Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
How do younger readers want to read?
If you go by the numbers, so-called digital natives are just about as frumpy as their analog elders. One recent survey shows U.S. readers ages 18–34 almost twice as likely to read a print book as an ebook on any device.
And while Pew researchers found ebooks’ popularity to be highest among the 18–29-year-old bloc in its own latest study (37% read one in 2014), that same demographic was more likely than any of the three older age groups in the sample to read a print book (79%).
As Alex Segura, SVP of Publicity and Marketing at Archie Comics, put it during a talk yesterday at “Designing Books for Tomorrow’s Readers,” a conference hosted in New York City by Publishing Perspectives, “If the story’s good, the rest will follow.”
That’s hardly an adage most in the book world would sneeze at. The debate heats up, though, around what constitutes “the rest” and in what ways it “follows” the story.
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For Benjamin Alfonsi, Creative Director of publishing start-up Metabook, “the rest” is where publishers have failed readers utterly.
“Readers want more. They’re expecting more,” Alfonsi said, joining Segura on a panel at yesterday’s event. Content, in his view, “needs to jump out at you” in an age when consumers—particularly younger ones—are accustomed to getting a multisensory overload from their media diet.
Metabook aims to do enhanced ebooks one better with what Alfonsi calls “an all-out-assault-on-the-senses approach.” The publisher’s digital products, so far designed exclusively for iOS, combine written text with audio interviews, music, performed narration, 3D interactive features and other forms of supplemental content.
In Alfonsi’s view, “we’re losing an entire generation of readers” because the reading experience itself has become so unengaging. With Metabook, by contrast, “it’s visceral, it’s sexy, it’s imaginative…it’s immersive, it’s visual, it’s sensory,” he says. “It has to be everything.”
By and large, though, the market hasn’t shown that to be true.
Nearly a year ago, ebook developer and digital content strategist Peter Costanzo revisited an argument that industry leader Evan Schnittman made about enhanced digital content back in 2011, and found that it still held up pretty well.
The gist of Costanzo’s case was that thanks to the wide variability among e-reading platforms, most readers were unable to experience the full range of interactive features publishers otherwise could (and did) make available to them.
The chicken-and-egg scenario that creates remains largely in force today, with optimists (Costanzo considered himself one) believing that if only more readers could uniformly access enhanced content, demand for it would rise, publishers would invest more in producing and distributing it and the “all-out-assault-on-the-senses approach” Alfonsi describes would stand a better chance of becoming the default e-reading experience.
In other words, the rest would follow.
In the meantime, though, the market for enhanced digital book content, including (you might even say especially) among millennials, is likely to remain very modest. Not only do those younger readers appear perfectly happy with a print book in one hand and a Snapchat-running smartphone in the other, many authors still meet with considerable distribution and business incentives to publish their work the old-fashioned way.
Unless and until any of those things change, even a publisher as ambitious and technologically impressive as Metabook will find scaling up within and (one must ultimately imagine) beyond iOS, and thence to disrupt digital reading, to be a very tall order indeed.
That’s not to say it’s impossible, of course, only unlikely.
Recent history, too, bears this out. Derrick Schultz, Director of Developer Experience at Atavist, also at yesterday’s conference, said he’s seen similar multimedia publishing platforms strive to “show off what the technology has available” right out of the gates, only to pare back the “bells and whistles” later on, in order to focus on “creating an atmosphere” with fewer elements. Readers, Schultz says in regard to recent Atavist projects, have responded positively to that restraint.
Admittedly, the data above don’t reveal much about why millennial readers seem to prefer reading the ways that they do, nor do they hint at how those preferences might change.
While the industry works to answer those tougher questions, an observation Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, Co-owner of Greenlight Bookstore, made about young readers while speaking on a separate panel yesterday seems to sum up the current landscape pretty accurately: They’re “using digital for social and interaction and less for content consumption.”
As long as that’s the story, the rest follows—or doesn’t, as the case may be.