Are readers fixed in how they read? One of the frustrations around the digital transition is that despite all of the under-the-hood changes to publishing, this digital re-wiring has stopped at the reader. Readers, by and large, read now how they did before e-books ever existed.
There have been valiant attempts to change this, of course. And many have foundered on the rocks of reader disinterest. Incredibly it is now more than three years since Evan Schnittman called time on the enhanced e-book during a speech at the London Book Fair which included within it a slide that featured a gravestone featuring the words "Enhanced E-books and Apps: 2009 to 2011". He said: "Enhanced will have an incredibly big future in education, but the idea of innovation in the narrative reading process is just a non-starter, I've been smug about this, and now I'm even smugger."
Despite, protestations at the time, Schnittman has yet to be proved wrong. As I wrote in my FutureBook blog last week, “What have we really found out from five years of Kindle? Readers like reading. And generally they like reading in an environment unencumbered by music, video and animation.”
Publishers still mine away at this, however. Just last week Profile Books launched Ideas in Profile, a series of enhanced e-books and illustrated print books that offer, in its words, “concise, clear and entertaining introductions to topics that matter”. The digital versions feature animated explications that “boldly push the boundaries of what digital reading can and should be”. Before that Random House experimented with Black Crown, Faber with The Thirty-Nine Steps, Profile with Frankenstein, and way back in 2011 BookSurfers, an interactive series of children’s books that asked readers to jump between a classic text and a new one, that briefly caused a stir.
Elsewhere, ‘digitalist’ Tom Abba has rightly been enthusing about Gollancz’s digital publishing of Robert Chamber’s short story collection, The Yellow King, referenced in the recent TV hit 'True Detective'. In The Bookseller on 4th April Darren Nash, digital publisher at Gollancz, explained how the idea went from brief to publication in 45 hours. Speed is the obvious stand-out here, but for Abba it was also the inclusion of an Ambrose Bierce short ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa‘ and a copy of the entry on Robert Chambers from the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. As Abba writes, “The real shift though, is the existence of the ‘book as a node’. Chambers’ SFE entry links to all of the thematic, ancillary and connected content on the main SFE site. It’s likely that few readers of the Gollancz edition will explore the SFE in any real depth, but some will.”
It is the phrase "few readers" that is important here. Most content innovations 'fail' not because the publisher or developer has done a bad job, but simply because the audience-size was not big enough to make the experiment scaleable. The CD-Rom failed not because those digital publishers got it wrong, but simply because the Internet came along and did a better job.
If publishers have learnt anything from the first enhanced e-book bubble then it was that even if you build it, they may not come. But equally they should know that they ought to be building it because inevitably change will come.
In his PorterMeets weekly interview, Porter Anderson this week met Peter Meyers, whose book Breaking the Page, is to look at the “difference between what can and what should be done in digital book-land”. According to Meyers, “most ebook experiments do a better job of showing off our devices rather than solving specific reader problems”. He wants digital to aid comprehension not, as Schnittman feared back in 2011, get in the way of the narrative.
During the twitter interview, Meyers made the point that readers may not know yet which enhancements actually help their reading requirements. “For readers it’s a need I don’t think most can yet articulate,” he tweeted Porter. Nosy Crow’s Kate Wilson wondered whether adult readers had a “fixed sense of what reading is”. To which Meyer responded: “We’re still in the very early days of the transformation of books from print to screen . . . I think true changes will play out over decades, not years.”
What’s impressive about Meyers is his focus on the reader. Working out how readers will be changed as more read digitally, and read more in connected digital environments, must be one of the key challenges facing all content innovators (and publishers) in the future. Many people think that when publishers innovate it is their own DNA they are evolving: actually when we look back at this period we might understand that it was the expectations of the reader that we were trying to shift.
‘How will readers read in the future?’ is the third topic in The Bookseller’s regular Essay competitions, sponsored by the Frankfurt Book Fair. Essays up to 1,000 words in length should be submitted by 23rd May to me at email@example.com. The winning essay will be published in The Bookseller, with the writer invited to join the roster of judges for the next competition. The Essay will also be published on the Frankfurt Book Fair blog.
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