Let’s address the root of the problem and not the split ends

Studies like those that Konnikova cites in Being A Better Online Reader do show that reading online creates a different type of reader behavior, which may manifest in increased likelihood to skim and decreased retention. But it’s important to put those observations into context.

For one, there are a few areas where we can notice a correlation and dig to find whether causation is there too. One of the reasons retention could be so low is because of the skimmable nature of digital reading. The root of these predicaments could be addressed at the same time by adapting digital texts to create different reading behaviors.

That’s something that one organization, The Rebus Foundation, is looking to do — create an environment for webbooks that encourages deep reading behaviors. As explained on their website:

Bringing books truly into the web will be transformative. We have joined the W3C to help define a new, open and integrated web standard for webbooks, one that will enable better sharing, annotation, collection, and deep reading of digital books. In this sphere, we are focusing on deep reading ecosystems for academics and scholarly readers.

It’s important to look at the verbs that they’re using to describe deep reading: sharing, annotating, collecting. It’s not just a matter of pointing out the problem and hoping you gather enough people that agree with you; they’re adapting the technology to fit the people and not the people to fit the technology.

Each of these actions they’re hoping to facilitate can be traced back to the reasons we find digital reading so difficult. Sharing capabilities help create a more tangible community around the texts, annotation (like taking notes in the margins) helps readers interact physically with what they’re reading, and collecting helps people feel that what they’re reading is more than ephemeral.

Through Booknet Canada’s State of Digital Publishing statistics, we can see that traditional publishers aren’t perhaps giving as much thought to digital reading, but that’s not to say that it’s not being done. The Rebus Foundation is doing work in the scholarly sector of publishing, but that means that those solutions can’t be transferable to other areas of publishing (and maybe also reveals that our hang ups with deep reading are most closely associated with scholarly texts in the first place).

So, not only is it the responsibility of publishers to address issues surrounding digital reading, but it’s already being done.

For the most part, traditional publishers seem to be giving up the fight with ebooks to Amazon and focusing on their print sales. While the longevity of print no doubt will prevail, and unlike Dan Cohen I don’t think ebooks will in the next few decades be the dominant form of the book, it does make me question the integrity of the publishers’ dedication to the form of publishing. To not recognize the evolution of the industry seems to me a major misstep, at least for those who can afford it. E-readers and audiobooks enable accessibility; it’s not just a matter of personal preference but of exclusion.

I think once publishers realize “make print books more attractive” isn’t the best response to “what do we do about digital reading?” then we’ll find an equilibrium in the industry.

2 Replies to “Let’s address the root of the problem and not the split ends”

  1. The most important thing I took away from your blog post was: “It’s not just a matter of pointing out the problem and hoping you gather enough people that agree with you; they’re adapting the technology to fit the people and not the people to fit the technology.”

    I think too many publishers hope that they can change people (hence their attachment to traditional forms and ways of publishing). Compared to many other industries, publishing has remained quite static. The way we do things is often just because that’s the way things have always been done. And instead of expecting people who have moved on and now expect more to come back to us, we need to meet them where they’re at.

    I’m a little curious about this statement you made though: “The Rebus Foundation is doing work in the scholarly sector of publishing, but that means that those solutions can’t be transferable to other areas of publishing…” Why can’t the solutions they have come up with be adapted by other publishers?

    All in all, your piece was a well-written and insightful post. Thank you for sharing what The Rebus Foundation is up to.

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