A recent PubTrak survey from R.R. Bowker indicated that teens remain reluctant when it comes to e-books. Accustomed to social media, they find that electronic stories have “too many restrictions,” according to the report. But many industry players—agents, booksellers, publishers, and authors—are saying just the opposite: digital sales are booming for YA fiction.
As evidence, over the recent holiday season Barnes & Noble sold five times as many YA e-titles as print ones online, says Jim Hilt, v-p of e-books for the chain. And at Amazon, there was a similar trend: “YA e-books are growing even faster than e-books overall in the Kindle Store,” Russ Grandinetti, v-p of Kindle Content, told PW in an e-mail.
As for the dreaded cannibalization of print, it does not appear to be happening in YA. “The whole pie grows,” says Hilt. “There’s a lot more evidence that users are going back and forth between digital and physical. People are now buying more books when they become digital readers. The key is to have the book available in all formats.”
Publishers are waiting for new statistics coming out at the end of this month from Ypulse, the youth market research group, but they expect to see more signs of growth in teen e-commerce. In its February 2011 study, the company found that 10.7% of 14–24-year-old students owned e-readers, and just 6% owned tablets. With Amazon selling a rumored six million Kindles over the recent holiday season, Melanie Shreffler, editor-in-chief of Ypulse, confidently says, “It definitely went up.”
Teenagers are a demographic perfectly poised to consume digital content. “They are on their devices all the time,” says Cristina Gilbert, executive director of trade marketing and publicity for Bloomsbury. “They’re so mobile, so digital. E-reading is an extension of how they live.” And they are already old hands at accessing digital content—downloading movies, TV shows, and music. “Getting book content online is a natural for teens,” says Andrew Smith, v-p and deputy publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
And there is plenty of content out there. Hot print books—including Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga, Rick Riordan’s Lightning Thief series, and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy—have become hot e-books. “The category just has a massive, huge catalogue to sell from, so inherently it’s always going to sell more than what you’d see, say, in the picture book space,” says Hilt. (Unlike YA titles, picture books are almost exclusively bought by adults, who prefer print for the youngest of children.) “With big books, movie tie-ins, and more tech-savvy kids getting e-readers,” Hilt says, “it’s kind of a perfect storm.”(The three Hunger Games titles are among B&N’s top five bestselling e-books even before the March 23 release of what is expected to be a blockbuster movie.)
“Teens really do seek instant gratification,” says Suzanne Murphy, v-p and publisher of books at Disney Publishing Worldwide. “They don’t want to wait. They don’t want to have to go to the store. They want it right away.” And digital access is a boon to the impatient. “The time frame is so compressed with e-books,” she says. “It allows us to be very opportunistic.” For example, Disney quickly jumped on an e-version of I Heart Vampires, based on the popular web series. E-sales already represent 20%–25% of total sales for the company’s most popular authors, Murphy says. This year Disney plans to release about a dozen e-book originals.
Eagerness and technical capability easily translate into demand. Teens will head to the Web to get e-book versions of hardcovers not yet available in the U.S. For example, Bloomsbury made the e-book of Alyxandra Harvey’s Bleeding Hearts available after fans expressed unhappiness that the hardcover would be available in the U.K. seven months before its U.S. release, says Bloomsbury’s Gilbert.
Kids can read e-books on laptops or phones, but the e-reader makes it easier. “There still has to be an investment in the actual device before you start buying e-books,” says agent Ginger Clark. Still, with a basic Kindle now selling for just $79 (and machines inevitably getting less expensive) and a growing number of kids getting their parents’ hand-me-downs, more teens are becoming e-reader owners. (Ypulse’s Shreffler predicts a cell-phone–like “two-year window” for the devices.)
E-books provide a way to reach kids who aren’t traditional bookworms. “Our goal is getting books into the hands of readers, no matter how they’re getting our content,” says Smith at Little, Brown. To publishers, teens with new e-readers constitute, in some part, new customers. “A lot of kids don’t go into bookstores or go into the book section of a Target or a Wal-Mart, and they don’t use their libraries,” says Dominique Raccah, CEO and publisher of Sourcebooks, who notes that her YA e-book sales were less than 1% of sales in December of 2010 but were up to 17% a year later. “We’re all about helping readers find books and expanding readership.”
