Digital Reading: Are We Experienced?

Anne KostickBy Anne Kostick, Partner, Foxpath IND

I remember the first time I picked up the new, first-generation Kindle and tried it out. I found it so hard to hold; the buttons seemed to be in the wrong place and on the wrong sides. The labels were hard to see. The color and feel of the exterior was off-putting. The screen text was, well…unsatisfactory.

I thought: Don’t these device makers like to read? Don’t they like books?

I put it down and didn’t touch another Kindle for quite a while.

It’s a new year, and after a whirlwind 2010, a variety of improved digital reading devices are now in the hands of readers, with various configurations, colors, screens, and displays. They all try to emulate the book reading experience, but they frequently fall short. And when they do, another book customer is validated in his or her decision to stick with print.

We in the publishing industry need to stop and think about what makes print books almost always a happy and pleasant physical experience. And not only a physical experience: there’s a reason why our current book formats have endured all this time that goes beyond convenience, economics, and lack of other options.


Books feel good. They work well.

It turns out that hundreds of years of publishing have field-tested for us the best ways to display text; to compose pages. Standard trim sizes are no accident, nor are the relative page counts of most books. It’s not only economical, it works to hold books in these shapes, sizes, and weights.

More than that, we readers have developed important habits and cues that keep us turning pages, finding our places, scanning and skimming—even inhaling—the text. Most readers want to transfer their reading habits to the new technology, and those of us in the business have to apply what we’ve learned about the reading experience to digital technology.

Tech designers in the computer and Internet industries have long relied on experts in usability and user experience to guide their decisions, because they know that the easier and more satisfying it is for customers to handle the equipment or interact with Web pages, the more likely they are to buy the device, order the product online, or view ads over many screens.


There’s plenty of expertise out there that we can draw on, mostly coming from the tech industries that are driving the digital book revolution. Those of us working in the digital trenches of publishing need to learn from them, and then gain influence in the decisions being made, both about how digital devices will be designed in future, and more immediately, about how digital text is displayed.

In subsequent articles I’ll interview usability experts from outside the digital-book arena to see what they can offer that will help us move toward a better user experience for readers. I’ll also be talking to power readers—hungry book consumers who have a lot to say about what, how, and why they like to read on their particular platform, including print.

Making the reading experience for dedicated print customers as satisfying in digital as it is on paper should be a priority for publishers. There’s a lot to learn, and everyone from editors to marketers to production managers should want to have influence on the decisions that ultimately determine the digital reading experience.

NOTE: DBW has launched an Editorial Forum on LinkedIn, a sub-group specifically for editors working in trade publishing to discuss standards, workflow, best practices, and the general Qs that most print people feel when confronted with terms like “workflow.” The Forum is moderated by Anne Kostick and David B. Schlosser.

Anne Kostick is a partner in Foxpath IND, a digital-print-web consulting and services company specializing in the transition to and from traditional content development, management and publishing. She is also the editor in chief of Dulcinea Media, an online publisher in the educational market, and is the current president of Women’s Media Group.

One thought on “Digital Reading: Are We Experienced?

  1. Janet Hulstrand

    At last! Someone is paying attention to this issue with all the right questions in mind.

    I am one of those people who would LOVE to stop lugging so many books around all the time. But am not convinced that the right electronic substitute is available yet.

    Will be following your subsequent posts with great interest!



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