Could the Digital Generation Close the EBook on Reading?

Jun 12, 2014

A few years back, when the economy bottomed out and sent the publishing industry into a nosedive, a colleague of mine told me that ebooks would save publishing. At the time, I thought she was crazy. Kindles were just beginning to gain popularity, and most of us were still hanging on to the idea that print publishing could survive-maybe even thrive-in the years to come. But a recent story from NPR has me doubting the possibility that reading, even digitally, will continue to flourish in the years to come.

This time, though, it's not the Digital Natives' fault-it's teenagers. In the NPR story, "Why Aren't Teens Reading Like They Used To?", Jennifer Ludden explains that although many teens still do read, "a roundup of studies, put together by the nonprofit Common Sense Media, shows a clear decline over time. Nearly half of 17-year-olds say they read for pleasure no more than one or two times a year - if that. That's way down from a decade ago."

That's bad news. What could be the reason for this change in behavior?

According to Ludden, it may be the abundance of digital platforms available to teens causing a distraction. "The digital revolution means there are more platforms than ever to read on. And yet, the number of American teens reading for pleasure has dropped dramatically. Researchers are asking if there's a link," says Ludden.

How could there not be a link?

There are so many sites and devices competing for our attention, naming them seems almost pointless, but here is an abbreviated list: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Vevo, Vine, and so on. I'm nearing 30 and I have a lot of trouble getting work done knowing there are so many interesting videos, podcasts, and social media posts to peruse on the internet. I suspect I'm not alone. That's exactly the reason why, when I know I need to get something done, I'll go to a café where I have to pay for wireless service. If it's not an option, it's not a problem.

I know you might be saying, "Don't be so quick to judge, Eileen. Teens and millenials could be reading on their mobile device." And you might be right. But a quick look around during an average subway ride that lasts more than 10 minutes will probably prove you wrong. Sure, you'll see a few passengers reading paperback books, but the majority of people, especially if they are under the age of 30, are on their phone or tablet. Could they be reading a book? Sure. But given how quickly their thumb is swiping down a page, or how intently they are listening to the headphones they have plugged into their device, it's not likely. 

So how do we convince younger generations to read? I'm not the only one wondering this. Look at the Reading Rainbow kickstarter that blew up the internet earlier this month. In a matter of a few days, close to $3 million was raised to bring Reading Rainbow-a show that people my age remember with fondness, but was, regrettably, cancelled-back to kids, but with a digital twist. This might be geared toward kids much younger than teens, but it is addressing the same problem. Kids need all the encouragement they can get to choose books in a world of competing distractions, and as the older (and wiser) generation, we have to find a way to bring back the excitement and joy of reading.

It seems to me that if you want the digital generation to do something, you have to make it easy. That's why options such as Oyster are going to be so critical in years to come. Oyster is a subscription based program that offers readers unlimited access to over 500,000 ebooks for $9.95 a month. It's quick, easy, and has tons of options for a variety of readers. Exactly what the kids want. The only real problem is the fact that you have to pay for the service.

But is it enough to just give the teens a library of easily accessible books or is something else missing? I think the real key to getting teens to read is finding out how they want to read and designing an experience that appeals to them. Maybe I'm just holding on to hope that it's not the act of reading that is a deterrent, but the form in which it is delivered. I don't know. But for the sake of bringing the joy of curling up with a good book to a younger generation, it's worth a try.