Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
In 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.
To get all the ebook and digital publishing news you need every day in your inbox at 8:00 AM, sign up for the DBW Daily today!