How Does Age Affect Reading?

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Audience + InsightLast week I explored how reading behavior differs between men and women. The analysis was based on observations that Jellybooks made as part of reading analytics studies with publishers that recorded how people read ebooks.

This week, we will take a closer look at how a different factor impacts reading: age.

Do books have age-specific audiences?

We will not look at the age of book buyers, but rather at how reading a book, and specifically the completion rate (the percentage of readers who finish reading a book), correlates with age. Completion rates are an interesting proxy for understanding how strongly a book engages a specific reader and whether a book appeals to a certain audience segment more than to a different group of readers.

In short, the answer is that the completion rate for books is often quite age-dependent. This is very much unlike the case of gender. So let’s have a closer look.

We at Jellybooks had the pleasure of testing a debut literary novel that launched in Germany last year. The book stormed up the bestseller lists and stayed for many weeks. In our readings tests, the title did extremely well in terms of completion rate (approaching 70 percent, which is a rate higher than one in 10 books we tested achieves), and scored very highly on other key performance indicators, like velocity and net promoter score, as well.

What stood out, though, was the age distribution of the book’s completion rate. Women over the age of 45 were 15 percent more likely to finish the book (probability completion rate higher than 80 percent, which is exceptional) than the average reader, while readers under the age of 35 were 10 percent less likely than the average to finish this bestseller.

Given the young protagonist of the novel, it was thought by some in the publisher’s marketing department that the book might appeal to a younger generation. However, the focus of the book on events in post-war Europe was the more dominant factor, leading to an older audience primarily engaging with the book.

First assumptions are not always correct, or at least may not estimate correctly the magnitude of the effect and how different factors might amplify or cancel each other out. Such insights, though, can lead to a data-smart approach to marketing a book.

Another title in the same reader analytics test performed relatively poorly with the audience at large, but had a completion rate three times higher among women under the age of 25 than it had with women over the age 45. This put it in the “very good” or “above average” category with this segment of the audience. Soliciting feedback from readers (different surveys were sent to those who finished the book versus those who did not finish it) revealed the reason: the writing style and language used by the author put off an older audience who could not identify with the tone and voice of the book, while a younger audience was enthralled by it.

So older people don’t read books written for a young audience? Not so! In another study, we tested a Young Adult (YA) title. Everything about the book screamed YA, from its cover to its Hunger Games-style storyline. Yet the completion rate among readers over the age of 45 was significantly higher than for readers younger than 35. That was a major surprise for the publisher. It has long been known that YA titles are bought in significant numbers by older readers. However, that older readers, even middle age ones, are more likely to read these books cover to cover than younger readers was not expected. A woman 50 years old, for example, was more likely to have read the book than a woman half her age.

Now obviously not every YA title appeals to an older audience, but those that do and have cross-over potential may go on to generate significantly larger sales than “pure-play” YA titles. Given that the title tested was the first in a series, this has important implications for the author and the marketing team.

For the majority of book titles tested, we observed that completion rates were higher for young readers (those under 35) and older readers (those over 45) with a sagging of the completion rate for those between the two. We believe that this may be the most time-pressed demographic. This audience may be more susceptible to the lure of social media, Netflix and the like, and, combined with raising a family and dealing with other distractions, they may have little time for reading. This may explain why completion rates for this segment are often lower than for other age groups. A book is started, but then life takes over and the book is essentially abandoned and forgotten. Ouch! And yet, there are books that sometimes significantly outperform in this particular age segment. These are titles that deal with the complexities of adult life—from challenges at work and pursuing a career to the ups and downs of relationships and having a family. A book that can weave a gripping yarn against the background of such topics is devoured by this age group, which, incidentally, has very high disposable net income.

But what about children? Well, we can say nothing on that topic for now, as we have not allowed anybody under the age of 18 to participate in one of our reader analytics trials thus far. We are currently preparing to lower the age of participation to 13, and, subject to certain restrictions, are exploring whether it is ethical to undertake test reading experiments with readers as young as 8.

