Young adults and their books: where does digital fit in?

In general terms the phrase ‘young adult’ (YA) refers to teenagers. But in the children’s publishing industry, YA is a far more complex concept. While the official definition may not have changed, there are a lot of adults who read and relate to YA fiction, and are therefore impacting the readership of the YA genre. This readership now extends out of the teenage bracket to readers in their thirties. Statistics show that 55% of YA books are bought by over eighteens and 78% of those are buying the books for their own consumption.

Despite that, the general consensus is that this audience – that is, readers of YA fiction – is in the best position for consuming digital technology; “teens continue to express a preference for print that may seem to be at odds with their perceived digital know-how.” This statement plays towards a particular stereotype which assumes that all young people are adept at using technology. Furthermore, it suggests that all young people should be using it. Just because young people are supposedly best equipped with the skills to use technology effectively, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to use it. While some aspects, such as social media, are more obviously embraced by young people, this should not immediately suggest that young people want everything, in particular books, digitalised.

The evolution of the e-reader
The evolution of the e-reader. © John Blyberg, 2010

Statements like this, which force everything digital into the hands of young people, were the results of a study that found a “disparity between the number of YA e-books being purchased and the relatively low number of kids who claim to read e-books.” It was this study that led industry experts to realise just how influential the 18-30 audience is on the sales of YA fiction. This wider readership has affected the analysis of e-book sales in this genre which begs the question, why does it matter if young people don’t enjoy e-books as much as society expects them to? Perhaps young people are finding other ways of combining their reading with technology.

The Road to Discovery

Before any reading – on Kindle, on iBook, in print – can begin, young people have to find the books they want to read. There are, of course, the traditional routes of newspaper reviews, perusing bookshops and word of mouth, but the internet has opened up a new realm of marketing possibilities.

A Nielsen report revealed that 45% of teens are ‘at least moderately influenced by social media’ which can encompass a diverse range of outlets. Sites such as Facebook and Instagram are, at a basic level, technologically enhanced forms of word of mouth. The obvious social aspects of these sites, as well as the many others in existence, provide the perfect platform for discovery via recommendation. Websites like, as well as its parent company, Amazon, rely on similar tools of referral in the form of spaces dedicated to ‘because you read’, ‘we think you’ll like this’, and ‘people who bought this’ sections.

Discovery of new titles to read has also been somewhat affected by consumer generated content on various platforms. The act of reading, among avid readers especially, become a much more social hobby, despite it being commonly thought of as a solitary activity. This change has led to the growth of an ever-expanding community. With all the new outlets available for expressing interests and passions, this means that there is now a huge amount of book bloggers in varying forms (‘booklrs’, ‘bookstagrammers’ and ‘booktubers’), all of whom aim to spread a love of books and reading through reviews, photography and videos.

The presence of these passionate readers offers a rich and exciting new way to discover books, from the next big thing, to a fantastic read you may never have found otherwise.

The Eternal Debate

Once young people have found their next book, however they prefer to do so, how do they actually consume it? The book versus e-book debate is a long-running one. With both sides having benefits and downfalls, it doesn’t look like a debate that will ever come to a conclusive end, especially if considering every kind of reader out there – from those who read casually at bed time, to the academic reading to gain knowledge. When considering just one demographic it is perhaps easier to discern whether print or e-books are ultimately more popular.

In 2012, Publishers Weekly wrote an article about the relationship between YA readers and e-books. This article came to the conclusion that teens are embracing e-books which is what many people, as previously stated, would assume; “Teenagers are a demographic perfectly poised to consume digital content.” One of the biggest pros of e-books is the immediate gratification they provide. The buying process is quick, especially with the speed of discovery aided by the aforementioned ‘related to this title’ sections. Once a reader has chosen, they pay, they download, it’s there on their device. It is this immediacy that teenagers are particularly susceptible to, having grown up with so much right at their finger tips.

On the other side, a 2014 Nielsen report claimed parenting was an integral factor when considering why teens are still engaging with print. Because many parents still favour print books, this is the format they instinctually give their children. By this theory, it’ll take a while before parents are automatically considering e-books when finding something for their children to read. This parental influence means, according to the same Nielsen report, that it can take up to two generations for something new to stick as society becomes accustomed to and welcomes new things; the YA genre is an example in itself.

Ever since the debate between e-books and print began, one point of argument against e-books has always been that digital technology cannot replicate or replace the feeling of holding a real book in your hands. Reading from a hard copy can be a much more immersive experience and comprehension can be more advanced, with neurological studies supporting those claims. That immersion can be linked to particularly passionate readers of YA who want to have full bookshelves and appreciate the cover art and design of books, something that really cannot be replicated in digital form.

Beyond the Pages

Once the story is finished, questions answered, the book closed, what happens to it then? For most people, it would go back on the shelf and that would be it.

Books and technology side by side. © Alice Hammond, 2014

However, the YA demographic is a passionate one and, encouraged by social media, they love to share this passion. As Emma Allison puts it, “teenagers do not passively love young adult fiction and its authors. The ferocity of [their] devotion rivals the heartbreak caused by the very same novels.” The internet has created a platform on which their love for books can be shared in an international community.

One website that is particularly popular for this age group is Tumblr. Of all the Tumblr users, who contribute or browse the site on a monthly basis, 46% are aged between 16 and 24. While Tumblr is by no means restricted to a book-based community, it is a “passion network” which, unlike other social media sites, holds its focus on connecting people based on what they enjoy; in this case, reading, books, and the lifestyle surrounding those things. Building communities this way means everyone is considered equal. Fans can reach out to their favourite authors who can, in return, engage with their readers.

It can be concluded that young people are, for the most part, engaging with technology. However, when it comes to their reading habits, it’s not a decision they should have to make: digital or not. Maybe the real challenge isn’t trying to make everything digital.

Maybe the challenge is to create a balanced relationship between digital and print. One which offers young people the freedom to interact with books the way they want to, whether that be all digital, no digital, or somewhere – anywhere – in the middle.

While reading has become a much more sociable thing, it is still a different experience for every individual reader and this should be celebrated. Young people shouldn’t have digital content forced upon them simply because they are expected to want it.


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