Will we ever tire of talking about the future of books? The subject is on everyone's mind--more now than ever, I think, because (to some of our surprise) we have started to see an uptick in the amount of revenue coming in from eBooks on the Kindle and iPad (and others). For us, that's additional revenue, at which we never turn up our noses, even if it's not paying the bills.
I have all these thoughts swirling around in my head because we have been toying with the idea of starting a young adult imprint, and I would most likely be the editor in charge of the line. A lot of marketing experts tell us that teenagers are in charge of a great deal of disposable income and make a lot of household buying decisions, and a hit could really fill up our coffers and fund a lot of other things. So I've begun trying to figure out teenagers' reading habits and how they dovetail (or not) with adult reading habits. And this leads me back to the question: Books, ebooks, or both?
Since I so badly want to believe that the physical book is here to stay, I have to be careful about not twisting "evidence" to meet my preconceived notions. However, I do see evidence that people still like and want to buy printed books. Just last week I was in one of those large warehouse stores---you know, the type where you can buy a 42-pound box of cornflakes for $28. The product on display in the physical center of the outlet was...you guessed it: books. There were books for all ages and tastes there, from children to adults. And while some were bargain-priced remainders, there were also plenty of current hardcovers, discounted off the cover price (good business) but not deeply discounted to move them. Given that these super-centers choose to stock the items that people want the most, I felt good about seeing books in such a central location.
Books also took up a decent amount of shelf space in two successful retailers I visited: Walmart and Target. I find that interesting, because from what I can tell, the two companies have very different approaches to their merchandise. The former wants to keep it cheap and move it quickly. The latter wants to be perceived as more "edgy" or more on the forefront of product design. Which, to me, says that reading (and the desire to buy books) crosses socioeconomic lines. We know that the educated and wealthy buy books; their presence in Walmart tells me that books are desired by people at the lower rungs of the economic ladder, and their presence in Target tells me that books can still be considered "cool." In both cases, I doubt that these savvy retailers, who want to make the most of their physical space, would have a book section if they didn't feel that it attracted customers and profit.
Here's the thing, though. Most of the books in Walmart and Target were Young Adult books. Scads and scads of the Twilight series, plus a bunch of others (Hunger Games, Gone, and so forth). I can see demographics at work here: Maybe teenagers with a little bit of money would prefer to shop in Target over Walmart, and lower income parents who want to buy books for their kids want to pay rock-bottom prices for them, hence the Walmart connection.
But do these "kids" turn into adult readers? I certainly hope so...and I think they do. Most of us readers started fairly young and never stopped; it's a habit that's hard to break. And the people I see pulling out their Kindles are almost never under the age of 30. The iPad may be different--it's a little early to tell--but most of the people proudly displaying their iPads, as their most recent expensive little Apple toy of honor, seem to me to be yuppies in their 30s. I'm thinking the Kindle may not be "cool" enough for the younger reader; and while the iPad certainly has the cool quotient, it's not something that a lot of kids can afford. So that may keep them in printed books for a while - perhaps graduating to ebooks as they get older, UNLESS they get hooked on the feel of a print book, as so many of us are.
And kids are acquisitive. They like to buy THINGS, to have THINGS. A bunch of bits and bytes on a computer screen doesn't make quite the statement that a copy of a book does, when you are sitting and reading it under a tree.
All of this is to say that I can't quite believe everything I'm hearing about teens not reading any more, about being so immersed in FaceBook and texting that the desire to read has flown completely out the window. Part of what I think YA adult books do is create a community of readers--book series become a meeting point for teens, something else to tweet about, post into Facebook about, and so forth. In this way, they're like fashions...everyone wants to have the cool thing. I suppose this is true of adults, too...look at how many people have bought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is now gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. It seems harder to pull off a community-based book for the adult market, perhaps because adult tastes have matured and become more critical. Despite that, though, I suspect that kids now reading the Twilight books will find themselves pulled into Janet Evanovich, et al., as they get older.
Either way, I think we as a society benefit from encouraging our kids to read, so I hope we'll keep doing that. I will share a technique my wife and I pioneered a number of years ago. Two of our kids are voracious readers; the third, not so much. We made the continuance of certain privileges contingent on reading a book per month. Of course, we had to read the book,too, in order to give a quiz on it, but we took turns and it wasn't too onerous. That particular child never became a voracious reader, but he DOES pick up books for vacation and airplane trips, so we feel partially successful.
Another thing I strongly suspect (with no real evidence to back me up) is that you can't be a good writer if you are not a reader. (That's not to say that readers are by definition good writers; the manuscripts on my desk prove that.) But I don't see how anyone can learn to write without doing a lot of reading. One of my friends is a college professor, and he tells me that he always feels that a student's ability to write well is the single best predictor of success in the workplace. That makes sense to me; don't most of us toss out poorly written resumes and cover letters in today's intensely competitive environment? This is why I say: I don't care what kids read, as long as they read. If they're reading Hunger Games today, maybe they'll be reading one of our books tomorrow.