Do We Really Need to Innovate the Reading Experience?

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

ebooks, apps, reading, games, books, audiobooksReading a book used to be considered a fairly straightforward experience.

You opened the book (it was a print book) and you started reading.

Today we have ebooks and audiobooks, which, to varying degrees, have changed our reading experiences. With an ebook, we can read that same print book on our phones, on our computers, on our tablets or on our e-reader devices. And with digital audiobooks, we can now listen on our phones to someone else read the text from that print book.

I hear a lot of talk about how ebooks didn’t innovate enough, or how ebooks are unsatisfactory—that they’re stuck in this “print-under-glass” model that offers nothing new to the reading experience.

I also hear about companies, both within and outside of traditional publishing, that are trying to change the reading experience, be it through new platforms or apps that bring in other forms of media or break a book down into smaller segments.

Maybe I’m a bit naive, but my question is, why?

I understand that there can be educational benefits for children who might find traditional reading to be boring. An app or the integration of audio, video and games can spark their interest and get them on board with reading.

But for those of us who grew up on print books and for whom ebooks and audiobooks are viable alternatives, what is it in our reading experiences that we are so sorely lacking?

Are print books and ebooks no longer effective? Do some people believe they are somehow antiquated?

I understand that reading must now compete with other, perhaps more immediately rewarding, forms of media, and that today’s attention span is, on the whole, probably diminished. But for those of us who want to read, we’re going to read.

“Reading” a book on a device on which I’m inundated with video and audio and my processing of the text is interrupted is, to me, not reading. It’s an entirely new experience.

I’m not saying that this experience doesn’t have a place, but in my view, it’s not innovating reading so much as creating a new experience that incorporates reading.

To that end, what is so wrong with the print-under-glass model of ebooks? What else were we expecting? To my eyes, an ebook on my Kindle looks a lot like a print book in my hands. And that’s exactly how I want it to be.

So I ask, is there a demand for new reading experiences? Is there not, and this whole need to innovate reading is simply overblown?

I’m admittedly a traditionalist, and I do the bulk of my reading in print. When I travel, I lean on my phone and Kindle a bit more. And I do worry that we are trying to redefine reading in a way that could be detrimental.

As I said before, I see the educational and social benefits of integrating other activities into children’s digital reading, but I wonder how such experiences could negatively affect a child’s conception of reading. Growing up using these new apps and devices, will she be predisposed to choosing non-traditional forms of reading going forward? Will print books (or even “simplistic” ebooks) not be good enough for her?

Maybe I’m writing out of self-interest, but this notion that we need to innovate, innovate, innovate seems misguided. Are there areas of book publishing where innovation would be beneficial? Absolutely. But the actual experience of reading? Not so much.

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8 thoughts on “Do We Really Need to Innovate the Reading Experience?

  1. Jeff

    I think the modern e-reader innovated in a few ways. I mean the nice e-ink models, not an LCD screen though. It glows in the dark and is still perfect in direct sunlight. The display quality is better than some paperbacks I own, and they never get torn, lost or folded. The weight is always easy to hold and I like some long books that weighed a lot in paperback form! Mine is also waterproof so I can read in the bath and not worry about the steam or dropping it. Finally just this: LARGE PRINT. I can pick a different font and size with different line spacing. Not even touched on the fact I can take 50 books on holiday with me in my pocket!

  2. Michael W. Perry

    Innovation matters, but only if carefully thought out. The early cars offer a good example. Think of the Ford Model T. Would you want to travel in one, as open as it was, on a cold and rainy day? Of course not! You’d be as miserable as if you were in a horse-drawn carriage.

    And it’s the carriage that lay at the root the problem. Except of those wealthy enough to afford a carriage drawn by four or more horses, carriages had to be as light and flimsy as possible, which meant they could not offer much protection from the weather. If they weren’t light, a single horse or two wouldn’t be able to pull them up hills.

    Gasoline-powered vehicles changed that. Cheap as it was, even the Model T had a 20-horsepower engine. In conjunction with a gearbox, that meant it could weigh more and still climb hills. But it took automakers years to realize that meant these vehicles could have an interior protected from the weather.

