Skim Or Swim – The Book Must Go On

In her book, Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf craftily inserts an excerpt from Proust’s book, On Reading and asks the reader to read the text as fast as they can.

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those . . . we spent with a favorite book. Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure: the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench without touching, while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return home for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the interrupted chapter, all those things with which reading should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance, on the contrary they have engraved in us so sweet a memory (so much more precious to our present judgment than what we read then with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist (M. Wolf 2007).

After reading the above text, Ms. Wolf asks the reader to analyze what they were thinking while reading the paragraph. She claims that Proust successfully conjures up the reader’s long-stored memories of books; the secret places they hid in, to read. Perhaps took them to the moments they spent reading underneath a tree, eating their favorite snack, completely lost in a trance; reading for the pleasure of reading.

The act of reading has been evolving forever. From Papyrus to parchment, to paper, to typewriter, to a computer, to a mobile phone . . . the way we read has come a long way. As reading habits change due to digital distraction and the dynamic nature of the web, our ability to consume long pieces of text and our capacity to focus is declining. Thus, not only are we reading differently, our brains are being exercised in a new way that is causing a shift in our cognitive processes. This transformation in the act of reading is affecting how publishers and innovators are approaching literature.

Canadians are among the biggest online addicts in the world, visiting more sites and spending more time visiting websites via desktop computers than anyone else in the world, according to comScore Canada. According to them, Canadians visit an average of 80 sites and spend an average of 36.3 hours online on their desktop computers every month. This leads us to the question: are people skimming content in same way they would skim their FB feed? Have our online scrolling and browsing habits affected our ability and desire to read real works of literature?

As has been discussed in our class, websites are designed to support the skimming behaviour, with clear heading, sub headings and the emphasis on the F-shaped pattern. Reading online can affect how we process information. Even as the online fatigue gets to us, we filter though the popping ads, hyperlinks, distracting layouts, colors and contrasts. These considerations that the reader has to make today, is steadily turning the goal of reading from contemplative to utilitarian. Time is of essence as our whole world is captured in one single screen and is constantly vying for our attention.

Considering that scrolling and scanning are the way of the future, the publishers and authors have to keep the needs (without assumptions) of the readers working through so many distractions and a shorter attention span.

Radish fiction is effectively doing this by serializing longer books in romance genre for its readers. Similarly, Juggernaut Books, India is remediating longer works of literature into shorter abridged versions to encourage the distracted/ reluctant readers to read more, imitating the short-term goals of digital reading. Author James Patterson is of the opinion that people have trade books for TV, movies, mobiles and social media. He craftily created a new line of short and propulsive novels, called Bookshots, that are easy on the pocket at $5 and can be consumed in a single sitting. The idea of serialized content is not new. Earlier it was done considering the reading style, level and genre of the content. But now, with digital reading making a one big umbrella, it can be applied to most of content being published. Another innovation is Spritz – a reading software that runs a speed reading box that shows no more than thirteen words at a time on a rolling basis and keeps you from getting distracted by the rest of the page.

So yes, the publishers care, as they should. But, this is no longer a lone man’s job. Publisher, authors and innovators need to work hand-in-hand as the readers re-calibrate  to the reading style of the future, whatever that may be.

Who knows . . . it might be wearable books!

Wolf, Maryanne. “Reading Lessons From Proust And The Squid.” In Proust and the Squid, by Mayanne Wolf, 3-17. HarpeerCollins Publishers, 2007.

Reader engagement and publishing

Prompt: Studies show that reading online can cause skimming and a decrease in understanding and retention of content. Do publishers care? Should they? Whose responsibility is it if it’s not publishers?

I think publishers do care about decline in reading, because it’s not just that the quality of reading online that has deteriorated; reading in print has also taken a nosedive. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, the percentage of adults in the US who read a book in any format reduced from 76% in 2013 to 72% in 2015. “The decline in reading in 2015 occurred in books across all formats: print, digital, and audio,” the research found. The announcement, this year, by Penguin Random House India to release a digital imprint called Penguin Petite for mobile reading, which would “repackage sections of longer books as digital shorts” is indicative of that fact that publishers are cognizant of the decline in people’s reading habits and want to do something about it.

