Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 21, 2022

The Invisible Reader You Don't Want to Ignore

by Lisa Norman

mysterious young woman with a book

I recently attended the 2021 Publishing Year in Review: Opportunities & Continuing Trends, an online publishing seminar put on by Ingram Content Group. The entire presentation was encouraging and fascinating.

One moment caught my attention during the presentation by Pete McCarthy, the Director of Consumer Insights from Ingram Book Company. This is a man who makes it his business to be up on the trends among readers. With his permission, I'm going to share some of these trends with you.

The Visible Trends

He pointed out the trends both before and during the pandemic. Note that the growth in the e-book and audiobook markets are good, but perhaps less than we would expect. Print was essentially flat, whereas reading in any format is up. It has fallen from 2011, perhaps, but not by much.

This is great news. People still like to read books!

Print vs Digital

He described 33% of the book readers as omnivorous. They'll read a book in any format depending on price point, availability, and other factors. These folks just want to read.

Next, he shared information showing that most people buy books both online and in physical stores.

The takeaway here is that the modern consumer will buy a book in any format and from whatever location is most convenient.


Then he did a deep dive into e-book statistics.

Are e-book sales up or down? He said the answer is nuanced with the range being dependent on genre. Adult fiction is doing well with some areas up 6%. In general, he sees overall growth in e-books.

But then he showed something fascinating.

Non-Ownership Reading

"Non-ownership" reading refers to areas like Kindle Unlimited and libraries, where it is possible to borrow a book and read it without necessarily being tracked in the sales numbers.

This area is growing significantly, but doesn't show up on the trend charts.

The Invisible Readers of the Future

There's another readership that doesn't show on any of the charts, an invisible demographic.

Most of the statistics we track are for adults, but younger readers are interacting with stories in a completely different way.

Wattpad, WebToon, and others are extremely popular among younger readers. These are websites and applications that get numbers like 400 million monthly visits with average time spent on the apps in excess of 20 minutes each visit. Online statistics for Wattpad show that it had 90 million monthly users as of November 2021.

If you haven't seen these venues yet, they're places where people share stories. Like Kindle Vella, these stories are often released periodically or episodically. These stories are generally free, often supported by Patreon or Ko-fi donations.

And there are more venues like this. Venues like Archive of Our Own, one that my daughter loves. She loves the fresh and unusual voices of the authors. She loves that this is a place where fans can hang out and write fan fiction as well as create new worlds in fresh ways. Here are their statistics from 2020, where they were tracking in excess of 50 million views per day.

These statistics and trends are difficult for us to compare and quantify to industry standards, but they are examples of digital reading. According to Pete McCarthy, this is a massive trend. He said that he doesn't want to overreact, but he thinks this is a trend worth keeping an eye on in a big way.

Not Just for Kids

These websites are not just attracting children.

A press release from Wattpad in 2021 claimed that the platform boasted 90 million readers and 5 million writers. Eighty percent of their users are Gen Z (born after 1997). These works are not all amateur, either. Almost 1,500 Wattpad stories have been either published as books or adapted for TV or film. You can see insights into the trending topics here.

Pete said that Archive of Our Own is reporting 400 million monthly visits with an average time on site of 17 minutes.

Digital reading is up much more than the 6% that shows in the official statistics. Pete showed that consumer engagement with online media is also up, and this includes engaging with stories in different media formats: audio, gaming, and streaming content being up, while time spent watching TV was down.

People are engaging with stories online in non-traditional formats, not just with paper books, e-books, or audiobooks.

Types of Content People Spend Time With on the Internet

This chart only shows the top 20 types of online content, and books are #19. He sees this as very positive.

I've added my own highlight to entertainment and games because my research shows that these are also ways in which people are engaging with stories.

In my research of WebToons, Wattpad, Archive of our Own, and other similar trends, I've noticed a movement among the younger generations towards a passion for transmedia content: stories that transcend the format they are presented in, stories that can be experienced in many different types of media. I suspect that a lot of what is classified as entertainment content is interacting with stories in the form of games, online short-form reading, fan fiction, movie adaptations, and animations.

What is Transmedia?

To understand transmedia, think of Star Trek, Star Wars, Marvel, or DC Comics.

There are movies, games, books, animated shows, graphic novels, comic books, fan fiction, and many more ways that fans are interacting with these elaborate story worlds. Fans get together for conventions. They talk in forums. Want a non-science fiction example? How about Sherlock Holmes?

This page at Archive of Our Own lists all fandoms they currently explore.

Increasingly, fans want to interact with the stories they consume. Fans still enjoy the printed word. They just want to have more interaction with the worlds their favorite authors are creating.

This trend isn't new. Any reader who has ever become immersed in a book has had that moment when they close the book and wish they could stay with it, stay in that world.

With modern technology and modern transmedia storytelling, readers can. Readers become a part of the story.

I loved one quote that Pete put on the bottom of a slide:

"Opportunity is everywhere — stay agile, adapt, try new things."

What are you doing to engage with this hidden demographic of readers?

* * * * * *

About Lisa

head shot of smiling Lisa Norman

Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, she can be found wandering the local beaches.

