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.
Mixed Feelings from Teens
An anecdotal survey by PW reveals no consensus among teen readers. That is, no two teenagers feel the same way about e-books vs. print. "I like the feeling of turning a page," says Emily Lowrie, 14, of La Verne, Calif. Among her e-book beefs: the percent progress at the bottom ("distracting") and the loss potential (a much bigger deal than with a paperback). Some of her peers dislike the whole notion of battery-operated e-readers. "I don't like that you have to charge them," says Rachel Sipress, 13, of Duluth, Minn. "It feels weird to hold it in your hand. It doesn't feel as nice with a mechanical thing as with a book. The few times I've used them, my eyes start to hurt and water." She also likes keeping her 50 or so books on her bookcase, and being able to pick them up and reread them.
Michael Pirovano, 17, of Schaumburg, Ill., wanted a Kindle and got it for his birthday in December. "It feels sacrilegious," he says. And yet, he sees advantages. "My thinking is that as long as teens are reading, who cares how we do it. [But] teens don't normally have the money to buy an e-reader. And many teens don't read enough to have a need for it."
When bookstores and libraries are far away, some kids are turning to e-books. Kate Kropid, 12, of Superior, Wis., asked her grandparents for a Nook for Christmas since it's a hike from her home to a library or bookstore. She got Amanda Hocking's Switched because it was cheap, and also the first two Pretty Little Liars titles. Yet even she still prefers paper over e-books. "It [owning an electronic story] is not as exciting as owning a book," she says. "But it's easier to download a book than to go to the bookstore."
Sarah Yockey, 17, of Champaign, Ill., loved reading e-books on her iPod Touch when she lived overseas for a year. "I read some of the classics because they're cheap, and a lot of them are free." (Among her e-picks: Anne of Green Gables, from 1908.) Mara Corbett, 15, of McLean, Va., loves her year-and-a-half-old Kindle, especially in the summer, when she doesn't want to lug too many books to the beach. The only downside: when friends ask her if they can borrow a good book, she has to turn them down and say, "It's on my Kindle."
The current generation of kids has grown up thinking hardcovers were special, prominently displaying them on their shelves. "Today's teens were all the big Harry Potter readers," says Jon Anderson, executive v-p and publisher of Simon & Schuster's Children's Publishing. "There was just a natural association with the physical book from that trend."
However, given that teens gobble up series, the digital format has a great appeal. "[Series] customers love that they can finish one book in a series and immediately download the next book within 60 seconds," says Russ Grandinetti, v-p of Kindle Content for Amazon.
Teens are slowly figuring out that their local library will let them borrow e-books for a week or two. They enter their card number and either check out the digital story or get on a waiting list for a popular title. Though money is always a problem, libraries are beefing up their e-book offerings and rethinking how they spend their dollars. "There are opportunities here," says Braun. "Perhaps you don't have to buy so many expensive reference books any more, and you can turn that into e-books."
To be able to afford more digital titles, some libraries are forming consortiums to pool their money. Since March 2010, every library in Oregon, for example, belongs to a group called Library to Go. Plenty of obstacles exist, however. Like other librarians, Oregon state librarian Jim Scheppke notes the large number of "disappointed Kindle users" who are upset that library e-books don't work on their device.
Amazon so far refuses to make library books work on the Kindle—which is leading some librarians to recommend that teens buy Nooks or Sony readers. People are creating their own Kindle libraries, though. BookLending.com—called the KindleLendingClub.com until last week, when Amazon asked for a renaming—matches borrowers with lenders. It started less than two months ago, but already has more than 13,000 registered users on its site and more than 10,000 Facebook fans. However, users can only "lend" an e-book once.
The lending club's "25 most wanted" list includes nine YA books—among them, Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay; Amanda Hocking's My Blood Approves and Ascend; Karen McQuestion's Favorite; and Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver. Officially, club users need to be 18, but parents can download books for their kids. "It's really a very close kind of patterning on what Nook is doing already and has been doing," says Catherine MacDonald, a founder of the club.
Librarians wish they could buy even more titles, but some publishers—such as Macmillan, Scholastic, and Simon & Schuster—aren't playing yet. "It's fear of cannibalization," says Andrew Weinstein, director of merchandising for Ingram Content Group, which powers a network of retail Web sites competing with Amazon and also library Web sites. (Independent bookstores often sell through sites such as indiebound.org, which Ingram services.) In addition to Harry Potter, some popular titles like To Kill a Mockingbird and Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are as yet unavailable in e-book form. Teens can buy e-book versions of other titles, such as the Hunger Games series, but cannot yet borrow them in e-book form at libraries. (Scholastic has no date set for a library e-book of that popular series.) Though publishers are loathe to say it, they're afraid that people won't buy e-books if they can get them for free at the library.
"Librarians are hoping that we can continue to have good relationships with publishers," says Scheppke. "Every now and then we hear hints that a publisher thinks libraries take books away. Our belief is that libraries make a huge contribution to the reading ecosystem." Publishers who don't participate in e-lending are making a poor choice, Scheppke says. "We don't think we harm book sales," he says. "We are creating readers every day."
"We just haven't figured out a model that works for us yet on the library e-book lending model," says Anderson at S&S. At a Digital Book World session on January 27, Macmillan's U.S. president, Brian Napack, said, "The fear is I get one library card and never have to buy a book again."