Most publishers today have multiple digital imprints, as most have embraced a “digital-first” or “digital-only” stance, when it comes to launching new imprints. Most of these imprints specialize in genres such as sci-fi, fantasy, YA, romance, mystery, and more. Some, like Little, Brown, even have a literary and non-fiction digital imprint called Blackfriars. Unlike self-publishing, where the onus is almost entirely on the author to the make their book work, when it comes to digital imprints, a lot is at stake on the publisher’s side too. In an interview with The Guardian, Ursula Doyle, founder of Blackfriars, speaks about how the production processes followed at Blackfriars mirror those of traditional print book publishing. Blackfriars’ e-books are carefully edited, designed and published and dedicated publicity and copyrights people work to promote and publish the books. With so much riding on the fate of e-books, it is obvious that the quality of online reading and reader engagement has a direct effect on the success of e-books and the sustenance of the publishing industry. And it’s not just the big publishers who are affected by this. Millions of up-and-coming writers and small publishers start publishing digitally, because it is a cost-effective way for them to get their content out in the public. If they don’t find readers, because we are too distracted by our cellphones and Facebook alerts to concentrate for an hour and read an e-book, it’s a huge blow to creativity, inclusivity and innovation. Then only the companies that have the financial wherewithal to spend advertising dollars to get our attention will have a chance to net any readers. The small and emerging publishers – who are often the ones experimenting – will fall by the wayside. And even if the big publishers manage to sell their books, if data shows that no one is really reading them – that their “bounce rate”, as it were, is high – then no one really gains from this. Poor quality of online reading affects both the big publisher and small.

The option is not to bemoan people’s reading habits, but to do something about it. In an article for The Bookseller, Roger Warner, a digital consultant, maintains that “reading a book is best done in solitude without a zillion bits and bytes of digital distraction nibbling in from the sidelines – be it from friends, advertisers, or other forms of ‘native’ content.” To counteract this “digital distraction”, Warner says “publishers [need] to focus their digital innovation efforts on activities that support the core act of reading.” That can be done, he feels, if publishers focus on how their readers discover books. If publishers understand what topics their readers are interested in and how they find their content, then they can devise “new content-driven reader engagement strategies” that actually work. All this can be done if all publishers embrace digital and web analytics tools at their disposal, Warner feels. Reader engagement is key to the success of any publishing enterprise. That is why we have companies like Jellybooks that are dedicated to tracking it, via specialized software. This software is meant to inform publishers and marketers about whether what they are doing is right and how they can augment their efforts to promote their books and keep the readers interested in reading them. That people are reading poorly is an established fact, and it is one of the many issues plaguing the publishing industry. But it is what publishers will do with this information and the steps they will take to address it will in some ways determine the sustenance of the industry and potentially change/improve the way we read.

Thinking in Tweets

Sometimes skimming and scanning text can be a good thing. These techniques are taught in schools to new readers and learners of a new language to help them get the general overview of a text (skimming) or to pull out important or specific facts from the text (scanning). These techniques help a reader process large amounts of information that may be frustrating to read otherwise, especially for a new reader or someone unfamiliar the language. While these techniques have their place, the worry comes from the fact that we no longer have much ability to read texts without using only these techniques. With the growing popularity of (dare I say “dependence on”?) the Internet, skimming and scanning are becoming the only ways to read, especially as our lives become busier and the only time we have to read is on the train to work or in little snippets before rushing off to our next yoga class. We are scanning and skimming more often than ever before, but these techniques should not be substitutes for thorough reading.

I have found two solutions to this problem of “shallow reading.” I do not believe it is up to publishers to combat the issue. If the problem has followed us into adulthood it may already be too late for us, much like it is more and more difficult to learn a new language the older you get. Deep reading has to start with initial reading education, and that is why my first solution to the shallow reading problem is with teachers. I am not saying teachers need to abstain from using digital reading aids, but there may need to be more training in how to use them properly, and how to integrate deep reading skills into digital reading education. I have no doubt that teacher education is progressing to the point that this is already starting to happen, but as it stands right now, many teachers use technology in the classroom for the “cool factor” and are oblivious to the harm it may be doing, or the opportunity they provide for even better learning.

The second solution to shallow reading that I have identified is the “slow reading movement.” A number of articles have been written supporting the movement (like this one and this one) and it has been suggested as a way to help contest the issue we are facing. Researches by Poynter Eyetrack and Nielsen Norman Group “both suggest that many of us no longer have the concentration to read articles through to their conclusion” (Kingsley 2010). Slow reading is proposed to help us get more out of our reading by taking our time with, and perhaps re-reading a text. We may even want to switch off our Internet or even our computers when we have the opportunity and read offline or with a physical book. This can help us connect with the written words with very little distraction.