Lisa writes as Deleyna Marr and is the owner of Deleyna's Dynamic Designs, a web development company focused on helping writers, and Heart Ally Books, an indie publishing firm. She teaches for Lawson Writer's Academy.

Interested in learning more from Lisa? See her teaching schedule below.



Top Image by maximiliano estevez from Pixabay

*Slides Reprinted with permission of Ingram Content Group

27 comments on “The Invisible Reader You Don't Want to Ignore”

  1. This is a fascinating and very timely post. It's so hard to keep tabs on all the new platforms out there! I've looked at Wattpad years ago, but never participated. I'm going to take a second look now.

    1. Check out Archive of our Own as well. It has a bit better security from what I've heard.

    1. Thanks for reading, Ellen! There are so many it is hard to keep up with them all. It is a growing area.

    1. SUCH a good question! The first thing is just to notice that it exists so that when we see the graphics that show digital reading as a relatively small percentage, we don't ignore all of these other ways people are reading that don't show on the charts.

      Then, the next most important thing to do is to be truly in touch with our fans. Some genres haven't made huge moves toward digital reading yet. Others have transitioned in huge ways. For example, epic fantasy and science fiction (among others) have some amazing new options that I'll talk about in future posts. Readers will tell you what they love. In fact, I've found that if you get a fan of these platforms talking about them, they'll start gushing and it'll be hard to get them to stop!

      After that, I think the next step is just to be willing to consider new ways of looking at story. LWA has a great class in Transmedia Storytelling taught by Katherine Baldwin that is amazing.

      The good news is that these platforms are excellent opportunities for Storytellers - and THAT is what we are!

    1. I hear you, Bonnie! I have to admit that the entire phenomenon has captured my attention. I feel like a kid in a shiny new toy store!

    1. This was the first time I've heard anyone in the publishing industry acknowledge this trend in such a powerful way. Ingram has been doing market research for a new marketing platform that they intend to sell to authors. It seems their research has led them to take this new area very seriously. I was in an interview recently where I was told that authors who are embracing these trends WHERE appropriate are seeing up to 300% growth in sales. Makes sense: giving the readers what they want.

  2. Wow, Lisa, what a terrific post! Thank you -- but what a lot of really good information! It's going to take me a while, and multiple readings, to absorb it all.
    I found the idea of transmedia especially interesting. I remember a brief news segment I saw a few years ago about a small convention for fans of NCIS.
    There's a lot to think about here!

    1. OOOh yes. NCIS fans are in there for sure! The phenomenon is spreading. Imagine being able to take your favorite book and then go and play in that world. Now imagine being able to invite a friend to come and play with you. Then the friend HAS to go and read the book so they understand, right? It is a powerful movement for book sales, and discovery for authors who can adapt to the change.

  3. I did Wattpad, and found it, at the time (2012-2015), mostly teens and young adults, but having a vibrant contingent of older writers whom they devastated when they closed the forums, suddenly, with no notice - I guess they didn't want to pay for moderators, or enable more reader/mods.

    I serialized my first published novel there, a 167K word first volume in a mainstream trilogy, and got some of my first reviews and supporters from there. It is a much different place now, and I wouldn't go back, nor serialize the second in the trilogy which is about ready.

    But my readers were mostly older, writers, and much more well-educated and well-read than the kids (whose platform it was supposed to be). I'm glad I had a place to start getting actual reader feedback (the last time I looked, a short story I wrote as a prequel to the trilogy had 66k views, and had been featured). But I think than ran into trouble when trying to monetize it, and there are a lot of creepy approaches - and no one cares: you have to block them yourself. I don't see how they can monetize it except by locking the few superstars into contracts with publishers and somehow getting a commission, because most of the users don't even have credit cards. That part always sounded like a hand-waver to the venture capitalists. IMO. I go back periodically, but don't interact any more, and the older writers who were there mostly disappeared except for a small group which reconvened on Discord.

    I don't think those younger readers are part of MY target demographic.

    1. They grow up, Alicia. (grin - I'm kidding, mostly.) But you're right about Wattpad. From what I've been told - haven't played much myself - those people who left went over to Archive of our Own, for many of the reasons you mention. There are other venues that people are using: Substack, Kindle Vella, and many others, not to mention Patreon and Ko-fi supported websites. Note: you'd be surprised how many of those young folks can and DO support artists via Ko-fi and Patreon, so monetization is very possible. These kids know their way around subscription services!

      I'm definitely not saying this approach is for everyone. But as you noticed, you do get much closer to your fans and the feedback can be a great help.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      1. Anything that gets kids reading is ultimately positive, even if it consists mainly of Harry Stiles fan fic. But that's not the VC's aim.

        Wattpad shut forums down so quickly there was no way to connect with the same groups of people you had been commenting back and forth with for years - I lost 98% of my friends, and most people don't use their real names...

        The kids also know not to pay for subscription services they're not actively using - their money is tight. They have the same passion that kids who collected pogs and stickers had - they do support their favorites if they can.

