It’s easy to feel overwhelmed sometimes by all of the information streaming across the internet joining the already vast quantities of books, articles, journals, and other documents available in print format. It’s even harder to keep up with all the latest news and innovations related to published documents, print or on line, and the changing ways we access those documents. Whether you’re a reader, a writer, or a publisher, it’s important to keep up with what’s happening in the world of books, and that’s where Dan Eldridge’s site comes in. We asked Dan about the transformation of reading styles in the 21st century.
7S: A local public radio station used to encourage people to listen to the news instead of reading newspapers because “radio doesn’t leave ink smears on your fingers.” What else is pushing people to get their news from non-print media?
DE: Price and convenience, from what I can tell. Although if I had to choose just one answer, I think it’s been made pretty clear by now that it’s much more an issue of convenience than one of price. And by convenience, I don’t just mean the convenience of being able to access news and opinion from literally anywhere in the world within seconds, although that’s certainly a big part of it. I also mean the convenience of not having to go to a newsstand or a bookstore — or even out to your mailbox or your front porch — to retrieve the day’s news.
I think anyone who’s been in the media business long enough to remember the pre-Internet days can understand how incredibly challenging it is for a print-media product to compete with one that’s essentially waiting for you inside your computer — and inside your cell phone, for that matter — at all times, where it’s also being updated around the clock.
As for the price end of that equation, sure, it’s nice to get content for free. But again, we’re starting to see lots of examples of media entities and publications with high-quality content that are successfully charging for at least some of that content. In other words, I think it’s becoming more and more clear that people are willing pay (for content of any sort, news or otherwise), assuming they’re being offered the sort of content they want, in the various ways they want it to be offered.
7S: Are we at a point where e-readers and other tools to access online content can completely replace printed books and magazines?
DE: I guess that depends on whether you’re really asking if they can, or if they will. As for the former: Sure, I suppose that’s within the realm of possibility. And I’m willing to admit that at some point in the future, that may even happen.
If, on the other hand, you’re asking if they will: No, I don’t think so. What I do see happening — although not at any point in the near future — are print products eventually becoming niche products; boutique products, if you will, that serve a certain audience and demographic that wants to own something beautiful (and tangible).
I think that as publishers of print products get better and better at differentiating their products from online publications, they’ll slowly grow their customer base. If you look at statistics from, say, the Association of Magazine Media, you’ll see pretty quickly that there’s still a very large audience for print media.
And don’t forget that the online media world still hasn’t figured out how to charge anywhere near as much money for advertising as print publications charge. When it comes to ad revenue, print and online aren’t even in the same stratosphere. That’s a fact that I don’t think a lot of people outside the media and publishing industries are aware of.
(If you haven’t guessed by now, I should probably explain that I always have been, and probably always will be, a huge print media obsessive. I love print, and I believe in it strongly.)
7S: You’re a professional author. Have e-readers changed the way writers work, as well?
DE: That’s a great question, although I’m not sure I have a simple answer. My experience with TeleRead has taught me that it’s definitely changing the way some writers work, but not all of them — and not all in the same ways. I should probably preface this next statement by saying that I’m a huge and very serious proponent of the DIY ethic, especially in terms of self-publishing. That being said, however, it’s become pretty clear to me that the most recent self-publishing revolution has led to much greater quantities of absolute stinking dreck than mankind has perhaps ever known.
Please don’t get me wrong: I actually consider it a good thing that the barriers to entry in the e-publishing world are now so low. But I guess you might say that e-readers have affected many writers who might otherwise never have experienced the thrill of seeing their work in print, or the satisfaction of completing a project as grueling as a book-length work. That’s a beautiful thing, I’d say. (Even if much of the resulting work isn’t quite so beautiful.)
In terms of people who were already working as professional writers before the e-reader came into popular existence, I really don’t think it’s changed the way they work all that much. There’s the issue of paying much closer attention to the digital rights clause in your contract these days, I suppose. Aside from that, I would guess — and this really is just a guess — that the e-single has changed the way professional writers work more than the e-reader itself. For instance, there are so many small publishing companies putting out very high-quality e-singles by big name authors these days, and from what I know about the ways they operate, their contracts tend to be much more favorable than those offered by the Big Six houses. (Sorry — the Big Five, I guess it is now!)
I know of a few former freelance magazine writers who’ve gone on to launch e-single publishing companies, and I guess you could say that a good number of big name authors are giving much more thought to how their work is released and distributed today, due largely to the e-single and e-book phenomenon.
Stephen King immediately comes to mind as someone who’s made some pretty interesting e-publishing decisions over the past few years. If I’m not mistaken (and I may be), I think I remember him releasing a pretty high-profile story online for free awhile back. More recently, I believe he put out a digital-only book that was eventually published in print, and even more recently, he released a print book that supposedly won’t be made available as an e-book. And of course, the nonfiction Kindle Single he released a couple months ago about gun control was big news.
