Home » Community » Articles » BookSmarts Podcast (ep. 39): Kathi Inman Berens & Rachel Noorda on Gen Z & Millennial Survey

According to a report released by the American Library Association, Gen Z and Millennials are visiting public libraries at higher rates than previous generations, and also prefer print books over other formats. Dr. Kathi Inman Berens and Dr. Rachel Noorda from Portland State University authored this annual survey to capture how these younger generations read and discover books. They joined the BookSmarts Podcast to discuss their findings in detail and talk about what some of the results mean for book publishers. 

The survey is titled: Gen Z and Millennials: How They Use Public Libraries and Identify Through Media Use. Results from the survey include (but are not limited to): 

  • How Gen Z and millennials prefer to discover books (i.e. recommendations from friends/talent/influencers, streaming media adaptations from books, etc.)
  • Percentage of Gen Z and millennials that identify as readers, gamers, fans, and writers. 
  • How book advertising impacts Gen Z and millennials
  • Challenges that libraries and publishers face when it comes to these generations
  • Recommendations on how to reach and connect with Gen Z and millennial

Dr. Kathi Inman Berens is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar of digital culture, former Annenberg Innovation Lab Fellow, prize-winning author, and Associate Professor of Book Publishing and Digital Humanities at Portland State University. Dr. Rachel Noorda is Director of Publishing and also an Associate Professor at Portland State University. Visit the Portland State University website to learn more about Dr. Kathi Inman Berens, along with her published works, and Dr. Rachel Noorda.

Talk about the study you conducted

We did a report called immersive media and books 2020 and that was a large, nationally representative sample of more than 4,000 participants across all age demographics and we measured their book engagement and their media consumption. We found that Gen Z and millennials were the most avid across categories so when we went back into the field in 2022. We decided to focus on that group or those two groups, and that is to say people who were ages 13 to 40.

At the time of our survey, which was 2022, we surveyed more than 2,000 people and our proportions were pinned to the U.S. Census and so we have representation for, you know, age, gender, region, race and ethnicity. So we found some really cool things about Gen Z, and millennials. And in fact, it bore out our original findings that they were quite avid. We added in questions about identity, which we’ll be talking about further today. So talking about how people read today, we captured a broad range of reading behaviors. So more than just books, more than just even websites, or magazines. We also captured text messages, emails, chats, in game streams. You know, we captured a wide variety of behaviors, you know, single pane webtoon type comics. So we really wanted to capture the kinds of behaviors people were doing.

We found that 92% of our survey participants, checked social media daily and 25% check multiple times per hour. This is consistent with recent Pew studies about online use. But we were surprised to find that 54% of Gen Z’s and millennials are visiting libraries, that printed books are Gen Z’s number one preferred format and so even though these people are very, very digitally active, and consistently online, they’re also engaging with analog media and they’re enjoying and seeking out live and embodied experiences. So libraries are places where we observed young people moving seamlessly between engagement on their phones, and then engagement with other people in library settings. And you know, throughout our conversation today, we’ll be talking about how people are digitally dual. They’re engaging both in person and online at pretty much the same time so this might be the hallmark of Gen Z and millennials media use is that their media omnivorous and context agnostic. They’ll find a story that they like in one setting and pursue it across media.

Think of the Bridgerton example. After the popular Netflix series, sales of printed Bridgerton books shot up 3,000%. And even more surprising, ebook sales leapt 8,000%. So crossmedia discovery is really a key way that Gen Z and millennials find Books.

How do Gen Z and Millennials prefer to discover books?

I’d like to point out some of the things that are unique about Gen Z and millennials with discovery and some of how they’re very comparable with what we found previously. You know, one of the things we discussed is that there isn’t one formula for book discovery because consumers engage so many touchpoints and kinds of media when they discover new books, and this is also true for Gen Z and millennials in our 2022 data.

The top way that Gen Z and millennials prefer to discover books is through recommendations from friends but even that is only 25%. So a fourth. The second preferred method of book discovery is streaming TV and movies that are adapted from books. So that’s that importance of cross media as Kathi was talking about, but maybe the most interesting thing about Gen Z and Millennial discovery, which is different from other age groups, is that they rely on and really trust sources from social media.

