How to Make Reading Relevant to Today’s Consumer

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

books, ebooks, data, readers, publishers, authorsIn a world where users can access entertainment from their mobile devices anytime and anyplace, all forms of media are competing against each other for a resource that is quickly becoming scarce: user attention.

Media consumption patterns are increasingly mobile, increasingly digital and often multi-platform. This evolution has created a “multi-tasking” form of consumption, in which users rarely give their full, undivided attention to a single media source from start to finish in one uninterrupted session. In fact, a recent study revealed that this multitasking behavior means that the average American is fitting in 31 hours of activity on a daily basis—many more hours of activity than there are in a day. This is only possible with multi-tasking, with users listening to music while they exercise, or playing a game while they watch TV, or listening to a podcast while they read.

The study shows that users spend 19 minutes of the day reading, but more than 1 ½ hours on social networks and more than five hours watching video. Of course, these sessions aren’t all in one sitting and probably not even of the same content. In a recent user research project we conducted at Scribd, we found more than one participant reading five or more books at the same time—through small portions of each intermittently as time permitted and the interest struck them.

Reading is facing an uphill battle against other forms of media in the fight for attention.

Changing Consumer Behavior

What does this mean for the book publishing industry? Are we destined to go the way of the buffalo?

The answer is, simply, no, because one thing has remained constant for humans over time: the desire for a great narrative. Narratives persist through every technological revolution because they are hard-wired into human physiology. The real question is how we succeed with consumers of the future given their changing media habits.

While opportunities for full, undivided attention have become rare, overall media consumption has increased—which means it’s our industry’s job to adapt to meet consumers’ expectations and behavior. Whether it’s a new way to deliver short-form or long-form content, or a delivery model such as subscription, that encourages exploration and “snacking,” reading content of any length needs to become a less committal action for the consumer.

Content About Content

When viewed through the porthole of our digital screens, all written content—books, news articles or magazine op-eds—looks the same; they’re a series of words on a “page,” displayed in a reader’s chosen font with the occasional picture mixed in. This creates an opportunity for authors and publishers to capture the attention of the user as she jumps between media types. Much in the same way that an hour-long presidential debate is distilled into sound bites, video clips and memes, and spawns expert analyses, follow-up interviews and rebuttals, books can and should encourage these same companion works.

That’s not to say that short-form companion content will replace long-form content, but now, more than ever, this content will work to support, promote and proliferate the narrative of long-form content. In the hyperlinked world of the web, books need to be a click away from other content being consumed and, much in the same way, need to enable clicking out to other content. Having supported works created from the book can provide connective tissue for potential readers to find the book as they surf. It’s the principles of search engine optimization applied in a narrative format.

This idea can carry through all genres. Eventually, the form of content will become less important than its relevance to a topic of interest. It is why reading a Wikipedia article inevitably leads to reading other hyperlinked articles, or why watching a professionally published video on YouTube leads to watching one filmed by a teenager on her iPhone, or why reading a tweet leads to reading a novel.

The story doesn’t have to stop at the end of the book. The narrative can carry across media types and capture the user’s attention in the bite-size chunks that they are willing to give it.

Data in the Digital World

Publishers of the future will no longer rely on simply producing great content. Those who embrace digital publishing will be able to utilize data to better understand the needs of readers. They’ll not only understand who is reading their authors’ works, but how and when those books are being read.

This is not to suggest that data should inform the content of original work, but instead that it is a tool to help publishers and authors find new audiences and learn how to engage those audiences in the most effective way.

For example, Scribd’s data has shown that there is a correlation between readers of sci-fi and those who read books about craft beers. A publisher of sci-fi mysteries might want to consider a partnership with a craft beer subscription service or placing its books in the gift shops of breweries. The author would have the attention of a fanbase that is, statistically speaking, more likely to purchase and consume her long-form work—all thanks to big data.

A Spirit of Innovation

So, how do we make reading relevant to today’s consumers? We start by understanding their habits, specifically in terms of mobile media consumption. This will enable us to craft narratives that flow between platforms and fit naturally into the cultural zeitgeist.

Imagine the revolution that occurred when Gutenberg invented the printing press: all of a sudden, books were affordable and easily accessible. This revolution changed the way stories were told. The shift in media consumption that we are seeing today is on the same scale, and should be met with the same spirit of innovation.

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2 thoughts on “How to Make Reading Relevant to Today’s Consumer

  1. Michael W. Perry

    Good ideas. I’ll add some more.

    For an illustration of the problems that ebook faces, compare a merely average website with one of the better ebooks from a major publisher. The former is far more visual and interesting isn’t it? That is why those who spend their time reading the former have little interest in the latter. At best, a ebook manages to be dull but not ugly.

