, and/or movies 70%, browsing social media 62%, cooking 56%, spending time with family 51%, listening to music 44%, playing video games 40%, working on crafts 32%

Here are some other resources and data on surviving and thriving during COVID-19:

“Changes in reading

Physical distancing means more time at home, but does it necessarily mean more time to read? Of the heavy readers, 59% report that they’re reading about the same amount and 38% said they’re reading more. Of the 58% of all readers who said they’re reading more, most are women between 25-34 years old. Of those who are reading less, most are men 45-64 years old.

Now, let’s break this down by format.


  • Readers 18-24 make up the majority of respondents who reported reading more print books (36%).

  • Of the light readers, 57% are reading the same amount of print books as before, compared with 48% of heavy readers who are reading similar amounts of print books.


  • The number of readers in the 25-34 age group who reported to be reading more ebooks now is greater than the number in the 55-64 age group.

  • Light readers: 65% are reading ebooks in similar amounts as before, while 30% are increasing their ebook reading.

  • Heavy readers: 47% are reading the same amount of ebooks as before, while 49% are reading more.


  • 51% of readers who reported to be listening to more audiobooks are men in the 25-34 age group.

  • 64% of audiobook listeners who said they’re listening to the same amounts as before are women.


Women make up for the majority of readers who aren’t reading specifically more informative (64%) nor entertaining books (62%). The majority of light readers (63%) also had no change in the book subjects they read, while 58% of heavy readers said there have been changes in the subjects they’re reading. Of the respondents who reported reading more informative books, 56% are men. Of the heavy readers, 26% are more likely to read informative books than 21% of light readers, and 17% of heavy readers and 16% of light readers are more likely to read entertaining books.

Discovering books

As we mentioned in the first part of this two-part survey results report, the top ways readers discover books are word-of-mouth, online book retailers, social media, and online media. These options are especially popular among readers 34 and younger, and least popular for those 55 and older.

For women who are using social media: 83% are on Wattpad, 80% on Pinterest, 64% on Snapchat, and 61% on Goodreads. More men than women are using WhatsApp, LinkedIn, and Reddit. (Keep in mind that some platforms had lower percentages overall for both genders.) Instagram, Reddit, and Wattpad have higher percentages of users in the 18-34 age group and lower for those 45 and over. Snapchat is used the most by the 18-34 age group, Twitter use is highest for those 25-34.

Of the readers who said they discovered books via podcasts, 54% are men, and 42% of them fall into the 25-34 age group. Book discovery from libraries is most popular among readers 25-34 (31%). Bookstore discovery is highest for those readers who belong to the 45-54 age group (22%).

More than 6 in 10 women discover books via digital apps, websites, and online communities. Discovering books through bestsellers, award winners, and online communities, is most popular among readers 25-34 and least popular for those 65 and over. Heavy readers discover books mainly through online book retailers (42%) followed by online communities (40%).

When comes to book-specific social network sites, 15% of all readers said they’re visiting these sites more often but 72% said that the frequency of their visits hasn’t changed. Now, looking at the data by type of reader, 24% of heavy readers said they’re visiting these sites more, while 66% said they’re visiting these sites with the same frequency as before.

Over half of readers (54%) are getting their books for free now either from other people, free internet sites, or free illegal sites. These readers generally discover books through word-of-mouth (45%), social media (42%), online media (36%), online book retailers (34%), or digital apps/websites (30%).

Borrowers (28% of readers who get books from the public library) discover books from public library staff, catalogues, reader lists, newsletters, or other library sources (46%). Just over four in 10 discover books on social media (41%) — mostly from browsing Facebook (78%) and YouTube (75%) — and 40% discover books through word-of-mouth. Fewer than 4 in 10 borrowers discover books from online book retailers (39%); online media (38%); online communities (35%); or from bestseller lists, “best of” lists, or literary awards (30%).

Changes in buying

Now let’s get into the nitty gritty of buying and borrowing.

All readers

  • Slightly more men than women buy their books from bookstores and retailers (58% and 54% respectively).

  • Bookstore buyers and subscription service users are more likely to be in the 25-34 age group than in the 55-64 age group.

  • About three in 10 readers choose free options for obtaining books while close to two in 10 buy from a bookstore (19%) or subscription service (17%).

  • About six in 10 buyers are reading books more often now (62%) while 36% are reading similar amounts. Only 3% of book buyers are reading less.

