Digital Reading: The Web Gives Important Feedback

Anne KostickBy Anne Kostick, Partner, Foxpath IND

While we talk about what readers really want in digital books, and while publishers and designers ponder enhanced, transmedia, audio-, video-, social- and sharing-enabled e-books, let’s take note of one recent trend unfolding on the Web: the popularity of the Web-based apps Readability and Instapaper, signaling that readers appreciate, and will opt for, a text-only screen-reading experience.

Readability is a Web (and mobile) app that renders any Web page reader-friendly by removing extraneous and distracting elements (such as ads, pop-ups, cross-links and navigation) and presenting the content in a well-designed, text-only page. First released about two years ago, Readability was an instant hit and its code is now used in other platforms such as Apple’s Safari 5 browser.

Similarly, Instapaper, which saves Web pages for later reading, converts these pages on its hugely popular mobile app to simple and adjustable text. (Instapaper “saves” can also be viewed on the Kindle and ePub reading devices, including the Nook.)

As described in an article entitled “Long-Form Saviors” in Columbia Journalism Review, these tools “make the Web once again safe for narrative lovers.” When you hit that Readability button and see the lengthy article, post, or other Web content come up in large, good-looking text-only, you feel a wonderful sense of relief. Now you can relax and just read, free of distraction.

This is as close to the immersive experience of book reading as you’re likely to get on the Web these days.  It’s nice to know we can so easily reproduce that feedback loop in e-books.

The Business Model Is In Development

There are many aspects of Readability’s popularity that may disturb digital business plans: Readability allows you to read online magazines without the ads, for one example of bad news for publishers.

But the popularity of Readability’s offering should tell e-book and online publishers one thing they want to hear; namely, that a growing number of readers do want an uninterrupted online reading experience for long-form writing. And, for all the talk about multitasking and the attention economy, many Web readers welcome the ability to strip the design bare and device-shift the better reading experience that these tools provide.

Another piece of good news is that with Readability’s recent re-launch, it now promotes a low-cost subscription service that actually pays the publisher and/or author for articles accessed through its system. (Instapaper partners with Readability in this service, so both tools may stream some revenue to publishers.)  It remains to be seen how many users will sign up—both Readability and Instapaper can be enjoyed for free—but the thought certainly counts.

NOTE: DBW has launched an Editorial Forum on LinkedIn, a sub-group for editors and others 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.


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