Every now and then I like to look back through older posts on my blog. It’s a form of masochism built upon equal parts fascination with forgotten ideas and revulsion at missed typos and awkwardly phrased run on sentences that really don’t know when to end, that should have ended sooner, and aren’t something I do anymore. One snarky post caught my eye and I thought I should retread that ground.
The post was based upon an article in The Guardian, one of the last bastions of book snobbery that manages to not trip over its own superiority complex – sometimes. The article had decided that all of these new-fangled e-readers weren’t filled with the right kinds of books.
Kindle-owning bibliophiles are furtive beasts. Their shelves still boast classics and Booker winners. But inside that plastic case, other things lurk. Sci-fi and self-help. Even paranormal romance, where vampires seduce virgins and elves bonk trolls.
Ahh, good, they’ve figured out what people actually enjoy reading. Do go on.
The ebook world is driven by so-called genre fiction, categories such as horror or romance. It’s not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare. No cliche is left unturned, no adjective underplayed.
“So-called” genre fiction categories of horror and romance… This article was published by a so-called newspaper.
At this point, you can see why I originally wrote about this article. Like many of these worthiness arguments, the article is quick to deride any genre book, particularly e-books in this case, as not having “classic” potential. You know, classics like The Godfather (crime), Lord of the Rings (fantasy), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (science fiction), Frankenstein (horror), or Pride and Prejudice (romance). Why would anyone ever read dreck like genre fiction?
As I’ve said before, I could easily write a post-a-week pulling apart one of these articles. They are very common and rely on the same handful of bad arguments. In my original response to the article, I wrote that literary fiction – the preferred genre of the authors of these sorts of articles – and biography markets have been kept afloat by this sort of snobbery. People like to be seen reading high-brow stuff, and people like to give worthy books to friends and family. Not one person has ever bought a political memoir to read, they are always a Father’s Day gift. And as the article states, e-book readers don’t have to let people see what they are reading, so they don’t have to pretend any longer.
The reading public in private is lazy and smutty. E-readers hide the material. Erotica sells well. My own downmarket literary fetish is male-oriented historical fiction (histfic). Swords and sails stuff. I’m happier reading it on an e-reader, and keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.
Well, maybe people will pretend just a bit longer…
Since this was an article from 2012, the talk of e-books was as they were ascending in popularity. Growth in the e-book market has since slowed, with the market being 20% of the total sales for the major publishers, down from a high of 28% five years ago. Of course, in the fiction market e-books are more like 50% of sales for the Big 5 publishers. And those publishers are having trouble with new fiction titles, as they haven’t had any “big titles” selling well, instead relying on genre fiction backlists and the sudden interest in political books… Wait, what?
It puzzles me why the author of this article insisted that e-readers are filled with garbage, particularly since the arguments supporting the claim lack evidence. A large chunk of book sales from major publishers are e-books, so it can’t all be the dreck titles, can it? What proof do we have that e-readers only contain Twilight fan-fiction and Dan Brown* novels? The proof we are offered is that anything genre is garbage: checkmate person who reads books! So maybe these article writers at The Guardian are onto something, maybe e-readers like the Kindle are filled with garbage.
*Sorry Dan, you and James Paterson are my go-to punching bags here. If I’ve offended you or James by suggesting your books aren’t high-quality writing, then I’m quite happy to edit out those comments from my blog for a small six or seven figure fee. Just post me one of the bags of money you use as a pillow, that should cover it.
Don’t you just hate seeing a misleading meme that was clearly aimed at reinforcing an audience’s biases? Isn’t it just terrible how easily misinformation can be spread in this manner? Isn’t it funny how memes stop us thinking too hard about the content such that we don’t fact check them?
Well, I hope I’m not alone. Or we’re all doomed. Doomed, I say.
Now I could discuss any one of hundreds of memes that circulate daily in political discussions. But, as a heavy hitter who has addressed the issue of memes before, I’m going to be tackling serious misinformation.
That’s right, this meme on the benefits of books is serious misinformation.
Now, before people start thinking I’m being melodramatic in calling a non-political meme that is just a bit of fun about books, remember, books are a $124 billion industry. So when people are talking about the format wars with memes like the one above, it is serious… Well, as serious as any discussion of an entertainment and leisure industry can ever be. Particularly if we take the existentialist view of the world.
