Why Aren’t More People Reading E-Books?


TW Column by David Biddle

Kindles Aren't "Real" Books—but That's Not the Point


Last summer, I read Heart of Darkness on my cell phone. I read in line at the supermarket, sitting in my dentist’s waiting room, and even by sneaking peeks during traffic jams. Ten years ago, I would have gone to Borders to purchase the paperback or maybe to my local library. But this June, I downloaded it through Readmill, one of my favorite book sites. It took less than a minute. I didn’t spend a dime.

Mrs. Duffee Seated on a Striped Sofa, Reading Her Kindle, After Mary CassattE-books are knocking down walls like never before—for readers and authors. As a reader, I can carry a whole library in my hip pocket, using a variety of insanely small gadgets. As a freelance writer, digital books have opened up dozens of creative vistas and opportunities for me.

Yet, market research over the past year indicates that most general readers still don’t get the digital reading thrill.

Last July, Rasmussen Reports released a study, based on a survey of a thousand adults, claiming that “[t]hree-out-of-four Americans still prefer a traditional book” to a digital edition on an e-book reader.

The press was quick to leap on this finding. “Kindle Fired,” read the Washington Examiner's headline. Rochester Business Journal conducted a survey of its own readers, noting that "[o]f the nearly 375 who said they rarely or never read e-books, 78 percent said they just prefer print." 

Spurred by a 2012 Pew Research Center report that found similar reading preferences, Sacramento State University's State Hornet ran an opinion piece with quotes from students about why they prefer print. One English major referred to there being “something special” about buying a used book:

You buy it because it has that history and you can see who has handled it—what people have underlined themselves and what made it special for them.

Such criticisms, especially from younger readers, have caught me off guard. Three years ago, I first read an e-book on my wife's iPad—and loved it. Soon after, I received a Kindle for my birthday, followed by my own iPad. Now, though, I feel like the kid who goes out and buys all sorts of shiny new football gear and shows up at the field only to find that everyone else still just wants to play tag.

Am I advocating an end to print books? Of course not. This really isn’t an either/or game. If paper books stopped being published tomorrow, there would be plenty of used books for diehard paper fans to read for a couple thousand reincarnations.

But if you look beyond the bad headlines, it’s obvious electronic publishing is a juggernaut. If only for business reasons, e-books will be ubiquitous before the end of the decade. They’re far cheaper to produce and distribute than print books. The big publishers will eventually figure out that digital media provides dozens of new ways to promote themselves and other products while customers read their books.

It’s where we’re headed with e-books that matters. If you’re an indie writer or publisher of e-books, keep telling yourself that. Where we’re headed is what matters, and we’ll be there, waiting for everyone else to catch up. Where we’ve been—and even where we are right now—is old news.

I love print books, by the way. Text on a screen really isn't the same as a well-designed book with expensive paper and binding. For those of us who came of age before the advent of personal computers, the heft, scent, and feel of a book is deeply embedded in the reading experience. Adjusting to the fact that thousand-page e-tomes like Anna Karenina and Infinite Jest weigh the same as a short story by Alice Munro really is a psychological and emotional shift.

The Kindle Reader (A Young Girl Seated), after RenoirI also have my own problems with e-books. Mainstream publishers spew out digital editions that are rife with typos and other distracting elements. It's impossible to flip through pages on an e-book or to navigate easily on a screen.

But even if three-quarters of the general public say they’d prefer a traditional paper book, that doesn’t mean people won’t read an electronic one. Most classics, from the early 1900s on back, are available as e-books for free. Free!

And the joys of e-reading are not just a matter of convenience or business trends. Being able to change the type size is great, especially for us old farts. You can have your e-reader read a story out loud to you (albeit in a robotic computer voice). Many e-books are now available with multimedia components: music soundtracks, sound effects, enhanced graphics, video clips.

My cell phone is synched to my iPad, my Kindle Touch, and my MacBook. I can open up Heart of Darkness to the last page I was on and read seamlessly on all my gadgets. I have access to every e-book in my library from Tao Lin’s latest weird novel (Taipei) to George Saunders’s new story collection (Tenth of December).   

For anxious indie writers like me, it also helps to look at the future of e-books from a classic marketing perspective. With every new technology—from phones and computers to hybrid cars and microwaves—consumer acceptance goes through the same basic cycle.

First come the innovators and early adopters, representing about a fifth of the market (my tribe!). That roughly matches the Rasmussen research numbers on e-books, where 15 percent of respondents said they preferred e-books over paper books. (Another 10 percent were undecided.)

