Teens and paper: Star-crossed lovers of the digital age?
As a professional in the publishing industry - author, publisher, and school library consultant - I've been surprised by one fact of life among young readers: Kids don't care about e-books.
How can this be?! Kids gobble up electronic media like it's going out of style (though we know it's here to stay - and grow). Figuring they had to compete spear-point-to-spear-point with streaming video, social media, circulating selfies, and online gaming many school librarians invested heavily early on. Spending thousands of dollars on e-books - some informational, but mostly popular titles - librarians did the download, presented the options to their students, and sat back. "If you download it, they will come," was the sentiment (and the sales pitch they got from vendors).
But, guess what - the kids did not dive head-first into e-book offerings. Some librarians have told me that they have to do regular refresher presentations on their e-book collection only to see a small and temporary spike in e-book usage. Then their kids go back to the printed page. Others have given up on the e-book option altogether and chosen instead to partner with their public libraries to deliver e-books only to the kids who really want them. So far, it legitimately seems like a waste of budget to add ebooks to their school collections.
My professional experience:
My own experience as an author and publisher bears out this non-trend. When we published my YA thriller The League of Delphi: Book I of The Delphi Trilogy in 2012, we intended to capitalize on the e-book tsunami that was flooding the book world. e-Book adoption and sales numbers were mouth-watering. At that time we decided to go ahead and publish a paperback book only as a "marketing piece" for the e-book, thinking that to have it in paper form would somehow underpin the e-book's legitimacy, but expecting sparse paperback sales. What did we find? To date, we have sold WAY MORE paperbacks than e-books to teens and adults alike.
At conferences and libraries, I watch young readers pick up the books, read the backs, read a little of the insides, and stroke the cover with the palms of their hands. A book is somehow important to a young reader.
I have one anecdote and one theory about why this may be.
I was meeting with a high school librarian who had spent over $3000 on ebooks only to see them sit and gather electronic dust. We were wondering aloud about this situation when I spotted her student library aid behind the desk, thumbing on his smart phone. A notion struck me. "Josh," I asked, "would you download an e-book to your phone?"
"No," he sneered, "I need that space for videos and games and stuff."
(In case you're wondering, e-book usage numbers are not staggeringly higher for schools that give each kid an electronic device.)
Kids see the space on their devices as limited and precious. Books exist somewhere that their other favorite media don't. If you can pick up a book from the shelf and read it then put it back without taking up bytes on your phone or tablet, why push out your favorite video?
But how to explain the astonishing rise in e-book sales and usage? This looks like the future of publishing and reading, spurring hand-to-hand combat between e-book behemoth Amazon.com and the so-called "legacy publishers" (you know the big names) over pricing, technology, delivery, licensing, etc. While the curve is not as steep as it was maybe two years ago, it's still a growing market with new e-book readers entering the market every day. But the vast majority of these e-book adopters and readers are adults. Which leads to ...
Young readers are having a different reading experience than adults. The word "experience" is key here. A book is, in a sense, a magical object. Young readers are indulging in - and maybe still learning to handle - the full experience of stepping into the world on the page. The physical book is a bridge into that world. There's still something very special about owning and holding a book.
Adults, on the other hand, are consuming books and stories. I liken it to eating popcorn - one toss after another, a stream of consumption. Long-running series fiction is huge among adults - and the books are at least twice as long as young readers' fiction. You can't carry all those books with you. Romance and erotica are big in e-books. You don't want to carry all those books around with you. On the road, on the plane, on-the-go, anywhere/anytime access to the distraction of long-form content and story is a must for busy adults. e-Books solve a number of problems for the way adults read and consume books.
I love that young readers still love paper books. Even though I was a reluctant reader as a kid, I've always put a lot of value on books (especially ones with pictures). A set of encyclopedias my parents bought for my older siblings when I was a baby came with a lot of bonuses, like a series of what I call "Little Scientist" books. Because there were a lot of rambunctious kids in our house, stuff naturally got scattered to the winds. I would find these little, hand-sized books - each filled with pictures, descriptions, and facts about birds, rocks, stars, trees - around the house and "rescue" them. I lined them up proudly on my dresser and considered them "MY BOOKS".
In some cases, struggling readers respond to e-books like no other format. But more and more it seems clear that it's not the format the engages a reader - whether they're voracious or reluctant/struggling - but the content that seems most important. Attention and mentoring are huge, too (see my READER tips for helping your reluctant reader). Maybe the content of some newer-media books is especially attractive, so it seems like the medium is the answer, skewing some studies. Just a thought.
Overall, for young readers it seems that CONTENT IS KING and PAPER IS STILL THE KING'S MESSENGER.