For example, the number three preferred discovery method was recommendations from talent and this includes authors, of course, but also gamers, illustrators, and other creators like that. The number four preferred method of discovery was recommendations from influencers. So recommendations from friends are prominent, of course, much like they were across ages because of that close connection between people, the trust there for recommendations that they know you enough to recommend a book. But there’s actually a similar trust for Gen Z and millennials with creators and influencers that they feel they have a relationship with from social media, you know, on their top platforms like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Tik Tok.

Talk about how Gen Z and Millennials Identify Themselves

Readers are media omnivores. Not just reading, but also gaming, writing, podcasting, and so forth. So they’re both consuming media and making media. And crossmedia, as we’ve talked about, is really important to media discovery. The top media identities are number one, as readers with 57%. 53% identify as gamers, and 52% identify as fans. It’s worth noting that it’s not a zero sum game. It’s not that if someone’s a reader, they’re not a gamer. In fact, we did find overlap between these communities. We also found that 25% of Gen Z’s and millennials identify as writers.

What’s really interesting about this is that it’s about finding community and support for these kinds of identities. It’s not just about consumption. But as people are also making things as with writing, they’re getting reinforcement for identity around books, around reading, and so forth. But it actually is also about more than even media identity. Gen Z, in particular, is very values based. We know that values-based marketing really appeals to them. We can see that right now in the context of company boycotts in response to perceive profiteering from the Israel Hamas war so we do know that talking to Gen Z and millennials authentically in the spaces where they live online is going to be a great way for publishers to connect with those communities, but they do need to be seen as participating and contributing authentically and not just kind of exploiting the fact that a bunch of people are all in one place at the same time.

Talk about readers that also identify as writers

Well, we might also want to think about the role of literary festivals, because literary festivals are both places where fans can discover new to them, you know, writers and books. But often, they also often offer writing seminars and pop up writing coaching. So there’s some support around a bunch of people coming into a big festival for one day. Here in Portland, we have the Portland Book Festival run by the Literary Arts Organization. And the seamless way you can move between being a fan who’s going to hear a reading or hear a panel discussion, standing in line with your book, getting that one on one time with the author where they inscribe your name, and then actually going out and doing some writing yourself in that same day. I think those kinds of opportunities are really robust for publishers to tap into those superfans, you know, those people who are not just reading, but they’re looking for hidden gems. That’s why they’re going to the Literary Festival, and then they’re producing their own work.

Why do people who don’t identify as readers go to libraries?

I think the answer to that is twofold. One is, we don’t always think about it but libraries offer resources and services well beyond books. So Gen Z and millennials can go there to create their own content as we were just talking about with, you know, lots of libraries have writing workshops, and spaces for that kind of content, but also for creating music and doing crafts together. We did some ethnographic research with teens in libraries in Ohio, and just found they were playing, you know, video games together, they were chilling with friends, some of them brought their children. Remember that, you know, millennials are definitely in that age where they often have young children. Their skills training as they’re going into the workforce. So there’s just a lot available at the library. So there’s that piece, but I don’t think that alone can account for this number.

The second piece is related to some further research that we’re doing about the connection between identity and behavior. We found that the media identity of reader is not available to everyone and it’s really more about community than it is about behaviors so, in other words, as we were looking at the folks who don’t identify as readers, they actually weren’t reading less. They were still reading, but for some reason, they don’t feel they can claim the identity as reader. It wasn’t valuable to them or their community, or there were other barriers, you know, socio economic, racial, gender.

Just because people are going to the library and not identifying as readers, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t reading, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t engaging with books at the library. It’s this difference between the community piece, which really seems central to identity,that you identify as a reader so you can connect with other readers and talk about that. So we know that identity and behavior are connected, but they’re not synonymous.

How does book advertising impact Gen Z & Millennials?

Before we talk about specific numbers around advertising, and how many people bought a book from an ad, we can also just think about the data around what have you read in the last 12 months? So we asked that question. 94% said text messages, 90% said email, 88% said social media, 50% said printed books, 46% said chats in games, and 28% said ebooks.

