Teens Still Prefer Print, But For How Long?

Jan 14, 2015

Article ImageRead an old-style, no-batteries-required, turn-too-fast-and-get-a-paper-cut kind of book lately?

Chances are many of the teenage bookworms you know have as well. Teens are showing a preference for good ole printed books as industry watchers consider the roots of the connection and the impact on publishing.

Recent figures from the measurement firm Nielsen tell the tale: 54% of teens ages 13 to 17 strongly or generally prefer print, with 28% having no preference, and 18% strongly or generally preferring ebooks, according to Nielsen's "Understanding the Children's Book Consumer in the Digital Age: Fall 2014 report."

Likewise, Nielsen reported last month that 20% of teens ages 13 through 17 purchase ebooks. In comparison, the company says 23% of 18 to 29 year olds buy digital copies and 25% of 30- to 44-year-olds do the same.

The consulting firm Deloitte has its own data confirming print's dominance among kids 12 to 17 and among millennials, which Deloitte considers to be those ages 18 to 34, says Duncan Stewart, director of technology, media, and telecommunications research for Deloitte Canada. "The millennials [and younger kids] who have abandoned so many forms of traditional media are unusually attached to the uniqueness and the authenticity of print," he says.

What gives? Stewart says the main reason is because many young adults still enjoy the experience of reading a hardcover or paperback, which is very different from reading on an ereader, tablet, computer, or smartphone.

"Books become our own in a way that digital forms never will," Stewart says. "It's that idea there are specific attributes to physical products, and sometimes that works in a medium's favor, like books or movie theaters." 

There's almost a "retro response" on the part of teens "that a book is a book and, ‘We like the feel and the smell and the touch,'" says Lorraine Shanley, president of Market Partners International, a consulting firm that specializes in publishing.

This passion for print emerges in comments some teens share on Teenreads.com about their experiences reading a romance-themed ebook. Mixed in with the positive assessments of ebooks - they're convenient, for instance, and can help you whisk through the pages -  are reviews that could have been written by more seasoned readers. One 15-year-old says she likes reading digitally but still prefers the "unique feel of turning pages." An 18-year-old respondent says she missed the feeling of holding a book in her hand and highlighting and writing in the margins.

Meanwhile, factors that are driving the ebook market for adults may not be impacting the teen market the same way, Shanley says. "What [adults] are looking for is a good way to use their time efficiently and at a cost benefit, so ebooks are attractive because of that. Teens don't always have exactly the same priorities," says Shanley, who chaired the Launch Kids symposium, which is part of this week's Digital Book World Conference + Expo.

Notably, teens have access to school libraries and pass books among themselves more frequently than adults do, Shanley says. The fact that print resonates with young readers could signal the durability of inky reads. "If print books were still popular with older readers, but younger readers were 90% digital, that would be a bad sign [for the future of traditional books], however that is not what's going on," says Stewart, who co-authored Deloitte's 2015 predictions report on technology, media and telecommunications. The piece predicts print will account for more than 80% of books sold in the developed world this year.

"Although we believe ebooks across the board have plateaued at roughly 20%, that doesn't mean it's not a good business to be in," Stewart says. "We merely are trying to push back on the idea that the printed book is going to be extinct."

The consulting firm PwC isn't projecting doom for print either in its Global Entertainment and Media Outlook 2014-2018, but it does forecast that by 2018, 52% of consumer book publishing revenues in North America will be generated by sales of ebooks. "While that ‘tipping point' varies across genres and age groups, it is fair to say that the teen market is more similar than dissimilar in this regard," says Chris Lederer, a principal at PwC.

He says publishers believe the teen ebook market will grow as a few things change: non-credit card and digital wallet purchases become easier; new purchase, sharing, and rental models go mainstream; and schools adopt and require specific digital reading technologies.

Lederer says, "I would suggest that all publishers continue to buy and develop for the digital market, with the expectation that the teen market will continue to move toward digital."

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)