  • About three quarters of book buyers read 1-5 books in the past month (77%) while 23% read six or more books.

  • Buyers are borrowing the same amount of books now too, though at a much larger percentage (64%) while 20% are borrowing less and 16% are borrowing more.

  • While most buyers are now getting books from an online retailer or app (62%), buyers also get books for free (34% from a free internet site, 28% from a library, and another 28% from other people).

  • Almost three in 10 buyers now get books from a subscription service (29%) or from a physical bookstore (28%). (Respondents were able to select multiple answers.)

  • Readers who now get their books from a paid source said that they’re unlikely to buy any more books for the next few weeks/months (28%). Perhaps because of uncertainty whether subscription services are a paid source, 6% of buyers said that they’re continuing to not buy any books.

Light readers

  • Almost half of light readers are likely to continue to buy books (49%).

  • Light readers choose to mainly buy books from an online retailer/app (40%).

Heavy readers

  • Heavy readers are more likely to get their books online from a retailer (59%), get them from a free internet site (45%), borrow from a library (41%), or get them through a subscription service (37%).

  • Heavy readers buy from a thrift or used book store more than light readers, while light readers buy from a bookstore more than heavy readers.

  • Most heavy readers are likely to continue to buy books (67%).

Changes in subjects bought

From the survey we gathered that seven in 10 readers choose to pay for their books. Also, more buyers are reading informative books than entertaining books (24% vs. 18%) and more than half of buyers said there has been no change in the subjects they’ve chosen to read (59%).

While we didn’t ask about the specific subjects that readers bought in our survey, we can take a look at BookNet’s sales tracking service SalesData to see the subjects bought most from online retailers, physical bookstores, and general retailers (which doesn’t include subscription services, secondhand sales from thrift/used book stores, or sales of ebooks and audiobooks).

We compared the market share of sub-genres sold from March 11 to April 14, 2019 with March 9 to April 12, 2020. We filtered out sub-genres that sold fewer than 500 units in each time period and calculated a percent change for the remaining sub-genres. We sorted percent changes by 2020 highest positive percent changes to get the biggest changes for Fiction and Non-Fiction. Keep in mind that many of the changes are attributed to a few titles which increased their sub-genre’s sales.”

“Largest positive percent changes

Fiction Percent change
Romance / Romantic Comedy 280%
Fantasy / Urban 153%
Thrillers / Crime 34%
Romance / Clean & Wholesome 17%
Science Fiction / Collections & Anthologies 12%
Non-Fiction Percent change
Games & Activities / General 432%
Sports & Recreation / Basketball 360%
Education / General 132%
Psychology / Cognitive Psychology & Cognition 129%
Language Arts & Disciplines / General 121%

Let’s check out some of 2020’s top sellers to see how they impacted the percent change of a sub-genre.

The large increase in Romance / Romantic Comedy is attributed to If I Never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane. Urban Fantasy’s bestseller is Sarah J. Maas’s House of Earth and Blood. The bestseller for Thrillers / Crime is James Patterson’s The Inn. Romance / Clean & Wholesome has many books selling well, lead by Raeanne Thayne’s The Sea Glass Cottage. Radicalized by Canadian author Cory Doctorow is a bestseller for Science Fiction / Collections & Anthologies (and also a shortlisted title for Canada Reads 2020).

And for Non-Fiction? The Games & Activities / General positive percent change is because of the book The Try Not to Laugh Challenge – Would Your Rather? – EWW Edition by Crazy Corey. The increase in Sports & Recreation / Basketball can be attributed to Southern California News Group’s book Kobe. Curriculum books are top sellers for Education / General. The increase in Psychology / Cognitive Psychology & Cognition can be attributed to Successful Aging by Daniel J. Levitin, and for Language Arts & Disciplines / General, J’améliore Mon Anglais by Cynthia Genovesi.

What about sub-genres that people are buying less of in this five-week period in 2020? Again, it’s difficult to tell if these percentages should be attributed to high sales of a few titles in 2019 or demand for the sub-genre on the whole (percentages are tough this way).

Largest negative percent changes

Fiction Percent change
Mystery & Detective / Private Investigators -86%
Thrillers / Political -85%
Thrillers / Legal -81%
Romance / New Adult -77%
Thrillers / Military -65%
Non-Fiction Percent change
Humor / Topic -87%
Travel / Europe -87%
House & Home / Cleaning, Caretaking & Organizing -86%
Travel / United States -85%
History / Holocaust -85%

The decrease in House & Home / Cleaning, Caretaking & Organizing in 2020 is because Marie Kondo’s two books were big sellers in 2019.

