Kristen McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, presented a detailed outline of the technological challenges facing the teen book market at the fall meeting of the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association in Los Angeles on October 24.

After commenting on the proliferation of teen Web sites, blogs, and social networks and how they are transforming the way books are read, McLean said, “We’re dealing with a very empowered group in the teen market, and we need to assume they know more about technology than we do. We can’t get into all the niches they’re accessing.”

But booksellers can build an awareness of what’s involved in putting their customers’ reading skills in a social context. According to McLean, who drew from the ideas of Internet media critic Howard Rheingold, teens benefit from critical consumption and the act of discerning the accuracy of the information found on the Internet. Participation is also essential to this age group; teens naturally navigate to chat rooms and blogging sites. The issue of networking awareness, and knowing how to make good use of it—and when not to pay attention to social networking sites—is another key factor in looking at how technology is changing reading not just for teens, but for adults as well.

“Kids still crave to be seen, heard and to belong,” McLean said. “They need a sense of community, which they find on the Internet. Our job is to create that same community for them in the independent bookstore.” In addition to offering expertise on books for teens, posting staff picks, having a computer station available for research and asking kids to review galleys, McLean believes that hiring teenage booksellers could be the most effective way to generate Gen Z sales in the indies. “Teenagers are great workers and like having a sense of responsibility,” McLean noted. “They also bring other teens into the store. In the current market, hospitality is as important as customer service when choosing where to buy books.”

Emphasizing her conviction that reading continues to be an active part of the lives of teenagers, McLean reminded the audience that “the traditional book is not going away. It’s just getting some well-dressed siblings”—in the form of e-readers, electronic texts, and audio by download. Her handout included statistics from a Kaiser Family Foundation Study that found nearly three out of four eight-to-18-year-olds read for pleasure in a typical day, averaging 43 minutes a day. In addition, the Pew Center states that “teens are often much more enthusiastic authors and readers of blogs than their adult counterparts. Teen bloggers, led by older girls, are a major part of this tech-savvy cohort.” McLean’s interpretation of this data is that it indicates a generation of highly communicative readers and writers is coming along that represents future customers for grownup books, and booksellers should be optimistic for the future of the written word.

Where booksellers actually fit into the new constellation of reading formats is both a provocative and troubling question. Of the two dozen bookstores represented at the seminar, all acknowledged that they don’t have an effective platform for Gen Z customers. Deborah Gould, co-owner of Village Book Shop in Glendora, Calif., told the group that she has held two successful poetry events in her bookstore for students from the local high school. “The kids read their own work, and some of them are amazing poets,” Gould said.

Although Gould plans to organize a third reading, so far the events have not brought the teens back into Village Book Shop beyond the night of the readings. On the other hand, a different group of students from Glendora High School asked Gould for permission to hold a Breaking Dawn party when the Stephenie Meyer book was published last year. “They planned the whole thing, and we had the event. There were about 50 kids here, and it was wonderful. They really showed initiative,” Gould said.

The upside of all of this, McLean said in summary, “is that the Gen Z reader can be an incredible source of intelligence and information. They will show you the way to more effective retailing if you will let them.”