I could, of course, have used a different meme. One with anti-science messaging, or a misleading political message designed to further divide public discourse, or one about cats, everyone loves cats. But if I did that, people would take one look at the meme and have either agreed or disagreed, and would be uninterested in anything else discussed. And this is part of the problem. Memes, like a lot of modern discourse, are designed to get you nodding your head in agreement before you think too hard. They allow you to outsource your thinking and fill in your knowledge on a topic by appealing to you with relatable content.
This meme is styled in a friendly cartoon manner. It has a whimsical font. Whimsical! It could be flirting with your partner and you wouldn’t mind. It is also appealing directly to the people who like their books to be made of the flattened entrails of trees, with relatable jokes about how terrible e-books are. But don’t think. It doesn’t want you to think.
Let’s take these points one by one.
Books have glare. If you’ve ever sat out in the sun and read a book on white paper you’d have noticed how much squinting is involved. Either that or you had a patch of white scarred onto your retinas. Books also don’t fare well without a decent light source. Soft light causes just as much squinting.
Neither does a shovel. Lots of things don’t have batteries, including my computer that plugs straight into the wall. The idea that an e-reading device (Kindle, iPad, etc) requires a power source, unlike the “superior” book, isn’t a like-for-like comparison. A Kindle holds thousands of books and can access libraries and stores directly. A smartphone can tell you the time. Let’s see a paper book do that.
Nope. No self-respecting reader and book lover dog ears books. This is sacrilege. It would be like promoting the ability of books to retain coffee stains.
No pop-up ads:
None on my Kindle or iPad either. You’re reading wrong. Oh, and books have ads in them, usually for other books by the same publisher and/or author.
Clearly never borrowed a book from a library. I’ve borrowed some, even own one, that smells like it has been swimming in vomit at some stage. This is actually a reaction from the chemicals used in production. And e-reading devices smell just fine. As long as they don’t get left to swim in vomit at any stage.
Probably won’t get stolen at the beach:
Probably says more about the meme creator’s selection of reading material than anything. Maybe read less Twilight and more Kerouac to have you book stolen.
The trick to memes is that they slip the misinformation past you while you aren’t concentrating. Whether it be a misattributed quote or some cherry-picked statistics, it is easy to deceive people when they are busy looking at a pretty picture.
In the case of the paper books (DTBs), the “benefits” are dubious as soon as you think about them for more than two seconds. And notice that they aren’t benefits, like improved empathy, or greater cognition, or better communication abilities (see the rest of the list). Instead, the list is all about bashing e-books.
When the format wars discussion starts, everyone rolls out their usual banal reasoning for their preferred format. Without fail someone will talk about the smell of dead tree books (DTB), or the feel of eviscerated tree flesh in their fingers, or refer to some dodgy research that denigrates e-books. For some reason, the reading world is filled with technophobic troglodytes intent on proving that their old-fashioned way of doing things is better. This meme is no different, and I’ve addressed this issue before.
Whether it be dodgy “science”, or misleading memes, we need to critically assess the information we receive and share. Otherwise, the errorists win.
Do you love the smell of books?
Do you prefer the feel of paper?
Do you feel slightly superior to others because you paid for the hardcover?
Do you grasp at any excuse to deride e-books and the people who read them?
Well, I have found the article for you!
Recently on Mental Floss an article entitled “5 Reasons Physical Books Might Be Better Than E-Books” sought to comfort snooty readers who wanted ammunition to fling at e-book readers. In the proud tradition of deriding any new technology as bad (see e-books, e-cars, driverless cars, etc), this article introduces us to some research that is wonderfully out of context for the intent of the article’s argument. Let’s dig in.
Though e-book readers have become a more common sight around town, traditional books still have their evangelists. According to The New York Times, e-book sales have been falling in 2015. Print definitely isn’t dead. In fact, according to some research, it may actually be a better choice for some readers. While scientists are still trying to tease out exactly how digital reading affects us differently, here are five ways e-books might be inferior to their dead-tree cousins.
