Did the Smart Phone End the Young Adult Fiction Boom?

Between the late 1990s and the mid-2010s there would seem to have been an extraordinary boom in Young Adult (YA) fiction. Hence phenomena like Harry Potter, hence Twilight, hence The Hunger Games. At its climax in the early-to-mid ’10s, when College Humor brought us its famous Young Adult Plan for rescuing the economy, superstars of YA like Suzanne Collins, Jeff Kinney, Rick Riordan, Veronica Roth and John Green dominated the bestseller lists, collectively accounting for an astonishing 18 of the 30 places on the combined 2012, 2013 and 2014 Publisher’s Weekly lists of those years’ top-selling novels.

Then they didn’t, the young adult titles seeming to fade from the lists. Many of those authors were still writing, but not making quite the same mark — while new superstars were simply not appearing.

There are likely a good many reasons why this happened — like those books tending to have just a few themes that people got tired of pretty fast, like young-people-rebelling-against-extremely-bleak-dystopian societies, with this seeming the more likely in as, at least in the view of this longtime science fiction reader, they just didn’t have very much new to say, or anything very deep to offer. (I might add that as the country’s polarization got harder to ignore, publishers — and writers, whose self-censorship should never be underestimated — became less comfortable with such themes, dealing with them in the vague, noncommital ways of the boom period novels.)

But I suspect that far and away the most important factor was the change in media technology, and especially how the Internet, and its ever-lengthening range of entertainment options, became far more portable than before, providing all those alternatives to reading in situations where reading had once been the main source of diversion (like during that commute), and all of this having that much more effect on the younger crowd (which had had less time to form reading habits) — with the smart phone critical here. In the form in which we know it the smart phone made its first appearance in June 2007, by way of the iPhone, after which the devices proliferated rapidly. According to the Pew Research Center’s polls four in ten people had one less than five years later (January 2012), half had one a year after that (January 2013), two-thirds sixteen months after that (67 percent in April 2015), and a year and a half or so later, three-quarters (77 percent in November 2016). And while that data set focuses on adults other Pew Research Center data indicates that “teens” were very much included in the trend, with devices scarcely less ubiquitous in that demographic than among their elders, while their use of them became notoriously intensive (45 percent admitting to being online “almost constantly” according to the 2018 survey, with all that implies for when anyone would read anything).

Correlation is not causation — but the YA bubble bursting as the market became saturated with smart phones seems to me no coincidence, people with the devices in hand little inclined to put them down to pick up a book — and constantly tempted to do everything but read a book off of them, the more in as the devices are so much better-suited to just about anything but long-form reading (which, frankly, are easier diversions for most anyway). Young adult books were a predictable early casualty because, again, the young never had the chance to build up the reading habit their elders did — but it seems to me unlikely in the extreme that the changes in cultural life will cease there.

Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.