Millennials and the Future of Books

Everyone knows the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) is obsessed with electronic media—video games, social networking, and MP3 players. But few recognize that this obsession extends to books in ways that are both saving and transforming the publishing industry.

A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 8- to 18-year old Millennials spent 43 percent more time interacting with various forms of media in 2009 than they did in 1999.

Yet during this period, almost half (46%) of the Millennials surveyed spent at least part of their day reading books, a percentage that remained steady throughout the decade. Even as computer usage quadrupled for these teens and tweens and video-game playing more than tripled, books remained of interest to a generation often accused of being more interested in texting than writing, and more likely to use an iPod than a Kindle.

We bet you can guess the one big reason for this counter-intuitive behavior.

That’s right. The Harry Potter books. The seven volumes in the series have sold more than 400 million copies worldwide since 1997, when the first title in the series was published.

Along with other appealing elements, the books’ setting provides young readers an opportunity to explore all the generational tensions Millennials face. The teachers and administrators at Hogwarts, the prep school for wizards that J.K.Rowling so brilliantly imagined, are Baby Boomers.

Like many members of this generation, each of these adult characters are individualistic, judgmental egotists who talk more than they act and whose ultimate motivations are impossible for Harry and his friends to discern.

In fact, members of Generation X, sandwiched between Boomers and Millennials, provide both the greatest source of friendship and the most existential threats to Potter and his fellow Millennials.

One X’er, Hagrid, is always around to try and help as an older sibling might be; but another, Lord Voldemort, is the source of all evil. The need to avenge the Dark Lord’s murder of Harry’s parents provides the dynamic for all seven of the books.

Harry and his friends work hard to do their best within the rules Boomers create for them, and in the end are able to use their special ingenuity to save the world by waving their magic wands. No wonder there are now 60 chapters of the Harry Potter Alliance in the real world, dedicated to assisting the more than 100,000 members of Dumbledore’s Army to “work for human rights, equality, and a better world.”

But Harry Potter has influenced more than just Millennials’ belief in how the world works.

The fact that there are seven books in the series, each longer and more complicated than the previous one, created an approach to reading that reflects the way in which young Millennials interact with video games.

Just as each level of a game calls for increased effort and greater understanding of the game’s structure, many Millennials celebrate each time they finish a book by proudly displaying the volumes, one-by-one, on their bookshelf.

This formula of a gradually unfolding and increasingly complex setting and narrative has been copied with great success byStephenie Meyer, whose Twilight series about vampires and young love has attracted an equally dedicated set of female Millennials.

Another popular author named Rick Riordan has gone one step further and created three different series, all based on mythology, that are very popular with young male readers.

Authors who wish to tap into the generation’s book-reading habits need to imagine not just a single book with a single story line, but an entire universe suitable for telling stories over multiple books with a publishing horizon as long as a decade. The fact that this type of storytelling is perfect for the TV and movie industries and its dependency on reliable sequels ensures that this approach is likely to dominate the book industry for the entire lifespan of the Millennial Generation.

The general belief that Millennials don’t read books is often accompanied by a sad commentary on the reading skills of the generation.

But once again, popular wisdom has it backward. Reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress(NAEP), have actually been rising for the last decade.

What’s more, the gains among students in America’s major cities have outpaced the nation’s overall progress. Fourth grade readers in urban schools scored nine points higher in 2011 than in 2002, triple the rate of progress nationally.

Eighth grade reading scores were up four points in these same school districts, four times the overall progress measured by these standardized tests.

Harry Potter and other popular series targeted at Millennials have helped to improve the literacy of an entire generation. With that foundation in place, the joy of reading books is likely to outlast the popular misconceptions of America’s next great generation.