If you happen to belong to Generation Z (those born after 1997) you will probably struggle to scroll to the end of this paragraph before clicking out. This is no reflection on my writing or even the topic of discussion - but because it is estimated that the average Generation Z’er has the attention span of just eight seconds.
For those who have owned a smartphone since they were 13, who have played out their adolescence on social media and who obsessively watch ten-second disposible ‘snapchats’, perhaps this is not surprising. Gen Z’s consumption of media has been summarised as ‘Blink, Share, Laugh, Forget’. On the one hand, this is not necessary a negative thing. It means that Gen Z are fast processors of information, adept at sifting through what is relevant and what appeals (which is one reason why advertisers find them so elusive). And yet, there is no doubt that Gen Z find it hard to focus for sustained periods of time, particularly over text.
Firstly, it is important to remember that Gen Z - even more so than their immediate Millennial predecessors - envision the internet as predominantly a visual and video medium; little wonder that companies such as JP Morgan are starting to recruit via Snapchat. For Gen Z, it is the app-based visual-social world of YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat - rather than a text-based information portals of Safari or Google homepage - that is their access point to the world. Their internet is a closed shop.
So if Gen Z prizes visuals over text and has a short attention span, what sort of problems and opportunities does this pose for book publishers? How can the industry be responsive to these future readers? Are there reasons to be cheerful? Yes. Room for complacency? No.
But who are Generation Z? They have been called Snowflakes, Thumberlina Generation and Generation K (after Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen); labels that have been given to them rather than ones they themselves ‘own’. Unlike Millennials, who are characterised by optimism and individualism, Gen Z are portrayed as victims of circumstances beyond their control - be it Brexit, the Financial Crash or globalisation. They are gripped with anxiety and crave security. But they are also busy pushing the status quo on diversity, gender and the individual’s relationship with the state, community and society.
Yes, they are enslaved to their phones - consuming on average six hours a day screentime. But the current media panic over whether smartphones have destroyed this generation feels overegged, and mirrors similar hypes that accompanied the invention of radio, TV and game consoles. If anything, Gen Z are much more savvy and conscious when it comes to smartphone usage than their parents. Many Gen Z’ers divide Instagram accounts between ‘rinsta’ (public access) and ‘finsta’ (friends-only) and use apps such as Vault which allows them to hide photos and videos from prying eyes. Their guardians display no such filter; on average parents share almost 1500 images of their child before its fifth birthday. "There should be restrictions on internet usage for adults", declared one 12 year old girl I interviewed, who, like a quarter of her peers, was embarrassed by the incessant ‘sharenting’ on social media.
These are the kids whose parents were time-poor and whose schools are target-driven, where World Book Day was a time for a fancy-dress selfie than a chance to open a book. Reading was encouraged as a skill, not necessarily a pleasure. Synthetic phonics was a method parents could not understand and which turned bedtime story into a synthetic experience. The publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone way back in 1997 is as distant to Generation Z as the publishing of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1960) is to Generation X.
Generation Z crave storytelling and narrative just like every generation; they are just not waiting around for the publishing industry to tell them what to read or how to read it. Yrsa Daley Ward is one such example. She self-published her collection of poetry, relying on Instagram to sell her poetry, and has recently done a deal with Penguin. To Gen Z self-publishing is a norm, as is co-creation. The generation that grew up making their own music videos on musical.ly and devising their own games on roblox have no qualms about showing the same entrepreneurship in other forms of media - and they probably do not have the same reverence for the grandees of the publishing industry as a result.
Some publishers are clearly adapting to Gen Z and positively embracing technological change in order to engage. VR and AR are being used to reinvent and enhance story telling; with the Goodnight Lad Book for example you can place your smartphone over the book and the characters dance on the page. Meanwhile Samsung have developed what they are calling the ‘future of children’s bedtime’; an interactive VR storytelling experience for parents who live somewhere else or are away with work.
Hooked, which has been downloaded nearly 2 million times, is a true success story. Marketing itself as ‘fiction for the Snapchat generation’, it provides bite-size suspense thrillers to teenagers in the form of text messages (Amazon has recently launched its own version). Hooked is certainly one route - but do we risk destroying the art of writing in order to pander to these impatient Gen Z’ers? And are we putting too much faith in technology and not enough faith in the readers?
We know that e-book sales are declining and that print is showing a slight increase. Perhaps less known is that this trend is being pushed by young people. Just 4% of children’s fiction comes from digital sales. If there is a tablet in the house, children are more likely to use it for gaming or watching than reading. Generation Z may be digital natives, but they are not digital readers. Increasing evidence suggests that they in fact prize, cherish and are prepared to invest in a physical book.
This is a generation who knows better than any other the negative effects of digital overload and are therefore seeking things and activities that help them ‘switch off’. Market research company, Pineapple Lounge, has mooted that books may operate for Generation Z in the same way that vinyl has operated for Millennials; a retro product with status and authenticity which counters the on-demand digital world they inhabit. This is a trend that publishers need to embrace. One 17- year-old I interviewed, Zoe from Penzance, seemed to concur with this notion: "Reading is only time I can have proper down time and away from all the noise".
If publishers get it right, reading can be the ‘safe space’ that Generation Z’ers crave.
Dr Eliza Filby will be giving the closing keynote at FutureBook 2017, next Friday 1st December. This is your last week to book tickets - don't miss out.