What's My Age Again? What the Popularity of YA Means for Digital Publishers

Oct 04, 2012


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Recent findings from Bowker Market Research reveal that 55% of readers who purchased young adult books belonged to the 18-and-up age bracket. In fact, the largest segment of those adult book buyers were between the ages of 30 and 44, and a good portion of that percentage were buying these books for themselves as opposed to gifts.

Do these statistics come as a surprise to anyone? Well, no, they probably don't. Not when you consider the sweeping success of blockbusters like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games. (And who can forget that the unpredictably popular Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy was originally written as adult-themed Twilight fan fiction?)

Turns out, clear-cut categories aren't so clear anymore, particularly when movie and television tie-ins bring these books to much wider audiences. Just read some of the reviews for the Pretty Little Liars series on Amazon; you'll likely find a lot of adult readers who turned to the books after watching the television series on ABC Family. But don't let those tie-ins fool you; the research also shows that lesser known YA titles are also just as likely to attract adult attention.

Even if these numbers are merely confirming that which everyone kind of already knew, they still carry interesting implications for the future of publishing, particularly as we trek onward into the digital future.

In a Digital Book World interview back in August, David Levithan, vice president, publisher and editorial director at Scholastic, mentioned that it is "so much easier to cross over to adults in the digital space than in the traditional space." Having seen such great success with The Hunger Games series, he offered a few thoughts as to why these barriers are likely falling by the wayside, which I've summarized here:

1.     You don't have to physically go to a different section of the bookstore when you're shopping digital.

2.     People may feel less embarrassed when reading these books on an e-reader.

3.     Blogs and online book communities tend to ignore the boundaries between teen and adult books and are more interested in talking about the story itself.

These are valid points, not just for YA, but for content as a whole. Digital, in essence, can provide readers with the freedom to read exactly what they want, with ease, and without judgment. What it is is far more important than where it is or how it is classified. It is also so much easier to build communities based on common interests.

(Yes, it also makes the process of getting to know your audience just a little more complex.)

But the YA category in particular is exciting, because it is an ideal playground for experimentation. It also happens to be a niche that people with different ages, experiences, and demographics relate to surprisingly well. (Of course, the category is not without controversy, and there has also been criticism that some YA titles are actually too adult for the 12-17 age group.)

That's what makes all of this so exciting, though; it pushes comfort levels both in terms of content as well as form. Moreover, if you take the core audience into consideration, there is perhaps greater opportunity to be on the leading edge in the exploration of print and digital technology.

Scholastic, for example, has been exploring multiplatform publishing and transmedia projects such as 39 Clues and Infinity Ring. In the aforementioned DBW interview Levithan stated, "Because of the company I'm at, we focus on eight-to-twelve-year-olds. Will there be something like 39 Clues and Infinity Ring that satisfies both things - reading and gaming - at the same time when they're adults?" 

It's certainly not hard to imagine. After all, there are plenty of adults who enjoy Pottermore just as much as the younger audience. With the right story and the right user experience, why not?

Plus, while some of these innovative approaches in YA and children's publishing may never see the light of day in the adult world, it probably doesn't matter too much. Many of us will be reading it, anyway.

As the effects of digital publishing continue to remove boundaries between categories, and mediums, and as tablets continue to encourage cross-platform content consumption, I'm sure we'll keep on learning new things about ourselves as readers, including tolerances, preferences, and overall habits. This is all necessary exploration as we figure out how print and digital can live together under the same roof.