The three tiers of readers

 The three tiers of readers

There was a time when only the rich could read.

Literacy was actively limited. It was illegal to teach some groups of people to read.

For example, there is this bill from 1830 in North Carolina:

A Bill to Prevent All Persons from Teaching Slaves to Read or Write, the Use of Figures Excepted (1830)

Books were also very expensive: rare, hand-crafted items.

Certainly, Gutenberg was one of the most important changes, in the mid-15th Century. The new tech made books more easily reproduced, and more widely distributed.

The early 19th Century, with the Industrial Revolution, brought a new level of literacy and leisure…cheap books in “low brow” genres flourished: penny dreadfuls in England, and later (into the early 20th Century), dime novels in the USA.

Another major change came in the 1930s with the rise of paperbacks: inexpensive, “mass market” versions of the same books that came out in relatively expensive hardbacks. That was the notable change from the penny dreadfuls and dime novels: while mass market paperbacks did have genre novels, it was also possible to read the same content as the upper class.

In the 21st Century (especially following the release of the Kindle in 2007), e-books further democratized books. Super low cost distribution transformed publishing from being mostly in the hands of a few companies that could afford to develop and distribute p-books (paperbooks) to something anyone could do.


Those traditional publishers (tradpub) still exist, and still have a concentration of power. There is still prestige in owning books. As reading competes with other forms of entertainment, it hasn’t simply become what television was before “pay TV”, where almost everyone could see the same shows.

I’m seeing indications of a three-tiered market for books. This is not something I’m saying definitively exists right now. It’s a hypothesis for what may be happening, and how things may develop.

If things do turn out to follow this pattern, it will matter to you as a reader.

Publishers and retailers would develop for and market to the different tiers differently. Since advertising is now very channeled (different people see different things), you might not even be aware of a book you would otherwise want to read.

What I’m going to do next is lay out the characteristics of the three tiers of readers. I’m also going to poll you, to see which one you think you might be. I also want to be clear…you could be more than one, but my guess is that one of them will be the strongest affiliation for you.

Top Tier

  • Price point: ten dollars and up
  • Buying window for new releases: right away
  • How much they read: usually reading one book, but might take a couple of weeks or more to read a novel
  • High end brand user: more likely to use an Apple tablet than an Amazon one, but may own a Kindle Voyage or other top of the line EBR (E-Book Reader) in addition
  • Authors: John Grisham, Michael Connelly
  • Publishers: the tradpubs, limited release editions from specialty houses
  • Discovery: old media, especially magazines and newspapers, like the New York Times
  • Summary: doesn’t compromise, likes paying more to get a book right away

Middle Tier

  • Price point: under ten dollars, but still costing something. $1.99, $2.99, $0.99, $4.99 are popular
  • Buying window for new releases: waits for them to go on sale, but will likely read a favorite author within a year or two of release
  • How much they read: usually at least a book a week, may be more than that
  • Doesn’t worry about having the very best brand: wants value for the dollar. Still wants functionality. Reads e-books on an Amazon device, but more likely to have a Paperwhite than a Voyage
  • Authors: Marko Kloos, Jana Aston
  • Publishers: many independents through Kindle Direct Publishing and other sources; some tradpubs, but mostly backlist and frontlist on sale
  • Discovery: the Amazon website, Goodreads, word of mouse (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media)
  • May use subsers (subscription services, like Kindle Unlimited ((at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*))
  • Summary: committed reader, but money matters. Willing to experiment to save some money

Lower Tier

  • Price point: almost always zero (including getting gifts from others)
  • Buying window for new releases: release day doesn’t really matter
  • How much they read: constantly, but quite likely to abandon books before they are finished. Doesn’t waste time on a book they don’t like
  • Reads on a SmartPhone,  a computer, or a cheap tablet. May have an inexpensive EBR, maybe one they got as a gift. Doesn’t have the latest generation
  • Authors: people you’ve never heard of (and possibly they’ve never heard of), but also a lot of the classics which are free because they are public domain
  • Publishers: indies, especially authors who self-publish
  • Discovery: digs around for book bargains, uses Project Gutenberg, Twitter, free book forums, the public library. Update: reader Kacey Llano made the excellent point that some Lower Tier readers will use the same discovery as the Upper Tier readers. They’ll find out about a newly published, frontlist, tradpub book…and then go to the public library to get it (or to go on a waiting list for it). They still aren’t directly spending the money for the book
  • Summary: passionately committed to reading, but doesn’t care about the status of having read the latest book. It’s not so much about what you read: it’s the reading itself that matters

Those are my initial ideas on it. I’m interested in your feedback on it, which may help to refine it. For example, I think the top tier readers may use subsers…and may have several subscriptions, but don’t end up using them very much. Middle tier readers may use the public library.