When deriding things it is always best to reference another article that derides the same thing. In this case the article references the wonderfully misleading NYT piece on e-book sales slipping. Pity that the sales didn’t slip… That’s right, the NYT misrepresented a slowing in e-book sales growth as a drop in sales. And did they mention why readers were stating a preference for paper? Yes. Hidden in the article is a little quote about how publishers had been protecting their paper sales by inflating e-book prices. Now, my economics is a tad rusty, but I’m pretty sure making something more expensive when there are direct substitutes on offer results in a decrease in sales of that item and an increase in the sales of the substitution item. At least, that’s what I’ve heard…
1. E-BOOKS CAN REDUCE READING COMPREHENSION.
In a study of middle schoolers, West Chester University researchers found that students who read on iPads had lower reading comprehension than when they read traditional printed books. They discovered that the kids sometimes skipped text in favor of interactive features in the e-books, suggesting that certain multimedia in children’s e-books can be detrimental to the practice of reading itself. However, the researchers noted that some interactive features in e-books are designed to enhance comprehension, and that those might be more helpful than game-type interactive graphics.
This is a fantastic study in how multitasking is terrible for concentration and thus impacts reading comprehension. iPads have all sorts of cool stuff on them, including little notifications telling you that your friend just liked your latest picture of your meal. And building those distractions into the book being read: sounds like a great idea! What this study doesn’t do is support the idea that e-books reduce reading comprehension.
2. YOUNG KIDS CAN GET DISTRACTED BY E-BOOKS.
Similar results were found by a small study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center that consisted of 32 kids reading e-books and print books with their parents. It found that “enhanced” e-books might be distracting. Kids who read enhanced e-books—ones with interactive, multimedia experiences—were more engaged with them physically, but in the end they remembered fewer narrative details than those who read print books or basic e-books [PDF].
Don’t read the link. Don’t read the link. You read the link: didn’t you. Leaving aside the tiny study size for a moment (a point the study authors acknowledge), the study itself supports the points I made above about being distracted whilst reading. And if you look through the study you see a great little chart that showed the comparison of reading comprehension – expressed as story details recalled – was actually superior in basic e-books than in print books or enhanced e-books.
The findings of the study were literally stated as:
The enhanced e-book was less effective than the print and basic e-book in supporting the benefits of co-reading because it prompted more non-content related interactions.
Odd that the “e-books are bad” article failed to highlight this finding…
3. YOU REMEMBER LESS ABOUT A BOOK’S TIMELINE. Another study of adults also found that e-books can be hard to absorb. The researchers asked 25 people read a 28-page story on a Kindle and 25 to read the story in paperback, then asked the readers to put 14 events from the story in chronological order. Those who read the story on a Kindle performed worse on the chronology test than the book readers, though they performed about the same as print readers in other tests. Earlier research by the same scholars, from Stavanger University in Norway, found that Norwegian 10th graders also remembered more about texts if they read them in print rather than on a computer screen [PDF].
Finally we come to a study on actual e-books on an actual e-reader versus their dead tree counterparts. Of course I’m again blown away by the sample size of the study, a massive 50 people. That should easily extrapolate to the rest of humankind. The linked article doesn’t give us much information, but I found a better one, and it has this summary:
In most respects, there was no significant difference between the Kindle readers and the paper readers: the emotional measures were roughly the same, and both groups of readers responded almost equally to questions dealing with the setting of the story, the characters and other plot details. But, the Kindle readers scored significantly lower on questions about when events in the story occurred. They also performed almost twice as poorly when asked to arrange 14 plot points in the correct sequence.
I’d link to the original paper, but it is behind a paywall. Suffice to say that the error margins were pretty big (even the paper readers got 34% of the plot points in the wrong order). And this was a short story, something that shouldn’t be that difficult for any reader. So this probably says as much about the story as anything. They’d need far more stories and participants to get a good idea of what is going on. But I will concede that reading on paper vs e-reader vs screen is definitely a different experience and has an influence. What that influence is, positive, negative, or just different, needs more research.
Interestingly the study of reading PDF texts on a screen vs paper texts in high school students showed why scrolling is a terrible way to read anything. Scroll down to read more about PDFs sucking.
4. THEY’RE NOT GREAT AS TEXTBOOKS.
While e-book textbooks are often cheaper (and easier to carry) than traditional door-stop textbooks, college students often don’t prefer them. In some surveys of college kids, the majority of students have reported preferring print books. However, a 2012 study from the UK’s National Literacy Trust of kids ages 8 to 16 found that more than 50 percent of children reported preferring screen reading [PDF].
