“The More One Knows, the Quaggier the Mire Gets” – Sarah Vowell*

Having recently prepared a project that relies on the concept of “digital fatigue,” I have read a lot of information online on the topic. There are blog entries, such as Frank Buytendik’s futurist-focused one, where he writes, “we are moving towards a #digitalsociety. Not only business changes, not only work changes. Life itself changes.” At the same time, there are medical warnings against the continued and growing exposure to screens. For example, Dr Aizman’s talks about ocular muscle strain and writes, “digital eye strain is very common because of our reliance on digital technology.”

Yet if you put these two observations together, you’re in Quagmire Land. Somewhere somehow, the eyes (which recent studies say are part of the brain and not separate organs) have to both do the work you’re demanding of them, and preserve themselves as part of providers of one of your five senses. Perhaps this is why content-retention when reading materials online is not as reliable – there is ocular and brain stress that steals away from the energy one devotes to reading and reading comprehension.

So – should publishers care? is a question that one wonders as a budding publisher. I think the most reasonable answer is, “it depends on the publisher.” When I was finishing my Graphic Design diploma, the Head of the Department and Portfolio instructor had us do rigorous research in terms of our “dream companies.” I had learned about Scholastic through my part-time work with children and made it one of my three winning companies. Now, at the tail end of the academic portion of my Master of Publishing, I know that if I were to indeed become a part of the team, I would use the type of medical and psychological research being done to encourage children to read real books, as well as educate parents on the necessity of perpetuating this method of reading. In fact, if you haven’t heard this interesting factoid, it has become public knowledge over the last few years that the children of Silicon Valley techies attend no-technology schools. While this New York Times article is a bit outdated, it offers a peek at some of their methodologies, such as  “Andie’s teacher, Cathy Waheed, who is a former computer engineer, tries to make learning both irresistible and highly tactile. Last year she taught fractions by having the children cut up food — apples, quesadillas, cake — into quarters, halves and sixteenths.”

Isn’t that so ironic? That the masterminds who brought personal computing to global levels are segregating their own children from their inventions? They must know something we don’t know.

So that’s if I were involved in publishing geared towards children and education.

Now, on the other hand, given Buytendik’s prediction that our future lives are inescapably digital and will become more so over time, I can imagine improvements to technology that publishers could (and would have to) take advantage of. I have not seen any VR-reading yet but sci-fi films often touch upon scientists finally unravelling the mysteries of the brain and plugging materials directly into neurons, the way we transfer data via cables or miniSDs into devices in the present. While growing up I was never much of a sci-fi fan, it never ceases to fascinate me that all writers’ “predictions” from past decades are now part of our daily lives. A vast majority of people are so ungrateful, too, in their unquenchable thirst for “better” “faster” “more.”  So with this new technology, new reading formats would inevitably dictate the way readers would access information. Thus publishers would have to indeed lend an ear, if they wished to survive into the 22nd century.

I’m 31 now and know that life will be so vastly different when I am 81.

*Vowell said this about American History but I find it applicable to everything in life.

Anna Stefanovici

Let’s get more digital content goin

Publishers are stuck in the age of print, and are trying to force the digital environment to conform around print standards. While ereaders are great for their portability and convenience, for a lot of readers, there’s not enough that’s different to draw them away from print. As Hachette Group CEO Arnaud Nourry put it, “The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic.

I half agree. While there can be much more done, ereaders are still in their infancy, and will grow to incorporate enough features to be worthy as a whole new media-consumption tool, separate from books. Some features I would like to see added to ereaders include:

  • Audiobook Incorporated with text
    • In which audiobooks also come with the text of the book, and a highlight follows the words of the text currently being read. This is for accessibility and further reading assistance for those with greater barriers to reading.
  • Pop-up glossary
    • The ability to highlight a word and have definitions appear in a hoverscreen. It would look much like how hovering your mouse over a hyperlink in wikipedia opens a small hoverwindow with a glimpse into that hyperlink’s page.
  • Annotations
    • This should be obvious.
  • This.

However, it’s not realistic for a publisher to just make a better ereader. Instead, there are other digital content strategies a publisher can adopt. Talking about digital content actually makes me reminisce a lot on book project last term. My group spent a long time devising how to include digital content in our publishing plan, and what we came up with is exactly what I would like to see done in the real world.

So without further ado, I’ll take a cue from CuePub.

One thing I learned during the book project exercise is how much variety there is to possible digital content. We managed to come up with four unique ways to use digital content to enhance the four books, rather than just port them to a digital platform.