E-books also give publishers a chance to sell a single teen two copies of the same title. Until recently, they were “windowing” their releases—delaying the e-book release weeks or even months after the physical book went on sale. Today they publish virtually all their new titles in both formats simultaneously. No more waiting for new printings and for distribution. “E is unlimited,” says Raccah at Sourcebooks. And though it isn’t a keepsake, it’s fast. “They want it immediately, the day it comes out, the e-book edition,” says agent Barry Goldblatt. “But then, either because they already have some of the [author’s] books in hardcover or they’re just huge fans, they love the book and want it on their shelves, too.”
A quick way to lift a title onto the top 100 lists of e-books sales is to price it right. Llewellyn/Flux author Linda Joy Singleton gave away close to 70,000 e-books of Don’t Die Dragonfly, the first title in her Seer series. “What teens do is look for everything free,” says Singleton. “You really need to win them over with something free.”
The payoff: sales of the next five books in her series jumped since readers were willing to pay to find out what happened next. “Since then, even to this day, the second book in that series, which sells for full e-book price, has had movement that I don’t think it would have had,” says Singleton. To generate interest in the first book of Singleton’s new spinoff series, Buried: A Goth Girl Mystery (due out on March 8), Llewellyn/Flux decided to sell Dark Lifer’s Revenge, an e-only novella—first priced at $1.99 and now free on the Nook and, as of late last week, the Kindle. Singleton says, “I wanted it [Dark Lifer’s Revenge] priced at zero!” She got her wish.
To promote Prized, the November 2011 second book in Caragh O’Brien’s Birthmarked trilogy, Macmillan lowered the price of the first book, Birthmarked, to $2.99 and saw sales increase 800%. “When the new book came out, it was our biggest first-week e-book sales ever,” says Jon Yaged, president of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. “It [the deal on the first book] got people in the door, but it wasn’t just that.” O’Brien enthusiastically promoted her book (and herself) on the Internet, guest-blogging about topics such as “minimalist self-promotion,” including tweeting, joining Goodreads (and offering giveaways there), and making a Facebook writer page and an author Web site. In a post on Eve’s Fan Garden, she wrote, “At two in the morning, when a YA reader finishes your book, the first thing she’ll do is go online to see if you exist. Your site will point her to your blog and social media, where she can follow your winsome posts.” That’s the spirit publishers like to see. “On the teen side,” Yaged says, “I’m looking to create this connection with the author.”
Publishers are finding that e-books are easy to market—with giveaways, digital samplers, and pre-publication teasers. YA marketing teams are capitalizing on kids’ openness to innovative promotions. Typically, publishers today release some chapters online. For the young teen book How to Rock Braces and Glasses, Little, Brown developed a free app that lets kids take a photo of their faces, add braces and glasses, and e-mail the picture to a friend. The app also gives sample chapters; a Nickelodeon TV show based on the book will debut this spring.
For Marissa Meyer’s Cinder (the first title in her Lunar Chronicles series), Macmillan let readers see an excerpt online exclusively on USA Today’s Web site for 24 hours on November 1, two months before the book’s January pub date. In December, the first five chapters went up for free for online retailers. “It’s a great way to build excitement,” says Yaged, who notes that Meyer did a physical tour in January as well as a “virtual” one. Cinder is the publisher’s biggest e-book launch ever in terms of number of downloads and percentage of sales (25% of all copies sold).
About six weeks before some of its YA novels come out, Harper-Collins offers a “browse inside,” with free samples of 20% of the content. “We push it out everywhere,” says Diane Naughton, v-p of integrated marketing for HarperCollins. Last year, for example, the publisher ran the Dark Days of Supernatural promotion for 11 new YA books, with an online ad campaign, a video, and a Web site that linked readers to the program’s Twitter feed and Facebook page (with author tour information, among other things).
