More than half the consumers of books classified for young adults aren’t all that young. Fully 55% of buyers of works that publishers designate for kids aged 12 to 17 – nicknamed YA books -- are 18 or older, with the largest segment aged 30 to 44. Accounting for 28 percent of sales, these adults aren’t just purchasing for others -- when asked about the intended recipient, they report that 78 percent of the time they are purchasing books for their own reading. The insights are courtesy of Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age, an ongoing biannual study from Bowker Market Research that explores the changing nature of publishing for kids.So basically half of the YA market is actually older adults.
As a bookseller, one of the things we do for our customers is understand the content of books. Over the past couple of decades there has been an increasing volume of problem novels and what most people would consider adult level content: drugs, sex, suicide, abortion, dysfunctional families, etc. Our customers always want to know - Does this book have material I wouldn't want them to read yet? And for a surprisingly large percentage of books, the answer is yes.
I had always assumed it was simply a reflection of the coarsening of society in general compounded by the desire of children to read "up" in terms of content, but it did seem a significant disconnect. If so many parents are uncomfortable with the content, why are publishers pushing the boundaries?
I had also noticed the particular focus of children's literary bloggers in reviewing these books. My sense has always been that they were reviewing the books as adult literature with only an occasional head nod towards children and parents.
But perhaps this report is the explanation. Publishers aren't fulfilling the reading needs of children and parents, they are actually fulfilling a literature lite niche that is masquerading as Young Adult. If these are the topic areas of interest to you, you can blow through these books in two or three days - they aren't that dense or cognitively challenging. It appears we have a bunch of older literary cuckoos in the YA nest.
UPDATE: A report in Publishers Weekly this week, Children's Books: A Shifting Market by Jim Milliot indicates the current numbers:
The popularity of the young adult category is driven largely by adult book buyers. Readers 18 and older accounted for 79% of young adult unit purchases in the December 2012 through November 2013 period, according to Nielsen. The single largest demographic group buying young adult titles in the period was the 18- to 29-year-old age bracket. And even as book buyers age, they still tend to buy most young adult books for themselves rather than for a child or grandchild.