The heterogeneity of how people are finding things is really important for publishers to think about. So not just the content, but the ways in which people are reading strikes me as important to think about. There’s also been a huge growth in mobile-only content. Think about WebToon, which is the fastest growing reading platform in the world. Gen Z and millennials subscribe to a lot of mobile-only content. As just two examples, 63% of our population paid for access to WebToon. Now remember, WebToon is free to access. When you pay for it, you unlock content faster. So that’s just a thing for publishers to think about. 86% of our population paid for Substack and there’s a big correlation between people who are producing newsletters on Substack and who are authoring books, so 86% of people are paying for that content. This seems important to me for publishers to think about. We know that our population are on sites like YouTube, Tiktok, and Instagram. Talent and influencers hold sway with them. 32% of our population get book recommendations from talent, like authors or live streamers, 28% get book recommendations from influencers. And remember that influencers, it’s a very intimate format. There are multiple touch points per day often, and the intimacy of engaging with this content on one’s phone, you know, you can be anywhere with this content.

The way for publishers to think about that is they need to walk a fine line between seeming to participate in those conversations authentically and doing something called astroturfing-a term that came out about 10 years ago around the concept of spreadable media. Astroturfing is faking grassroots participation, so you don’t want to be an astroturfer. You want to be the real deal. You want to engage with people at every single point on that loyalty loop because we know that people continue talking about book products after they purchase them. So point of sale, that whole conversation goes on way beyond points of sale and what Rachel was saying about community identity and reading, is that the more people feel like they’re a part of a community, and that there’s support for their reading identity and their writerly identity, the more likely publishers are to connect with those audiences.

Discuss Gen Z and Millennials being called the most impatient generations

I’m a millennial myself so I sometimes do take umbrage with the idea that Gen Z and millennials are more impatient than other generations, but that is certainly has been floating around and there are some aspects of our data that confirm that younger people are really used to immediate and they don’t have a lot of patience for waiting around for content. So whether that’s, you know, waiting for a package from Amazon, waiting for an ebook through the library.

We found, for example, that 75% of Gen Z and Millennial library patrons said that a wait time of one week or less was long. A week or less! And approximately 1/5 of them were deterred by these long, you know, in quotes, “wait times”, so much so that they would go elsewhere to get the book. Gen Z, millennials are also very used to subscriptions and that’s an all you can eat buffet of media content. You have immediate access to it. We captured some data about the kinds of bookish subscriptions that they subscribe to. Audible was the top one. About one third of them reported subscribing to Audible, followed by Kindle Unlimited at around 25%, but then the next one was Crunchyroll which is a manga and anime subscription. After that, the serial fiction and fanfiction subscriptions like Wattpad and radish, so it’s kind of interesting to see the different content that they’re subscribing to…audiobooks, ebooks, web, comics, manga, fanfiction, et cetera.

Finally, one piece of this impatience maybe comes through because we’re in this always-engaged digital culture. Gen Z and millennials are on their phones and social media a lot. Kathi already talked about, you know, 25% of them are checking social media multiple times an hour. They’re constantly scrolling and being fed, and sometimes bombarded, with content. So in this scenario, in this environment, is it really any surprise that there might be a slight impatience problem?

What are your suggestions for publishers who want to reach Gen Z?

For market discovery, tapping into existing media based communities, such as gaming communities, might be a really nice place to do some market discovery. I think that publishers have really thought a lot about BookTok and Bookstagram and have marketed effectively in those contexts. They might want to consider reaching out to some kinds of gaming communities. The myth about gamers as being, you know, young, white men, working with really elaborate controls and dedicating, you know, dozens of hours a week, that’s a very tiny percentage of the population. In fact, women game a lot. There’s something called casual gaming, in which casual video games just kind of fit into your ordinary life, that you don’t pivot your life around gaming. So I would actually encourage publishers to think a little bit about gaming communities because we know that people who are gamers are also often readers and they can be approached in those contexts. So think a little bit about gaming is tip number one.

Tip number two is to reconsider the role of public libraries in your marketing campaigns. Because we know that people who don’t identify as readers are coming are still going to libraries. They’re still buying books, they’re still reading books. And that public libraries are showrooms for printed books. There are trained professionals there to help that publishers don’t have to pay to help readers connect with the books that they want. So finding some allship in this existing resource, which is scattered all around this country, really, I think would be a smart move for publishers to think about. And tip number three, ride the wave of media juggernauts happening in media outside of books. So we’ve talked about how cross media discovery is the number two way that Gen Z and millennials discover books. Right now is one example. The Emmys are getting a lot of attention so I would be asking what book products tie in with those shows being honored or talked about.

There’s all kinds of media happening all around us and I think that addressing people as if, like, making the assumption that younger readers and book buyers are there across media means widening your aperture for how you think about approaching them, and what counts as relevant.