Let’s do the poll next…if you think you are equally two or more tiers, you can choose more than one.

Update: reader Kacey Llano asked me if this was about your reading habits or how much you spend, in terms of choosing a tier. It’s about how much you spend. My whole thinking on this is about the marketing of the books. If you get the books from the public library, the publisher has to market to the library, not directly to you. Certainly, they could try to get public buzz to influence a library to buy a license, but I think they would be more likely to market to top tiers and directly to libraries (or library suppliers).


Now, what do you think? Am I underestimating how much Top Tier readers read? Are there other strata you would suggest? What other characteristics identify these three? Is it too soon to figure out where marketing is going to go for e-books? If these are right, how do you see it affecting publishers, retailers, and readers? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.



13 Responses to “The three tiers of readers”

  1. Kacey Llano Says:

    What about those of us who use public libraries or subscription services?

    I belong to two public library systems, one of which is that of a major urban area. I read the New York Times book review as well as other sources, and put holds on library books I want to read if they are not currently available.

    I am thrilled with my Kindle Paperwhite. I live in a rural area and this device with the Overdrive libraries gives me access to so much for very little money. There are some frustrations; often I must wait for a popular item and sometimes a longer read will expire before I finish reading it. I then must either purchase it or (most likely) put it on hold to get another turn at reading it.

    So when I vote in your survey, I am not sure which response to select; I am a top tier based on my reading habits but a lower tier based on the money I spend on books. If I were wealthy, I might spend like a top tier person, or more likely, pay for a subscription service.

    Aren’t there more folks out there like me? To be honest, I do download free books by relatively unknown authors, but I find I rarely read those books because I always have library books that take priority.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Kacey!

      I’ll look at clarifying, but it’s about how much you spend. This idea has to do with the market and marketing.

      You start out with putting public libraries and subscription services together, but those do seem quite different to me. I listed public libraries on the bottom tier. I mentioned subsers more for the middle tier, but mentioned top tier people might also subscribe.

      You say that if you were wealthy, you might pay for a subscription service, so that sounds like you don’t have one now.

      You seem clearly to me like the bottom tier…maybe I should have just said “first, second, third”, because I don’t want to stigmatize or elevate.

      A Paperwhite wasn’t the least expensive model when you got it, but it wasn’t the most expensive one. 🙂 If you don’t mind my asking, which generation is it?

      It sounds like you really aren’t spending much money on books. You get them from the public library, or you sometimes download freebies from indies.

      I think you are right that many bottom tiers (you ask if there are people like you…there are almost always people like somebody, just no one exacty the same 😉 ) do use the same discovery as the top tiers, so I’ll edit that and credit you for asking.

      Thanks again!

  2. alanchurch Says:

    You wrote: “word of mouse”. In what weird Fortean world would that be occurring? 😆
    Seriously, I wonder about the effect of your category labels on the poll results. Perhaps labeling the tiers A,B, and C would have been better than Top…bottom. You need neutral labels.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, alanchurch!

      In this world. 🙂 It’s my idiom for communication between peers on social media…like “word of mouth”, but being done electronically. I might have first (I’ve used it at least a few times) used it on the blog here:

      I tried to explain it here with the examples, but perhaps could have been more explicit.

      Interesting to me that you would have a connotation for “A,B,C” as more neutral than “upper, middle, lower”. I would associate the letters with the school grading system. There’s no particular reason for “lower” to be more pejorative, and I was trying to indicate expenditures, which would be upper, middle, and lower. However, as I commented to Kacey, perhaps I should have done first, second, third…not quite sure what would be neutral.

      I guess I could have made up new terms: “Release dayers, bargain hunters, and freebie readers”…something like that. The poll’s started, so I don’t want to change it now, but I’ll think about it.