It is odd to start a point and then go on to disprove it. E-book textbooks being cheaper, easier to carry, and in some surveys preferred by the majority of respondents, seems to me to be the opposite of “not great”. The preference for paper textbooks claim comes from a survey of 527 students, yet is immediately refuted by the UK survey of 34,910 students. I wonder which one is more representative of how students feel about textbooks?
In the comments of the Mental Floss article, someone made a good point in regard to the format of textbooks. Oftentimes the textbooks are PDFs, which brings us back to the point about scrolling, and adds the problem with taking notes. Clearly the format of the e-book plays a big part in how people feel about them.
5. THEY’RE TIRING.
Staring at a lit screen can be tiring for the eyes and the brain. A 2005 study from Sweden found that reading digitally required a higher cognitive workload than reading on paper. Furthermore, staring at LED screens at night can disrupt sleep patterns. A 2014 Harvard study found that people who used e-readers with LED screens at night slept worse and were more tired the next day. So, if you’re going to go for an e-book, go for one without the backlight.
Now let us talk about how bad e-books are for your brain…. Sorry, did I say e-books when I meant LED screens like your iPad and computer? Silly me. Having bright light, especially from white background screens, shining in your eyes at night isn’t a good thing. But that is about as related to e-books as X-Factor is to talented singers. So the message about changing your screen setup for night viewing only really applies to readers if they utilise a backlit screen for reading.
And now that we are at the end of the article, let’s throw in some information for the pretence of balance in the hopes you will ignore the headline and main article points:
BUT DON’T THROW AWAY YOUR E-READER JUST YET.
However, all this may not mean that reading on a Kindle is really going to melt your brain. For instance, reading an e-book on a computer is a much different experience than reading on a Kindle, which is specifically designed for consuming books. So, too, is playing with an interactive e-book on an iPad, compared to using a simpler e-book device that only presents the text, with no opportunities to click away into digital distractions.
This really does appear to be information that would have been better presented in the context of the “e-books are evil” points above; doesn’t it. Throwing in this sort of context at the end rather than in the discussion of the study findings is a cheap tactic, a ploy that sees important information left until after you have already formed your opinion on a subject, or just plain stopped reading the article. This information has far less chance of being retained than the others points made earlier in the article, thus the article has created the bias they were after (deliberately or otherwise).
And some studies have found that part of the difference between the way people absorb information from e-books versus paper might be due to approaching e-books differently—in one test, participants didn’t regulate their study time with digital books like they did with paper texts, leading to worse performances. It’s possible that our expectations of e-book reading—as well as the different designs of the digital reading experience on a computer or iPad or Kindle—might affect how we approach the text and how much effort we put into studying them. As generations of e-book readers evolve, and people become more accustomed to the idea of sitting down with a digital textbook, these factors could change—for better or for worse.
These are all good points, again made at the end of the article rather than at least being hinted at throughout. And unlike the main points in the article, these are unreferenced. Are these points from the studies already referenced (some are) or some other studies that aren’t worth mentioning? In the former, you would expect these points to have been raised earlier in the article in the proper context, in the latter, this feels like an attempt to downplay the statements as less important than the referenced points above. Either way we are left with the sentiment “change is scary” rather than “change is change”.
Hopefully this breakdown of the Mental Floss article shows just how disingenuous many of these anti-technology articles are, especially the “e-books are evil” articles. I’m not trying to say that e-books are what everyone should be reading, or that our forests are now saved from Dan Brown. There is clear evidence that our changing technology is changing the way we read and absorb information, and this transition period is still a learning phase as to how and if we will change our reading preferences. But negative preconceived ideas about e-books (or technology) don’t help in communicating about the change that is happening.
Update: This study compared reading on paper and screens and found stark differences. The sample size was again small, but the study appears to have been better conducted than the others I’ve discussed above. The conclusions from the paper suggest, as I have, that we need to look at teaching/learning how to read e-books and utilise e-readers.
To sum up, the consistent screen inferiority in performance and overconfidence can be overcome by simple methods, such as experience with task and guidance for in-depth processing, to the extent of being as good as learning on paper.
