Wicked Lovely author Melissa Marr, her 12-year-old son, and her 17-year-old daughter are still reading print—but love e-books for trips and for co-reading. (Their Kindle app lets a story show up on several different devices registered to the same account.) Now e-books make up about one in nine sales of Marr's books, and she expects digital interest to continue to increase with her latest Wicked Lovely title, Darkest Mercy, due out February 22. "[Digital] is going to keep growing," Marr says. "It's inevitable."
As more titles become available and as device prices fall, a growing number of kids are jumping on the e-wagon. "I think [e-books] are the future for everyone," says Linda Braun, the immediate past president of the Young Adult Library Services Association. "They will take off because of ease of access and portability."
Slowly but surely, teens are buying e-books, though not yet as often as their parents are. Depending on the title, YA authors may see 5%–10% of their titles sell in e-form. What's holding them back? Many teens say they love the feel of old-fashioned books. And with limited income from babysitting and other low-paying jobs, kids who want to go electronic often can't afford three-figure prices for e-readers such as Kindles, Nooks, and iPads. And even if they can, they may be unable to find favorite titles—such as the Harry Potter series—in digital form. "We are indeed currently considering the right approach and strategy for the release of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books in digital format, which we hope to complete within a reasonable time frame," says Neil Blair, a partner in the Christopher Little Literary Agency, which represents Rowling, "but we do not have any firm dates for completion of that analysis nor of any release."
Rowling aside, print purists are increasingly hard to find in the YA market. "A sale is a sale," says Chip Gibson, president and publisher of Random House Children's Books. "Making our books available in as many forms as possible has got to be a good thing." Like many of his colleagues, he is keeping an open mind. "We'll do anything. The sky is the limit," he says. "It's incredibly exciting with moments of terror. To not be excited about it is to court Ludditism."
Increasingly, publishers say they are treating e-books and print books as equals. At HarperCollins Children's Books, publisher Susan Katz says, "We are rushing to publish every new book as an e-book simultaneously with the p-book. That is our plan, and that has been our plan for a while." Like other publishers, she is also adding e-book versions of backlist titles.
No one knows how many adults are buying e-books published for teens. Katz's guesstimate: sales are 50–50 between kids and adults. "It's amazing how [e-books] have opened up the market to adults," she says. "They wouldn't go into the kid section of the bookstore or the library necessarily." Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Apple, and major YA publishers all say they don't track the age of buyers and can't know how many buyers of teen books are actually teens.
Currently, kids seem to like electronic devices for socializing more than for reading. "When the social reading stuff starts to take off, which is 12 to 18 months off, I think you're going to see teens get excited about that," says Dominique Raccah, CEO and publisher of Sourcebooks. "This generation of teens is really the transition generation."
According to a joint consumer study with Bowker/PubTrack and the Association of Booksellers for Children, most teens are still using small devices more for socializing and texting than for reading. In fact, more than 80% of teenagers don't read e-books at all, with only five percent saying they read them frequently. Increasingly, experts expect social networking to become part of teen e-reading. "Imagine a book discussion inside the book," says Braun at YALSA. "Why not have it while you're actually reading? It's like posting on Facebook, but it's inside your book." Already the Kobo e-reader's Reading Life social initiative lets teens (and adults) post updates about the books they're reading and connect with other Kobo-using friends, sharing excerpts from their books.
Though teens are only slowly switching to digital stories, they're keeping an open mind. In the Kids and Family Reading Report national survey released last September, Scholastic and Harrison Group found that 57% of nine-to-17-year-olds said they were interested in reading an e-book, and a third said they would read more books for fun if they had access to digital titles on electronic devices. At the time of the survey, only 6% of parents owned an e-reader and 16% planned to buy one in the next year. More than eight in 10 parents said they do or would encourage their kids to use their e-reading device.
Teens will increasingly turn to e-books as they become easier to use, not just cheaper, many think. Right now, "It's too hard and too expensive," says Eliza Dresang, the Beverly Cleary professor for children and youth services at the University of Washington. "When kids are playing games and communicating and doing all the myriad other things they're doing, how could we believe they wouldn't read books on a device?"
Authors and publishers, for the most part, feel the same way. "It's really just another format and another way of distributing the books to someone who's interested in reading," says Andrew Smith, v-p and deputy publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Today's toddlers—who will grow up seeing even their picture books in digital form—will feel comfortable transferring from format to format, says Raccah. Even slightly older kids do: Raccah's 13-year-old grandson started to read James Patterson's Maximum Ride title Fang on Raccah's iPhone, then got the physical book at Barnes & Noble, and then found he could read the story on his iPod Touch. "They're used to this mobility," she says, noting that "enthusiasm on the Web drives e-book sales." As a result of Internet buzz over a new spring novel, The Water Wars by Cameron Stracher, Sourcebooks is selling more e-book than p-book versions of that title.