  3. Lady Galaxy Says:

    I agree that the use of “lower tier” was not the best choice. Sociologically speaking, it reminds one of terms such as “lower class” or “lower caste.”

    I think I straddle the first and second tiers with my dominant foot more firmly planted in the middle. Or perhaps I’m first tier for gadgets and devices and middle tier for the majority of my reading. I will pay a higher price for favorite authors so I can read the books as soon as they’re released, but that’s a select few. I rarely go above the $12.99 price point. I own a Voyage which for a very long time was more of an albatross than an eagle, but with the upgrade to type and formatting, I’m finally able to read most books more comfortably. They still need to fine tune the larger type sizes. I don’t have a tablet because I don’t have wi-fi. If I ever do, I’ll get an iPad rather than a Fire. If I ever get a smart phone, it will be an iPhone. I prefer Apple products but the only thing I buy from the Apple store is software.

    When I first got the Kindle, I downloaded more free books than I do now. My perception is that in the early days, the quality of free books was higher than it is now. Tradpubs would offer books by known authors as an incentive to get new readers for series. I don’t find that happens much now. So many of the free books I’ve downloaded recently seem more like mediocre projects for a creative writing class or compilations of stuff you can find with a Google search. I have Kindle Unlimited. I probably read at least 2 books a week, sometimes as many as 5. If I discover a new series I really like, I will “binge read” until I’ve completed the series.

    If I could still read print books, I would use the public library more. I don’t borrow Kindle books from the library because I know the number of loans is limited and you’ve persuaded me to help them be available to people who need them more than I do.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      You are right about the tradpubs and freebies…they did use to do that, but I guess they saw it as a failed experiment.

      I would think of you as an Upper Tier…although it’s not solid for me yet. It does sound like it would make sense for a tradpub to market new titles directly to you…you are willing to pay the $12.99 if you want the book (advertising is not expected to work for every customer who sees it)…and although you “rarely” will go above the $12.99, you will, if it’s a book you really want.

      • Lady Galaxy Says:

        Maybe there’s a different way of looking at this. You ask if you’re underestimating how much the first tier readers read. I really can’t see how reading habits relate to price. Since you said you would place me in the first, I can tell you that I read at least 2 books a week, sometimes more. On a rainy Sunday, I might end up reading two books in a day. I usually am in the process of reading more than one book during the same time period. I’m currently in the process of reading 4 books. I also do not continue reading a book if I find I’m not enjoying it. Life’s too short and there are too many other books to read to spend time reading something I don’t really care about.

        Perhaps reading style has nothing to do with price points we are willing to pay. Perhaps it’s more about when we entered the Kindle world. I was an early adapter paying a lot for a Kindle 1 when nobody was sure if it was going to be a success or not. I developed the mindset that e-books should cost $9.99, and then the agency model blew that up. I was angry about it so I held tight to the “I’m never paying more than $9.99 for an e-book!” mentality. Eventually I realized I was missing out on books I really wanted to read, so I started easing up and paying $10.99, $11.99, $12.99 for favorite writers. I will only go above that for a really long book or what’s ironically known as a box collection. (Box? What box?)

        When I first got that first Kindle, I downloaded way more free books than I do now. As previously mentioned, the choices were better. Also, that’s when I downloaded my library of the classics. Occasionally I’ll be reminded of a classic that I do not already have and go in search of it, but for the most part, my library of classics is fairly full and rather extensive.

        Perhaps folks that bought their first Kindle after the agency model had already brought the price of “best seller” books up to the $14.99 level don’t have the mindset that e-books shouldn’t cost that much. Perhaps folks new to Kindle are building up their library of free classics. Or perhaps the rest of us need to realize that the days of $9.99 books have gone the way of the penny dreadful and the dime novel and stop denying ourselves the pleasure of reading the $14.99 best seller that is still probably half the cost of the hardback.

        Perhaps it’s more about evolution than classification.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Lady!

        Your analysis could certainly be right.