Some resources I found to help us adapt to more of a slow reading lifestyle are such:

  • Freedom is an application designed to boost productivity by blocking apps and websites that cause distractions. They claim studies that show “every time you check email, a social feed, or respond to a notification, your mind requires 23 minutes of re-focus time to get back on task. It’s a phenomenal cost to our entire workforce and to each of us individually as we strive to do our best work” and “while we may feel incredibly productive jumping around putting out a lot of fires, we’re actually 40% less productive when multitasking. Multitasking may even decrease your IQ by 10 points!” (Freedom.to n.d.).
  • Instapaper, available for iPhone, iPad, Android, and Kindle, allows users to save and sync articles across devices, optimizing text for reading and cutting down on distractions. “The Instapaper app downloads a mostly-text version of each page, using ideal formatting for maximum readability” (“Instapaper” n.d.). They also include highlighting and commenting features to help readers engage with what they are reading.
  • Slow Reading by John Miedema explains the concept behind the slow reading movement and why readers are choosing to counteract their involuntary speed-reading tendencies.

Although some readers have reached the point of no return for their skimming brains, there is still hope for some of us, by pushing ourselves to adopt slow reading techniques, and there is hope for generations to come, as long as their education includes deep reading skills. Even though the future may look bleak, it doesn’t have to be!


Works Referenced:

DeStefano, Diana, and Jo-Anne LeFevre. “Cognitive Load in Hypertext Reading: A Review.” Computers in Human Behavior, Including the Special Issue: Avoiding Simplicity, Confronting Complexity: Advances in Designing Powerful Electronic Learning Environments, 23, no. 3 (May 1, 2007): 1616–41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2005.08.012.
Dickenson Quinn, Sara. “New Poynter Eyetrack Research Reveals How People Read News on Tablets.” Poynter, October 17, 2012. https://www.poynter.org/news/new-poynter-eyetrack-research-reveals-how-people-read-news-tablets.
Freedom.to. “Freedom: Internet, App and Website Blocker.” Freedom. Accessed April 1, 2018. https://freedom.to.
“Instapaper.” Instapaper. Accessed April 1, 2018. https://www.instapaper.com/.
Jones, Orion. “Skimming Is the New Reading. Thanks Internet!” Big Think, July 21, 2014. http://bigthink.com/ideafeed/skimming-is-the-new-reading-thanks-internet-how-you-can-ta.
Kingsley, Patrick. “The Art of Slow Reading.” the Guardian, July 15, 2010. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jul/15/slow-reading.
Konnikova, Maria. “Being a Better Online Reader.” The New Yorker, July 16, 2014. https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/being-a-better-online-reader.
Nielsen, Jakob. “How Users Read on the Web.” Nielsen Norman Group, October 1, 1997. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-users-read-on-the-web/.
Rosenwald, Michael S. “Serious Reading Takes a Hit from Online Scanning and Skimming, Researchers Say.” Washington Post, April 6, 2014, sec. Local. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/serious-reading-takes-a-hit-from-online-scanning-and-skimming-researchers-say/2014/04/06/088028d2-b5d2-11e3-b899-20667de76985_story.html.
“Slow Books: It’s Time to Regain the Pleasure of Reading.” Slow Movement. Accessed April 1, 2018. http://www.slowmovement.com/slow_books.php.
“Slow Reading.” Litwin Books, LLC, March 2009. http://litwinbooks.com/slowreading.php.

Challenge, not bash

Keeping in mind the readings on marginalia and annotations, and thinking more generally about the life of text online, should audiences be allowed to interact with and shape the text? Does a writer have the right to define who can comment? Should audiences be limited in their online socialization over a text?

I believe that the form of annotation and online commenting are just another technological spin on what we used to call highlighting and taking notes. It is also a spin of social interaction over a text; like the one we used to have when we lend our friends our textbooks with scribbles all over it. But now, the interaction is more effective and can go both ways; people who access our annotation will be able to reply and we will be able to see it, unlike before. Well, unless you want your friends to also scribble all over your book and you want to take more time to actually find out what and where they are writing their comments on.

The thing about marginalia and annotation is tricky; a writer might have some disagreement over what people are “saying” around his writing and now he has a way to know that. But that does not mean that they have the right to define who can comment. Essentially, whatever you chose to publish online is public and is deemed to be discovered and talked about to certain extent. Taking it offline, it’s the same as you telling your story to your relatives. It’s out in the public and they have the right to judge you. You just sometimes don’t know what their judgements are. Furthermore, even if people can’t comment and/ annotate, they still have other platforms or even dark social to share their opinion about the text.