And, of course, interest in travel in general is down in 2020, by almost half from sales in this five-week period in 2019 (which were similar to 2018). “

“Changes in borrowing

“Weekly digital loans from libraries across England doubled in the three weeks after they were closed on 23 March” (BBC). Over in the US, School Library Journal reported that “OverDrive report[ed] a spike of 30 percent in digital checkouts since March 13 [— 40% for ebooks and 10% for audiobooks]”. In Canadian libraries, checkouts continue to rise in OverDrive.

The readers who answered our survey and who are borrowing more than before, are more likely to be women (58%) and more likely to be in the 45-54 age group. Of those borrowing the same amounts as before COVID-19, 66% are light readers and 57% are heavy readers. Of those borrowing fewer books from a library, most are 65 and over. About four in 10 light readers are getting books from a free internet site (39%), from other people (27%), or from the public library (25%). Only 6% get their books from a free illegal site.

If we filter for readers who are now getting books from the public library, 28% of readers, about four in 10 borrowers, are also getting books from free internet sites, buying them on online retailer/apps, and are borrowing books from other people (38% each). Slightly more than half of all borrowers are likely to continue to buy books (51%) while 27% are unlikely to buy any books; 22% of borrowers will continue to not buy any books.

Two in 10 readers bought a book and borrowed from the public library (20%). They bought from an online retailer/app, bookstore, used book/thrift store, general retailer, or subscription service. These buyer-borrowers read more than general readers — 8% are avid readers (those who read 50 or more books), 22% read 6-11 books, and 66% read 1-5 books. About seven in 10 buyer-borrowers are reading more now than before (68%), they’re reading mostly ebooks (56% of buyer-borrowers are reading more ebooks), and 65% are likely to continue buying books. Most popular discovery methods include social media (50%) — mostly YouTube (81%) and Facebook (78%) — online book retailers (48%), the public library (46%), online media (44%), online communities (40%), and word-of-mouth (40%).

Changes in subjects borrowed

About three in 10 borrowers are reading informative books while two in 10 are reading entertaining books (26% vs. 17%). Like other group segments of readers, most have not change the subjects they’re reading recently compared with subjects read in February and prior (58%).

What are the popular subjects borrowed from libraries?

The data we’re working with for LibraryData is a little different from SalesData, so we can’t make identical comparisons. The first available period of LibraryData is in September of 2019 — too late in the year for a year-over-year comparison, and many libraries closed branches the week of March 16th, 2020. Circulation dropped significantly through late March and April. So here we decided to look at circulation data in the weeks leading up to physical distancing, from Feb. 10 to March 15, 2020.

Circulation was highest for the week ending March 15 as many borrowers stocked up knowing that branches would soon be closing. And loans dropped about 80% the week ending March 22. Few branches were open into April. While there was an increase in loans the week ending March 15, there was a drop in holds that week. Despite library closures and that one-week drop, book holds remain steady — no one wants to lose their spot for when this is over.

Top 10 subjects circulated from Feb. 10 to March 15, 2020

  1. Fiction / Thrillers / Suspense

  2. Juvenile Fiction / Readers / Beginner

  3. Juvenile Fiction / Comics & Graphic Novels / General

  4. Juvenile Fiction / Action & Adventure / General

  5. Fiction / Mystery & Detective / General

  6. Non-Fiction / Comics & Graphic Novels / Manga

  7. Fiction / Romance / Contemporary

  8. Fiction / Historical / General

  9. Juvenile Fiction / Readers / Chapter Books

  10. Juvenile Fiction / Social Themes / Friendship

Changes for readers getting free books

Over half of readers are getting books now from other people, free internet sites, and free illegal sites (54%). They’re reading more than before (60%), while 38% are reading the same amount and only 3% are reading less. About eight in 10 free book readers read 1-5 books last month (79%), 21% read six or more.

Most of these readers are borrowing from a library with the same frequency as before (63%), 22% are borrowing less, and 15% are borrowing more. Those who typically get their books for free are buying the same amount of books as before (58%), 25% are buying more, 17% are buying less, and only 15% will continue to not buy any books.

More than half are likely to continue buying books (53%) with 31% unlikely to buy books over the next few weeks/months.”