Thoughts About That YA Book Buying Study

Thoughts About That YA Book Buying Study


A lot of fuss has, understandably, been made over Bowker’s study about book buying trends in the young adult/teen categoryUnderstanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age.

People seem to find the data surprising or somehow a sign of something signficiant (I’m looking at you, Atlantic Wire aka Sarah’s Daily Annoyance), but I’m not so sure. 

Most of us only have access to the report summary (hey, if someone wants to hook a girl up with the very pricey full report, I’d love to analyze it further, I kind of know my stuff re: data anaylsis*) and that summary makes two interesting points. 

  • 55 percent of buyers of books in the teen/YA category are adults (note: this does not say books, it says “buyers”); and
  • Adult YA book purchases represent 28 percent of all actual teen/YA books sold. 

Now, a lot of people have jumped on this (quite a few negatively so) 55 percent number as very significant. And, a number of high profile media outlets have confused buyers versus books sold. Hence, somehow, the inaccurate statement that adults buy the majority of YA titles has emerged, which is wholly incorrect. Teens are still buying far more young adult books that adults do, representing 72 percent of YA books sold. Basically, teens buy more YA books, per person, than adults, despite being a smaller percentage of the actual buyers of YA books. 

This actually makes a lot of sense when you consider the books benefited from “buzz” and movie tie-ins.

The study points out that a many of the adults who bought a YA title bought the big names—The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Twilight. While the information available to the public doesn’t go in-depth regarding how adults are discovering these YA titles (nor does the public summary, unfortunately, address any longitudinal data), it wouldn’t be outlandish to speculate that buzz and visibility (not to mention movies) are a huge part of that. You can find these popular YA titles piled high next to the piles Fifty Shades of Grey at my local Costco.

(I’m being quite literal—at the Costco I shop, The Hunger Games and Fifty series are butted up against each other. Interestingly, my neighborhood library has recently taken a similar tact as well, shelving all of the popular new releases at the front of the library, rather than dividing them up by category.) 

The study’s public data doesn’t seem to indicate that adults are buying more YA titles per person (ie, they buy and enjoy The Hunger Games and subsequently buy Divergent), it just says that more adults are picking up a novel written for a teen audience.

I would love to know if this study details the influence a single positive experience with, say, The Hunger Games, has on adults’ likelihood to purchase additional YA titles, or if it even serves to raise awareness about YA as a category.

(Just like how I’d like to know if a consumer purchases the Fifty books, does it lead them to purchase more erotic romance—or romance in general—or are they simply seeking out popular, buzz-heavy books, regardless or genre or category?) 

I can count numerous times in which I’ve had a conversation with an adult who has read a teen novel, who’s said something along the lines of, “Well, it’s not really a teen book.” Of course, one can speculate that it’s not really a teen book because they’re an adult who read and liked said teen book. 

Does purchasing a single YA title make consumers head to the teen section of Barnes & Noble? Or is it a one-off? I’m sure for some people (myself included), a singularly positive experience with a genre or category leads to proactively seeking out similar books in the same genre or category, but does this represent something that can be labeled a trend?

The Bowker study’s public data doesn’t indicate this one way or the other, but I would sure like to know the answer to these questions before making any proclamations as to the study’s meaning regarding adult consumers of teen fiction. 

Why do I care about the (mis)representation of this data? Because I worry about a potential subtle change in the way publishers, authors and booksellers view YA/teen fiction.

One important tidbit that was released in one of the public summary of the Bowker report indicated that books are incredibly important to young people. Fifty-seven percent of teens surveyed said that books were of equal or greater importance than other media. When you consider the massive amount of media young people can access, this is pretty astounding information. They have a lot of choices and yet the majority still value what books offer them at least as much as media from television or the internet or Facebook. Which means that—despite the frequent cries of the downfall of books and reading—they are still very, very relevant to many young people. 

Hence my concern.

The young adult category’s stated audience is teens. Sure, adults read YA, making them an audience as well (though not the audience). However, I love that teens have writers who are writing for them—I didn’t have access to much of this as a teen in the early nineties. I worry that as adult readers of YA become more and more talked about (even if they’re still actually buying the minority of YA books), YA will become more of a genre in terms of the way it’s handled on the creation side of things, that the importance of the teen audience will diminish. I would hate to see this happen, as teens deserve writers and publishers who are creating books with teens in mind. 

The YA category definitely needs and benefits from adult advocates and readers, but—and I know a lot of adult readers of YA will vehemently disagree—more than anything I want the YA shelves to be a place where teens can find the books which speak to them.

As tough as growing up is, and as important as books clearly are to them, today’s teens deserve to have books published for them.

*I used to do a lot of data analysis when I worked in the public sector, particularly related to voting trends, so I kind of know my stuff, though I’m not an expert like some stats people.

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