In 2011 Phillip Jones, the deputy editor of the Bookseller, shared predictions that ebooks would “account for 50% of the US market by 2014 or 2015, and then… probably plateau,” (qtd in The Guardian). Yet, here we are, rapidly nearing the end of 2016, and according to BookNet, ebook sales have leveled at a fraction of that (hovering between 17% and 18% of the Canadian book market for the past three years).
And while it is true that digital reading materials of other kinds are constantly being made available online (blog posts, news articles, opinion pieces), the amount of actual reading the average user does online is questionable to say the least. We see this particularly in the ways marketers are adapting their content strategies to make everything more concise and skim-able. User experience professional Steve Krug wrote that when creating digital content, “We’re thinking ‘great literature’… while the user’s reality is much closer to ‘billboard going by at 60 miles an hour.’”
So, contrary to the expectations of many, the bulk of reading is still happening in print. In fact, according to a 2016 PEW research survey, the number of Americans who read a print book in the last year is double the number who read an ebook. Even more interesting is the finding that only 6% of respondents claimed to read digital exclusively, meaning that an overwhelming majority of ebook readers are still also reading print.
How could all the doom and gloom predictions that digital would take over be so far from the truth? Is there something inherently problematic with digital reading or does a bound book have some sort of je ne sais quoi factor that needs to be taken seriously for once?
At this point, we cannot keep brushing these statistics off by attributing them simply to nostalgia. There’s evidence abound that many other forces are at work here, from studies indicating that deep reading is not achieved on digital platforms, to reports on the rise of screen fatigue, right back to that irritating argument that there is just something about a book. It’s time we considered some of these influences before the ebook is caught as off-guard by some new disrupting innovation as the print book was by the ebook.
Moving away from science for a moment, I would like to point out that I have subjectively suspected that I do not read as deeply off of screens for many years now. Within a few sentences of an article, I frequently catch myself skimming for relevant information rather than actually reading the text as was intended. While at times this may be a helpful study skill, it becomes a problem when skimming stops being a conscious decision and starts becoming the way you automatically read digital works. In order to write this essay, I actually printed a dozen or so digital articles in order to ensure that I was actually understanding the sources I would be referencing. Yet, despite there being an almost limitless stream of dialogue on this subject online, the research in this area appears to be inconclusive.
A study conducted by Anne Niccoli with Educause last Fall tested reading comprehension across ebook and print formats. The study tested 231 students with multiple choice and short answer questions based on an article (roughly 800 words) they were assigned to read either in print or digitally. Niccoli found no “statistically significant difference” (Niccoli) in the average test scores of groups reading on a digital device versus groups reading print.
However, in 2013 the UK National Literacy Trust studied children’s reading habits and found that daily print readers are nearly twice as likely to be above average readers as those who read daily on-screen.
The idea that digital reading may have an impact on one’s ability to read in the long term is supported by recent neuroscientific studies. Not only does the brain use different circuitry to read on-screen versus paper, but if you read on screen frequently, your mind may shift to “non-linear” reading rather than “deep reading” (Raphael).
“Because we literally and physiologically can read in multiple ways, how we read—and what we absorb from our reading—will be influenced by both the content of our reading and the medium we use,” explains Maryanne Wolf in her essay on the brain’s digital evolution. Reading on-screen promotes the rapid skimming of texts and “an incessant need to fill every millisecond with new information,” she notes, arguing that while this can increase our reading efficiency, we need to consider what we are losing in the process.
Is the loss of deep-reading the reason readers are putting their screens down in favor of paper, or is something else at work here?
While different brain circuits could be to blame for the inability to focus online, the amount of distraction we face on a computer screen should not be discounted. A 2009 Stanford Study inferred that people who multitask on digital devices have trouble focusing and do not perform as well on tests. “They’re suckers for irrelevancy… Everything distracts them,” explained researcher Clifford Nass (qtd. in Gorlick). It’s probably fair to say that distraction levels in 2009 were not near what they are today, with smartphone use in 2016 more than triple what it was then. The truth is, we’re all digital multitaskers now.
When you click on a digital article you’d be lucky to read more than a paragraph before stumbling upon a link to take you elsewhere. You then have to make a choice as to whether to follow the link or ignore it, or perhaps you’ll make a mental note to return to it later. Regardless of the decision, the split second pause of consideration constitutes just one of many distractions we face with digital reading.
There’s also the endless notifications from our social media feeds, and (assuming you don’t use an Ad Blocker) the flashing banners and towers in the margins. We might have any number of tabs and applications running at a given time that entice us to click away momentarily from whatever piece of writing we are focusing on.