The primary purpose of reader analytics tests is to improve books and optimize the book marketing process. Yet there are considerations about informed consent (you are receiving a free ebook in return for your reading data), if access to books in a test reading trial should be age-restricted by title. (We are not just talking about erotica. Personally, I am actually more concerned about books with genuinely violent and gruesome content. What restrictions to access should be put in place?)

In summary, some books seem to be universally appealing and have completion rates that do not vary with age, while the majority of books show marked differences in completion rates that correlate with the age of the audience. Such insights can help authors and publishers to make data-smart decisions and better market their books.

Note: All the data reported in this post was collected in pilot projects financed by Innovate UK. EPUB3 files were modified with candy.js by Jellybooks so we could record, store and extract the user’s reading behavior when using iBooks, Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) and selected Android reading applications. The data stored within the ebook file was extracted when the user clicked a “sync” button in the book. All users were informed about the presence of the analytics software.

Earlier posts in the data-smart publishing series:
“The Internet of Bookish Things”
“Reading Fast and Slow – Observing Book Readers in Their Natural Habitat”
“Start Strong or Lose Your Readers”
“What Books Have the X-Factor? Measuring a Book’s Net Promoter Score”
“Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, But What About Readers?”

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2 thoughts on “How Does Age Affect Reading?

  1. Michael W. Perry

    Take care with these numbers. Age may not be the central factor. Instead it may be a surrogate for other factors that range from free time available now to life experiences.

    For instance, the population of those reading newspapers or watching network news is aging fast. I recently watch NBC News at a relative’s. Virutally all the ads were perscription medicines for the elderly.

    That may reflect two factors. First, there’s my parent’s generation, who came of age during the build-up and fighting of WWII. That generation had ample reason to follow the news. The world war was central to their lives.

    My generation had no such central drama, but it did grow up in the era of three networks that carried quite similar mainstream news that really was mainstream. That generation watched to be informed like their neighbors. It was one way of fitting in.

    Not so today. Network news is no longer mainstream, in fact it’s not even remotely intelligent. That NBC News show I watched spent about five minutes making a claim for which it presented literally no evidence because no such evidence exists. It didn’t even make an effort to present the other side, which could at least point out that a lack of evidence is, in itself, evidence. Journalism is now dead last among some 200 professions in this country. It isn’t respected and, except at the very top, pays poortly. It doesn’t attract. talent.

    Faced with extremely biased and poorly argued network news, it’s not hard to explain this social divide. The elderly can’t break their habit of watching the NBC News at 6 p.m. even when it has become worthless. On the other hand, a younger generation not bound by habits sees little reason to watch news that’s so obviously slanted and one-sided.

    Of course, it’s also true that many young adults make no effort to follow news of any sort. The time their parents and grandparents keeping up with current events they spend taking selfies, following celebrity gossip, and exchanging text messages with friends.

    Those differences may be age dependent at present, but they’re not age-determined. A younger generation obsessed with celebrity gossip but not world events is likely to be behaving the same when they move into nursing homes some 60 years hence.

    Remember the old saying about \how the twig is bent…\ What generational measurements made now are reveals is, in part, how various twigs have been been over lifetimes, long or short. They’re not necessarily traits of being young or old.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride (which I call a young adult novel because the protagnist is a teen-aged girl)

  2. Andrew Rhomberg

    Yes, there may be other factors that correlate with age.

    Indeed, we dos suspect that available free time is the primary explanation why reading engagement is higher for the under 35s and over 45s. In other words, a woman between 35 and 45 is the most time starved and hence most selective with her reading and thus most likely to give up on a book.

    However, we think this is the result of a natural transition (kids/family/career) that happens repeatedly at a given stage in life and not a change in macroscopic trends. If anything the transition may have shifted upwards (from 25 to 35) as a result of macroscopic trends, but the “valley” is still there,a in there is a period in our lives when familay and career are all-consuming.

    Also, we ask participants for their age and not how much available time they have, so the input we have if the former, not the l=atter and the latter can thus only be inferred.



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