For quite some time now, which is another way of saying I can’t remember when exactly, I’ve been saying that e-readers are one screen improvement in phones/tablets away from redundancy. Now tech writers (whom I love) are coming round to my way of thinking, with a recent article in Salon suggesting that e-readers are going the way of mp3 players and vinyl:
Tech writers have begun rolling out their eulogies for the humble e-reader, which Mashable has deemed “the next iPod.” As in, it’s the next revolutionary, single-purpose device that’s on the verge of being replaced by smartphones and tablet computers. Barnes & Noble is spinning off its Nook division. Amazon just debuted its own smartphone, which some are taking as a tacit admission that more people are reading books on their phone these days, to the detriment of the Kindle. The analysts at Forrester, meanwhile, expect that U.S. e-reader sales will tumble to 7 million per year by 2017, down from 25 million in 2012.
At New York Magazine, Kevin Roose argues that this is “bad news for the book industry.” He writes:
If you’ve ever tried to read a book on your phone, you’ll know why. Reading on an original Kindle or a Nook is an immersive experience. There are no push notifications from other apps to distract you from your novel, no calendar reminders or texts popping up to demand your immediate attention. And this immersion is partly why people who use dedicated e-readers tend to buy a lot of books. (One survey indicated that e-book readers read about 24 books a year, compared to 15 books a year for paper-and-ink readers.)
A drop in e-book sales, which are actually more profitable for publishers than hardcovers, would certainly mean trouble for the industry. But I’m not convinced that’s where the death of e-readers will lead. Nook and Kindle owners might buy more books than your typical American, but I’m guessing a lot of that is simply because they’re more, well, bookish. As Pew wrote in January, “Adults who own e-readers like Kindles or Nooks read e-books more frequently than those who only own other devices (like tablets or cell phones). However, it is difficult to know whether that is because dedicated e-readers encourage more reading or because avid readers are more likely to purchase e-reading devices.”
Devices come. Devices go. The Kindle and Nook helped teach us all to pay for e-books, and I’m guessing that will be delivering publishers dividends for years to come.
I think we can all agree that e-books themselves aren’t dying, or books for that matter. I’d argue that reading a novel, or similar, will continue to be a pastime for many years to come, regardless of medium: digital, physical, or metaphysical. We’ll probably still be reading books when flame breathing giant lizards enter our dimension to destroy civilisation. After that time we’ll be too busy building something other than giant robots to fight the monsters to worry about reading.
When e-readers originally hit the market, phone screens were much smaller and the iPad was in its infancy, thus the e-ink screens of the e-readers offered a much better reading experience. They were a hit with the avid reading crowd, with the ability to shop for books, read them, shop for more books, read them, maybe do a bit more reading, then think about charging the e-reader in between side-loading some more books. But all of those advantages were heavily reliant upon the better reading experience.
Phones and tablets as e-readers have many advantages: they tend to go everywhere with us; they can access all libraries; they can access all online bookshops, not just the one you bought the e-reader from (*cough* Amazon *cough*); they can be used for audiobooks; they have a larger market share so better technology advancements (i.e. where’s the colour e-ink we were promised?); and they can do things other than be used as a reading device. Now with a range of screen sizes in phones and tablets (e.g. Samsung Note, iPad Mini, iPad, standard phone, etc) there is a non-dedicated e-reader suited to you!
Although, let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. This magical new screen I’m seeing in my crystal ball – did I mention I see a breakup on the horizon for Brad and Angelina? – isn’t here yet. Until we have the new screen and e-reader owners are upgrading or replacing their old devices, the dedicated e-ink e-reader is still going to be the device of reading choice for avid readers. The articles are talking about a decline in sales from a peak of 25 million in 2012, to a “predicted” 7 million in 2017. Is this really surprising regardless of a tech upgrade?
You see, this is why I love tech articles so much: the lack of a reality check. 25 million sales in 2012 (26 million in 2011 from my source), on top of other sales in previous years, pretty much taps out the avid reader market to sell e-reader devices to. So any sales after that are going to be from old e-readers dying and needing replacement, which is probably where the 7 million figure comes in (note that my source shows that to occur in 2016, not 2017). That isn’t the death of the e-reader, that is the maturation of the market. I guess we could try to convince avid readers to not spend as much money on books and instead spend more money on buying e-readers, but that would lead to all sorts of problems. We’d need shelves to store all of these e-readers on, maybe even taking up entire walls; file them using some sort of system that allows us to easily find them in order; perhaps hire a person, let’s call them a librarian, to look after these e-readers until someone comes to use them.
So despite my agreement that e-readers will eventually be replaced by other devices, I think that news of the death of the e-reader is greatly exaggerated.