Posted on May 24, 2013 in Archive

What publishers can learn from U.K. youths

The hot-button ‘print versus digital’ issue which continues to be debated by everyone from authors and publishers to university newspapers has never seemed to stop anyone from buying digital books. The reason for this is neatly explained by a recent study in the UK.

The National Literacy Trust’s study on the reading habits of young people (apparently that’s age 8 to 16 these days) found that 52% preferred reading on a screen to reading print. Of course, studies like this, when they’re reported on at all, are usually accompanied by tabloid-style scare headlines about children ignoring books and no longer being able to read.

The Inbetweeners cast

Maybe not these British youths…

Needless to say, I was outraged, too. Luckily, just before I started my petition to have all tablets and computers burned, I noticed another of the study’s findings. More than half (53%) of young people preferred reading novels in print. That’s roughly the same percentage as those who generally prefer to to read on a screen.

I think there are two main reasons for this and both are largely to do with publishers.

1. Quality of Content

It’s no secret that the things we read on a screen are often not as well written as novels or high fiction. In fact, the Director of The National Literacy Trust (NLT) pointed that out himself. Partly, this is because of all the user-generated content online – we don’t all have our own personal editors to read through everything we type before we post it.

On the other hand, the fact that children and teenagers are perfectly happy to read news and information on a digital device, but return to print to read fiction, tells us something about book publishers’ priorities.

The entire first wave of digital books were really just test cases – special interest titles, DIY guides; very few highly anticipated best sellers. Although the selection of genres in digital is widening, books for young people – children in particular – are still lagging behind.

More generally, it seems it’s only recently occurred to publishers that the stories people want to read in print are often the same as the stories people want to read digitally. Increasingly, the print reader and the digital reader are likely to be the same person, just at different times of day, or in different places. Having said that…

2. Print and Digital are not in Competition

Digital books and magazines are not designed to replace printed books and magazines. They’re suited for different situations. For many people, nothing beats the feel of reading through an old, well-thumbed novel in bed. But for more and more of us, nothing beats the convenience and simplicity of being able to choose from a range of thrillers to dip into on the bus. Of course, the rise of digital publishing will affect sales of printed titles, but that’s only worth complaining about if you think of digital and print as competitors.

It’s an alarmist oversimplification to suggest that the digital publishing revolution will destroy publishers. It’s similarly ridiculous to think that new successful publishers won’t emerge from the smoke.

Whoever comes out the other side of the next few years in publishing will certainly understand better than I do the reasons people like to read certain things in print and others on a digital device.

The children in the NLT study have grown up with both digital screens and printed material. To them, reading isn’t a constant choice between artificial & artisan, old & new, print & digital. It’s about using whichever format is most appropriate for their current situation.

That’s a lesson publishers will need to learn in order to use digital publishing to its full potential.

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Image of child reading courtesy of eReaders in Canada