“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 While this New York Times article is a bit outdated, it offers a peek at some of their methodologies, such as  “Andie’s teacher, Cathy Waheed, who is a former computer engineer, tries to make learning both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.

Audio for Small Publishers. Hooray!

In 2014 I founded Kamaria Press, a not-for-profit African and Caribbean publishing house. The original business plan was to publish the works of Black authors using Amazon CreateSpace for the production and distribution of print books. As a student with not much experience in the publishing industry, I assumed that the works that Kamaria Press was to release needed to be in print for the company to be validated/recognised as legitimate. A long history of viewing print as the default book format influenced my early business plan.

It took me a while to realise that as a startup publisher with no external funding, printing with CreateSpace as beneficial as they portrayed it to be would run me into a loss within my first year of business. (Not-for-profit presses need to make surpluses too in order to carry out their mission). I was then introduced to eBook publishing as a viable business model but a lack of tailored expertise on how to produce them in-house meant that I did not pursue this route.

But as we all know digital publishing is not limited to eBooks and a survey I did amongst Black readers in the UK proved that audiobooks would be a popular reading format for them (my target audience). With this knowledge, I am looking to create an audio-only imprint which will be a significant part of Kamaria Press’ offerings going forward. Despite claims of audiobooks being extremely expensive to produce (insert the advice from Kevin Williams, publisher at Talon Books), I believe that small presses such as Kamaria Press can incorporate audio content using certain practical steps.

 Set-Up

According to Dr Hannah McGregor, publishing professionals can use USB or preferably analog microphones to achieve high-quality sound when recording podcasts and audiobooks. They are relatively easy to find and can cost as little as CAD$500 (a small investment when placed in the bigger picture). Here is a list of 25 of the best podcasting microphones, some of them can easily be used to record audiobooks too. I plan to invest in an analog microphone because of the elevated “warm” sound that they produce. I also plan to use built-in recorders such as Garage Band and Hindenburg to save and edit my books. This strategy is, for the most part inexpensive, and I want to start recording multi-page stories before moving on to longer texts.

Public libraries such as the Vancouver Public Library have recording studios and microphones which can be used by members whenever available. Depending on them is not a sustainable business strategy but it is viable start for an up and coming publisher.

Furthermore, if I or one of the Kamaria Press volunteers enrolls into an audio editing course then the knowledge capital of the organisation will increase as well as the ability to edit audiobooks in the long run. Another one-off investment. I, for example, will not have to hire outside help to edit thereby keeping costs low something that is crucial for startups.

Another option would be to use Amazon’s self-publishing audio arm, Audible’s Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) but I am trying to avoid the same problems I had with CreateSpace. Creating as much financial autonomy is a key part of  Kamaria Press’ business strategy.

Final Thoughts

As the fastest growing segment in publishing, it has been reported that “books in every imaginable genre [are selling] better as spoken rather than written word – four times as well” to be exact. It is of utmost importance that digital content particularly audio content be integrated into current business plans even for small publishers. I have attempted to discuss cost-effective ways of incorporating audio content into a small/growing publisher’s business plan. I truly believe that audio is for both the big and the small.

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.

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.

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.

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.