3 S.R. Johannes: Guest Post: Michelle Zink shares her Teen Data

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Guest Post: Michelle Zink shares her Teen Data

Michelle lives in New York and has always been fascinated with ancient myths and legends. Her debut novel, Prophecy of the Sisters, has received rave reviews and is a teen favorite. Her second book, Guardian of Gates comes out in August 2010.

On her blog, she interviews teens weekly to get more information on why they read what they read and what books appeal to them the most. You can also follow her on twitter or fan page.

You can also check out her trailer, the fabulous Vania (owner of VLC Productions and blogger on Reverie Book Reviews. Vania's other recent trailers include Kimberly Derting's Body Finder and Beautiful Creatures.)

Here is a post from Michelle Zink about the teen data she's collected while on her book tours:


So, here’s the thing about being on tour for two weeks. You kind of lose track of how many people you’ve talked to and met along the way. Most days, I had two school visits – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – and an evening bookstore event. But a school visit doesn’t necessarily mean one group of kids. Sometimes, I’d give 3-5 back-to-back presentations with 100+ kids in each group.

Let’s just say for the sake of argument that I spoke to an average of 100 kids a day for 13 days (I think this is probably close to accurate).

That means I spoke to 1300 kids ages 12-18 in less than two weeks.

That is A LOT of kids!

But I loved every minute. I love talking to kids and teens because they tend to be so enthusiastic, so open-minded, so curious and passionate. And as I wrote in my previous post, it was really fun for me to engage in my signature, two-way Q&A. It was fascinating to watch them become excited and passionate about books and to realize that I cared what THEY thought.

I’m going to share my informal findings here, and I’d love to hear your thoughts as well – as a reader, writer, blogger, or reviewer.

Following are some of the questions I most frequently ask...

1. When you go into a store to browse, what are the main things that make you decide to pick it up and take a closer look?

What I expected to hear; cover

What I heard; cover. Without fail, most young readers cited the cover as THE most important part of their decision to pick up a book in a bookstore and then take a closer look and/or consider buying it. Other popular answers were reading the jacket copy or summary on the back, the title, reading the first page, and opening to a random part of the book to read a couple of pages. What I DIDN’T hear also surprised me. In all the schools I visited, I probably only had one reader say they noticed or cared if other authors had blurbed a book. Personally, I think this is probably based at least partially on WHO’S blurbing. I mean, if you have a JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, or Neil Gaiman blurb, I’m thinking you’re better off than having a blurb by, say, ME! Just sayin’!

2. When you go into a bookstore knowing what you’re going to buy, what are the main things that have gotten you there intent on buying THAT book?

What I expected to hear; blog buzz and/or media coverage, ads, etc.

What I heard; The main reasons for PLANNING to buy a book were cited as a friend’s recommendation, seeing the book advertised somewhere (magazine, teen website, etc.), or having it be part of a series they’ve already enjoyed. Again, I was surprised not to hear more about blog buzz, but I’m beginning to realize that’s because the online reading, blogging, writing, and reviewing community feels like a bit of a fishbowl these days. It’s easy to attach tremendous importance to every blog review, every comment, every Follower, but the reality is that the average teen doesn’t even know blogs exist. And those that do only take passing notice, i.e. “I know they’re out there, but I don’t go to them or pay attention to what they say.”. This is good and bad. As I’ve said, I LOVE connecting with bloggers. They’re some of the most ardent readers around, and it’s just plain fun to talk about books, compare notes on what we’re reading, etc. It would be nice to think that, even though many of the bloggers I talk to online feel like real friends, some of that will spill over into the general reading community. Then again, it makes it easier to bear the occasional negative review, snarky comment, or clique (of which I am typically on the outside). Other writers have commented to me since my last post on this topic that they were incredibly relieved to hear it, because sometimes it just feels like your whole writing life is riding on a handful of blogs. These writers have said that it’s really nice to know that there’s a WHOLE lot more to a “successful” book than that. So now I’m curious! What do you guys think? Do you think it’s important to bring the “everyday” reader into the blogging community?

3. When you buy a book, does it matter if it’s paperback or hardcover?

What I expected to hear? that teens prefer paperbacks because they’re cheaper.

What I heard; 80% of teens PREFER hardcover!! This SHOCKED me! Now I feel naive, because of course, most teens either have parents buying their books OR they spend their own cash – all of which is, essentially, disposable income. Teens said they preferred hardcover because they felt like “they would last longer” and/or they were “nicer”. The rare teen who said they preferred paperback said they were “easier to carry in my backpack” and, yes, very occasionally “they’re cheaper.”

4. Do you prefer series books or stand-alone books?

What I expected to hear; I wasn’t sure! I’d been hearing some stuff in the blogosphere about readers being tired of series, but I LOVE reading AND writing them, so I just wasn’t sure what I’d hear…

What I heard; SERIES! Overwhelmingly. Teens said they get attached to characters and storylines and they don’t want to say goodbye after just one book. They also said they figured, “If I liked one book in a series, I’ll probably like the rest,” which prompted me to ask, “So if you read book one in a series and you enjoy it, is it pretty much guaranteed you’re going to read the next one regardless of what you might hear about it, good or bad?” To which they ALL responded, “Yes!”

5. What do you think we have too much of in the YA genre?

What I expected to hear; vampires. Or girl books.

What I heard; SHOCKER ALERT!!! The answer, most often from girls, was ROMANCE! And I was like, “WTF?” Because, seriously, THAT’S WHAT IS SELLING, people! But many, many girls said they’re becoming tired of books that center around an all-consuming romance. They said that they like having SOME romance in books, but they’re getting bored with having that be ALL a book’s about. They want MORE. Weird, huh?

