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.