The next teens you see engrossed in their phones might not be texting or Snapchatting, but reading a suspense thriller. That’s thanks to Hooked, an app aimed at 13- to 24-year-olds that serves up pulse-pounding stories in the form of SMS conversations. Since launching last year, Hooked has been downloaded nearly 2 million times and recently became the top-grossing book app for iOS. This milestone comes on the heels of new research showing that Millennials lead other generations in reading and still generally prefer print books to e-books. Meanwhile, the YA market continues to see strong sales. These data depict a publishing industry in transition—one that’s modernizing in response to evolving reading habits but in no danger of succumbing to new digital overlords.
Contrary to popular belief, Millennials read more than older generations do—and more than the last generation did at the same age. They’re bibliophiles drawing from both the page and the screen.
According to the latest Pew Research Center survey on book reading, 18- to 29-year-olds are the age group most likely to have read a book in any format over the past year. Fully 80 percent have done so, compared to 73 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds, 70 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds, and 67 percent of those age 65 and older. This age gradient has largely held steady since 2012. When asked why they read books or any written content in general (such as magazines or blogs), Millennials are far more likely than older adults to say it’s for a specific purpose, such as work, school, or research. But they’re also equally likely to read “for pleasure” or “to keep up with current events,” which suggests that their comparatively high rates of readership will endure as they age.
These findings are echoed by a recent report from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). The study examined the narrower category of “literature,” or novels, plays, short stories, or poems not required by work or school. Last year, 43 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds read literature, a share higher than or on par with nearly every other age group. The only exception is 65- to 74-year-olds (at 49 percent)—early-wave Boomers well known for their high level of educational attainment and penchant for high culture. An older NEA report, meanwhile, found that after declining sharply throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, the share of 18- to 24-year-olds who read literature rose sharply starting in 2002—in other words, when this age group began to be dominated by Millennials instead of Generation Xers.
Readers today have more ways than ever to access the written word. But the tried-and-true endures: Print books remain by far the most popular format among all age groups. Last year, 72 percent of Americans read a print book, dwarfing the share who read an e-book (35 percent) or listened to an audiobook (16 percent). And there are no signs that print will be dethroned anytime soon. According to the Pew study, adults under 30 are no more likely than their elders to read digital books exclusively (around 6 percent). A survey of college students by American University professor Naomi Baron found that 92 percent prefer reading print material to digital material. If the cost of the print and digital copy of a leisure book were the same, 80 percent would pick the paper version. Even late-wave Millennials and Homelanders are attached to hard copies: In 2014, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of 6- to 17-year-olds told Scholastic they’ll “always want to read books in print,” up from 60 percent two years earlier.
These preferences are reflected in sales trends. After years of steady growth, e-book sales slowed sharply starting in 2014 and have since plateaued. In the first half of 2016, sales of digital adult and young adult fiction fell 18 percent and 35 percent, respectively—the largest declines of any format. Meanwhile, children’s and young adult books continue to see strong sales in hardcover and paperback. Since 2005, the juvenile market has grown an impressive 40 percent. Though YA fiction’s success can be partly credited to its crossover popularity among older adults, readers under 30 still constitute the majority of its reader base, according to Nielsen.
Meanwhile, another pillar of the publishing industry—the independent bookstore—has also been defying expectations. Even as big retailers like Barnes & Noble continue to shutter stores, mom-and-pop bookstores are climbing out of their long slump. Their ranks have grown 21 percent from 2010 to 2015. Owners attribute the resurgence to superior customer service and book buyers’ desire for a social experience. “My customer is here because they care about more than price,” the owner of a thriving Manhattan bookseller told The Wall Street Journal. “They want to be greeted, they want a sense of community, and they have a craving for culture.”
Why are books resisting the digital tsunami that has overtaken other media industries like music and television? Many readers simply consider physical books better: They’re easier on the eyes, don’t run out of batteries, and offer fewer distractions. Baron, the author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, says there’s a “physical, tactile, kinesthetic component to reading” that gets lost with e-books. It’s the same impulse that drives consumers to visit their neighborhood bookstore instead of Amazon. The biggest selling points of e-books—portability and lower prices—aren’t yet enough to get readers to make the switch.
To be sure, young people are consuming plenty of electronic text. Even as they balk at e-books, they’re gobbling up thousands of words every day in the form of their social media feeds, articles, blogs, online magazines, and apps like Hooked. A Pew analysis revealed that Millennials who follow the news are more likely than any other generation to prefer reading it (42 percent) to watching (38 percent) or listening to it (19 percent). But the vast majority of news-reading young adults (81 percent) prefer to get their fix online; older generations strongly prefer the newspaper. Millennials are not giving up traditional books, but they are trending more toward phones and tablets. The former is for sustained concentration and the latter for short-form content.
Where does this leave the publishing industry? There’s no question that its more traditional arm—print books sold in brick-and-mortar stores—still faces challenges. Sales of this kind totaled $11 billion in 2015, down from $17 billion in 2007. But what was considered a permanent downward trend is now recovering, with sales rising modestly since 2014. The bottom line is positive: Though demand may fluctuate, Millennials are readers who will continue to seek the specific experience that print books fulfill. More broadly, they’re a bright spot for those in the business of text-based content. Not everything has to be a video or a picture. There’s just as much room, if not more, for words as there used to be.