About 13,000 libraries, most of them in the United States, use Cleveland, Ohio–based OverDrive to let users download e-books directly to their iPhones, iPod Touches, Android tablets and phones, and, as of last week, iPads. They can also read library books on Sony readers and Nooks, but they need to download them to their computers first. "It's the one-copy-per-user model, just like physical books," explains David Burleigh, director of marketing for OverDrive. When a book is checked out, it's unavailable—unless a library owns multiple e-copies. Overdrive's monthly list of top downloaded library e-books shows Stephenie Meyer's Twilight still leading the "juvenile fiction" list, followed by her Breaking Dawn, Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, Meyer's Eclipse and New Moon, Pittacus Lore's I Am Number Four, James Patterson's The Angel Experiment, Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy, Virals by Kathy Reichs, and 3 Willows by Ann Brashares.
Spending Those Babysitting Dollars
Few libraries lend e-readers, so teens who want to check out e-books need to purchase their own devices (or beg for them for birthdays). "The cost is prohibitive for teens to buy them themselves," says Amy Alessio, a teen librarian in Schaumburg, Ill. If they're lucky enough to own a device, teens gravitate toward the bargains, so the cheapest YA e-books tend to sell better. Amanda Hocking's Switched, at just 99 cents, leads Amazon's top 100 list of top children's paid e-books, followed by her Torn, at $2.99. Only then comes Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games series—The Hunger Games, at $5, Catching Fire at $8.52, and Mockingjay at $7.51.
But publishers think kids may pay more money for "enhanced" e-stories. Like DVDs of movies, digital books for teens are starting to add extras, such as author interviews. Indeed, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers is charging $10.99 for a Red Riding Hood enhanced novelization of the new movie coming out in March from Catherine Hardwicke, the director of Twilight. "It has video and audio clips featuring the director sharing behind-the-scenes insights to the film, and readers can see color reproductions of some of the costumes and the set designs," says Smith.
Sometimes older titles pose more of a challenge when it comes to add-ons. "If C.S. Lewis were alive today, we would have interviewed him and asked, ‘What was in your mind when you first set out to write this series?' " says Katz. The enhanced e-version of the Narnia story The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, released in November, adds full-color images, audio, video, and interactive trivia to the original book. And HarperCollins issued an enhanced e-version of I Am Number Four to coincide with the February 18 release of the film adaptation. In it, teens get exclusive videos of clues to plot lines in The Power of Six, the next volume in the series.
Enhancements aside, many teens remain print book stalwarts. "They want to hold the books they love and lend them to friends, fall asleep with their hand on a page, and flip through the pages to find the good parts," says Elizabeth Bluemle, owner of The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt. "They are curators of their own literary museums, the way adults are. I just can't see kids giving that up." Yet she thinks they may download eagerly anticipated new books in series, and she plans to survey her customers about their digital habits and preferences in the next few weeks. She says she would be happy to sell e-readers in her store as long as customers can read e-books on them that were bought through her store.
Though publishers are open to putting out e-books, they are still trying to come up with more innovative ways to sell them. Author Linda Joy suggested to her publisher that they try giving away Don't Die, Dragonfly, the first book in her Seer series, to hook teens who might go on to buy the next installments. "Our goal was to make it free in the hopes that we'd get into that top 100 free for Amazon Kindle—which we did," says Gabe Weschcke, v-p of Llewellyn. (So far, Llewellyn is steering clear of selling its e-books through Apple, which uses a different contract and requires prices to end in 99 cents.) "People who normally wouldn't choose my books are checking it out because it's free," says Joy.
Other publishers are trying a similar approach. From December 17 through January 3, to coincide with the release of Alexandra Bullen's Wishful Thinking, Scholastic offered a free e-book download of the author's first book, Wish, with a preview chapter of the new title. The word spread virally after Scholastic posted information about the offer on its Facebook page, Twitter feed, and On Our Minds blog, and the news spread through teen bloggers and YA Web sites.
Little, Brown has offered free sampling of chapters and special pricing at $1.99 or $2.99 for the first books in a series. Last spring it offered Stephenie Meyer's The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner free for a month. Publishers are also trying to figure out other ways to grab readers' attention on a screen. "Just to post an e-book is not the end of the story," says Ellie Berger, president of the trade publishing division of Scholastic. "You have to help people find the content there."
One huge, as-yet-untapped e-market: schools. But slowly, some principals and librarians are seeing advantages, including no overdue or lost books, no shelf-shortage issues, and even long-term cost savings. At the beginning of the school year, Clearwater High School in Florida issued a Kindle to all 2,100 students. (And no, they don't get to keep it when they graduate.) "They're reading more than they used to," says Pamela Smith, the school's librarian information specialist. Students' math and English textbooks are also on the e-reader, which can read aloud to them if they need help. Next year textbooks for all classes will be on the e-reader.
The independent Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass., is also a digital school. It owns 96 Kindles, which the biggest bookworms use to read fiction. "It was part of our overall school's decision to go to a 21st-century curriculum," says Tom Corbell, executive director of the school's library. "Long-term it will probably cost less." With Kindle's payment plan, six kids can read each e-book. And they get to read a greater variety of novels than they could in the past, when the school simply used print books. The school holds onto a few print books but has "heavily weeded" its collection, says Corbell.
As libraries, publishers, and consumers acknowledge an industry in transition, all recognize that change is inevitable. University of Washington professor Dresang notes that paperbacks were once seen as an "oh, no" version of the book. "I'm old enough to have lived through a big hue and cry over even paperbacks in libraries!" she says. "Back then, people said, ‘That's not a real book.' I see this as the same thing. Reading is reading is reading to me."