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Millennials and Generation Z have garnered much interest for their unique generational experiences, most notably for growing up as the first ‘digital native’ generations. The Digital Revolution and other major events of recent decades have had an enormous influence on the ways in which these generations discover, consume, and value books. As they grow older and steadily gain more influence over the consumer market, Millennials and Gen Z will determine the direction of the book industry in the coming decades.
Millennials and Generation Z, defined
The Pew Research Center, a non-partisan polling and demographics research organisation in the United States, defines Millennials as being born between 1981 and 1996; as such, they are currently aged 24–39. Pew defines Gen Z as being born between 1997 and 2012; they are aged 8–23. Millennials and Gen Z grew up amid the Digital Revolution, which first began in the 1970s and evolved rapidly throughout the following decades. Members of these generations have little or no memory of the world before the internet existed. They are known for their high usage of digital technology for accessing just about all of the media they consume – from music, to movies, to news articles.
Ebooks should therefore also have enormous appeal for young people in the digital age. Surprisingly, however, data from many sources suggests otherwise. A 2013 study by the youth insights consultancy Voxburner found that people between the ages of 16 and 24 preferred their books to be in print. Other studies have reaffirmed this finding in more recent years. Author and linguist Naomi S. Baron, in her 2015 book Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, details the ample data she collected from her own reading surveys, concluding that younger readers overall prefer print to digital. The Pew Research Center found in 2016 that ‘young adults are no more likely than older adults to be “digital-only” book readers’. And in 2019, Nielsen reported that 63% of all print books sales in the UK were to people younger than 44. Print appears to retain its appeal, even among those who rely solely on digital formats for almost all of their other media.
Why do the ‘digital native’ generations prefer print?
A host of different factors can help explain this. One is haptics, or the sense of touch. Readers of all ages often say they like to be able to hold a book, feel its texture and even smell the smell of its pages. According to survey data, the physicality of a printed book appeals even to the ‘digital native’ generations. These younger readers also often report struggling with screen fatigue, or digital burnout. With a large portion of one’s time now spent looking at screens (often out of necessity for one’s job or education), print offers a much-needed reprieve at the end of the day.
Another explanation involves the psychological phenomenon of conditioning. Before Amazon popularised ebooks with its release of the first Kindle e-reader in 2007, ebooks were expensive, impractical and uncommon. As children, Millennials and Gen Z read, and were read, nearly all of their books in print. Encountering books in print during these impressionable years may have shaped their conception of what the reading experience should feel like and established a sense of nostalgia for the format.
While childhood experiences may have boosted the favourability of print among Millennials and Gen Z, another conditioning force could have simultaneously reduced their perception of value in digital content. Having grown up with the internet, which by its nature provides largely free digital content, these generations may be less willing to pay for digital content and, therefore, perceive ebooks as offering less value for their price.
Readers’ devaluing of ebooks was worsened by Amazon’s original ebook pricing strategy in 2007, for which it set the price of its digital new releases and bestsellers at just $9.99. Amazon’s initial popularising of ebooks at this price may have influenced consumers’ perception of the value that an ebook inherently possesses. Now that ebook prices vary widely, and in many cases are more expensive, readers may perceive them as offering insufficient value for the money.
There are several other historical and economic factors that have moulded Millennial and Gen Z buying habits and prompted them to place greater importance on value for money. The Great Recession of 2007–09 coincided with the young-adult stage when many Millennials were first seeking to enter the job market. Economic experts say that the damaged job market at the time has had a lasting effect on the trajectories of Millennial careers and has left them with higher rates of unemployment to this day, in a phenomenon known as ‘scarring’.
The Great Recession only further exacerbated a slew of other economic disadvantages that have proliferated across several decades. These include staggeringly high tuition fees, debilitating student debt, higher housing costs and stagnation of wages relative to inflation. According to some economic experts, the combination of these historical and economic factors, affecting young people in both the UK and the US, have left Millennials and Gen Z on a course to be overall poorer than preceding generations. It is the logical outcome for today’s young people to adopt more careful spending behaviours and to place greater importance on the factor of value for money.
And this is exactly the outcome we see. From fabric softener to diamond rings, Millennials and Gen Z adults are less likely to make purchases that they deem non-necessities. They are also less likely to own a car or a house than their parents and grandparents were at the same age. Millennials have even been labelled ‘industry-killers’ and are often ridiculed for living with their parents longer and for delaying marriage and children. A look at the outsized financial obstacles they face in comparison to previous generations makes it clear why this is the case.
Saddled with the combined disadvantages of higher tuition fees, student debt and housing, and coupled with stagnant wages relative to inflation, younger generations’ willingness to spend money on products of every kind, including books, is filtered through their more discerning perception of value. And, placed in the context of why Millennials and Gen Z tend to perceive more value in print, it is understandable why print remains more popular.
But none of this is to say that ebooks aren’t valuable. They have many positive qualities that print cannot offer: to name just a few, they can be downloaded near-instantaneously without leaving home, they do not take up physical space, and they can be easily transported. Importantly, they are often more accessible for people with physical or cognitive disabilities. Ebooks hold a significant place in the consumer book market and will continue to do so.
What does this mean for the future of the publishing industry?
The certainty among publishers in the 2010s that ebooks would entirely replace print within just a few short years now looks unlikely. The total print-to-digital migration, which has thus far taken hold in the newspaper and magazine industries, may very well extend to book publishing in the future, but it is much further away than many thought when Amazon introduced the first Kindle. Younger generations’ format preference shows that print books and ebooks will likely coexist alongside each other for the foreseeable future.
This article is based on my master’s dissertation, in which I examine the data and reasons for Millennials’ and Gen Z’s book format preference, as well as their unique generational experiences and spending habits, in greater detail. If you would like to read my dissertation, you can do so here.