Almost all analysis of how the book market is changing as consumers transition towards higher consumption of eBooks is limited by lack of data. All the major eReading platforms - Barnes & Noble's Nook excepted - are cagey about making definitive declarations about their share of the eBook market. And looking at Nook, which was recently forced into admitting its share had dropped 5% it's not hard to see why this is. In a highly competitive, even febrile market, a year is a long time - and more than enough time for a market to change completely.
A by-product of the lack of data about who is buying and consuming eBooks is that often publishers have only a sketchy idea as to the size of and trends within key markets. This is especially acute among audiences who technically fall outside the scope of standard market research and data collection techniques, such as children and teenagers. It's an interesting question: how do you track the motivations and digital buying habits of an audience that doesn't have credit or debit cards?
In the majority of cases, the answer seems to be to fall back on consumer research and hope that a statistically significant sample will give you enough to go on to extrapolate the possible size and behaviour of a market. This also gives rise to some interesting anomalies, which have been highlighted this week as two seemingly reports on young people and reading were launched at Digital Book World.
Kids + E-Reading Trends Study
The first report, the Kids + E-Reading Trends Study is a collaboration between Digital Book World itself and the strategy and research group PlayCollective and is broadly optimistic about the importance of digital reading among 2-13 year olds. While it's not possible to see the sample size for the study without downloading the full report, it proudly states that two thirds of the children it questioned are now reading eBooks. 92% of these eBook reading children also said they did so at least once a week, suggesting growing loyalty to the eBook format.
The report's authors also note a significant uptick in the overall rate of adoption of electronic reading since the first time this research was conducted in October 2012, at which time approximately half of questioned 2-13 year olds were eBook readers. As might also be expected given the device category's growing importance, tablets were children's preferred reading device over dedicated eReaders or smartphones.
The same report also questioned parents of 2-13 year olds about their children's habits in order to gain further insight into the factors leading to eBook sales. Here the report seemed to buck the downward pressure on prices prevalent elsewhere in the digital book market, with parents paying an average of $7.00 for a children's eBook - a figure that has risen steadily over the year. Parents also pointed towards a compelling use case for print and eBook bundling, with 48% saying their children have asked to buy a physical version of an eBook they already own and 54% for an eBook version of a print book they own.
Kids Books Online and Off
After this generally positive assessment of the younger children's market, it was instructive to see Nielsen Books publish a more wide-ranging and less positive report on the same day. This study was based on a sample of 3,000 people across three age groups (1,000 parents of 0-6 year olds, 1,000 7-12 year olds and 1,000 13-17 year olds) in addition to EPOS data from retailers in 10 countries nationwide.
The starkest finding to come out of this report was that 41% of teens it questioned said they didn't read for fun. This was accompanied by a number of sales graphs suggesting the YA market's runaway growth of recent years had stalled. According to the figures quoted by Nielsen over 2013, children and YA books actually lost market share as an overall category, declining to 17% from 20% in 2012. The category's share of the overall eBook market also fell by 1% to 15%.
As we've explored before on this blog, it is easy to draw unhelpful conclusions from book sales data, especially in situations when - as happened in 2012 - a single runaway hit in the YA category (Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games) accounted for much of the reported sales growth. Some of the pessimism surrounding YA book sales levelling off in 2013 can be attributed to the fact that no book published last year caught readers' imagination in quite the same way. Another key qualifying factor is that even though a book might fall into a 'juvenile' category that doesn't mean it's going to be read by someone who falls into this age group. According to Nielsen's data only 22% of YA books were being bought and read by 13-17 year olds, with most sales (35%) coming from buyers aged 18-29.
One area where both reports agreed was on average eBook pricing. In fact Nielsen reported a significant increase in the selling price of children's eBooks ($7.55 in 2013 compared to $6.29 in 2011). Meanwhile the average selling price of a YA eBook had fallen to a three year low of $7.27. The fact this figure is still almost a dollar higher than the average price of a best-selling eBook across all categories according to Digital Book Worlds regular price-tracker, does suggest that YA is holding up well in terms of selling eBooks without resorting too heavily to stunt pricing and discounts.
The Kids Are Alright?
Overall, both reports point to a market for children's and YA books that is resilient - particularly in terms of product pricing - and where digital reading continues to gather ground. Nielsen is more circumspect than DBW and PlayCollective about current adoption of ereading, but this may have less to do with enthusiasm for digital format reading among young people than the fact they have less opportunity to experience it. According to the most recently available research from Pew Research, only 37% of teens own smartphones and less (23%) claim to own a tablet. Perhaps the critical factor in getting eBook reading to critical mass lies in smart device ownership among the under 18s reaching saturation point.