The Guardian has an interesting essay by a teen writer from the Guardian children’s books site entitled “Why teenagers are so resistant to e-readers.” (The writer posts under a handle and doesn’t give a gender, so I’m just going to assume she’s female so I can use a pronoun that looks less awkward than “they”.) It’s interesting enough, but when you read the thing, it’s actually kind of mistitled. It could better have been called “Why this teenager still loves paper books.”

She’s not even necessarily resistant to e-readers herself—she spends a paragraph singing the praises of the Kindle for being able to store so many books in such a small space. But then she calls attention to a recent survey showing that 16-24-year-olds prefer paper books—64% directly preferred print books, and 20% didn’t mind them.

People have their different reasons for this. For me personally, one of the many reasons I’m still more than happy to splurge most of my money in Waterstones is not only the smell of new books (intoxicating though that is), but also the feeling of actually holding a book, and being able to actually have a page turner. You can’t smell a Kindle – you’re holding plastic – and tapping an e-ink screen to turn a page isn’t really the same being able to turn a page.

Beyond that, she says, the assumption that everything modern teens do is filtered through digital media is precisely that—an assumption. It doesn’t necessarily hold true for everyone, and there’s still plenty of room for respecting tradition.

That’s all very well and good, but really, the article doesn’t do a whole lot to suggest why teens are showing such a marked preference for paper books. Individual preference is one thing, but for such a majority to prefer print instead of e-books? It puts me in mind of those Apple Jacks cereal commercials that used to air, in which some confused adult asked kids why they liked Apple Jacks when they don’t actually taste like apples. The answer was invariably, “We just do!” (As if kids needed a reason for liking anything with that much sugar in it!)

Why does the kid who wrote this article prefer printed books? She just does. (Well, she cites the smell of books, but I still have a hard time imagining we’ve raised an entire younger generation who goes around huffing books the way they used to sniff tubes of model glue.) I could make sweeping generalizations, such as a rebellion against the preferences of the older generation who’ve taken to Kindles like ducks to water, or perhaps after staring at screens all day at school and for social networking they want to take a break and stare at words that are fixed in place on their pages. Maybe they want to make their limited allowance money stretch further, and aren’t happy about how many new-release e-books cost more than the print version. But there’s no guarantee those guesses would necessarily be accurate either.

Whatever the reason, it’s interesting to consider that the next generation of readers apparently overwhelmingly prefers to read in print, which can only be taken as a boon to the Big Five publishers who’re putting so many of their eggs in the print book basket. But I wonder what the teens of ten years from now will prefer?


  1. I’ve come across this one before.

    Another theory is that when you’re 16, you don’t have that many possessions that are really yours – your house, your clothes, etc, usually really belong to your parents. Books you buy with your pocket money are really yours, so it’s more satisfying to be able to see them all physically lined up on a bookshelf.

    Then, there’s the difficulty of buying e-books when you’re 16. How do kids do it, if they don’t have a debit/credit card? Do kids’ bank accounts come with debit cards nowadays, or do they have to get mum or dad to make the purchase? I can see where that might have an adverse effect on anybody’s willingness to buy an e-book. On the other hand, anybody can rock up to a bookshop and pay cash without a parent making snarky comments about their reading choices.

    And don’t knock the “I’m going to do the exact opposite of what my parents do, just because”. That has been alive and well for years.

    It will be interesting to see where this goes over the next few years. Ebooks are still too new for us to have a real idea of the trajectory. As with any successful new technology, you get a huge surge in the first few years as everyone who’s interested equips themselves for the first time. After that, sales of devices drop off if people don’t need to get a new one every year, and sales of books drop off as people finish digitising their favourite re-reads. We’re now starting to enter the “normal service” phase, I think. Trad publishing should not start crowing yet.

  2. I take down writing ideas on a smartphone while walking. I write at a standing desk on a laptop. I layout the result sitting in front of two large displays. Why? Because I like the change in context. It gives variety and helps me think.

    I suspect these teens are doing something similar. They spend enormous amounts of time texting and checking social websites on their smartphones. When they want to read something as long as a book, they prefer to change context to print. It helps put them in a different frame of mind. It also shuts out any distractions their smartphone may bring.

    That’s also why I’ve long been a critic of those who want to give ebooks multimedia, with imbedded audio and video. That’s been tried since CD-ROMs in the 1980s. I was involved in that at Microsoft. It bombs every time and partly because people don’t like to mix media. When they read, they want to read exclusively. When they want to watch, they want to watch exclusively.

    The same is true of those who want to make ebooks interactive like games. A ebook made heavily interactive isn’t a book improved by being more like a game. It’s like an poor book and a poor game at the same time. One factor that makes a book good is that the author controls the flow revealing what the reader needs to know at just the right time. When users are encouraged to jump around, that flow is lost and the book becomes worse not better.

    That said, I do think that ebooks can be improved enormously. But the improvements need to focus on not only on making them attractive, but having that attractiveness adapt for different screen sizes. A page that looks good on a large tablet won’t look good displayed identially on a small smartphone. Ebook readers need to be smart enough to present pages attractively.

    Gotta do my grocery shopping.

    –Mike Perry

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