This is a problem with ebooks as well now that people are turning to tablets rather than designated e-readers. How tempting is it to check your email or flip over to Netflix or Candy Crush? Even if we sincerely want to pay attention to what we’re reading, we’re likely to get distracted. So what happens if you’re reading out of obligation rather than pleasure and you already have motivation to procrastinate? No wonder 92% of post-secondary students in the US, Germany, Slovakia and Japan recently reported a preference for print study materials over ebooks.
Another possible cause for keeping paper books around is that users who already stare at a screen all day (most of us, now that the smart phone is here) are experiencing the negative side effects of those back-lit pages. Young adult readers (ages 18-34) are especially tired of screen time, with over 30% of this group indicating that they would like to spend less time on digital devices (Publishers Weekly), and while we may require digital technology to listen to music or watch television, books are one area of entertainment that allows us to unplug.
According to a 2016 study by The Vision Council, the 18-34 group is also the greatest victim of digital eyestrain, with 73% reporting tired, sore eyes and headaches as well as neck, shoulder, and back pain. Millennials are also the most likely to use multiple devices simultaneously. But it’s not just the younger generation. 90% of Americans spend at least a couple hours a day on a screen.
We awake to the glow of a phone acting as an alarm clock. We work for hours on our computer screens, perhaps stopping to look at something on another screen—a television, a tablet, a smartphone. The pattern is repeated again and again as our days are filled with electronic images of news reports, online shopping, video games, movies, emails and texts.
— The Vision Council
It could be that people just physically need a break from screens, and reading printed works is one means of entertaining and informing ourselves without using an electronic device.
Digital Technology Fatigue
Beyond just the physical symptoms of screen over-indulgence, there is a prevalence of general tech fatigue and a desire to escape from the virtual reality of the web and engage with people and ideas in the physical world.
We are constantly connected, a Mobile Mindset study by Lookout reporting that 60% of us check our phones every hour, and there are even symptoms of smartphone addiction: “phantom smartphone twitches: the perception that your phone is ringing, buzzing or bleeping even when it’s nowhere in sight” (Lookout, 2012). The constant need to check our digital devices would suggest they make us happier, but more evidence is showing that our screens are actually causing anxiety.
Research has even shown too much screen time, especially related to gaming, can cause physical damage to the brain and impair cognitive functioning. It’s no surprise people are now seeking ways to de-tech. You can even find travel guides for “remote vacation spots with unreliable cell phone service and internet access” (Fitzgerald). If people are willing to go to such extreme lengths to escape screens, picking up a physical book instead of an ebook seems like a no-brainer (no pun intended).
But perhaps the persistence of print is simpler than I have so far suggested. I have talked about the prevalence of smartphones, but few people will want to read exclusively on such a small display (about 14% to be exact), and tablets remain the top platform for ebook readers. Nonetheless, tablets are still expensive luxury items, and despite the familiar praise that ebooks are more economical than print books, if you do not have a device to read them on then the cost becomes much higher (starting at around $100, but some cost ten times that).
On top of this, agency-lite pricing has increased ebook prices across the board, so there are times where it may even be cheaper to purchase the print copy. Moreover, as Michael Kozlowski of Good E-Reader points out, the value of an ebook doesn’t tend to depreciate as the book gets older like a printed book. With print, the initial hardcover costs more than the softcover to follow, and the softcover becomes discounted by the retailer when it becomes time to move inventory at the end of the season. But the price of an individual ebook remains stagnant. “The entire reason I started to buy e-books was to save money,” Kozlowski laments, “Now the opposite is true; [it’s] more cost [efficient] to buy the hardcover or paperback. I can loan it out to friends, showcase it on my bookshelf and I truly own it.”
Kozlowski’s last sentiment brings me to another point: it could be that the reason print has not died out is not due to some failure of digital products, but instead to some added value provided by a physical, bounded book. That same factor that prevents you from wrapping an ebook and sticking it under the tree at Christmas time could be the reason print has survived. After all, bookstores are busiest during the holiday shopping season and publishers push out their biggest titles in the Fall in preparation.
It’s not just about whether or not we can gift it. It’s the ever nagging fact that there’s some value we find in the physicality of a print book that’s just missing from an ebook, “the bookness of the book” as Verlyn Klinkenborg put it in his article, Books to Have and to Hold. He discusses how when you close an ebook, the text simply vanishes, but the reading experience “persists when you’ve finished it… A monument to the activity of reading.”
Joe Wikert acknowledged a similar valuation in a post about The Ebook Value Proposition Problem, explaining how he had bought an expensive Harry Potter collection for his daughter and wondered why she didn’t just want the ebook. His daughter pointed out that she couldn’t showcase a list of ebooks. “I’m sure she’ll smile every time she looks at the box on her shelf,” Wikert concedes. “My collection is a library buried deep within my iPad. When I look at my iPad I don’t smile . . . I just wonder if it’s fully charged…”
Books have become part of the atmosphere of a home. They are something we expect to see around us, even if we aren’t reading them every day. They indicate our interests and tastes, guard our memories, and give us an opportunity to escape our regular lives once in a while. They linger quietly on our shelves and remind us of their existence. An ebook might as well not exist once you’ve closed the app.