    One reason for that is the lack of ebook standards along with powerful tools to create easily ebooks matching those standards. Amazon, always hostile toward any broader interests, not only has its own obscure and proprietary standards, it has let the Kindle plug-in for InDesign become dysfunctional. Its crass agenda is all too obvious. It wants publishers and authors to invest so much money either hand-coding or creating ebooks in Amazon-only apps to its format, that they have no money to create ebooks in any other formats. That’s one problem.

    Epub isn’t much better. Fixed-format HTML can create an ebook that looks marvelous, particularly with InDesign. But it only works for a limited range of screen sizes. It’s essentially a digital PDF. And the reflowable version is stupid beyond belief. Every aspect of it apparently has to past muster with an Ugly Committee, a Let the Reader Determine Everything Committee, and a Keep Ereading Formats Stupid Committee.

    The Ugly Committee keeps epub focused on mindless reflowing. No ereader is expected to follow even the most basic rules of good layout, such as breaking a page differently to avoid widows and orphans. Ereaders mindless break pages when a graphic won’t fit on what remains of the current one. What’s wrong with continuing the text and inserting the graphic at the top of the next page? The coding for that isn’t rocket science. And behind all that is a seeming inability to recognize that an ebook isn’t a webpage. People scroll down to read webpages so there are no page-break issues, while they page through an ebook. Ebook formats and readers need to be smart enough to format pages, not just lines, and to do so intelligently.

    The Let the Reader Determine Everything Committee is a descentant of the Why the Heck Would Anyone Want to Read a Book on a Palm Pilot Committee. Faced with promoting reading on a primitive device unsuited for that, the Palm Committee hit upon the silliest of ideas. ‘Hey,’ they said, ‘let’s make a big deal about readers being able to change their font and font size.’ Apart from large-type for those with vision impairments, had any reader in the entire history of printing demanded that? Probably not. They were content to let the publisher make those choices. But today, thanks to the Palm Committee’s absurd argument, we have ereaders that attach more value to something that’s worthless than to developing techniques that allow ebook publishers to manage (meaning dictate) the fine details of a ebook’s layout to make it look better. An ebook should ship looking good and make it extremely hard for readers to make it look bad.

    In many ways the Keep Ereader Formats Stupid Committee is the worst of the lot. Again, look at HTML. Within a certain range, webpages adjust for the size of the window they’re displaying in. Outside that range, they shift to a different format, typically one better suited for smartphones. Why can’t ebooks do that? Why can’t those doing layout specify one behavior on larger screens and different behaviors on smaller screens?

    To give an example, once you get beyond novels, you face the problem of dealing with lengthy quotes that need to be set apart in some way. In printed books and on the screen of a larger tablet, the traditional method of inset text blocks work fine. On a small smartphone screen, that’s a disaster. Each line in that quote may have only enough space for two or three words. The result will be a pain to read. Why not have a format that’s smart enough that on smaller screens is shifts easily to displaying that quoted text in some other way, perhaps by placing a thin vertical line to the left (the original meaning of paragraph) or perhaps by lightly tinting the background. The key thing is that those creating that ebook don’t have to deal with complex, non-standard ways of doing that. It’s built into the standards and into the coding of ereaders.

    That is why I see potential for good news in the IDPF and W3C merger. Hopefully, it’s bring some of the good ideas of HTML into epub. But that merger is only going to work if the geeks in both display a willingness to listen to those who, since the era of Gutenberg, have been wrestling with how to make a book, printed or digital, look good.

    Creating an appealing appearance needs to be so baked into ebook standards that it actually become hard to make one look dull or ugly. That’s what digital publishing needs.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

  2. Richard Bowles

    A hundred years ago, a similar article could have been entitled, How to Make Buggy Whips Relevant. Times change . . . .

    With social media, people are collaborating. With social media, it is much easier to collaborate than with paper books or ebooks. Until Youtube came along, it was also far less practical to collaborate with music or video.

    There is great opportunity for a new content package that allows collaboration with content that is currently cast as words traditionally packaged as a paper book or ebook. Research has already demonstrated this, and the embrace has been overwhelming for a

    collaborative media package

    (CMP) which also combines words with other media. For example: Sprint Beyond the Book project at Frankfurt Book Fair in 2013. This gave attendees the opportunity to see a new publication, created in real-time, with writers in several locations around the globe, and including both static and live-streaming video mixed with the words.

    If a publication remains primarily words, then it will serve a declining market this applies to ebooks as well as paper. However, by going beyond words-only, there is opportunity for writers of words to create fantastic new products which include and embrace content from artists and crafters of music, video, and other media types. And, even more important, allow the consumer to participate in the assembling of a CMP to meet their unique needs and preferences.

    Richard Bowles,
    Portland, OR



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