Share story

SAN FRANCISCO — Surging sales of tablet computers are driving a fundamental change in how Americans read books.

Twenty-three percent of Americans age 16 and older say they have read an electronic book in the past year, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center. That’s up from 16 percent a year ago.

At the same time, the number of those who read a printed book in the past 12 months fell to 67 percent — a decline of 5 percentage points.

The rise in e-book reading coincides with an increase in the number of people who own tablet computers or dedicated e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes & Noble’s Nook.

A quarter of all Americans age 16 and up own an Apple iPad, Kindle Fire, Samsung Galaxy Tab or other tablet computer, Pew reports, an increase from 10 percent in 2011. Those who own an e-book reader rose to 19 percent from 10 percent.

“We are still in the early stages of the transition,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project. “It’s a big deal for the publishing industry, in the same way that the transition to digital news was a big deal for the newspaper business in the late ’90s, and the same way Napster was a big deal to the music industry in the early 2000s.”

Researcher NPD Group estimates that 33 million tablet computers have been sold through November of 2012. Devices with screens smaller than 8 inches — including the Apple iPad Mini and smaller versions of the Kindle Fire and Google’s Nexus tablet — seem well suited to reading, NPD analyst Stephen Baker said.

With vigorous sales of tablets this holiday season, Baker predicted “the beginning of the end” for traditional e-readers.

Pew’s survey found that those most likely to have read an e-book had a college degree, lived in a household earning more than $75,000 and ranged in age from 30 to 49. The findings were based on a survey of 2,252 Americans age 16 and older from Oct. 15 to Nov. 10.