        1. You might search for some of their screen names. Some use the same name on multiple platforms. Kids from this era know how to stay in touch, even when platforms shut down.

          I don't know all that happened on Wattpad, but I know it changed hands after some sort of issue. My daughter was furious, and said folks had shifted to Archive of Our Own, name chosen very deliberately, I suspect, as a reference to what happened.

          You may be able to reconnect with friends.

          I'll use this as a moment for a teaching point for lurkers that I suspect you already know. As authors, we can't trust our platforms, our connections to our fans, to anyone else. Whenever possible, we need to bring our fans back to our website. This can be hard. But when they sign up for our newsletters, they are true fans and no one can take that connection away (as long as we pay our hosting bills)!

          Pen names, screen names, if well chosen, can definitely be tracked. Just as our gravatars (globally recognized avatars) can be tracked.

          My daughter is more of a digital native than I am. She definitely knows how to stay in touch with people even when platforms close. Amazes me.

          I've also been amazed by the support these young people give each other.

          1. I have a blog - but not a newsletter. I am an incredibly slow writer due to illness, and I can barely handle the WIP and an occasional post. There will probably never be a point for a newsletter for me - but people can follow the blog (which, I know, could disappear, too) or follow me on Amazon or Goodreads.

            I periodically download all my WordPress posts for backup.

            A newsletter gives content plus an occasional ad - I can't do that. I'm literally doing the best I can.

            I comment on the blogs I visit - those are my daily writing prompts.

            I don't do change, and yet I'm managing.

            1. You're doing well! I know what it is like to live with chronic illness. It gives you a higher value for the content you produce. Here's something I teach in my advanced website techniques: forget about the word "newsletter" and everything you have associated with it. Let it become an email to your fans. And also think about repurposing content. Even when you have the ability to subscribe to a blog - like we have here at WITS - people will miss posts. If you blog only periodically, you could put the excerpts of your latest blog posts into a "newsletter" and send that out. No new content. I use a plugin that integrates with WordPress for my "newsletters" and it has a template to automatically pull in the most recent blog post(s). With their pro version, you can even have this happen without any interaction from you.

              You're right to prioritize writing.

              Something like this might give you more traction for the content you do write without more effort. Just tossing out an idea. Of course it definitely depends on which blogging platform, etc.

              I just hate the context that "newsletter" has taken on lately. Even worse: I hate getting most of them. So many of them are in this format that forgets to even consider what the reader wants!

        2. I also do want to say: I absolutely agree that there are bad actors in these spaces that are not out there to protect kids.

          My daughter and I have had many talks about security and acceptable risk.

          They live in a different world than the one I grew up in. I'm just happy when I see them working together to support artists and each other. Gives me hope.

            1. That's it exactly! They're already building it, and we can see that it not only includes reading, it includes a passion for it! Kids definitely give us perspective on the future! And - I don't know about yours - mine give me both hope and nightmares! Each one so precious and unique.

  4. Thank you for this post, Lisa. My college aged girls are always reading webtoons on their phones. Although, I don't imagine they are paying for it. (They are happy it is free and tell me this. *Sigh.)

    I see platforms like these as long term investments over time that can produce a wider fan base. Your younger readers will find you elsewhere when they want more of your writing (perhaps on your own website?) This group is more likely to buy 'merch' and various formats of your books, from what I see with teens around me.

    Teens are a demographic that has a ton of disposable income. They have jobs, and families that mostly pay for all their needs. Not all teens, but many won't think twice about dropping $5-$7 for a smoothie or coffee. Why not support their favorite authors and artists? And many do.

    This article has some fascinating statistics about Gen Z - they lived though the 2008 recession and now COVID, which has impacted their spending habits. They have billions to spend, but they are thrifty (yes the irony is apparent when seeing what they spend it on!) according to the Bloomberg report. (see below)

    Again, your article is fun and very interesting. I agree - don't ignore these readers!


    1. Oooh, Kris! Thanks for that statistic! That's exactly what was missing from this article. I didn't even think about it until I read the comments. I appreciate you finding that. But of course, you're in the trenches with them! It obviously is different based on their living situation, etc. and it varies. I wish my teen would save more, but she does a ton with what she has, including hosting her own online communities. Story matters to these folks... something I find very encouraging.

    2. Oh - and my daughter and I were talking about Webtoons yesterday as well. I haven't read a ton of them, but was impressed. I *think* that one may be supported by display ads. I just looked it up, and it seems that they do ad-revenue sharing with their artists. One statistic said that popular ones could make from $100-$2000/month and that the most popular were pulling in $50,000 - $100,000 in annual income. You need to be 14 to use the platform, but another article mentioned a 13 year old that had been published... probably under "parental permission."

      While the readers may not pay to read all of them, vendors can pay to display ads on the platform, and that ad revenue can be quite high.

      Companies like Webtoon are huge growth ventures. Truly amazing.

  5. […] In the past, I’ve mentioned the warning given by an Ingram representative to a group of publishers back in 2021. He warned that digital reading was a trend the industry must pay attention to. We don’t want to miss the trend towards transmedia-centered, fandom-centered, online digital reading. […]

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