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The Bookseller – Commentary – Where are our books?

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There’s a reason why all i know about love was a Sunday time bestseller in its first week of publication in 2018. This is the same reason why The defining decade has sold over 500,000 copies, and why The Wrong Knickers: A Decade of Mayhem greet me every WH Smith at a train station despite first publishing it eight years ago. What is the common point between these books ? They are aimed at young women, presented as required reading to help them make sense of a dynamic, heartbreaking and pivotal decade: their twenties. The success of these titles represents a shift in demand and a thirst for more.

As a lifelong reader, I’ve always dreamed of stories that help me make sense of my own life and emotions. This is one of the many reasons I read and the predominant reason I write; connecting with a book is pure magic. In 2019, I was freshly graduated in a brand new city: living in a shared apartment, approaching the world of work and being heartbroken. For the first time when I scoured bookstores, I had a hard time finding characters whose interior monologue resembled mine. I craved stories with protagonists who felt as confused as I did by the adult world. Engaging in conversations with other readers and launching my most recent novel has shown me that I am not alone in this feeling. As the generation that saw young adult literature thrive alongside our own formative years, there is a demand for books that have aged with us. Where are all the books that take place after the 12-18 installment, and before the stories of motherhood, marriage, and the property ladder? Somewhere during the YA boom, this market was forgotten, and the recent arrival of titles such as normal people and Chandelier restarted the conversation once again.

It says a lot about the publication that for years our instinctive response to a young woman feeling lost in the early chapters of her adult life was to reference Bridget Jones. Bridget’s journey of love, friendship, and career-challenging (not to mention excellent one-liners) might encompass similar themes, but the protagonist is 32 years old. A seasoned adult rather than a new one. Books aimed at the early twenties, with characters who are actually in their twenties, represent a huge current void in the market. That’s why character-driven novels like those by Sally Rooney and Raven Leilani are so popular; they explore often unexplored experiences. Filthy roommates, the grim bottom rung of career ladders, and the searing pain of love are all about a forgotten toothbrush and obsessively checking to see if WhatsApp says “online.” Where the main characters in our lives aren’t babies or wedding rings, but friendships born in club toilets and the desperation of Freshers Week. There is a craving for books that depict this exhilarating but often exhausting time in life, so why aren’t we publishing them?

The BookTok effect

Conversations about reader demands in 2022 are pointless without mentioning BookTok, the book club-style social media giant and TikTok sub-community that is radically changing the way books are consumed. The 20-24 year olds are one of the most influenced and influential age groups on the app and have taken the lead in direct sales. It ends with us, Colleen Hoover’s backlist title that has gained popularity on social media, is the UK’s best-selling book of 2022 (according to Nielsen BookScan), despite being published in 2016. How old is Lily Bloom, the protagonist of the book? Twenty-three years old, and a recent college graduate. Viral titles can tell us a lot about the demand for books that represent a 20-something audience and the power of that audience to propel a title to success. It’s a mistake to ignore readers who are leading trendsetters and ignore their demographics and life experiences instead of using them to shape the books of 2023, 2024, and beyond.

So yeah, there’s a reason why all i know about love was a Sunday time bestseller in its first week of publication, and why the television adaptation of Alderton’s memoir has had a similar reception. It’s the same reason why “books for people in their twenties” is a popular Google search. Twenty-somethings are a group of readers going through a vital period of growth in their adult lives, seeking reassuring material and characters that make them feel less alone. It is a symbiotic relationship; there is a void in the market for books for 20-somethings, and coming out of lockdown, 20-somethings need literature more than ever to make sense of it all. Politically, socially and culturally, we are a generation making room to be heard. Take care of a twenties and we’ll scream for you.