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Avoiding Age Bias in Self-Publishing

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

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An interesting conversation came up in the Facebook Group I lead for self-published authors. A talented content creator is hoping to self-publish a book. Her hope is to expand her reach to seniors that are electronically challenged. While I give her a lot of credit for thinking about formats that will appeal to her target audience (I wish more authors did), her observation just hit me differently on a personal level.

I am now in my early 60s. Technically, I’m a “senior,” even though in my mind, I still think I’m 30. I’m not even close to being in the “electronically challenged” category. In fact, a number of my Millennial and Gen Z pals get a kick out of the fact that I’m active with them on TikTok and Instagram and am a YouTuber. I refuse to buy print books unless absolutely necessary.

As authors, I think we have to be very careful about “aging” our audiences. And this goes in both directions of the age spectrum. So let’s talk about a few of the pitfalls to avoid in age classifications for your readers.

Myth 1: Older Readers Like Print Books

Though a Pew Research study found that readership of eBooks grew from 25 percent to 30 percent of readers from 2019 to 2021 (Pew Research, January 6, 2022), print book reading and sales are still very strong across all age groups.

A Statista report showed the following age groups read at least one print book a year as of February 2021:

  • 18-29: 68%
  • 30-49: 67%
  • 50-64: 62%
  • 65+: 61%

Not much variance from young adult to senior readers! However, I should note that I believe the 18-to-29 age group may have been a bit higher because they may be going to college and have to read print textbooks. But even considering that, print is universally popular across the age spectrum.

Myth 2: Seniors Are Electronically Challenged

Though I am a sample of one, I think I am an example of a senior who is definitely not tech-averse or “electronically challenged.” And it appears there are more like me, not only in my personal network but in the larger population.

According to a Pew Research study done in early 2021, the share of people who are 65 and older who are tech users has grown in the past decade.

For internet use, almost all those in the age span of 18 to 64 use the internet (96% to 99%), though only 75 percent of those 65 and older do. But the gap separating the youngest and oldest internet users has shrunk from 56 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2021.

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Ninety-six percent of those 18 to 29 own a smartphone, while only 61 percent of those 65 and older do. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. While a 35 percent gap between the age groups is significant, it was as high as 53 percent in 2012.

What really surprised me was social media use. Americans age 65 and older who are on social media have grown fourfold since 2010, and their use of YouTube has grown 11 percent from 2019 to 2021, just a few short years.

But are older people really becoming more tech-savvy? Or are those entering these older age brackets now already tech users, making it seem as though older people are more tech-savvy? Should we now be breaking up the “senior” or “65+” age category into smaller segments due to expanded life spans? Does the availability, accessibility, and advancement of tech constantly change this equation? My statistically oriented brain is in overdrive right now. All of this would require more focused research to figure out.

However, this doesn’t negate the fact that older people are catching up to younger ones in terms of tech adoption and use. Maybe it’s not so much catching up, as it is tech use becoming more widespread, across all populations and age groups.

One thing is for certain. The image of “old people” being electronically challenged, preferring old, non-tech ways of doing things, including reading print books, is just an assumption.

Myth 3: Children’s Books Are Picture Books

Because I’ve done a lot of networking with women’s groups over the years, I run into a lot of mompreneurs who get the notion to self-publish a “children’s book.” Unfortunately, they have no idea what is meant by a book for children.

They’re looking at it through the lens of their own personal experience, either currently or an idealized past where they enjoyed reading books to or with their little ones. If you ask them what reading level their books are for, they’ll be vague and say “children.” I never was a mom. But I know very well that the definition of a child covers a wide range of ages, intellectual development, and emotional and attitudinal stages… all of which evolve at a rapid pace. This means that a book that was appropriate for a child this year may be seen as babyish the next.

For many of these parent authors, children’s book equals picture book. But picture books have a very limited reading level. Most estimates I’ve seen are baby up to age 8. These misguided authors will dump lots of money into illustrations but will invest little to nothing into editing, which is so crucial for these books. A dedicated children’s book editor can help ensure both the text and the content is appropriate for the intended age.

What Does This Mean for Self-Published Authors?

Go Multi-format. Because technology and its adoption is in a constant state of flux, yet preferences for older formats such as print prevail across age groups, self-published authors need to consider offering their books in multiple formats, print, eBook, and audiobook if appropriate for the content.

Understand Your Audience's Age. Truly understand where your target audience is on the age spectrum. Realize that there are subsets of each broad age group, which can have widely varying needs and wants. Develop an ideal reader profile for each subset you hope to reach.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Heidi Thorne

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