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How younger generations are changing the book market: a Q&A with publishing expert Alison Baverstock

How younger generations are changing the book market: a Q&A with publishing expert Alison Baverstock

By Jocelyn Pontes |

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The publishing industry has undergone great transformations in recent years as advancements such as e-commerce and online marketing have changed how books reach consumers. Millennials and Gen Z will play an increasingly influential role in how publishing continues to change in the coming decades. We discussed these younger generations and the future of book markets with Dr Alison Baverstock. Alison is Professor of Publishing at Kingston University. A long-term commentator on the publishing industry, she co-founded publishing education at Kingston in 2006. A previous winner of the Pandora Award for Services to Publishing, she is the author of several books on publishing, including How to Market Books (Routledge), which recently published its 6th edition. With a big commitment to extending literacy, she is the founder of the KU Big Read and readingforce.

Despite being known as the first ‘digital native’ generations, Millennials and Gen Z still seem to prefer reading print books over ebooks according to data. What does this mean for the future of print and ebook markets?

I think the interesting points you raise link to human nature – and help us identify traits that were so in evidence over this very long and difficult year. When so much of our life is spent on screen, what we have missed most is tactile experiences and so it does not surprise me at all that reading print books is still more popular with young people.

I run two book-sharing projects.The Kingston University Big Read offers all our new students the experience of sharing a book before they come to us, in order to give them something in common with other students. Reading Force (www.readingforce.org.uk) seeks to encourage Forces families to keep in touch through shared reading, and this can be particularly valuable as they spend a lot of time living through separations that come with the job. Both have been very popular and confirm that young people still want print.

For The Big Read we experimented with ebooks and physical books and the print were much more popular. For Reading Force, overall we saw a 600% increase in requests to take part, with people constantly talking about how it felt so good to have something new to talk about and how a shared book keeps you in the  mind of those you want to connect with – for far longer than a phone call (because you can be thinking, ‘I wonder what they will make of this bit?’).

There is also significant evidence that a printed book engages more of your senses than an ebook. Digital reading requires sight, but can be very tiring on the eyes. But a print book needs to be touched (think of the pleasure of an embossed jacket), heard (as you turn the pages) and smelt (does anyone else love the smell of a new hardback?). I also find that the knowledge that I can get my email on the same device as I read an ebook tends to make the experience less relaxing. Finally, let’s not forget the huge rise in audiobook sales, and how people have come to realise what a wonderful experience being read to can be. It’s much slower than eye-reading, with the added pleasure of the voice doing the reading having been specially chosen for the job.

Finally, it interested me that my (no longer) children kept ‘borrowing’ books I had purchased for me to read, and clearly really really enjoyed the experience. I am still trying to come to terms with the battered edition of The Mirror and the Light that was returned to me. Should I be delighted that my son so enjoyed it that he carried it around in his backpack for three weeks, or distressed that it’s now very far from the pristine read I was looking forward to?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated consumers’ migration from in-person purchases to online ones. How do you think the pandemic is affecting younger generations’ relationships with books and how they discover and purchase them?

I think recommendations are going to be massively important. Bookshops and schools encouraging reading and suggesting what their pupils might enjoy are likely to be really important to ensuring we know what kind of material to look out for. I think one of the trends over the last few months has been learning to look out for a variety of recommendations, and whose are to be trusted!

Generation Alpha, the rising generation who are now young children, are growing up in a vastly different world than that of even a mere decade ago. With not just the internet but also smartphones and tablets available to them, this new generation will be even more tech-savvy than Millennials and Gen Z. What changes do you think they will bring to future book markets?

I think the need for touch will survive; the compact nature of a book, in which you can literally lose yourself, is pretty special. The experience for a young child sitting close to someone who reads them a story is hard to beat – for comfort as well as the development of language and empathy. As a society, though, we have to care that this is an experience had by the many, not just the few.

And so I will finish with a reminder that books make fantastic Christmas presents, and the bookshops are open again. If we buy from them we support their survival, and in the process ensure the availability of a wide range of reading material. This is in everyone’s interests.

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