        That’s the purpose of a hypothesis: for it to be challenged by other people.:)

        Like you, I would say I downloaded (or at least licensed) a lot more free books in my early days as a Kindleer. KU has made a difference there, though. I don’t worry about having something to read. 🙂

  4. Kathryn Diak Says:

    This is an interesting concept. However, I think many people would have attributes of each of your tiers. In my experience, readers range from voracious readers to almost non readers. Voracious readers (that’s me) read anywhere, as much as possible. I read on my Paperwhite, fire, print books, magazines (digital and paper), newsppers and so on. I use the public library for digital and print. My friends who are also voracious readers are similar. The difference is usually economic if they use the library or purchase books. In my book clubs, there are readers like me to readers who read 1 book a week or a month to members who rarely read books, but enjoy the camaraderie and discussion. My own family (husband and grown children and their SOS) are all readers who use Kindles and also read print. We share books and read a wide variety of genres. So we would fit in all your tiers.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Kathryn!

      I appreciate what you are saying, and I am also a voracious reader. 🙂

      However, the defining characteristic (the rest are secondary, and largely guesses) is how much money you spend on books. Clearly, based on the comments, I could have said that more explicitly, and when I further explore this, I’ll make that clearer.

      Given that, if one believes in math (and I’m open to people who don’t…they aren’t common, though), people couldn’t fit in all three tiers at the same time.

      Let’s compare, and strip it down to the money:

      Lowest spending tier: if someone is averaging, oh, $1 per book, they don’t fit the lowest spending tier
      Middle spending tier: if someone is averaging over $9.99 per book, they are too high for this tier

      So, count up the number of books you’ve read in…let’s say during the past twelve months.

      Next, take the amount of money you spent directly on books during that same twelve months.

      Divide the amount of money by the amount of books: that should give you an idea.

      It’s interesting to me that some people seem to be focusing on this as though it was judging the amount that people read, and since that wasn’t my intent, I didn’t communicate my intent as clearly as I would have liked.

      My own tendency is to think that the more you read, the better. 🙂 I’ve never read a book that I considered to be a “bad” book, and not worth my time. Philosophically, I would feel most akin to what I described as the Lower Tier. I see value in all three profiles…

      I’m curious, though: it sounds like it would be unusual in your group for someone who could afford to pay for books to choose to read primarily free books? Based on this, “The difference is usually economic if they use the library or purchase books,” it makes me guess that your friends read mostly traditionally published books…generally, public libraries will have those rather than independently published books. Does that also sound right?

      • Kathryn Diak Says:

        Actually, quite a few of my friends who read 1 or 2 books a month and could easily afford to buy the books prefer to use library or borrow from someone else. I think this is due to our age and starting to decrease clutter. I, of course think you can never have too many books. 🙂 when my husband gave me the first kindle back in 2007 (I think), I said it was the best gift he gave me after our children. However, there were times when they were teenagers….
        Maybe, I am unusual in that I will pay 12.99 to 14.99 for a new release and also will read free books from kindle unlimited or the library. I do feel like with all of us having Kindles and sharing books, the cost is spread out.Of course, when an email pops up with a new book purchased from Amazon and it’s one of those darn kids 🙂
        So, if it’s the money I spend on books, then I’m in at the top!

  5. Tom Semple Says:

    I’m pretty solidly middle tier on this (almost never go for free books – just Kindle First, but I’m not reading many of those – and almost never over $8).

    And it seems Macmillan has discovered my MO: two weeks ago, 3 of my Wish List books had priced drops of 40-50% (putting them in $4.99-5.99 range). I bought them immediately (though the price drops have stuck). As it happens, today another 6 have had price drops, and I bought 2 of them before ‘slow thinking’ finally kicked in. Of course these price drops pertain where ever the books are sold (Apple, Google, B&N, Kobo). These are not new releases, but published within the last 2-4 years, so they’re still ‘new’ in my mind, and at least in these cases, they are also priced significantly less than the paperback edition. If they keep on doing this, I’m afraid I will keep buying, adding to my reading guilt (buying books I have small likelihood of being able to read). On the other hand, as compulsions go, it is pretty innocuous, and on some level I want to encourage publishers when they drop prices like this: maybe they will finally learn what Amazon has been trying to tell them about ebook pricing.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Tom!

      Well, remember that you aren’t just buying for yourself, but for other people who are or might be on your account in the future. 🙂 That might be a justification. 😉

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