Young Readers Say No Thanks to Enhanced E-Reading

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

enhanced ebooks multimedia digital natives millennials e-reading metabookHow 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.

4 thoughts on “Young Readers Say No Thanks to Enhanced E-Reading

  1. Gary Young

    These comments refer to fiction. I can think of lots of ways to enhance a do-it-yourself book or a repair manual, or a tourist guide book; but here I am talking about stories.

    My major complaint about \enhanced ebooks\ is that so far I haven’t seen one that actually enhances the story. When silent movies got recorded soundtracks, and then multi-channel surround sound it was an enhancement to the movie experience. Moving from black and white to colour for movies was also an enhancement. The person watching the movie was given a deeper and more satisfying experience of absorbing the story with sound and colour.

    In my experience, however, so called \enhanced ebooks\ are books with added features. These \added features\ are not part of the story and therefore I do not consider them to be enhacements. I don’t want to stop reading a book to watch an interview with the author between chapters 5 and 6. I don’t want to read the book club discussion questions or watch a video tour of places described in the book in between chapters 20 and 21.

    I am still waiting to see a real enhancement to a book. Something that takes a printed text as its base and makes the experience of reading that text more satisfying and rewarding, without interrupting the progress of the story in any way.

    One \true\ enhancement I can imagine is to add a ***subliminal*** sound effects track to a book, so that, for example, when the story moves to a seashore, you hear the sound of waves and seagulls very faintly. This would be so quiet as to be unnoticeable at the conscious level. This sound track would add ‘atmosphere’ but would not replace or change or override the story presented in the text. (And for those who hate this idea, just UNPLUG you earbuds!!! then suggest some other way to \truly\ enhance a text based story.)

    Now we come to the idea of a new form of multi-media story-telling with text, video, role playing, and whatever else may be added to the mix. There may indeed be a future for such a new entertainment medium. We shall see, as time goes on if people like such products and are willing to buy them. I don’t understand, however, why a cross between a movie, a video game, and a book would be given such a dull name as \an enhanced ebook\. Surely the people who long to create such new entertainment products can come up with a better name than that.

  2. Michael W. Perry

    As someone who lays out books professionally, I’d suggest that young adult readers are simply showing good taste when they prefer print books over ebooks. The first often looks good, while the second is, more often than not, dull and ugly.

    There’s really two problems. The first concerns the reflowable formats typically displayed on Kindles and smartphones. The reflowing takes into account little that’s been known since Gutenberg about how to make a page or screen look good. Line breaks are done poorly. Page breaks are even worse. Often a page will break early because of a graphic. In most cases there’s no way someone designing a book can even make it look good. I’ve seen reflowed page break only to display part of a word like \ly.\ on the next page and nothing more. Is it that hard to make a page break always include at least two lines on the next page? Is it that hard to hold off displaying a graphic to the next page?

    The second problem has only been addressed very recently when InDesign acquired the ability to display complex fixed layout epubs on various platforms including iPads, Nooks and Kobos. That does give someone doing layout the opportunity to make a page look much better. But distributing them is still a mess. Apple’s iBookstore, for instance, forces publishers to sell fixed layout and reflowable as two separately purchased ebooks. They should be sold together, with an iPhone smart enough to display the reflowable version and an iPad the fixed layout version. Heck, they might even make iBooks on an iPad behave a bit like iBooks Author and display the fixed-layout version in portrait and a two-column reflowable format in landscape.

    And the worst offender by far is Amazon, which seems to have trademarked ugly as a feature of their ebooks. Amazon won’t work with Adobe like Apple has to make InDesign export ebooks for their readers as easily as ID does print and epub books. Authors and publishers who want ebooks that aren’t ugly have to pay third parties large sums of money to hand code. Even the recent fixed layout format that Amazon announced turns out to be nothing but kludge PDF rather than a fixed-layout format specifically for ebooks.

    In short, young adults—and older adults with taste, rather than an addiction of reading genre books in huge gulps, will still prefer print books because they look quite a bit better.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books


    Content needs to jump out at us? Multisensory overload? An all out assault on the senses approach? Sounds more like a bad video game than a good book. Why bother with the text at all so?

  4. Tim Fry

    The brilliance of books lies not in a book’s \features\, but in the unique process of the reader working to become of like mind with its author. The foregoing of that effort undermines value that might otherwise be gained by such reading; consequently, efforts to \enhance\ a book through non-textual exploits can only detract from this process..

    The few advantages of ebooks, in my opinion, are::

    * The potential to easily copy passages for sharing, etc. (often thwarted
    by DRM),
    * The ability to carry a great number of them easily,
    * The ability to quickly search an entire publication for a string of text.

    For me, outside of technical writings, these benefits do not outweigh downsides like the inability (or, at least, difficulty and, perhaps, expense) in lending books to others, the distractions inherent in the ebook device itself, and the reality that there’s really no good way to make an ebook truly one’s own (the coldness of typed notes, when even possible, as compared to handwritten margin notes; similar problems with \highlighting\, etc.). What I find frustrating is that these problems are quite easy to solve, yet publishers seem bent on marketing ebooks to readers in new ways instead of simply improving their existing product.

    If ebooks are to become truly viable to serious readers, publishers need to reject the silly notion that they can or should \change the way you approach reading\ with some idiotic new feature, and instead tailor their devices and content to match a reader’s experience with a traditional paper text. The death knell for paper will come the day that I can make handwritten and imperfect scribbles in the margins, make messy multicolored highlights wherever I want, give my copy (messy highlights, notes, and all) to literally any other person, and share entire passages anywhere I want and with whomever I choose, all in a totally unrestricted manner.

    This may require substantial change in the publisher’s business model, but isn’t it better to market a solidly-viable and time-tested product over a shiny, newfangled albatross?



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