The truth is, we are used to seeing books around. They are comforting and decorative. They are expected. But maybe it is only this expectation that is responsible for their continued popularity.
The physical book is what we are used to. It is what most of us learned to read with, and what we plan to read with our own children. When, as children, we developed the brain circuitry that allows us to read, it was done with a printed page. Paper is our first literacy language, but we are rapidly becoming bi-literate.
As an avid reader, I have an innumerable amount of memories associated with a printed page. But is this only because for the majority of my life ebooks were not a feasible option? Will kids born in the last decade experience the same nostalgia for books when they grow up?
For many children today, a touch screen will appear in as many (or more) memories as a printed page. When I read a book, I feel more in my element than I do on the web or in an ebook, but that may not be true for the next generation. Maybe the only thing holding back digital reading is our ability to adapt to it. We’re evolving more slowly than the technology, but eventually we will get there, and if comfort is the only factor keeping the printed book alive than it won’t last long.
That brings me to the real point of this conversation. Why have I just rambled on for a couple thousand words, messing about with an explanation for the continued perseverance of books? Because the answer is vital to the future of the book industry. It will determine where publishers need to adapt and expand, and where they need to proceed with caution.
If we still read physical books only because they are what is comfortable or what we have most access to, then soon enough digital will take over. But if any of the other factors discussed come into play, then the book may continue to have a role in our society, providing a unique value that digital texts cannot.
Unfortunately, I cannot say for sure which of the influences I’ve described is really responsible for the failure of digital reading to completely take over our lives. I suspect that, in reality, it is a combination of all of the above. I’m sure there are also factors I haven’t even considered. It is an area where, I believe, a lot more research could greatly benefit the book industry.
Certainly, the worst thing that could be done is to ignore the subject, to celebrate the immortality of the printed book and to assume that there is inherently something about a book that will guarantee its continued existence. For if anything is to spell the death of the book, it will be blatant overconfidence.
BookNet Canada. (2016, January 18). Print book sales were up in 2015. BookNet Canada. Retrieved from http://www.booknetcanada.ca/press-room/2016/1/18/print-book-sales-were-up-in-2015
Dunckley, Victoria M.D. (2014, February 27). Gray Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201402/gray-matters-too-much-screen-time-damages-the-brain
Fitzgerald, Britney. (2012, June 12). Social Media Is Causing Anxiety, Study Finds. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/10/social-media-anxiety_n_1662224.html
Fitzgerald, Britney. (2012, July 31). Technology-Free Vacation: 7 Places Where You Can Escape the Internet. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/26/technology-free-vacation_n_1707478.html
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Gorlick, Adam. (2009, August 24). Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows. Stanford News. Retrieved from http://news.stanford.edu/2009/08/24/multitask-research-study-082409/
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Kozlowski, Michael. (2015, June 4). Major Publishers Are Screwing Readers with High e-book Prices. Good E-Reader. Retrieved from http://goodereader.com/blog/e-book-news/major-publishers-are-screwing-readers-with-high-e-book-prices
Krug, Steve. (2014). How we really use the Web. Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited. Retrieved from http://www.sensible.com/chapter.html
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Niccoli, Anne. (September 28, 2015). Paper or Tablet? Reading Recall and Comprehension. Educause. Retrieved from http://er.educause.edu/articles/2015/9/paper-or-tablet-reading-recall-and-comprehension
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Raphael, T.J. (2014, September 18). Your paper brain and your Kindle brain aren’t the same thing. PRI. Retrieved from http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-09-18/your-paper-brain-and-your-kindle-brain-arent-same-thing
Schaub, Michael. (2016, February 8). 92% of college students prefer print books to e-books, study finds. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-92-percent-college-students-prefer-paper-over-pixels-20160208-story.html
Statista. (2016, October). Number of smartphone users in the United States from 2010 to 2021 (in millions). Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/201182/forecast-of-smartphone-users-in-the-us/
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Wikert, Joe. (2015, December 28). The Ebook Value Perception Problem. Book Business. Retrieved from http://www.bookbusinessmag.com/post/ebook-value-proposition-problem/
Wolf, Maryanne. (2010, June 29). Our ‘Deep Reading’ Brain: Its Digital Evolution Poses Questions. Nieman Reports. Retrieved from http://niemanreports.org/articles/our-deep-reading-brain-its-digital-evolution-poses-questions/