One of the things that isn’t getting a lot of air time in the discussion about digital books is how reading on a screen instead of on a page changes our reading habits. I thought we’d talk about that today, since there are not only changes but implications from those changes.
I skim when I read on a screen. When I read from a printed book, I read every word. I thought for a long time that maybe I was just weird, but that’s clearly not the case. Readers tell me that they’ve read an entire trilogy of my books (those would be 100,000 words each) in a day, sometimes even in a night. Other writers tell me that they can’t proofread effectively digitally. So, I think that we all read faster, and most likely we do that by skimming.
First, let’s talk about the changes:
• Readers read books faster.
• We all read less accurately, because we are skimming.
• We all have shorter attention spans.
• The nature of digital readers means that those readers who use digital readers have more opportunity to abandon a book. Once upon a time, we would take one paperback on a plane, for example, and unless it was deeply awful, we would trudge our way through the whole thing. With e-readers, we can have an entire library at our fingertips, which means that we will read less of a book that doesn’t grab us from line one, page one before we turn to another.
None of these are bad things in themselves, but their implications are far-reaching. Here are a few that come to my mind:
1. Readers who have digital readers are buying great quantities of books. Because they may read less of a given book, or because they read it more quickly, and because it is virtual, their perceived value of individual books will likely be lower. This affects the pricing of digital books.
2. Readers who read work in digital format may read books in different order. This is interesting. I saw a review in which the reviewer complained that the book in question had no linked table of contents, so the only way to read it was to scroll through it from beginning to end. I didn’t really understand that, but clearly this reviewer and reader wanted to read the book out of order. I often have skipped to the end of a print book to confirm that everything works out, so that would be one example of reading out of order. Some people read the sex scenes first in a romance novel. This has implications for the linked table of contents – many readers expect now to have the chapters hotlinked from a table of contents. Will they soon expect to have certain scenes linked from there as well? Will they read the rest of the book, other than the bits they prefer to read?
3. Because we skim content in digital, authors must find new methods for proofreading their work. They might have more beta readers and proofreaders. They might print out the document for proofreading. They might go over it more times than was their previous habit. There must be some investment to compensate for the tendency to skim. On the other side of the coin, typographical errors may be less important than they were once, since so many readers skim – those who skim might not notice typos. That’s not an excuse for letting them ride, just an observation.
4. Because we all skim, this also affects submissions to editors. My agent complained years ago that editors gave submitted works less of a chance, because they were reviewing submissions digitally. Once upon a time, an editor would take two or three print submissions home to review while commuting. The editor would read a good chunk of the submitted manuscript, because he or she had already committed to carrying it. With digital submissions, an editor can take home a thousand of them on one reader. That means that the editor, too, will reject a submission that doesn’t grab his or her attention very quickly. Authors need to ensure that the very first page of their manuscript is exactly right before it is submitted. This has always been the objective, but previously editors read a dozen pages before deciding. Not any more.
5. The other thing I’m noticing is that some people who read a great deal in digital will buy duplicates of books – if they really like a book they’ve read in digital, they buy the same title again in print, in order to have a “keeper”. This makes me glad that I’ve gotten into the habit of publishing a print-on-demand edition of each of my indie-published books, more or less simultaneous to the digital release. The interesting thing is that when I make a title free, the POD sales for that title always jump. That means people are finding a keeper through the free promotion, and that’s good. Over time, I think we’ll see better solutions, in that there will be options available for books to have mass market print runs. Somehow they will have to be defined as “keepers” – maybe by POD sales reaching a certain level, digital sales reaching a certain level, reviews being at a certain level, or some other criterion. This is another factor changing the publication pattern of books – yes, I believe that we are all moving to a digital-first world in which only certain proven titles and authors are distributed in print.
6. This rapid reading has a ripple effect on publication schedules. Whereas once I would hear from readers several weeks after a book was released that they were looking forward to the next one, now I hear from them the same day as the book is released. The ones reading me in digital might contact me on the morning of publication – because their pre-ordered book was delivered at one second after midnight. Can authors write faster? How long can a readers’ attention be held? Will we release linked books as they’re written? Or will we stockpile them, so we can release them in a flurry once they’re all complete? Already we’re seeing authors publish digital novellas in between books that are simultaneous print and digital, in order to keep the reader engaged. I think we’re going to see a lot more experimentation over the next year or two, in search of the best answer (and the “best answer” might be one that keeps changing.)
7. I’m curious as to how all of this will affect the length of works published digitally. Should they be shorter, so that we read the whole thing? Or should they be longer, because we’re going to skim through it the first time? There will be implications of the format on the work – just as the mass market paperback settled in as a cost effective format at 90,000 to 100,000 words, there will be an ideal length for digital work. What do you think it will be?
How about you? Do you read differently in digital than in print? How do your reading habits mesh with what I’ve outlined above – and how do they differ?