One of my favourites was what we did for the graphic novel – we envisioned an environment for fans to create and upload their own fan stories. As a publisher, helping and encouraging communities, especially for serialized publications, helps grow and strengthen the fan base. If you have a series that inspires strong attachment to character, a series that people will write fanfiction for and upload somewhere else anyway, why not host the community yourself and encourage their attachment to the series?

However, what I most want incorporated in a publishers’ business plan is not digital content to complement a printed book, but digital books that are a completely separate catalogue from printed books. What penguin is doing in india with mini-books for mobile is genius. Finding ways to create digital-only content, to neither be secondary to nor replace the print book, is something more publishers should be doing.

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.

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.

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.

Publishing Plasticity: Don’t fear the e-reader

Reading in print is different from reading digitally. One study has shown that students report longer reading times, but also higher multitasking, when they read e-textbooks compared to print ones. Another one found that “students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally.” Michael S. Rosenwald says results like these have given rise to concern among neuroscientists that humans are “developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online,” and that “[t]his alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.”

There are two claims here: one is that reading behaviour like skimming is taking over from slower, deeper reading, and I don’t disagree. The other claim is that “traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.” Rosenwald acknowledges that it’s not as simple as this when he writes: “There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision.” (I’m no expert, so I’ll have to take his word for it that there are in fact genes for language or vision.) However, in the next sentence, he argues that “the brain has adapted to read … spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press.” In other words, it’s not just that our brains are changing as individuals in response to our reading habits; it’s that humans as a species evolved the “trait” of being able to read in response to our use of specific technology.

I am curious to know which research Rosenwald is using. The implications of viewing reading as an evolutionary adaptation to certain tools are not small. This is an example of a teleological understanding of the history of reading. On this view, science, technology and the human brain march upward together on a linear path toward fulfilling the human goal of the Printed Book. It’s a neat and tidy view, and if we take it, we are more likely to defend print reading as inherently superior over digital technology, at least until we’ve had a few more centuries to evolve our new digital reading trait.

However, human beings did not join hands and agree to begin reading all at once, “several millennia” ago. If this evolutionary view of reading behaviour were correct, then people from cultures where literacy became widespread only a few centuries ago would be centuries “behind” on reading skills, print or digital. But reading is not an evolutionary trait; it is a skill that can be mastered, or lost, in a single generation. Neuroplasticity is different from evolution.

This brings us back to the first claim, that reading behaviour like skimming is taking over from slower, deeper reading. If we are doing more and more of our reading digitally (which we are), and if digital reading gives rise to behaviour like skimming (which it appears to), and if skimming results in less cognition and understanding (as many psychological studies suggest), then we have a problem.

As we attempt to interpret these findings and consider how they should inform our choices as publishers, I think we should be cautious before we draw any sweeping conclusions based on our limited research. A December 2017 article in the Review of Educational Research “Reading on Paper and Digitally: What the Past Decades of Empirical Research Reveal” examined 36 psychological studies on the subject of print vs. digital reading. The authors state that to their knowledge, “this is the only systematic review on the topic of reading in different mediums since 1992 that juxtaposes the contemporary field of reading digitally against the long-established and deep-rooted research on reading in print.” The study leaves me with the impression that researchers have only just begun to investigate the differences between print and online reading, and that, unsurprisingly, further research is needed:

In addition to the aforementioned need for details on textual aspects, there is a need for more clarification regarding individual differences factors and text processing in print or digitally. Simply stated, individual difference factors are the variations or deviations among individuals with regard to the characteristics shown to play a significant role in human learning and development (e.g., working memory, academic ability, gender; Gagné & Glaser, 1987). In the case of reading in print and digitally, individual difference factors such as reading rate, vocabulary knowledge, and topic knowledge have been shown to be particularly pertinent. . . . Surprisingly, very few studies in this review considered such relevant individual difference factors as fluency or topic knowledge as potential explanations for performance outcomes between print and digital reading (Kendeou et al., 2011). Thus, assessing the role of individual differences factors could help clarify patterns in comprehension performance across mediums.

They conclude, carefully, that “medium plays an influential role under certain text or task conditions or for certain readers.” This measured answer makes sense to me. With respect to the question of how publishers should respond to the rise of digital reading, I think we have a responsibility to investigate our biases and personal reactions to these kinds of claims with curiosity, setting aside our personal preferences and assumptions about different reading formats, and thinking about what it is that the readers and writers in our specific areas (genre fiction, children’s literature, Indigenous authors and content, Black literature, etc.) need for their particular “text or task conditions.”

Rosenwald quotes Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (which I have not read, for the record). Wolf worries that “the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing.” To illustrate this, she describes herself reading a novel: “skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed.” But her reaction to watching herself exercise these (frankly remarkable) skills, the same skills that university education expects of us, was surprising: “I was so disgusted with myself.”