The publisher also publishes short novellas as extras. Before The Power of Six, the second book in Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four series, HarperCollins put out a $4.99 digital short that gave some backstory about the characters. For Lauren Oliver’s new Pandemonium, the second title in her Delirium trilogy, HarperCollins offered a fan trilogy page with an excerpt, a countdown widget, and a featured day (February 7) on its “month of love” app. Delirium is also featured in a “crush calculator” app, which lets users answer questions and be matched with a couple from YA fiction that best fits their own relationship style. And Oliver also wrote a Delirium-inspired e-novella, Hana, which fans could read on MTV.com for free for four days, beginning on Valentine’s Day.
Who isn’t a young adult, in fact? “The YA market has the largest demographic reach of any category,” says Felicia Frazier, senior v-p of sales for Penguin Young Readers Group. “You’ve got little kids, eight- and nine-year-olds, some of them reading teen books, and 30- and 40-year olds as well. We want them to come to us on any platform, whether it’s physical or e-books. If we can get more people reading and interested in reading and having access, whether it’s physical or digital, it’s a win-win.”
E-books are ideal for adults who feel uncomfortable browsing in the teen section of a bookstore. “Harry Potter was a pretty big turning point” in turning adults on to YA fiction, says B&N’s Hilt. In fact, he estimates that adults buy 25%–50% of teen e-titles. Indeed, an October/November survey by Bowker’s PubTrack found that 30–44-year-olds make up 32% of YA e-book sales, and that 18–29-year-olds make up 35%.
Forget age boundaries. “There are no shelves on the e-bookstores, so the line between YA and adult is a lot more indistinct,” says author John Green, whose new teen novel, The Fault in Our Stars, is a crossover bestseller. “They [adults] just feel more comfortable buying them [in digital format] because they don’t have little kid covers. There are a lot of people who don’t fully know they’re buying a YA. We’re kind of destroying these rigid genre definitions online, which is great.”
To appeal to YA-loving adults, Barnes & Noble over the holidays introduced “Crossover Teens” as one of its first Nook Instant Collections. The 167 suggested titles range from Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride to Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky.
Of course, e-books face many challenges. Some authors are balking at the payout. Today, they get 10%–15% of the list price of hardcovers. E-pay is more complicated. The sellers (Apple, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble) get 30% of the sale or net price, not the list price. The remaining 70% goes to the publisher. Of that 70%, the publisher keeps 75%, and the author gets the rest. “When Amazon decides to discount a hardcover, it doesn’t affect my author,” says Goldblatt, who represents Holly Black and Libba Bray (who is also his wife). “When they decide to discount an e-book, it does.”
Agents and authors would like to see the customary 25% go up. If it doesn’t, publishers may run the risk of losing writers to Amazon’s publishing effort or to self-publishing. “Some of them look at people like Amanda Hocking and say, ‘I could be that,’ ” says Goldblatt. “They can hire an editor and a publicist. I think the quality would suffer, but there are a lot of readers who don’t care, especially if they only paid 99 cents for it. Anybody can self-publish. It’s a piece of cake now.”
But it’s tricky to do it well. “I love to traditionally publish because I want to have an editor, I want to have people doing my book covers, I want to be in stores,” says author Singleton. “There is a lot that publishers do, and I give them credit for that.” (Still, she suspects that publishers will need to offer a bigger royalty on digital sales eventually. “They want to keep their bestselling authors,” she says.)
Another hurdle: it’s more difficult than many people think to convert print titles to e-titles. “Our managing editor likes to point out that it’s not a flick of the switch,” says Disney’s Murphy, who points to Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus books. “The narrator has all these footnotes along the bottom of the page,” she says. “That was a technical challenge.” Chapter-opening illustrations are also tricky. “It would look odd to have a decorative element in the middle of somewhere as opposed to at the top,” says Murphy.
And contrary to popular belief, e-books are not always cheaper to produce. “The big piece of the price is not in the format,” says Hilt. “It’s in what it takes to create an amazing piece of content. This idea that because it’s digital it should be inherently less expensive isn’t true. You want to make sure that people understand what the value of the content is.” (He declined to comment on B&N’s profit margins for the two formats.)