    Ebooks are in a similar situation. It’s not merely that they don’t look as attractive as a well-done print book. It’s that those developing the standards and the ereaders seem as utter clueless about their potential as the makers of those early, exposed-to-the-weather-like-carriages vehicles. They obsess over gimmicks and fail to see genuine innovations. I can toss out two examples.

    Webpages can display text in an accordian style, meaning it only appears when readers tap on a small, right-pointing arrow. Why can’t ebooks, fifteen years into the digital book age, do that? That impacts me. I have not created a digital version of my day-by-day chronology of The Lord of the Rings (Untangling Tolkien) because there are distracting text references that I was able to put into a side bar in the print version. In a digital version, I can’t do that. They’d clutter the screen as part of the in-line obsession of the epub standard and look uglier than I want.

    That is ridiculous. Epub is several years into the third major revision. Why hasn’t accordian text been included? It’d be handy for all sorts of writing, allowing authors and publishers to insert comments with distracting readers. And why is so much attention been devoted to being able insert auto-play videos into ebooks? Do readers want blaring ads interrupting their reading? I think not.

    Ah, you ask, why not use pop-up windows for Untangling Tolkien, much like Apple’s iBooks ereader does? There’s a reason. As soon as iBooks came out, book designers were complaining. Whoever designed those pop-ups was afflicted with a common problem at Apple—valuing a shallow prettyness over function. The pop-up reference screen is dominated by a huge number. Didn’t anyone at Apple realize that with digital pop-up references, the number isn’t even necessary? Also, that number is so huge, to see more than a couple of lines of the reference, readers must scroll down. That’s as grossly dysfunctional as an exposed-to-the-weather Model T.

    That’s why I take as encouraging the flattening sales of ebooks. I write, edit and publish in both print and digital, so it matters not to me which my readers buy. But I’m encouaged that, except for the addicted-to-three-books-a-week readers of genre fiction, the public is rejecting digital. They bought a few such ebooks, concluded that they’re less appealing than print, and returned to print.

    The public has shown good taste and excellent sense in this, which is more than I can say for many of those responsible for giving us these dreadful ebook formats and readers. They’ve had a decade and a half, and yet they’re still forcing the public into enduring the equivalent of car passengers exposed to the rain and cold. That makes no sense.

    One more comment and this about children. Read the classics that children have enjoyed for generations. Many are not dumbed-down. Their vocabularies and sentence structures are those of adults who write well. If children not been crippled by their environment and education, they like being challenged and stretched in that way. The problem does not lie with them. It lies with a self-esteem movement that in practice has meant that children are pampered, lest that esteem be so ‘damaged’ by failure, that they grow up unable to face challenges or failure. That’s a tragic mistake that we need to correct.

    And in the digital world, that raises some fundamental questions. Should ereaders have a look-up function that defines words or are kids better off left to their own resources? When I read as a kid, I can’t recall looking up a word I didn’t understand. I just let it pass, assuming that I’d eventually see that word enough times that I’d pick up the meaning. That’s a good attitude to take toward life in general. Learning requires patience rather than some scheme that offers instant answers in some narrow area, but doesn’t in a host of other areas that matter far more.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books, Auburn, AL

    1. Josh Wilkie

      Great response here. To your last note, I remember my Dad always had a dictionary around the house and if I wanted to know what a word meant, he never just gave me the answer, he just handed me the dictionary. It used to drive me crazy — “Just tell me!!!” — but at this point in my life, I really appreciated having gone through that.

  3. Michael Giltz

    Everyone is right!

    Daniel is right that the clean presentation of text is “enough.” Someone might come up with some innovative new way of telling a story but it’s more likely to be a minor offshoot (like the clever offerings on CD-ROM once upon a time) than the correct and dominant way of doing things. People who think books are boring and need jazzing up (what if a score played along while you read? what about inserting video clips? etc) are way off base.