I think this illustrates how odd the panicked conversation about digital reading really is. Yes, reading in different contexts places emphasis on different kinds of skills. If print reading is falling to the wayside, I don’t think publishers need to clutch desperately at it as though it is a thread by which human intellect hangs.  We should absolutely study the different affordances of each medium, but not from the point of view that one is inherently better. Wolf points out that “the brain is plastic its whole life span” and is “constantly adapting.” Publishers need only take inspiration from that.

Digital-first publishing

What I had thought prior to MPub was that digital content for publishers was mainly to supplement the content. It is fascinating to see some publishers move to a digital content-centric publishing and marketing strategies. I recognize that this may be a rise in digital content publishing in the next several years.

I think of it this way: because word of mouth sharing and recommendations is still the biggest way people discovery the books they read or buy according to BookNet Canada’s report on the English market in Canada. But the way we communicate those word of mouth recommendations is increasingly online through social media and instant messaging. Now if we come across anything we like online and think a friend or family member would like it, you can so easily and instantly link it to them through dark social.

In Harlequin’s video-centric marketing strategy, they share that 90% of consumers say video helps them make buying decisions. If such a large percentage of your readership is trusting digital content like for Harlequin, then it would not be so much of a stretch to see them also create a digital only imprint like Penguin Random House’s Penguin Petit. In these cases, this content needs to be good enough in its form to stand on its own and not seem like it is supplemental content. For new and growing publishers, it is this point that I think is most important for them in introducing digital content to their business plan. It must be digital-content first publishing or else it may just seem like it is adding to the noise.

While it is convenient to have your favourite book accessible to you in any format you please: print, ebook, audiobook, etc. Digital-first publishing would need to exist first, only available as a digital format (at least, at first) and optimized for that format. As I have introduced and discussed in class before, Webtoons (webcomics with a vertical layout) would be one case that does this extremely well. Essentially webtoons have transformed and innovated the art of comic storytelling in a way that only works to be read digitally with the infinite scroll-type experience. Webtoons simply would not be the same experience if it was printed as a book, and arguably its purpose is completely defeated if it was to be printed.

For new and growing publishers to include digital content I would recommend if they want to publish digital content, it must be solely on a new imprint. First they would need to recognize that there is a potential audience for their imprint too. The new imprint would help to differentiate from their main publications and so that it does not seem like it is supplemental material. It must be digital-first publication with print, ebook and audio formats being the one that supplements the content down the line (or maybe it would not work out at all, like with webtoons as I’ve said). After the imprint is established, publishers can play with how the content release is being staggered or episodic to retain audience engagement because of the evidence people don’t read until the end and getting to the level of deep reading for online content is a challenge. Overall, publishers would need to strongly consider how the user experience of digital content software to overcome these challenges needs to be optimized for it to work.

 

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.

Not the Publisher’s Problem

Most publishers are not your undergrad’s English Lit prof. They don’t care if a book is understood on a deep, intrinsic, life changing level. They only care if the book sells. There may be small independent publishers that serve a niche need or are publishing passion projects, bu at the end of the day if a book doesn’t sell (for whatever reason) the publisher is going to go out of business.

There are many reasons why books sell. It’s pretty; it’s unorthadox; it’s a conversation piece; it was recommended by a friend; the person wants to look smart; they need a couple chapters of it for school. So too are there many reasons why eBooks sell. It’s convenient; it’s a space-saver; it’s cheaper. But whatever reason it sells for, the point is that it sells and the publisher makes their money. The publisher doesn’t care if you read the book to the end, or put it down after the second chapter and never pick it up again. Why would they? They already have your money.

Publishers, it is important to remember, will publish via whatever platform is available. Paperback, hardcover, eReader…if scrolls were still used as a way of housing the written word, you could probably find them at Indigo. But so far all we have are eReaders or computers for digital text. Therefor, it is down to the producers of the eReaders to adjust the technology so that there is not a decrease in understanding or retention of content. Publishers can then adjust the way they design an eBook by using the specs required for the unit. Maybe it’s about changing the way the “paper” looks, or adding a layered mechanism that allows a reader to turn a “page”, or incorporating better ways to be able to highlight and make marginal notes. Perhaps publishers and eReader designers can work together more to find solutions to better translate a physical object into a digital rendition.

That being said, companies like Kobo and Amazon’s Kindle are, like publishers, still making money from the sales of their products, so it’s hard to say how much they care either. But they probably should, because any eReader that people actually want to read from, study from or retain what it is they’re reading would probably soar ahead of the “traditional” models. Like the iMacs of the late ‘90s, eReaders are relatively young, so there is likely going to be a drastic shift in how eReaders are designed, which is good news for the people who want to actually understand and remember what it is they are reading.