By limiting online socialization over a text is basically asking certain audiences to agree to whatever information they are reading and that what they are saying should be no more important that what’s in the text. In reality, I’ve seen more insights given in the annotation section rather than the actual text itself.

So, how should we do this?

As a social and educated being, we should understand that we are entitled to our opinion, but to certain extent. Our opinion should be unbiased, challenged, well-informed. We should always keep in mind that a text we are reading is carefully curated and well-researched, that our opinion should challenge them, not bash them.

As for the writer; it is always good to gain broader scope on the stuffs we post online. We might have research and polish our text to mere perfection, but there’s always a slight chance that someone or some people out there know more and could give better insight and understanding. Furthermore, it is always nice to know what other people think about certain issue we are discussing, whether their opinion might be favourable or not. It is a learning curve.

 

Looking Forward to an E-Literate Future

When we talk about reading online (or on an ereader, for the sake of argument) responsibility is an odd way to think about the part a publisher plays: despite one’s best intentions, a publisher is not the sole factor in how people read. The better way to approach the issue of digital reading and retention is through raising awareness and expanding literacy education to teach people, at least from school age, how best to interact with different digital texts for different purposes. In my opinion, educators, publishers, and ultimately readers all have a part to play in how we interact with and get the most out of digital reading.

The use of the Web was popularized on a mainstream level because of its ability to share messages over a network. While reading emails or online chats, personal websites, blogs and later in newsfeeds were the primary way people started reading digitally, the functions of digital reading have greatly expanded to academic, literary, and leisure reading– but the perception of reading on screens for these expanded (arguably “deeper) functions hasn’t quite caught up.

The first reason for this is because the majority of readers, educators, and publishers are still biased towards print reading as a more valuable and meaningful way to gain knowledge. As Dan Cohen points out, there is an “inertial positive feeling of physical books for most readers”, a hangover of being surrounded by print books our whole lives, that makes people generally inclined to choose print over screen. An article like James MacWilliams’ is telling, but not that reading is some kind of lost art: to me it indicates that we still haven’t learned how to read digital content the way we do print, and that writers or publishers who produce these kinds of articles perpetuate the idea that we never will. Ironically, MacWilliams writes that reading is something we must be taught to do, but that the “frenetic nature of digital life” inhibits our attention spans and is the reason we read less, and less deeply. Instead he argues that physical interaction with a book is what helps us submerge deeply into a text. It’s true that the Web in particular is a distracting environment. We are bombarded by enticing but ultimately dissatisfying clickbait articles. A Kindle or Kobo may mimic a page, but for many readers, not knowing how many pages we’ve come or how many we have left is disorienting and distracting. A long-form New Yorker article is lined with advertisements. I am as guilty as anyone of reading an article that shares a browser window with dozens of other tabs. However, these are merely forms we have complete liberty to either adapt to, or to change for the better.  As long as publishers and writers remain subsumed in the notion that the internet as merely a tool for commerce and dismiss the potential of digital reading, the culture of digital reading won’t be taken as seriously as print is. 

But I don’t think the bias has to remain this way forever. In Hannah McGregor’s History of Publishing seminar, we looked at reading digitally compared to physically in the context of Alan Galey’s essay “The Enkindling Reciter: E-Books in the Bibliographical Imagination.” In it, Galey compares the phenomenon of  the consumers’ desire for– and outrage at not obtaining– an out-of-print book that was readily available as an ebook. As Galey points out, “e-books are human artifacts, and bear the traces of their making no less for being digital, though they bear those traces in ways bibliographers have yet to explain thoroughly”– and I would argue, that the average consumer cannot yet explain either (214). Our familiarity with the “forensics” of print (that is, the way we are able to conceive of the construction of the book as we look at it’s glue binding and ink upon the page) means that we feel we can get closer to it, can understand it on a more intimate level. The forensics of a digital text, on the other hand, are still relatively mysterious, even magical, to the uninitiated eye: a mash of light, pixels, code, or a server in some remote place.

