Say the word ‘millennials’ and many publishers will immediately wriggle uncomfortably in their seats. After all, how can you possibly sell books to consumers who, if you believe the generalisations, don’t read, refuse to sit still, exist in a permanent state of distraction and spend all their leisure time flitting between YouTube, Twitter and Snapchat, leap frogging from device to device?
This young demographic makes up approximately 25% of the U.S. population and commands an influential degree of spending power, on average $200bn a year. Even before the term ‘millennials’ was coined, the book industry had been scratching its collective scalp trying to make sense of this generation of so-called digital natives; how often they read; in which format; where they shop; how they share recommendations with friends. Staying ahead of the curve and evolving to ensure our relevance to this audience has become a significant focus, as has second guessing the technological trends that will inevitably catch the millennials in their undertow, wave after wave.
Millennials are often seen as savvy and shrewd in their purchasing decisions. With a shared awareness, or even distrust, of overt marketing techniques, they instantly detect when a brand message is inauthentic or when brands are simply trying to be “down with the kids”. In this market, you have to be genuine because when you’re not you are punished by a lack of sales, or worse yet public crucifixion. On the surface of it, making your offering appealing to millennials can be a long, hard slog.
As with any other brand in any other industry, publishers know that to attract the custom, engagement, and – especially lucrative – loyalty of millennials is incredibly valuable now and for the future. However attempting to woo them can be far easier to get wrong than right.
The first problem lies in the fact that much of what we know about this audience is based on speculation. We are quick to assume that as early adopters of technology their world is exclusively online, that they are too immersed in cyber space and the latest shiny new toys to care much for print books, or to put their tablets down to venture over to their local public library or bookstore. But they do.
At the end of March, we conducted research on millennial reading habits which we presented at the Designing Books for Tomorrow’s Readers conference in New York. It concluded that across the US almost twice as many millennials read a book in print than an ebook on any given device in the last year. The study revealed that millennials would prefer to acquire their printed books from public libraries and physical bookstores, as opposed to online retailers. And when it came to how they discover new books, it found that finding and sharing was all about word of mouth, not social media as one might have presumed.
Millennial readers don’t read significantly less than other generations and, for the most part, they don’t read all that differently. They get their books in the same formats and in the same way as other people - choosing their reading material based on interactions in the offline world as well as the online world. So we concluded that millennial reading habits are more or less in line with those of other generations. Now the big question is what does this mean for publishers?
First and foremost, the main takeaway from this study is that publishers can reach and sell books to millennials in pretty much the same way as any other generation. Millennials may want choice and accessibility, shorter content forms, and content that genuinely reflects and enhances their lives, but that hasn’t led them away from print books or bookstores.
Some publishers understand what it takes to reach these sophisticated readers using the wealth of channels now available, and they get it right. Pan Macmillan’s sci-fi imprint Tor is an example of a publisher that is very much in-tune with its millennial readership, so much so that it has successfully established itself at the centre of worldwide millennial sci-fi and fantasy communities with Tor.com. Far beyond its own publishing output, it engages with its readership in a refreshing way, offering taster extracts, interviews, and unique access to authors. At the same time it acts as an ambassador of the genre and connects the world of books with movies and gaming spheres. But many struggle to connect with young consumers in such a meaningful way.
Do we need a strategy for millennials? Yes, without a doubt. The first step is to develop a better understanding of this demographic and learn about how they want to consume content. Then to look at the content being produced, how it is being delivered and whether it matches the expectations and desires of this audience. It is vital to focus on remaining authentic while delivering quality product throughout but don’t let the pursuit of millennial appeal lead you astray and stay true to your core brand values.
By all means innovate and push boundaries to capture imaginations and chase that discerning dollar. And if that means organising the world’s first Snapchat book launch go ahead. But it is imperative to avoid neglecting one medium or avenue in favour of another –that is a dangerous game. The phrase “publish or perish” is particularly appropriate when it comes to millennials. Being ‘omnichannel’ and making sure your content is available and discoverable in every format – on and offline – should always be the priority.
To learn more about Ingenta’s millennial reading habits survey please visit www.ingenta.com/research
This article was originally published in Publishers Weekly London Show Daily on 15 April 2015.