6. What do we need MORE of in the YA genre?

What I expected to hear; was totally unsure!

What I heard; books for boys, comedy(!), again (back to the theme from above) more “mysteries or thrillers without having it all be romance.”

7. What ruins a book for you?

What I expected to hear? a “slow” book or one without enough action.

What I heard; “books that always have a happy ending.” This kind of surprised me! But A LOT of teens said that they don’t like it when everything turns out perfectly in every book. They seem to understand that life doesn’t work this way most of the time, and while they want to escape into another story, they also seem to want stories, characters, and endings that are at least somewhat reflective of the lives they live. I was also surprised at how many teens (guys included!) said they hate most of the stereotyping of school cliques or characters. They seems to agree that in general, kids aren’t as mean as they’re made out to be in books. And the lines aren’t as clearly delineated as you might think. In other words, a Cheerleader can be nice AND smart. Not only that, she might very well be friends with someone who’s a Geek or a Skater or a Goth. Along the same lines, they said they didn’t like it when characters were portrayed as being perfect and having everything. I thought this was very insightful, actually. They said that even if someone’s gorgeous or popular, he/she has problems, too, just like everyone else.

All in all, the teens I spoke with proved what I’ve known all along; they’re insightful, interesting, intelligent, complex people. They asked savvy questions about the business end of publishing (how do you get an agent? can you take your book to another publisher if you don’t like the cover?) and were incredibly interested in the writing process (how do you come up with ideas for your books? what do you do if you get writer’s block?). They were respectful (mostly! and when they weren’t, I shut them down. Having teenagers around all the time has many benefits!), funny, charming, and heartbreakingly sincere.

They gave me hope for the future of reading and writing and reminded me why it’s a privilege to do what we do.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic post, Michelle! The idea that a cover is SO important is not surprising - but I wish they would have shared WHAT they look for in a cover - color? picture?

So surprised to hear that hardback prices were not a deterent especially in this economy.

Very informative. Thanks for sharing.

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

This was so interesting - thanks to you both for sharing it. And what a cool way to think about a book tour - as an opportunity to meet and "interview" 1,300 teens - you really get to know your target market well that way!
Off to tweet this,

Elizabeth O Dulemba said...

GREAT and interesting post! Thanks!

Unknown said...

Great guest post (and fascinating)! Thanks for sharing.

Rebecca Knight said...

This was fascinating!

I was also surprised by not enjoying endings that are *too* happy, or romance that's too consuming. Teens have good taste!

Patti said...

Great interview, most interesting, especially the romance part. Thanks for sharing.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

This is fabulous information and so interesting! I'm not surprised they don't mind the prices. My son would pay just about any price for a book he wants. Thanks, ladies! :-)

Tere Kirkland said...

Thanks for sharing. This has been a super-informative guest blog, and I appreciate your taking the time to write it all out for us.

Melissa Hurst said...

Great interview! I was really surprised to hear that some teens are tired of romance.

Paul Greci said...

this was a pleasure to read. Thanks! I love hearing from the students!!

CJ Omololu said...

Awesome interview! Thanks for the great info!

Robin Mellom said...

Okay, wow. That was FASCINATING! Thank you so much for sharing these insights!

Elana Johnson said...

Oh, this is by far my favorite post of the day. Thanks Michelle and Shelli!

Jemi Fraser said...

Wow - really interesting stuff! I'm a little surprised by the happy ending answer.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I'm with the kids on blurbs. Who cares what someone else thought of the book? The back cover, particularly with paperbacks, should tell me what the book's about. I don't read a book because some else thinks it's great, I read it because it's about a subject or characters I think I'll find interesting. And if the publisher doesn't tell me anything about the book, I'll probably stick it right back on the shelf and look for something else.

Jackee said...

So enlightening. Thanks to you both!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great post. It was so interesting to hear that teens want books in a series. And I am relieved like others that book blogs aren't so important. By the way, I just finished your book yesterday Michelle & loved it. Thanks for sharing.

Michelle Zink said...

So glad this was helpful to you all! I run a teen book club through Borders as well. We talk about all kinds of things but mostly about BOOKS, so I'll be posting more information when it seems pertinent.

Glad you enjoyed the book, Natalie! Thanks for reading!

And thanks, Shelli, for passing along my raw data!


Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

Wonderful post! I'm bookmarking *and* linking back to this one.

Catherine Denton said...

Great interview. The "happy endings" answer surprised me.
Winged Writer

Christina Farley said...

This was such an interesting post. You really need to stop making your blog so interesting. I'm getting addicted! Must have my Shelli Fix for the day kind of addicted!

Bish Denham said...

Wow! Excellent information!

Melissa Sarno said...

I love this post! Great to hear from teen readers and be surprised by their observations. Keeps things interesting.

Anonymous said...

What a great post. So many surprises in their answers. Thank you so much for doing the leg work and sharing the goods with us. *applause*

Anonymous said...

What a great post. So many surprises in their answers. Thank you so much for doing the leg work and sharing the goods with us. *applause*

cleemckenzie said...

Your questions were excellent, and the answers very revealing. Thanks, Michelle.

Stina said...

Great interview! So teens chose books the same way I do. Cover. Blurb. Recommendation from friends. The hardback answer suprised me.

Hey, what do you know? My current wip fits in what they're looking for (minus the series part). :D