It is here I see a prime educational opportunity. As people become more familiar with how the internet or how e-readers work, the technology loses its mystique, and importantly, its novelty. A screen does not just have to be a vehicle for games and frivolity, which is what television, and later the PCs, has set us up to perceive. The kind of academic or intellectual value placed on print reading can be placed on digital reading; it’s just a matter of reframing. This has already been happening at a school level for a few years: in many elementary and high schools, tablet readers are an essential tool on which students do readings, exercises, and submit homework assignments. People in older generations might be aghast, thinking that these tablets will only be used for games and distraction, but that’s only what we have seen them useful for. When delivered and trained correctly, the use of tablets will have increasing success– and the adults who grow out of the e-reader-educated generation will be better equipped to read (and read well) in digital environments.

BookTube as Word of Mouth Marketing for Publishers

There are many ways that a new or growing publisher can incorporate digital content into their business plan. This could mean producing digital content that they seek to sell, such as ebooks, audiobooks, or other forms of digital reading but it is not limited to just this. There is also the possibility to produce digital content for marketing purposes. Much of what we have learned about marketing in the publishing industry is that word of mouth is one of the most powerful forms of marketing. According to BookNet Canada 50% of readers discover new books through word of mouth. According to Suzanne Fanning, the president of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association,  in her interview with Forbes the three key elements to a successful word of mouth marketing (WOMM) campaign is engaging with the customer, provide positive reasons for the customer to talk about you, and finally empower the customer and their opinions by providing a context in which they can talk and share. While WOMM marketing is traditionally done face to face, it can also be successfully translated into online spaces, what is important is that a sense of the personal remains. One way a publishing company could create a sense of a personal connection with their readers is to show the literal faces behind who publishes the books, this can be done with the creation of YouTube videos.

YouTube is no new place for the publishing industry. BookTube is a thriving community on YouTube where people create videos talking about their favourite books. Some of the most successful BookTubers have audiences of hundreds of thousands of dedicated fans. Many publishing companies have been sending BookTubers ARCs so that hopefully their forthcoming titles will be featured on the channel. Christine Riccio (polandbananasBOOKS), the most popular BookTuber, is quoted saying in a Publisher’s Weekly article that “So often readers feel isolated, [but] with YouTube, reading is a community experience”. This goes back to the desired sense of a conversation that is necessary for effective WOMM. However because of the power that these big name BookTubers possess they are being approached (or bombarded) with far more books than would ever be possible to review. As a result very few books are featured by small or even medium sized publishers. Back at the end of November I conducted a short study about the top ten most subscribed BookTubers and the type of books that were being reviewed. I was only interested in videos that featured a single title rather than the abundance of tag videos, hauls, and other multi-title quick run-throughs. After collecting the data it was evident that over two thirds of reviewed books were published by one of the Big Five Publishers (Hachette, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster). The remaining titles were often published by other large multi-national publishing companies such as Scholastic and Bloomsbury.

This is possibly because larger publishing companies are disproportionately sending ARCs or copies to BookTubers, or more likely because these titles have buzz that is being generated with substantial marketing budgets which makes these BookTubers interested in and anticipating the release of these titles. If small or new publishers want to have their titles be promoted on YouTube we come back to the age old adage “if you want something done right, you must do it yourself”.

Outside of BookTubers there are multiple publishers that have a presence on YouTube. While many publishers have not successfully capitalized on this market there are a few that have impressive YouTube channels. The most successful YouTube channel owned by a publishing company is Harper Collins’ Epic Reads, with over 143,000 subscribers. While online video content can be expensive or time consuming to produce, it doesn’t need to be expensive and it can be worthwhile. Natalie Gagnon from Vancouver Magazine has started to produce a substantial amount of online video content, particularly dynamic slideshows, covering events, and behind-the-scenes videos of the creative process. These are all videos that publishing companies could produce without a lot of additional costs or time. One of the issues that most publishing companies make when trying to produce YouTube content is that they exclusively make book trailers. These can be expensive to produce well, often come across as cheesy, and as a result get very few views. Instead publishing companies should take cues from DFTBA Records and produce online content that mirrors their now defunct series “The Warehouse”. During its run “The Warehouse” was a weekly show hosted by Matthew Gaydos that would primarily show off new products available for sale in the online store. This is very similar to content that would be included in a publisher’s newsletter but YouTube provides viewers the ability to directly respond to the company in the comment section. Gaydos was very sucessful at hosting this store because he built relationships with viewers and facilitated conversations. This goes back to the key elements of successful WOMM that Suzanne Fanning outlined. Overall producing good YouTube content can allow for publishers to successfully engage in WOMM and to build relationships with their readers.