After a few years, the main craze kicks in, when the majority of consumers go for a new device. Marketers often divide this majority into “pragmatic” and “conservative” groups, depending on how quickly they hop on a technology trend. Regardless, the majority represents a hefty 70 percent of the market.

In this model, a new technology needs to cross the gap between a niche market of innovators to that 70-percent majority of consumers who embrace it. Crossing this gap means the difference between success and failure for a new technology (think VHS vs. beta-max video).

We’re now just passing through that gap for e-books. As Nathan Bransford, one-time agent and author of the recently released How to Write a Novel, notes in his blog:

Let's stop philosophizing about how people just don't like e-books very much or only like them in certain contexts or for certain genres or all the people who will convert have already done so.

E-books have never been on pace to rout the print market all at once. It's always been a steady march, and it's one that's continuing.

The Kindle Gazer, after Lilla Cabot PerryYes, the Rasmussen numbers and other studies still show the majority of the reading public lagging behind. But, given the complexity, confusion, and irrationality of the digital media world, that’s to be expected. Until very recently, publishers and media companies have done a poor job of converting consumers to the virtues of digital literature. Readers have more often stumbled into the new world of e-books than followed a yellow brick road.

As for that last hardcore, 10-to-15 percent of consumers referred to as “laggards” (or Luddites) by market researchers, it may be years until they turn on an e-reader or peruse a book app on their iPad. Hell, they may never own an iPad. They may keep a few bookstores open in the more literary sections of the country. More power to them and to the bookstores.

But remember: I was reading Heart of Darkness on my cell phone. According to the International Telecommunication Union, there are almost 7 billion mobile phones in use worldwide. Two years ago, if you’d told me I would enjoy reading Joseph Conrad on my phone while waiting to buy groceries, I would've been insulted. Now, I not only read while doing the family shopping, I have a new icebreaker at parties:

“Have you ever read a book with your cell phone?”


Publishing Information

Art Information

David BiddleDavid Biddle is TW’s “Talking Indie” columnist. He’s the author of the novel Beyond the Will of God and several collections of short stories. As a freelance writer, David has published articles and essays in Harvard Business ReviewPhiladelphia Inquirer, Huffington Post, Katori Magazine, and BioCycle.

He's currently working on a cycle of novels about sex, love, and married life near the edge of Philadelphia. For more information about what else he's mucking around with, see David Biddle’s website.


One point of this debate this

One point of this debate this is not often considered is that the experience of reading electronic text is fundamentally different from reading hard copy. The former is fast - it encourages rapid shifts in focus. The latter is slow and supports relection. I have research to support my intutitive believe but I do believe that the growing trends in electronic reading lead to bad decisions without enough time considering the possibility that one could simply be wrong. I read recently that Theodore Roosevelt was one who with more data could easily change his mind about important issues. He was a big reader as well as a writer and despite his loud voice could be quite relective.

There is no doubt a different

There is no doubt a different experience reading on different mediums. I've read a number of studies over the past year claiming that reading on-screen does not allow for as much knowledge retention. I've also read that digital screens are far more unconsciously distracting (they do eye monitoring and such). I think a lot of these issues are relative. I know for me I am strangely comfortable and focused when reading electronically now, and was not say three years ago when I first got serious about e-books. But we all read electronically all the time. I've been reading online since 1984 when I first signed onto The Well and several professional electronic bulletin board systems. This is not really something new.

I think the issue of relection as you call it is interesting. Consideration and re-reading is a habit that requires a mindset that many people just don't cultivate. My brother and sister both read several thousand words a minute. I always felt like a dumby because I clock in at around 500 wpm unless I push myself. At around the age of 30 I realized that slow reading is a good thing...at least for a professional writer. At any rate, my real point here is that like most things, learning how to use new tools and changing habits requires time and an open mind. The mind adjusts amazingly well when we let it.

David, this is a fascinating

David Gaynon, this is a fascinating point and one that I'd never considered. I love my Kindle but find it more satisfying for fiction than nonfiction. I wonder now if that's because I often reread and reconsider points made in essays and articles, shifting my thinking as I go along. You're right that this sort of reflection is more difficult on an e-reader.

Let me add one thing that

Let me add one thing that Elizabeth's comment reminds me of: I absolutely love the highlighting and bookmarking functions of e-reading apps. I read The English Patient about a year ago and the writing was so exquisite I went to town highlighting all sorts of phrases and passages. Ondaatje is truly one of the great writers of our time. Weeks after finishing the novel I went back to use a quote. I sat there for a good hour just re-reading all those amazing passages all consolidated into a framed page on my iPad. I do that now with all the great writers I find. What a marvelous little tool that is. And quite relective.

