Culture: Gen Y loves reading

Culture: What's fuelling Gen Y's love of reading?
As the release date for the film is scheduled for release on December 14, 2012, picking up a pocket 75th anniversary edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit issued by publisher HarperCollins and featuring Tolkien's own illustrations seemed fitting. 

In Tolkien's tale, the precursor to The Lord of the Rings, we find Hobbit Bilbo Baggins leaving the comforts of home at the request of the wizard Gandalf to undertake an epic journey, reconciling the  two parts of his whole self and sharpening his character when put to the challenge.

"Tolkien’s first published novel... is a much more artistically and intellectually sophisticated book than it often gets credit for, and it richly rewards adult re-reading," suggests Corey Olsen at The Wall Street Journal, pointing to The Hobbit's character depth, use of poetry and song and story construction.

It's an unusual but not uncommon undertaking, to read again something you first chanced upon in the library at primary school. The characters are familiar but the story is not quite the same. But for new generations of readers, old tales are coming to life again, given new zeal by technologies, social media, films, crafty marketing and Generation Y's love of a self (or bookshelf) discovery.

"I'm currently reading Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie," says Malaysia-based blogger Julia Low. "I bought this while browsing through a children's store at the Sydney airport. I had heard only wonderful things about Neverland and wanted in on Peter and Wendy's adventures." 

In the year that saw the collapse of Borders book stores, a downshift in sales through book chains and the commensurate acceleration of online sales, Generation Ys (born between 1979 and 1989) spent the most money on books in 2011, according to research out of the U.S., usurping the bigger Baby Boomer population as consumers of the written word in bookish form, whether on tablet, online or in print. 

According to the 2012 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics and Buying Behaviors Annual Review conducted by industry trade magazine Publisher's Weekly and Bowker Market Research, Gen Y's 2011 book expenditures rose to 30 per cent, up from 24 percent in 2010, passing the Boomers' 25 per cent share.

The Review noted that 43 per cent of Gen Y's purchases went to online channels, with online book retailers accounting for 39 per cent of unit purchases, up from 31 per cent in 2010. Still not an enormous share of the total book sales market but on the upswing, e-book consumption rose from 4 per cent of unit sales in 2010 to a not-insignificant 14 per cent in 2011.

BookStats, the annual industry sales survey coordinated by the Association of American Publishers and Book Industry Study Group, found that book sales fell 2.5 per cent over all in 2011 to $27.2 billion, suggesting that there is a profit margin between print and digital to be overcome. 

It was much the same story in Australia in 2011: book sales slipped 7.1 per cent after the collapse of REDgroup Retail (Angus & Robertson, Borders) to 60.4 million, according to Nielsen BookScan, while the value of those sales slumped 12.6 per cent to $1.1 billion.

Amazon is reportedly selling 114 e-books for every 100 printed books, helped by the popularity of its Kindle. Unit book sales rose 3.4 per cent, to 2.77 billion in 2011 with the discrepancy due to higher sales of lower-priced e-books, said American industry journal Publisher's Weekly

Children and young adults book sales, meanwhile, from January to June 2012 were up 40.7 per cent on the same period last year according to AAP StatShot, with a 251.5 per cent increase in e-book sales (up from $46.1 million to $146.4 million) over the same period last year. E-book sales claimed 17 per cent of the children's book market, with sales across all children's formats on the uptake.

Flagging a significant shift to digital, the Review posits that there is cause for the industry to think seriously about its book choices (mystery/detective, romance and science fiction sell well in e-form), publishing platforms, price points and retail distribution channels, such as the behemoth discounting UK outlet The Book Depository.

Telling is the recent merger of Penguin and Random House (now Penguin Random House) – a high-profile collaboration in the world of book publishing, with the mega-publisher now accounting for about one in four of all books sold.

"The book industry is operating in a new and dynamic landscape that puts much more power in the hands of consumers," said Kelly Gallagher, vice-president of Bowker Market Research.

"Consumers can now very easily purchase virtually any book they want, whenever they want it and get it at a competitive price. It’s more essential than ever before to understand who is buying and what their expectations and habits are."

Rowena Cseh, editor and publisher of gr magazine, which has seen a growth in its own youth and young adult readership, says that big books during Gen Y's formative years, such as the Harry Potter series, were game-changers for many Gen Ys who may otherwise not have been readers.

For them, it's about what their peers are reading and what they're saying online.

"Gen Y is online savvy and looking for information in that arena, compared to the Baby Boomers who may be more bricks and mortar browsers," says Cseh. "It could be that they are finding out more about good books from this avenue, linking up with resources like us, or book loving peers, social media, etc., and that may mean they are more confident to buy books or enticed by others enthusiasm."

Or they may be pining for the want of seclusion from the often hostile outside world, which has been precarious at best as Gen Ys have grown into young adults negotiating their place in the grand scheme of things. 

Ironically, this is the same sense of outside hostility – of a need for escape from reality – that saw J.K. Rowling retreat to cafes in her time of dire need to write tales of an orphan boy-wizard; the heroic underdog fighting against death itself with his comrades, just as Bilbo Baggins does with the dwarves in The Hobbit. In both, as with the popular Hunger Games trilogy, there is somewhat of a mythologised reflection of the world outside, albeit fictionalised, only the protagonist wins.

Films are proving to be the perfect vehicle for book selling, and vice versa for movie ticketing, but also the discovery of old tales by a new generation. In 2012-13, no fewer than 16 books are being made into films, according to one source. They include Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, starring Hugh Jackman, Russel Crowe and Anne Hathaway and, of course, The Hobbit.

But even amongst Gen Ys, there remain lovers of analog – the tangible, dusty pages of a book – and the idea of partaking in an activity, an adventure of sorts, that connects heart, soul and mind with words on the page, and transports us to places far and wide where victories may be won and obstacles overcome.

Stories that connect across generations, that stand the test of time, will not soon pass away into the digital ether, but within it might find new life. In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, "If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!"

Perhaps in the digital age, Gen Y is finding the value of escape via the vehicle of books.

"I can't stay reading a computer screen for too long; and I love the feel of a book and the intimate and personal experience when reading from a book," says GWAS book reviewer Brooke. "And, of course, the smell. Old or new, they smell divine! Like old friends."


The Salonierre said...

Growing up as a child, I loved reading and still do. In fact, my mum reminded me just the other day of how much I love to read. It's true that there's been a downturn in book sales and Borders stores keep getting closed down... but if you take a look around the publishing industry websites and blogs, you'd find that books are still selling like hotcakes. Plus there are so many interesting discussions about ebooks versus traditional paperbacks, self-publishing versus traditional publishing, etc... things keep changing but they always stay interesting and there are still so many great stories being told out there! I can totally understand the portable friendliness of ebooks on Kindles and iPads, plus it makes it a lot easier to store your book collection - but I still love a book I can hold in my hand so much. There's nothing like being curled up in bed, just flipping back and forth between the pages of a good book!