Many teens are slowly realizing they can check out e-books from the public library. YA e-book checkouts increased from two million in 2010 to four million in 2011, according to OverDrive, which runs the e-book programs for 18,000 libraries and schools in 21 countries, including 15,000 in the U.S. Last year 22% of e-checkouts were for mobile devices. The top juvenile fiction e-checkouts for OverDrive in February: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, Inheritance by Christopher Paolini, Crossed by Ally Condie, and Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. OverDrive plans to add a “recommend to library” feature that lets users sample new and old titles, even if they aren’t in a library’s existing collection. In 2003 OverDrive started offering e-library books for the first time, through the Cleveland Public Library. Today New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco are among the cities whose public libraries offer e-books through the company. HarperCollins was one of its first e-book suppliers. (Libraries pay the full price set by the publisher.) “You’re reaching a new audience that might not have come into the library,” says Karen Estrovich, collection team manager for OverDrive. “These are the people who might not use the library’s physical services.” She notes that e-books of stories that led to movies, such as The Invention of Hugo Cabret, do especially well in libraries. (Last fall Amazon finally allowed library e-books to work on its Kindle.)
Frustrated library e-customers may become happy e-book buyers. “It still mimics the print experience,” says Disney’s Murphy. “If they can’t get it from the library, and they really have to have it, they’ll go and buy it if they can afford it. ‘Oh, 85 people are e-waiting? I can’t wait that long.’ ”
Some publishers—notably Scholastic and Macmillan—are OverDrive holdouts, and Penguin just terminated its contract with the digital vendor. “We believe in libraries. We want to support libraries,” says Macmillan’s Yaged. “[But] there’s nothing out there in libraries that has created a fair way to compensate authors and deal with the whole library process.”
However, many agents and authors are keeping an open mind. “As long as [libraries] are buying books, it’s a win,” says Goldblatt. “They need to have books available in whatever format their customers demand.”
Typically, libraries don’t have enough copies of popular books in print or e-. In Nashville, for example, the public library buys one copy for every five people on the wait list for a print book, and one for every three people on the wait list for an e-book, says Angela Frederick, teen services librarian at the Edmonson Pike branch of the Nashville Public Library. But teens, who may be willing to wait for old-fashioned novels, don’t understand the holdup for e-stories. “[They think it’s] ridiculous to have to wait for something that’s virtual,” says education technology consultant Linda Braun. Librarians expect YA e-checkouts to grow as more teens get devices— and realize they can use their library cards to borrow digital books for free.
Unfortunately, there are teen haves and teen have-nots, and this is apparent in e-reader ownership. “There’s definitely a digital divide issue,” says Frederick. Many libraries are trying to play a role in lessening the inequality by lending out e-readers. Frederick would like to be able to do so. At the Brookfield, Ill., public library, patrons 14 and up already can check out Kindles, Nooks, and Sony readers, notes youth services and teen librarian Louise Dominick.
Will hardcover and paperback YA books go the way of the compact disc? Or will enough teens balk at e-hurdles such as the difficulty of sharing digital books with friends? “Teens still find passing a copy back and forth is the easiest way to share,” says Clark at Curtis Brown. With e-books, passing along to others isn’t allowed. “In effect, when you buy an e-book, you don’t own it,” says agent Gold-blatt. “You’re renting it.”
Or will teens not care because they get hooked on the immediacy of e-books—and on enhanced features that are being added? “There’s no turning back,” says Braun, who notes that toddlers—the YA readers of the future—don’t hesitate to try digital and, in fact, think it’s the norm. (In a popular YouTube video, a toddler thinks a print magazine is an iPad that doesn’t work.) What’s next?
Stay tuned. Like a good series, the YA e-reading story is full of suspense—and isn’t over yet.
Bestselling YA Titles in the Kindle Store
There are seven YA books in Kindle’s 100 top-selling e-books.
1. Twilight (Book 1) by Stephenie Meyer (#2 rank overall)
2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (#3 rank overall)
3. Catching Fire (Hunger Games #2) by Suzanne Collins (#4 rank overall)
4. MockingJay (Hunger Games #3) by Suzanne Collins (#5 rank overall)
5. Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins (#7 rank overall)
6. The Borrowers by Mary Norton (#36 rank overall)
7. Breaking Dawn (Twilight #4) (#63 rank overall)