    Jeff is right that there has been innovation we don’t think about as such, innovation that is actually a big positive rather than just distracting noise like Daniel fears. Large Print is no small thing — so is the ability of many e-readers to read the text outloud. It’s no substitute for a well-paid audio recording but the fact that every book available digitally is in Large Print or can be heard aloud is a huge step forward and helps diverse communities get more access to more books than ever before. I’m still waiting for everyone to get on board with footnotes. (I think the best approach is the pop-up footnote that you can read if you want and then close without ever leaving the page. But active footnotes that leap to the end and — this is important — take you back to where you were reading by tapping the footnote number again is also a fine approach. What isn’t acceptable are footnotes that aren’t links or crowding the page with footnotes at the “bottom.” But the best footnotes are a smart way of presenting info that wasn’t available before. I’m pretty sure it’s not what Daniel was bemoaning, either.

    And Michael is correct that even more innovation in terms of flexible presentation is possible. Certainly any books with graphics, timelines and other visual information are poorly served by most e-readers and formats. Imagining clever ways to approach this challenge and turn it into a major plus since digital can do thinks print cannot is called for. I strongly disagree with his idea that being able to look up the definition of a word is somehow bad — yes, repetition of a word in various contexts will eventually help you suss out its meaning, but that works even better if you also look it up and being able to do so immediately is a major plus. Readers don’t always have to look up a word — if they’re absorbed completely in the story to the point where they don’t want to interrupt things, that’s awesome. But in general, the ability to do so immediately is not lazy instant gratification, it’s an ease of use that encourages looking up a word rather than hoping you’ll eventually figure it out.

    When discussing the vast majority of text-based books out there, the last thing they need to be is “improved” by layering on doo-dads in fear that people will get bored.

  4. David Neal

    First, book publishers are extremely lucky that digital books have not gone the way of news, music and games, i.e. prices driven to zero. It seems extremely unlikely that this will continue forever but who knows. Clearly the ebook experience is not as good as it could be primarily due to the multiplicity of formats, walled gardens, and the “forking” of ePub from web standards. The latter may well be temporary with the proposed merger of IDPF and W3C. As to “enhanced ebooks,” this is clearly a category that the market has completely rejected. To a large degree, this is due to the fact that books do not require much enhancement and that the creativity of those doing such enhancement has been extremely limited. (make something shake, make something “pokable,” add silly sound/animation, quizzes, puzzles, etc. ad nauseam.) I have personally given up on the eBook/ePub format preferring to use open web instead. The drawback of web is mainly twofold. First and primarily there is no robust, universal payment model. This is obviously a big drawback, requiring a paywall implementation by everyone. Second, there are some good reasons that ePub forked, including “spline” (page ordering) and “unit packaging” (making a single zip file rather than a file hierarchy/network). Hopefully in time these problems will be addressed before the public wakes up and demands free books in the same way they expect free music and news and games. It totally amazes me that Amazon can get people to pay for “vanilla” public domain ebooks!

  5. Tim C. Taylor

    I’m with you, Daniel.

    Interactive reference and educational books make a lot of sense to me, but for fiction I want to immerse myself in the world described by the author. I don’t want the TV blaring in the background or kids screaming in my ear, nor do I want in-context music or footnotes or anything other than plain text because all those things are distractions. As a commercial fiction author, I’ve learned to suppress the temptation to show off, and instead endeavour to deliver the best immersive story for my readers because my income depends on delivering what paying readers want… and I don’t hear paying readers clamouring for enhanced digital. I only hear that desire coming from traditional publishers who want to push a new premium product, and to find a way to differentiate themselves from indie authors. Enhanced digital in fiction will work for a few special editions of classics, younger kids’ books, and an occasional gimmick. Nothing more.

  6. Josh Wilkie

    I find it odd that the editor of DBW is a skeptic on innovation and digital. What about comics, art books, print books, illustrated books, kids’ books? The formatting and end-user experience has been sacrificed for maximum portability — have you tried to read a graphic novel on a Kindle? Maybe not with text-only prose, but there’s PLENTY of innovation that needs to be done in that area.

  7. gail

    Of course we need to continually develop, through innovation, not only what and how we read but the actual experience of reading. While we ‘commentators’ may be fortunate, and just plain lucky, to access reading, there are millions who are not so fortunate or lucky. There are so many people who don’t enjoy reading but who could; so many who can’t read, who could; so many who don’t have access to reading but could by developing the experience of reading into a positive, easy and accessible one.

    Saying we don’t need innovation to enhance experience surely is counterproductive for everyone.



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