I love the article. This is

I love the article. This is an issue I have thought about a lot. I have an 18 yr old who swears she will never give up books, and a 37 yr old who says the same. I will read a book on my computer, but not on my cell--just too weird. (: I prefer books I can hold and feel and smell as well as see. I am glad to hear that most prefer books; in that, at least, people haven't totally been persuaded to go virtual. By the way-- did you know that those with schizophrenia frequently have an altered perception of reality relating to several of the five senses? Holding a book gives you the needed reality of all the senses--in a way an ebook does not: smell, touch, sight, sound...even taste, if you like. These five senses are there to help us survive. The brain does not process electronic 'books' in the same way. Our brains were not slowly prepared for the electronic revolution over a long period of time. DO SOMETHING GOOD for yourself and read a bound book. (: [retired professor spouts off]

You know, before writing,

You know, before writing, poets used to simply perform their work. And before the phonograph musicians did the same. Painters and sculptors, of course, have always only been able to operate in their own special virtual world. Perception is an interesting thing. What seems more real? A book or a movie?

Yes, shifting from print to

Yes, shifting from print to digital reading is a real shift in perception, and right now, it still feels weird, at least to me. But I'm not sure about hard-wired differences in reading in different mediums. The human brain is quite flexible. I started out only reading genre fiction on my first Kindle a few years back; now I read everything from literary novels to nonfiction on e-readers or online. If I didn't believe that readers were capable of following complex arguments in digital formats--or that they wanted to--I never would have started Talking Writing with Elizabeth.

I do still buy print books, especially those that are beautifully designed. I think one of the silver linings here is that publishers have begun producing and marketing first-run print hardcovers as gorgeous objects in their own right.

The one thing I miss with an e-book, especially if I haven't seen the print version in a book store, is a tangible sense of how long or "fat" it is. Kindles now indicate how far you are through a book with a percentage, but 20% of Anna Karenina is very different than 20% of a Munro short story, as David notes. It's a strange feeling, not knowing the actual "weight" of what I'm reading, especially for this longtime book reviewier. And yet, I'm willing to make this shift, and I don't believe I'll give up the intensity of my reading experience in doing so.

As for reading on a cell phone, I'm a Luddite there and likely to remain so. I'm troubled by the way smart phones immerse people in their walking-around, real lives. Okay, I'd feel better if they were engaging with Heart of Darkness rather than reading their email--but unlike David, most people immersed in their phones rather than the people around them are not reading Conrad.

I do think it makes a

I do think it makes a difference how I'm reading digitally. I read all my news online these days and often read long articles online. I'm on my computer, though, not on an iPad or other e-reader. I scroll back up the page when I want to reread something; I click on links to find out more. I've cancelled my newspaper subscription because I've found I prefer my news this way.

I'll never (well, so I say now) give up my New Yorker print magazines. I love the covers, the cartoons, and the way the art works with the articles and stories. I've tried reading the New Yorker online, and it's not the same for me. 

As for my Kindle, I've read essays and felt frustrated when I've wanted to page back and review something I've read but haven't been able to find it. I've tried reading nonfiction and didn't get very far. I love it for fiction, long and short, literary and genre. As with news on my computer, I actually find it easier to read fiction on my Kindle. It's lightweight; I can carry it everywhere I go and never lose my place. I used to haul two books around when I was nearing the end of one, just in case I finished the first before I got home. Not any more.  

Different strokes for different folks--or, in my case, for the many ways I enjoy reading. 



Forgot to say that I do love

Forgot to say that I do love print books, too, and can't seem to stop buying them and reading them. I'll usually have several books going--a couple on my Kindle, one or two I'm reading in print.

It's clear that e-books and e

It's clear that e-books and e-readers will soon hit that 70% of the book market you note. What interests me, as the editor of a literary online magazine, is how this major shift in book medium and distribution will impact the traditional apparatus of book reviewing. I like the fact that book publishing is no longer controlled by the literary eilite. I'm less thrilled with what's happened to book reviewing and critical writing in general. The "thumbs up" social media culture isn't great for quality control, whether you're talking about books or political candidates.

As a follow up, see this

As a follow up, see this piece on the latest reading data from Pew: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeremygreenfield/2014/01/16/more-americans-r...

I think the stat for the 18 - 29 group is interesting. And the data on those with incomes over $75K is kind of obvious but still important to note. Any time technology adoption approaches 50% a corner is being turned.

This data is already old too. It's 2014. There are more screens in the world than toilets.

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