Maybe he’s experimenting to see what works best? Or maybe he’s just having fun by taking advantage of all the many ways we can now share content with the world. I don’t know. But regardless, it does seem to be affecting the way some writers work in some form or another, and if nothing else, I hope the writers creating the work in these new ways — and the readers consuming it — are having good fun and learning things they might otherwise never have.
7S: More and more libraries are connecting to online e-book lending systems, but still maintain fairly large children’s book sections. Would you recommend that parents invest in e-readers, or take their kids to the library for print books?
Well, I should probably point out here that I’m not a parent, and as such, I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of the ways children are consuming content today. That said, we do occasionally report on both education and children’s reading habits at TeleRead — our senior writer, Joanna Cabot, is an elementary school teacher in Toronto, Ontario, and education has become a regular beat of hers. Based on some of the work she’s done, I can tell you that the experts seem to be somewhat divided on the issue of whether print books are better for children in terms of memory retention, but that does seem to be where most of them are leaning.
A 2012 survey from a New York-based nonprofit called the Sesame Workshop showed that parents prefer reading print books with their children. Then again, another study conducted around the same time, by the same nonprofit, showed that kids prefer reading e-books to print. The UK National Literacy Trust, meanwhile, released a report a couple months ago showing that kids who read more e-books actually have poorer reading skills than their print-reading peers. The Pew Research Center has also done studies on this, although I believe the only hard conclusion they’ve come to is that kids prefer e-books to print (unlike their parents, apparently).
Personally, I wouldn’t put a ton of weight on the studies suggesting that kids who read digitally are worse readers. But then again, like I mentioned previously, I don’t have kids. If I did, I’m sure surveys like that would keep me up at night.
Honestly, if I was a parent, I think I would take both routes, if only because I believe strongly in the concept of “moderation in all things.” I would certainly attempt to raise my children to become lovers of both books and reading, as my own parents did. But I’d probably also buy them a children’s tablet — there are a few on the market right now that are especially good. The Polaroid 7″ Kids Tablet is wonderful, and has all sorts of fun, kid-friendly features and apps. (It does, however, come preloaded with NOOK for Android, and given the way Nook Media is going, that may be a risky bet if you’re buying the tablet primarily with reading in mind.) Vivitar has also just released (or will release very soon) three family-oriented tablets. I had a chance to play around with two of them recently at CE Week, and found the XO Family Tablet just fantastic; I would definitely recommend it.
7S: What’s the biggest advantage of e-books – and the biggest disadvantage?
That’s a tough one — and I suppose any answer to that question is going to be pretty subjective. But I can certainly give you my opinion.
· The portability and accessibility of an entire library is a big one, of course. I own the entry-level Kindle, which now sells for just USD $69, and it holds something like 2,000 titles. That’s insane. It holds a charge for days; it’s very light; I can take it with me anywhere. To me, it’s still a mind-boggling device.
· Also, studies have shown that people tend to read more after they purchase an e-reader, and that was definitely the case with me. E-books are just so simple to acquire — even free ones — and I found myself reading all the time, almost everywhere, when I first got an e-reader, although I’ll admit that the novelty has since worn off just a bit.
· Reading has become much more accessible in some parts of the developing world as a result of e-books. In some of the poorer parts of Africa, and especially in areas where bookstores are either non-existent or too expensive, kids and adults alike are reading voraciously on their cell phones. And then of course there’s Worldreader, the well-known nonprofit that distributes e-readers and e-books to schoolchildren in sub-Saharan Africa. Lives are definitely being affected and changed in very positive ways by organizations like Worldreader. Personally, I can’t wait until we hear an entrepreneur or a world leader, ten or 15 years from now, talking about how a free Kindle they received as a kid changed their life. I have no doubt that day is coming.
· I’m not sure any of us really wants to think too hard about the working conditions that must exist in order for us in America to be able to buy an e-reader for $70, or a tablet for a $130. But that’s not really an e-reading issue, of course; it’s a technology issue.
· I don’t know if I can think of any other genuine disadvantages, aside from the fact that the art and design of books are definitely lost on e-books, which is a shame. It’s the same thing that happened when vinyl records started being replaced by cassette tapes — the art-and-design aspect of popular music was never quite the same. I think you can pretty fairly call that a “white people’s problem,” though, which is to say that it’s not really that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.
· Along that same line, however, it’s probably worth pointing out that publishers still don’t seem to be taking anywhere near as much care with their digital books as they do with print books. Typos in e-books are still a huge problem, and I’m not necessarily talking about self-published e-books, or e-books from tiny houses that don’t have much of a budget. I’m sure that’ll slowly change, though, as e-books become less of a novelty and more of an accepted medium. That seems to be happening more and more every day, doesn’t it?